Getting the Most Out of a Workshop

I have been leading photography workshops for four years now and have learned a great deal, most importantly how to express my own voice as an instructor, just as I’ve had as an artist. When I became a workshop instructor I decided the focus of my workshops was going to be on the creative side of photography rather than the technical. This doesn’t mean I am not happy to answer technical questions, but my desire is to help people not only with composition, but also to learn to “see” and express their own vision. It’s a challenge, not only for me, but also the participant because there is no recipe, no blueprint on how to achieve a desired outcome or product. I don’t believe creativity can be taught, at least not in the sense of making it happen. We each have to figure that out for ourselves. What can be taught is how to prepare for creativity and how it can be nurtured. That is my ultimate goal as a workshop instructor, to help other photographers learn to express their individuality.

Workshops provide a unique learning experience in that one has access not only to an experienced photographer, but fellow participants as well. For many photographers (myself included) it is a rare opportunity to socialize and learn from each other. However, workshops are not inexpensive. Over the past four years I have observed behaviors which I believe prevent participants from realizing the full potential a workshop offers. What follows are some ideas that I believe will make the workshop experience more productive and help make you a better photographer.

Have a Clear Objective(s)

During the introductions at the beginning of a workshop I ask each participant what it is they wish to learn or work on during our time together. Most will have an idea, which is good. I urge you to carefully consider beforehand what it is you wish to accomplish. From my perspective, my primary goal for you is not to come away with fabulous new images, but rather new learnings that you can apply on your own after the workshop. This is the difference between a workshop and a photo tour. I understand the desire to return home with a collection of wonderful new images, but that is something you can do on your own at any time. Use the workshop to learn, not only from me but the other participants as well. Good photos will happen in due course, but it should be viewed as a consequence, not a goal. We visit beautiful locations in a workshop, if you photograph nothing but the obvious you will undoubtedly come away with good photos, but you will have learned little. Embrace the unique opportunity for learning that a workshop offers. If you arrive with well-defined expectations the better I will be able to adapt the workshop to your needs. To that end…

Utilize the Instructor

Presumably (hopefully), the main reason you’re interested in a particular workshop is a connection you feel with the instructor’s work. At least, that’s what I tell myself. However, unless the instructor is a big name I realize that location also plays a role. Regardless of your reasons for attending, be sure to utilize the instructor to the fullest extent. In a recent workshop I admitted to often feeling bored when we are out in the field during a workshop. After a brief introduction to the location the participants do their thing and often ask few questions or request help. Some will go off on their own, and while I applaud their independence it means that I will have difficulty being present for them during the shoot. 

For several reasons I rarely make my own photos during a workshop. First and foremost I am there for you. I don’t wish for participants to feel as if they can’t disturb me. Second, I have photographed these places countless times, it is rare that I will encounter conditions I haven’t seen before. Finally, in order to make meaningful photos I have to truly see, which is impossible for me with other people around as I am easily distracted. The bottom line is that I am there to help you at all times. You are paying good money to attend a workshop, let me help you make it worth your while. 

Know Your Gear

Many participants use a workshop as a time to learn (or relearn) their gear. The problem is, unless I have the same camera (or a similar model by the same manufacturer) I can’t be of much help. I may know a good deal about photography, but there are far too many cameras on the market with which to be familiar. Learning your equipment is completely up to you. Too often I see students wasting precious time fumbling with their equipment (including the tripod) when they should be focused on much more important tasks like seeing and composition. I urge you to do a lot of shooting in the weeks or days leading up to the workshop so that you become intimately familiar with your camera and associated gear. This can be done anywhere, do it from your backyard. The goal of such an exercise is not to make beautiful images, but to become familiar enough with your gear so that you can make the most of your time in the upcoming workshop. I like to say that your camera should be so familiar to you that it’s almost like an extension of your hand. Shooting a good deal before a workshop will also have the added benefit of helping you identify issues that you would like to address with the instructor.

And finally…

Bring the Instructor Cookies

Lots of cookies. Preferably chocolate chip. A happy instructor makes for a happy workshop.