No matter which photographic workshop you attend, you’re going to learn a lot—from the group leader as well as from your fellow workshop attendees. But don’t expect the knowledge to come in a series of bite-sized chunks like the photo tips you might share over a diet soda with a fellow photographer. Sure, you’ll encounter the basic pointers, like when to use a polarizer and how to determine which white-balance setting to use. But overall, the experience is much deeper than that. Attending a top photographic workshop is a bit like attending cooking school—the education gives you a recipe for lifelong photographic enjoyment, not merely advice regarding what spices to use to kick up a dish.
Jacque Boehm Steedle is founder and president of the Strabo Photo Tour Collection. She named her company after the Greek geographer and historian who was born in 27 B.C. She explained that students benefit in ways too broad to be described as a "tip."
"Our photographers help people look at things differently," Steedle said. "They begin seeing things in a different way, photographing in a different way. Our professional encourages them, and the students begin looking at things other people don’t see. They develop a new vision by opening up their mind a little bit, looking at things from a different perspective."
"Sure, there are suggestions every instructor makes for different situations—regarding light balance, exposure, composition and so forth, but those are only suggestions to get people started," said Ron Rosenstock, a workshop leader for Strabo. He should know. He’s been leading photo workshops since 1967, possibly longer than anyone else in the business.
"Basic tips are especially helpful for beginners who are slightly intimidated by the new technology," Rosenstock continued. "It also gives more-advanced people something to think about and perhaps try it their way as well as mine and make the comparison and choice for themselves. My goal is to help people discover their own vision. I often start my groups with a quote from the 14th-century German theologian, Meister Eckhart: 'The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of an artist.'
Kathy Adams Clark, also a Strabo instructor and president-elect of NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association), says that students learn more from each other than they do from the instructors. "Get to know all of the people on the tour and talk to them," she told us. "Listen to them, and learn from them. Everyone there has an expertise in some aspect of photography."
She passes tips to her students. For example, she tells them that adding metadata to their important images will help them find specific shots years later. But Clark’s instruction is generally less concerned with technical things and more centered on the subjects’ behavior. As a world-class bird photographer, she teaches her students how to improve their images by studying the way the birds behave. That’s knowledge that will help them improve their photo techniques for years to come.
Rosenstock agrees. He says, "I want to get people over the technical hang-up of feeling that because they don’t know everything that their camera can do, that they are held back. Keep it simple! Depth of feeling is far more important than depth of field."
Fatima NeJame is executive director of the Palm Beach Photographic Centre, an organization that produces approximately 150 workshops per year. They have a loyal following of students, and many of them return every year. NeJame believes that the number-one thing people learn at photographic workshops is how much more they need to learn—in a positive way. She explained that because there are so many photographic possibilities, no one will ever run out of new things to learn.
"A workshop is the only place where people can freely exchange knowledge with peers who have a similar interest," NeJame told us. "It’s not about one instructor; it’s about all of the people who attend. Friendships are created that last forever. People spend five to seven days together, and it’s such a positive experience that can be found nowhere else."
"The number-one thing that a photographer learns by participating in a Lindblad/National Geographic workshop is what makes a good photograph in the first place," said Ralph Lee Hopkins, director of Photo Expeditions for Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad was founded by Sven-Ol of Lindblad in 1979. About three years ago, they formed a strategic alliance with the National Geographic Society to create an enhanced educational platform.
"A good travel or nature photograph has impact if it records a special or unique moment in time," Hopkins continued. "Sometimes these moments are rare gifts that present themselves—like a rainbow or a breaching whale. Or they can be more subtle, as simple as a smile or an interesting interaction between people."
Technique matters, he told us, and it’s important to know how the equipment operates, but success usually stems from hard work and practice. "Capturing the moment comes from developing a knack for being in the right place at the right time," Hopkins explained, "along with the patience to see a photo opportunity through."
