Story & Photographs by Tom Dwyer
How do you know if a photography workshop you are considering is right for you? Good question, huh? I’ve asked it myself and I’ve heard it asked many times, so I thought I’d try to answer it in case it’s a question that’s on anyone’s mind.
Here are some considerations, in no particular order, that you might want to take into account.
- What do you want out of a workshop? – Sounds like an obvious question and I think one of the most important questions we should consider. Are you looking for a workshop that will accommodate you as a novice shooter or are you at the other end of the spectrum, only looking for someone who can get you to the right venues at the best times? Regardless, you need to do some research. It would be great if you had the opportunity to speak with a previous participant in the workshop you are considering and if you do, go for it. Often, however, that’s not a viable option. If you are like most of us, you will rely on three opportunities: the workshop leader’s reputation, reviews or testimonials on the leader’s website or detail on the same website that outlines what to expect. I’d suggest also taking the time to study his or her photos. Are they the kind of photography you enjoy or want to learn to create?
- It’s great if you have had an opportunity to hear the leader speak. Often this is something you can experience via your local camera club or Meetup group. If the leader is a “bigger name” you may get the opportunity to attend a presentation or a mini-workshop at a national or regional event such as those sponsored by photography associations such as the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) or the Professional Photographers Association (PPA).
- Is the event you are considering a true workshop, which will include instructional opportunities or is it more of a tour? Nothing right or wrong either way. It’s just a matter of what you expect. If you are considering this event for the opportunity to learn from the workshop leader that’s one thing. If what you want is more of a guide who can get you to the right place at the best time that’s another and I’d consider that a tour. Of course, even in a workshop, you need to be confident the leader will “get you to the church on time.”
- Is the workshop being held somewhere you want to go? This is important though not necessarily critical to your decision. Last year, for example, I went to a workshop in Death Valley National Park. The park itself wasn’t high on my list of places I wanted to visit, but the fact that Guy Tal and Michael Gordon were leading it was enough reason for me to make the cross-country trip.
- What to expect in a specific workshop? Look for answers to important questions – Is there going to be classroom-style instruction? If so, what is the subject or subjects and how much time will be dedicated to each?
- Should you expect one-on-one instruction throughout the duration of the workshop? If this is important to you then you’ll want to explore how others have found the leader’s abilities in this area. Is the leader knowledgeable, experienced and patient? It would also be important to know how many photographers will be participating. It would be a rare workshop leader, in my opinion, who could manage more than six or eight photographers and provide any meaningful learning experiences.
- What’s the make-up of the folks in the workshop you are considering? This is important to understand because it will impact the time your workshop leader has for you and your questions. Often, as is typically the case in my own workshops, there’s a mixed level of experience. I think this is good because, in addition to learning from the workshop leader, there are many opportunities to learn from fellow participants.
- Are you a “techie” kind of person who’s very interested in what’s under the hood? If so, is your leader of like mind? Many folks like to explore all the technical detail whether it has to do with the camera or lens or post-capture software. Not all leaders are prepared to go into detail about why one camera sensor is better than another or how much you can accomplish in processing with Lightroom or Photoshop.
- Are you really more interested in landscape photography versus wildlife photography? Do you get excited about photographing wildflowers? Are you anxious to get out early in the morning to photograph the morning dew and the tiny critters that won’t get active until the morning warms up a little?
- How do you feel about long days? Most of my workshops begin before sunrise (how long before depends on how far we have to travel to be on location at the right time) and wrap-up each day after sunset. If that’s too long for you can your leader accommodate your need for a shorter day or is there enough downtime during the day for you to be able to catch your breath?
- What’s the plan for meals? Should you plan on bringing snacks into the field? Will the workshop leader have water and/or a cooler available for participants during the day?
- Personally, I would not attend a workshop if I could not communicate with the leader beforehand, either in person (likely on the phone) or via e-mail. You can get a good feel for the kind of leader you will be working with during a brief telephone conversation. You can also learn a lot about the kind of responses you will get during the workshop if the leader takes the time to really answer your questions and any concerns in advance.
- Is the leader being sponsored by anyone? I would not rule out a workshop just because the leader was not sponsored. Some leaders don’t want sponsorship for a variety of reasons. Some have major sponsors like camera manufacturers. Others have photo equipment retailers who know them and their work and offer special opportunities to participants in their workshop.
- How many people have attended more than one workshop by the leader you are considering? You might ask how many repeat attendees are registered for the workshop you are considering. It would appear to be obvious that if the leader’s workshops regularly include folks who have attended previous workshops that’s a pretty good sign that the workshops are worthwhile.
- Besides formal instruction, does the leader make time available for image reviews during the workshop? In my experience this often one of the most appreciated opportunities in a workshop.
- How familiar is the workshop leader with the area where the workshop is located?
- Does the leader photograph during the workshop or is his/her attention totally on the participants’ needs?
- What equipment will you need? Is a laptop computer necessary or simply nice to have?
- What’s a typical day’s itinerary?
- Are there any permits needed for the area(s) you’ll be photographing and has the leader taken care of that?
- How physically demanding is the workshop? Is serious hiking or climbing involved or will you be driving to venues? If driving, do you need your own transportation or will you be carpooling? Will venues require a vehicle with off-road capability?
- Will the workshop include the opportunity for you to see your work as a finished product? It can be very rewarding to go home with a beautiful print.