Choosing the right photography workshop can be difficult. It is difficult to know how open the instructor will be, what their teaching style is like and exactly what you can gain from a workshop. Because of the high cost of workshops doing your own research is a must. Since I teach a number of workshops, and often get asked to recommend other workshops, I thought I would layout a good strategy for choosing a workshop and also suggest some workshop instructors who I know put on top-notch photography workshops in a variety of genres.
First off, if you haven’t read my blog post from a few years ago on how to prepare for a photography workshop I would suggest reading that blog post on the Pixiq website. It details how to get the most out of your photography workshop. Having taken a few workshops myself I am often amazed at how unprepared most people are when they take a workshop. Having a game plan and a set of goals at the outset of the workshop will assure that you get as much as possible out of a workshop.
Without further ado, here are some suggestions for finding a workshop that is perfect your skill level and helps you achieve your goals:
Look for an instructor that inspires you and also has the ability to teach
Choosing to take a workshop from a photographer that inspires you is pretty easy. Figuring out before you take the workshop if they are an effective teacher is much more difficult. There is nothing more frustrating than paying a $1,000 or more for a workshop with a world-class photographer and finding out they have a huge ego, refuse to give away the key secrets to some of their images or just can't relate to the workshop participants. I have heard stories from some of my workshop participants of some “big-time” photographers who were so busy with their own work that they were constantly on their cell phone during the workshop. That is a worst-case scenario.
How do you know if the instructor can teach and relate to the participants? That can be tough to figure out. For the few workshops I have taken, I chose instructors that gave a presentation here in Santa Fe, NM, and who seemed very open and personable. They were also experts in a very distinct genre of photography. I realize not everyone can meet the instructor at an event previous to the workshop but in this day and age most top photographers have some video of them giving a presentation online and with a little research you can find that video and see what they are like. For instance, I gave a talk at Google that is linked to on my website. Joe McNally, a well-known photographer and workshop instructor (one of the best out there), has many such videos online.
Ask for recommendations from other Workshop Participants
Another way to find out about a particular workshop is to ask former workshop participants. When taking a workshop, be sure to ask your fellow participants what workshops they have taken and their experiences in that workshop. I have found that most people who take photography workshops have usually taken more than one. Some people take one or two photography workshops every year. Hence, your fellow participants are often your best resource for finding out about other workshops that may interest you.
Ask for a recommendation from other Workshop Instructors
Likewise, asking your workshop instructor for workshop recommendations is also a great resource. Most photographers that teach workshops, have done so at a variety of workshop venues like the Maine Media Workshops or the Santa Fe Workshops. Because of this, they know a lot of other photographers, the types of workshops that they teach and they know which photographers are talented at teaching workshops. I have taught at both the Maine Media and Santa Fe Workshops, and a whole host of other venues – and I have also taught a number of workshops with other professional photographers, which allows me to recommend workshops very specifically depending on what the person asking about workshops is looking for. Aside from fellow workshop participants, a workshop instructor is probably the best resource for workshop recommendations.
Look for workshops that will help you gain specific skills
Every workshop I have taken, and I have only taken two, were chosen because I needed to learn a specific skill. For example, I took a workshop early in my career on Dreamweaver so I could learn to design my own website. At that point in my career, many years ago, I had more time than money so I had the time to create my website and taking the Dreamweaver workshop allowed me to have full creative control of my website as well.
If you are looking to improve your lighting skills look for a top-end lighting workshop. If you are looking to improve your portraiture, choose a workshop with a top portrait photographer. Also, once you have chosen a workshop be sure to prepare yourself for the workshop so that you can get the most out of it. See the link at the top of this article for my blog post, “Preparing for a Photo Workshop.”
Also, make sure that the workshop is appropriate for your skill level. If you have just started shooting then an advanced artificial lighting workshop may be a bit beyond your skill level. By selecting the appropriate workshop, one that pushes you but is not well beyond your skill level, you can advance your skill set incrementally.
Decide if you would like to take a workshop or a photo trek (or tour)
There is a difference between a photo workshop and a photo tour (a.k.a. a photo trek) – and you should be aware of this before you register for either. A workshop is a workshop designed to inform you of every aspect of the chosen subject. In a workshop you will shoot images, but that is only a part of the workshop. A workshop includes lectures, critiques, assignments, and are fairly intensive. A workshop is meant to impart information so that you come out of that workshop knowing much more about a topic than you did when you started the workshop. And example of a photo workshop would be the Adventure Sports Photography workshops that I have taught at the Santa Fe Workshops and at the Maine Media workshops. Another example would be the Surfing Photography Workshops I have taught in Hawaii with the legendary surfing photographer Brian Bielmann.
On the other hand, a photo tour or trek, is basically a tour where the instructor(s) or an organization has set up a bunch of different photo opportunities for the participants. There is still some information that is being passed on to the participants, but usually these tours are more about shooting and have only a few lectures and critiques if any. Photo treks are not as intense as photo workshops, but they often do present incredible photo opportunities in amazing locations. An example of a photo trek would be the Mentor Series Photo Treks that I have taught in Philadelphia, New Mexico and Dubai.
