CHOOSING THE RIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP

Last year, I attended a workshop at Zion National Park offered by Colby Brown and assisted by Peyton Hale.  My original intent was to write a quick review of my experience at the workshop.  However, given the number of workshops that seem to be popping up everywhere I thought it would be helpful to share some of the decision making process that led me to select Colby’s workshop, and along the way maybe help another photographer choose a workshop that’s right for them.  
Selecting a workshop can often be a tricky process.  With the price of many workshops rising into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fees and travel expenses it’s not a decision to be made lightly.  Unless you personally know  a photographer you can often be flying blind, but with just a little research and effort you can ensure that you have a great experience.

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I of course have a few caveats and disclaimers. I’ve only ever attended landscape photography workshops. Some of my points apply more to landscape photography then other types of workshops such as portrait and studio photography, but many of my suggestions should be pretty universal.  My main goal however, is to provide you some basic guidance not a definitive guide so your mileage may vary. 

Lastly – I’m not receiving any kickbacks, perks, payments, candy, treats, hair treatments, etc. from any photographers or workshops that I may mention in this article – if however anyone is interested in buying me hair treatments in exchange for a plug (did you catch that pun!) I’m sure we can work out something! (That was sarcasm btw for you super serious folks out there).

 
IN THE BEGINNING

Some of my earliest memories are of my father and his camera.  All the mysterious nobs and dials on his Yashica fascinated me.  I knew just enough about cameras at the time that light and film was a bad combination, so to the annoyance of my father I spent many secretive hours playing around with his camera in a dark closet.  I quietly pretended to take pictures while twisting nobs and dials. As a child I was of course totally ignorant to the parts of a camera that shouldn’t be touched by little fingers.  I still have vivid memories of the resulting anxiety as my father compared fingerprints of all of my siblings in an effort to discover whose fingerprint had been left on his new macro lens.  Luckily my father was not much of a fingerprint expert!

Fast forward 10 years and my core knowledge about photography really hadn’t expanded much further.  I spent one of my first paychecks in the Air Force buying a new Minolta SLR Maxxum 9xi  in 1993, and several years later I purchased the first Canon Digital Rebel.  Each time I told myself I would learn more, but in both cases I made little progress and mostly made use of the amateur photographer’s crutch – automagic mode.  You know that typically green option on your camera’s dial that means you don’t have to think about focus, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, or anything else.  I still had an interest in learning about all the nobs and dials mind you, but my photography results were just good enough that I justified to myself that it wasn’t necessary.

Fast forward 10 years and my core knowledge about photography really hadn’t expanded much further.  I spent one of my first paychecks in the Air Force buying a new Minolta SLR Maxxum 9xi  in 1993, and several years later I purchased the first Canon Digital Rebel.  Each time I told myself I would learn more, but in both cases I made little progress and mostly made use of the amateur photographer’s crutch – automagic mode.  You know that typically green option on your camera’s dial that means you don’t have to think about focus, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, or anything else.  I still had an interest in learning about all the nobs and dials mind you, but my photography results were just good enough that I justified to myself that it wasn’t necessary.

This all ended a few years later when my love for the outdoors and my growing fondness for photography crashed head on resulting in some of the most scenic locations being captured in the most horrendous and visually painful ways.  I passed from being satisfied with “good enough” and firmly into, “I’m disgusted with my photos.”  

I decided to do something about it.  It is a choice that typically is made at the early stage of a photographer’s natural progression that many people would normally associate with workshops.  Learning about the basics of exposure and composition along with some of the features of your camera (the nobs and dials).  They typically entail a half dozen or more attendees and a couple instructors running back and forth pointing at some iconic object, often in National Parks, while helping an attendee find aperture priority mode, adjust their ISO (likely explain what ISO is),  or chose the ideal composition.  There is always at least one attendee who is decked out in the most expensive outdoor clothing that money can buy at REI and who has the latest pro camera body alongside all pro glass – if it’s got a red ring he has it.  This attendee typically makes most instructors secretly sigh as they wish they had that much disposable cash. 