Sometimes the lessons you’ll learn at a workshop sound more like life lessons, and indeed they should. Joe Englander, founder of Joe Englander Photography Workshops & Tours, specializes in small groups of six or fewer people. He conducts about a dozen excursions a year, mostly to India, China and Japan. His favorite destination is Bhutan, a place he’s been visiting for 17 years. According to Englander, photographers must conquer themselves before they can conquer their subject. "Slow down and look until you can see," he said profoundly. "The most important thing is to slow down and look. Cameras can take pictures, but it takes a photographer to make a photograph."
We asked Eddie Soloway, an instructor for the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, to reveal the one big tip a student might learn at his workshop. He confirmed that workshops are less about hardware and more about "headware." He replied, "I would expect that, upon chatting with your neighbor, you might say something like, 'Before I took the workshop, I was overwhelmed by all the stuff—the cameras, the computers, the software—it’s all everyone seems to talk about. But now I feel confident that it is my eye that matters. That’s what photography is really about: seeing."
Elizabeth Stone, a workshop leader for the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, is someone you want to meet. She offers a practical, universally useable photo tip based on what she tells her workshop students. Too many of us grab a shot and wander away, content that we have captured the best of the subject—but in too many instances, we didn’t. There’s a lot more meat on the bone, and Stone teaches her students how to render it. She calls it "working the scene." Once you have identified a suitable subject, Stone asks you to engage it—to the fullest extent.
"Take the first shot that you see and then draw an imaginary five-foot box around where you are standing," she explained. "From [within] that box—or you can move out of the box if you have to—take many more photographs (a roll of film, 50 digital images—whatever). Explore the scene. Consider it from many different angles and viewpoints. Try different lenses, different depth-of-field settings, different filters, white-balance settings—and try many different compositions. Ask yourself, what do I really want to say about this subject? What do I want to express? The more time we spend getting to know our subject and understanding what we want to capture, the more likely we’ll achieve success with our camera."
Tom and Pat Cory, instructors for Strabo Photo Tour Collection, emphasize the importance of learning to be flexible. "People going on a workshop are often going because they have seen beautiful images of a location in magazines, coffee-table books and so forth," Pat told us. "They often want to make their own photograph of that scene. But the weather or lighting will most certainly be different. And this may be a once-in-a-lifetime visit to this location. So the trick is not to go away discouraged, but to see if there’s another way to make the image or to look around to see if the current conditions favor some other subject."
Sometimes this leads to even bigger and better things. "For example," she continued, "we’ve had clients who had never photographed in the rain before. They are sometimes amazed that the flowers at their feet, covered in raindrops, may be just as magical and beautiful as the mountain that they came to photograph. Looking around to see what else is there and what new opportunities are presenting themselves can be a 'wow‚’ experience and expand one’s vision, creativity and appreciation for the beauty and variety of our world."
If you attend a workshop led by Roger Devore, who is cofounder (along with Lonnie Brock) of The Nature Workshops, you’ll spend some time in the classroom learning about the technical side of photography. For example, Brock told us that he teaches his students about histograms, file formats and various other digital topics. However, more time is spent examining composition and other creative aspects. In fact, Devore encourages his students to use a tripod so that he can review their composition on their camera’s LCD monitor.
Jeff Kida leads tours for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops and has been a regular contributor to Arizona Highways magazine for 20 years. We asked him to recount the single most exceptional photo tip a person can learn by attending his workshop.
"A person learns how they can make their images more effective and powerful by refining composition," he said. And he explained in detail how he uses constructive critiques to help photographers improve. It’s a polishing process, and he does it very conscientiously.
"Personally, I don’t like to be too overbearing as to how to compose and shoot," he said. "I’d rather take my cues from someone’s natural inclination and work with it. I rarely pick the strongest images to discuss. I’ll point them out initially during my editing process but then move on to the near successes. Using a laptop, a digital projector and Photoshop, I can immediately address lens selection, camera angle and cropping. With Photoshop, the changes that are made are immediate. These often are fairly subtle modifications. Get lower, move one way or the other, pay attention to how the different elements in a shot impact each other. During the critiques, I also try to emphasize the process of making a photograph as much as the final images. To me, the fun and my fondest memories have always come from the act [of taking the picture] itself. And successful photographs are a reminder of those wonderful times."