The reason I bring this distinction up is that if you are looking for an intensive photo workshop where you can learn a lot about a specific topic, then you will be disappointed with a photo tour. And vice versa, if you just want to go out and shoot with a pro photographer in a really amazing location, a photo workshop may not be what you wanted. Hence, be sure to ask lots of questions and read the workshop materials carefully. If you are in doubt about a workshop, email the instructor and ask them what will be covered and what the workshop will be like. If you don’t get a response from the instructor, that would be a red flag. I personally respond to anyone and everyone that asks me questions about my workshops. If I am away on a major assignment it may take me a week to get back to you, especially if I am in a remote location on the other side of the planet, but rest assured I will get back to you. Most photographers teaching workshops will answer any and all emails about their workshops.
If your digital workflow isn’t up to snuff, find a workshop to help you gain control of your post-processing
In every workshop I take, there are a number of folks whose digital workflow is seriously lacking. Most amateur photographers could improve radically by learning to work up their images in Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop. It doesn’t matter how great of an image you take in the camera if you can’t work it up so that it really shines. I bring this up because if you choose an advanced workshop that concentrates on a subject like lighting for example, then you can be guaranteed that the majority of the class has the skills to work up their images to perfection (or at least to a high level). And if you don’t, then you will be feel like a fish out of water. This is a basic part of digital photography so if you don’t feel like you have a handle on digital workflow I suggest buying a book on that topic, like mydigital workflow e-book, or taking a workshop on digital workflow so you can get a handle on your post-processing. I know it isn’t a sexy, exciting workshop but trust me – this type of workshop will improve your photography more than any other workshop out there if you need help with working up your images.
Alright, now that I have laid out some of the key things to think about when choosing a photo workshop I will recommend some of the best workshop instructors that I know and have taught with. I guarantee that these instructors put on a great workshop and you will not be disappointed. Here is the list:
Andy Biggs (http://www.andybiggs.com/) - If you are looking to photograph wildlife anywhere in the world, check out the photo safaris that Andy Biggs teaches. He is a top-notch instructor and a fun guy to travel with. His African Safaris are the best out there and you will not be disappointed with your experience. I have taught with Andy several times and he knows his stuff backwards and forwards – and he can explain just about anything in a clear and concise manner.
Nevada Wier (http://www.nevadawier.com/) - Nevada has to be one of the best workshop and photo tour instructors anywhere in the world. She is great with people, as you can see from her wonderful photography, and she also has impeccable credentials. She has shot for National Geographic and a whole host of top-end clients. She is also very capable when it comes to technical details including shooting with digital cameras, post-processing and fine art printing. If you want to improve your portraiture of indigenous peoples then look no further, Nevada is as good as it gets. I can guarantee you will love your workshop with Nevada.
Lightroomworkshops.com (http://lightroomworkshops.com/) - Jerry Courvoisier heads up the team at the Lightroomworkshops.com and he is one of the foremost experts on Lightroom and Photoshop. Nevada Wier and George Jardine also teach for him and both are excellent instructors. These workshops are Lightroom specific and are a two-day intensive workshop at a great price. I am not sure if Jerry is still teaching Photoshop workshops, but he is a Photoshop guru of the highest order and you can’t go wrong with one of his workshops. I used to teach some of these 2-day Lightroom workshops for Jerry so I can vouch that they are intensive and super informative!
Joe McNally (http://portfolio.joemcnally.com/) - Joe is an incredibly accomplished photographer and one of the best workshop instructors anywhere. If you are looking to advance your skills, especially with artificial lighting, taking a workshop with Joe is a no-brainer. He is in such popular demand these days that you will have to be quick on the draw to get into one of his workshops. If you can, you will not be disappointed.
Andrew Eccles (http://andreweccles.com/) - Andrew is one of the top portrait photographers in the world and very nice guy. He occasionally teaches photo workshops at the Santa Fe Workshops. I am not sure if he is still teaching but if you can find a workshop with him you will learn a lot. He is a master portrait photographer and a lighting guru. If you are looking to advance your portraiture or lighting skills and are lucky enough to take a workshop with Andrew you are indeed blessed!
Of course there is a long list of people I could mention here that are excellent workshop instructors. Those listed above are just a few that I know well and whom I can vouch for. There are many other great workshop instructors out there. Also, in addition to the folks I have listed above I will say that the Santa Fe Workshops and the Maine Media Workshops both put on an incredible number of extraordinary workshops. Check out their workshop listing on their websites. If you are looking for a photo trek, I highly recommend the Mentor Series Photo Treks as they set up some incredible photo ops on their photo treks and I have had a blast working with them the last three or four years.
Of course, I feel like I do a very good job as an instructor myself. I don’t say this to be arrogant. I have gotten some great feedback in all of my workshops and I am very open when it comes to sharing any aspect of my work and my life. If you are interested in taking a workshop on digital workflow, adventure sports or artificial lighting check out the workshops I am teaching this year right here on my blog. As in the image above, a shot by Brian Bielmann of myself and a workshop participant shooting in the water at Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu, my workshops help photographers to get images they never would have dreamed of creating. Here’s hoping your next workshop is a grand experience that you will never forget!