I say this with a little tongue and cheek, these types of workshops really do have their place and can be excellent, but this is not the type of workshop I have to offer up much guidance on. I’ve never attended one although I probably should have because I learned about all the basics the really hard way – by trial and error and taking lots of very very bad photographs.  Not that I don’t take bad pictures today – it’s just that I can now typically tell you exactly why my picture sucked instead of looking at it dumfounded.   I still however leave lots of fingerprints on my glass – some habits are hard to break!

SET YOUR GOALS

My decision to attend a workshop came well after my frustrations of the basics were behind me.  I felt as if I was in a rut and I knew I really wanted to get out west where the world seemed to exist in a grander larger than life scale than you experience on the east cost.  I also wanted to meet some new people and branch out into the community.  Most of all I wanted to be inspired!  Without knowing it I had set myself some goals.  This was going to be a western adventure, the social aspects were important to me – I wanted to be around some other like-minded passionate photographers, and  most of all I really wanted to be inspired both by the beauty of nature and the photographers around me.

At first I felt a bit awkward that I wasn’t really interested in the traditional workshop areas of focus.  Seriously though, you have to be honest with yourself about your goals.  If you really just want to meet another photographer who’s work you admire, you want some company in a location you’ve never been to, then there is nothing wrong with that.   There are very few careers and interests in the world where for only a few hundred dollars you can hang out for a few days with someone who is at the top of their game!  Can you imagine a golfer having a chance to get a golfing workshop with someone like Phil Mickelson?  As a photographer we can very often have just that – it’s cool – embrace it. (Well not the photographer – that could be really awkward and might exclude you from future workshops – stick with high fives).

Tip
If your not interested in the particular dynamics that come with workshops and you’re looking more for someone who has experience with a particular location, then you may want to consider hiring a local guide or finding out if the workshop instructor does private workshops as well.  If you’re really lucky, you may actually get a photographer who is also a guide and you’ll get the best of both worlds! 

 

Remember to play it safe.  If you’re going into the backcountry and it’s your first time in the park, it’s always a good idea to buddy up or use a guide service and not go it alone.  Photographers love shooting in dynamic conditions including inclement weather and other extreme conditions.  Mix this with unfamiliarity and it could be deadly.  If you’re interested in hearing some more stories and getting advice on shooting in adverse conditions, head over to  Coastal Insight.  My buddies Alistair Nicol, Tommy White and several other photographers including myself discuss some of the challenges and lessons learned in shooting in less then ideal situations. 

 

THE SEARCH BEGINS – SOCIAL NETWORKS

Unremarkably, I started my research on social networks and popular photography forums such as Fred Miranda.  My favorite photography community is Google+ .  It has a vibrant and ever growing community of photographers, many of which routinely advertise their workshops and share their work and experience.  In my opinion Google+ has supplanted Flickr as the best social community for photographers.  Other honorable mentions of course include Facebook, but some great eye candy can be found over on 500px as well.  I often find Facebook to be more business oriented for photographers so you’ll likely see workshop announcements intermixed with some of their work posted and print offerings.  500px is pretty much a glorified portfolio site that many photographers will typically post their better work.  It doesn’t have much of a community beyond “wow that’s awesome – come checkout some of my work…”  but it’s still great for research.

Workshops are one of those things you never notice until you start looking for one and you realize everybody and their cousin are hosting workshops these days.  Choices are a good thing but it seems like the workshop industry has quickly become saturated with an ever-growing number of photographers looking for an extra source of income.  As a photographer’s traditional source of income such as stock photography and print sales diminish, many are looking to branch out into workshops in hopes of targeting the troves of amateur and enthusiast photographers who have disposable cash.  Not all workshops and photographers are created equal!  Be cautious and vigilant in your research.  As you visit these social networks, don’t make the deciding factor on a workshop a popularity contest.  Don’t base your decision solely on the number of followers a photographer has.  Sure this can be a good indicator, but don’t let it be the deciding factor.

From these social networks I quickly got a short list of a half a dozen photographers.  At this point I hadn’t dug too deep yet, but I knew these folks had workshops out west and I knew their work was of high enough quality that it caught my attention.  You may consider stopping here – many do.  If you do you may get lucky and have a great workshop. That’s awesome if you do but I prefer not to part with my hard earned money and valuable vacation time for a chance at a great workshop – I wanted to do everything I could to ensure one. 

Tip
Every community has it’s seedy underground. The low lifes who creep under rocks and have their fun at the expense of others. I quickly found a small and rather annoying segment of the photography community that really looked down on workshops. They felt that attending workshops reduced a photographer’s credibility and unless you were a newbie they didn’t offer any value.  I felt this was such an idiotic notion it was laughable.  Professionals from every walk of life from software developers to doctors all attend professional workshops to keep themselves  in top form and keep up with new technology and trends – photography is no different. 

 

EXPERIENCE – PORTFOLIO REVIEW

Any instructor worth his salt is going to be able to provide technical guidance on the most popular camera systems such as Nikon or Canon and the basics of composition and proper exposure. If their work caught your attention, it is likely they have this down pat and then some.  An instructor, however, should be more then just a glorified talking manual that can recite good photography rules and tell you where your ISO settings are.   A really good instructor can inspire, foster creativity, and get you into a zone where you can take your photography to the next level. 

Digging deeper in a photographer’s portfolio is the next best place to start and will provide you a better idea of the photographer’s capabilities then what you might see on a social network where shared photographs are often far less selective. This should weed out some workshops immediately.  Most photographers keep a core portfolio of photographs – typically a small amount that defines their style and who they are.  It’s the elevator pitch of the photography world.  Do you find it inspirational? Do you look at their work and it makes you want to grab your camera gear and head out the door? It really should! 

There are several considerations to make when reviewing a potential workshop photographer’s portfolio:
•    Does the portfolio look like a dumping ground of photographs that lack cohesion and have various levels of quality?
•    Do all of the photos seem to be from a single or limited amount of locations?
•    Are there limited examples of photographs from the actual workshop area?

Any or all of these have the potential to indicate a red flag.  A poorly refined portfolio or a portfolio containing very similar shots taken from the same location can be an indicator of a lack of experience and depth.  No photographs from the location of the workshop can also be an indicator that the workshop photographer doesn’t have experience shooting at that location.   This may sound like a bit of common sense here but it’s really easy to get caught up in the work of a very talented photographer and miss the fact that it doesn’t contain many photographs of the subject matter of the workshop. 

There are always exceptions to the rule so use your judgment. Not everyone for example has the same strategies when managing their portfolio. Many photographers have a large spectrum of interest leading to a broad portfolio. Photographers concentrating on print sales will want to show as many options to a potential customer as possible, which might lead to a very large portfolio. Photographers who are highly specialized – e.g. West Virginia Waterfalls may have a limited very focused portfolio. Not a bad thing unless your not shooting waterfalls in West Virginia. Generally speaking, no matter the subtle different styles of portfolios, you should leave with a positive feeling that reinforces your feelings for the photographer.


Colby’s Workshop

In the case of Colby Brown, his portfolio is just about as impressive as they come.  It’s well organized and the work he’s shared is obviously very selective and well thought out . If you can’t feel inspired after looking through Colby’s photography you should make an immediate appointment with a doctor to up your dosage!


COMMUNICATION – SKILLS & PERSONALITY

A great photographer doesn’t necessarily equate to a great instructor, so once you have your list down to a couple instructors go back to social media to get a feel for their personality and ability to communicate and teach effectively.  If a photographer can’t communicate his experience and insights it can be a down right frustrating experience for attendees.

I started back with Google+ looking beyond just the photos and more in-depth into the content and comments.  The merits of different social networks can be argued, but the fact of the matter is Google+ has a huge photography community so many workshop instructors are going to have a presence there just like wedding photographers are big on Facebook – it’s where the audience is.  But don’t let that dissuade you from using Facebook, Flickr, and especially the photographer’s blog (they should absolutely have a blog!) to gain some more insight.

Read their posts and contributions.  Is it just another dumping ground for their photographs with little context such as back-story, thought process on composition, processing details, and technical stuff?   If you don’t find much meat on one social network check another one.  Keeping up a presence for a busy photographer on all the different social media outlets can be challenging but if they don’t have any real presence across all the major social networks think twice.

A few key points to keep an eye out:

•    Do they respond to comments?  Is there interaction?  Do they make an effort to have a conversation with participants/community?  Now please note I’m not talking about responding to every whim/question/comment that everyone has – some photographers are really popular and there can be dozens if not hundreds of comments and they can’t respond to all, but look for general pattern of community interaction.

•    Are the posts encouraging and educational?  Are they able to express both the technical and artistic aspects of photography in their posts?

•    Are there behind the lens shots?  I love behind the lens shots.  It gives a photographer a chance to share his thought process and inspiration for a shot.

•    Are their interactions & posts up beat and positive?  In my experience, there are a lot of bitter, unhappy, and downright angry photographers out there who are pissed with the direction photography is going.  You don’t want one of them.  If they’ve passed the test of having a good social media presence then this will easily come out of you do enough digging.  Grumpy people like to bitch.

Old School Stuff
•    Email Call them.  Seriously good old email and human interaction is a good sign.  Workshop photographers are often in the field and very busy so have patience but your first true communication with them shouldn’t be the receipt from paypal when you just dropped several hundred if not thousand dollars on a workshop.  If they can’t be bothered to return a message within a reasonable time frame don’t bother with their workshop.

•    Referrals – yup good old referrals.  If you’re having some hesitation look around for a referral or ask for one.  I typically like to find independent ones and with all the social media and photography forums out there you’re bound to find someone with some experience.

Lastly – does the photographer have any other passions?  Is the photographer a workshop machine and print hocker or do they have other related passions that drive their photography?  For example you often find many landscape photographers with crazy passion for the outdoors, outdoors sports, climbing, surfing, wilderness guides etc.   I find that the level of intensity that comes from a passion that complements photography takes their photography to a higher level and that can come across in a workshop. 


You can catch many photographers doing webcasts with sponsors and more social oriented Google Hangouts. This is a great way to get some insight into the photographer’s personality and passions.

Tip
You can catch many photographers doing webcasts with sponsors and more social oriented Google Hangouts. This is a great way to get some insight into the photographer’s personality and passions.


Colby’s Workshop
Colby has a very keen understanding on effectively using social media.  It’s fairly evident in the fact that he’s one of the most widely  circled (followed/liked for non G+ folks) on the entire network.  This, however, isn’t just because he’s got pretty pictures.  It’s because he’s engaging with the community.  He’s very interactive and accessible  through social networks such as G+ and people like that.  It’s not all about his work either – he regularly highlights others work as well.  He can cause some controversy at times, but I’ve always found that even when he disagrees with folks he treats them with respect and anyone who knows the amount of trolls on social media these days also knows that’s a tough thing to do at times! I would like to see him post more of his final processed works (I’m sure he hears that a lot lol) but I found his commentary and behind the lens type posts made up for that and really pushed him to the top of my final list.  Lastly – you remember that part about passion that I mentioned as well? Colby runs a organization called The Giving Lens which pairs up travel photography workshops who volunteer their time and expertise to local NGO’s to make a difference in communities.  


SPECIFICS – READ THE FINE PRINT

So you think you’ve found your photography workshop.  The instructor has a jaw dropping portfolio, active across several social networks, lots of positive interactions, great blog posts, you think you’ve found the right fit.  Before you commit, it’s time to re-read the description of the workshop.  A lot of workshop descriptions are vague on purpose so that they are as inclusive as possible so that they are attractive to the broadest audience.   If this is the case you should reach out to the workshop and ask for some more specifics.

I honestly hadn’t spent too much time on this step but in hindsight I got very lucky – I could have gotten burned.

Is this his first workshop at this location?  
I touched on this a little while reviewing portfolios but local experience can really be advantageous for a workshop.  When I say locals I don’t necessarily mean this in the strictest sense. Locals can mean actual local photographers who have their workshops in their own back yard (good thing yay!) but it can also be photographers who have familiarity with the area that comes from shooting the location several times – not just a scouting visit a few days before the workshop.  They often can introduce you to unique perspectives on iconic locations.  They very often know when and where to avoid crowds and conflicts with other photographer’s and workshops.   It can also be helpful when the weather doesn’t cooperate and you need to find some different locations that lend themselves better to rainy, flat sky, or yuck days.  With enough visits to a location, the instructor has likely shot in all the worst and best conditions and knows the optimum spots.  It’s also very common for an out of town workshop instructor to pair up with a local workshop instructor, which honestly can be very advantageous because you have a local who has great local experience but who’s paired up with someone with a fresh eye.

What are the physical requirements?
In the case of outdoor landscape workshops the physical requirements can vary greatly.  National Parks typically have lots of very accessible locations but also contain some very desirable backcountry locations that can require several miles of hiking.  If your expecting to get past the trailhead and hit some spots that you know might be physically demanding you may find yourself disappointed when the workshop doesn’t get past the parking lot.  Inversely, if you know you have a bad knee, back, elbow, big toe, whatever and the the workshop has physical demands make sure to be honest to yourself about your abilities so you are fair to the other workshop attendees.

Does the workshop have a permit?
I wasn’t aware until recently that photography workshops are required to have permits in National Parks (and many state parks as well).  This not only keeps the workshop population in check but also ensures that the workshop instructor has all the required insurance and knowledge to host a safe workshop . Ask your workshop instructor if he has a permit.  If your workshop gets caught in the park without a permit you’ll be short both a workshop and probably some cash.

If appropriate, does the instructor wilderness training & experience?
If your workshop is planning on taking you past the trail head or into the backcountry, it’s always a good idea to have an instructor with at least the bare minimum wilderness training.  This ensures that the instructor knows how to handle situations that can arise from basic first-aid, to dealing with inclement weather.  A common certification for this is the Wilderness First Responder.  If your going into some seriously rural backcountry areas you may want to consider one who is a certified guide.

How many other attendees and is there an experienced assistant/co-instructor?
What is the instructor to student ratio?  Ideally it should be around 4-6.  Any more and the instructor may end up spending more time bouncing around asking questions then any in depth time with you.  Also if there is a co-instructor you should ask what their experience is as you might be spending just as much time with them as the primary instructor.

Post processing time?
Is there any time in the workshop for post processing? Successful photographs can often require post processing using tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom.  Many photography techniques such as HDR or manually blending require post processing.  Even the most perfect of in-camera results often require some basic removal of dust spots and such.  Also, post processing requires a good location with power/tables.  This can often be a local restaurant (as long as you keep ordering food/drinks!) or a dedicated location. If the workshop does not have a dedicated location ensure that they have a plan.

MY FINAL THOUGHT’S ON COLBY BROWN’S WORKSHOP

I truly had a fantastic experience at Colby’s workshop.  Despite the fact that a good part of the workshop had less then ideal weather conditions we were able to accomplish a lot and I felt I met all my goals and then some.  I especially appreciated the strong emphasis on approaching things from a  different perspective and not just line up with 50 other photographers at the same spot, at the same time, taking the same shot.   During lunch and a few other downtimes we had some really great conversations along with some great tips on post processing.  I had my first introduction to Luminosity Masks which are now a primary part of my processing workflow.  Colby & Peyton made a great team and made a lot of effort to ensure everyone had some good one on one time whenever we needed.

Personally, the highlight of the trip was an evening scrambling up a hillside near Checkerboard Mesa. It was the unique perspective that I really wanted.  It was a fabulous and unique vantage point and I found myself smiling so much my face started to hurt!  I don’t consider it my best work but I have such a strong emotional attachment to the shot that it’s still remains one of my favorites.

My only two disappointments:
•    I didn’t stay for a Narrows trip.  This wasn’t part of the workshop but we were invited to join Colby & Peyton if we had the time. I’m still kicking myself for not staying around an extra day. 
•    No unicorns – seriously Colby, huge fail here – and no the mountain goats don’t count ☺