Over the last decade, the ever-expanding popularity of nature photography and the growing ease and affordability of high-quality digital camera bodies and lenses have created an unprecedented demand for wildlife photography workshops. At the same time, with the collapse of stock photography and print publications, many pro photographers are finding leading workshops to be the only real way to carve out a living in this field. Hence, photography workshops proliferate, offering opportunities to travel to just about any corner of the world you can imagine.
Given the abundance of choices out there, how do you select a wildlife photography workshop? Workshops can cost a considerable amount of money, and attending one that turns out to be a bad fit for you can be a huge disappointment. In this column, I’ll address the features to consider in the hopes that you can make the right choice for you.
Tours Versus Workshops
First, be aware that workshop leaders generally use the words “tour” and “workshop” very differently. In most cases, a “tour” or “safari” basically means the leader is acting as a guide who has determined the best locations and opportunities for you in a particular destination. They will be there to assist you in the field, but most likely there will not be intensive teaching nor classroom time to help with post-processing, refinement of technical skills, etc. For this reason, tours are usually designed for more advanced wildlife photographers who don't require a lot of instruction.
“Workshops” usually offer more of a learning component, with time set aside to review photos as a group or one-on-one, and direct instruction on enhancing your technical and processing skills.
The Workshop Leader
Spend a good chunk of time on the leader’s web site. Get to know her style, her approach, her ethics. How does she describe herself and her mission? Social media is, of course, also a great way to assess the personality and style of photographers. Look at their work on Instagram and Facebook. Check out how they interact with people. Are they friendly and respectful to others? Do they seem to hold the same values as you? Ascertaining these things can help you judge whether you’ll be a good fit in person.
Also determine whether the workshop is sponsored solely by the leader or under the aegis of a workshop company. If it’s a company, make sure you take the time to read the company policies, familiarizing yourself with their approach and ethos.
What is the maximum size limit of the group? In general, a ratio of one instructor to no more than five or six students is recommended. You want to make sure you have a chance to receive individual attention from time to time and aren’t jostling with a crowd to get noticed.
Also, see if you can find out whom the workshop is geared toward, in terms of both skill level and interest. It’s tough to be more on the amateur end of the scale if everyone else attending has advanced photography skills. It’s also advisable to be cautious of wildlife tours that may be aimed at wildlife watching in general rather than strictly photography. For instance, a birder has a very different set of criteria than a bird photographer, and these criteria don’t necessarily mix well in the field; some birders simply need to see the bird and they are ready to move on, while bird photographers need time to get the shot.
Make sure you are clear on whether the workshop will run if it doesn’t fill up entirely. Some leaders will cancel a workshop by a certain date if they aren’t able to reach a certain number of participants.
The Leader's Experience
Has the leader been to this particular destination a number of times before? Repeated experience with a location usually increases the likelihood of a successful experience for workshop attendees.
Are local tour guides employed in the destination country? Workshops where leaders have returned to one place time and again, consistently relying on the same local guides, can provide the very best experience of all. The local guides will have had their ear to the ground for wildlife sightings, knowing, for instance, where a leopard is denning with her new cubs or a spirit bear has been regularly fishing for salmon. Their longtime relationship with the workshop yields a degree of loyalty and trust that benefits everyone and helps to support the local economy.
Don’t be afraid to ask the leader for the names and contact info of people who have attended that particular workshop or tour in the past. Requesting such references is a common practice. Make up a list of questions that you would like to ask the attendee(s). Some crucial questions to ask: Did the leader care more about “getting the shot” for himself or more about whether his clients succeeded in “getting the shot?” Is there something you wish you had brought that you didn’t? What did and didn’t you like about the trip?
As nature photographers, most of us care about the welfare of our subjects. When we’re in the field, we certainly don’t want to put the life of an animal at risk. Each of us has an impact when we are out there, whether we are aware of it or not. The least we can do is try to minimize our impact, adopting the “leave no trace” principle as best we can.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of doing your due diligence on the ethical approach of a workshop leader. By that I mean, are they interacting with the wildlife to ensure you get your shot? If so, to what degree and in what way? You have to decide what you are comfortable with. And you have to be prepared so that you aren’t surprised once you are in the field. Several photographers have shared with me how they attended owl workshops in the U.S. or Canada and were horrified to find that live pet store mice were offered to owls to get dramatic fly-in shots. The problem comes when workshop leaders persistently induce wildlife to perform for them so that clients can get “the money shot”—particularly with predatory birds and mammals. Providing easy meals, for example, is not doing a favor to these animals, as the instructors often claim; it can change the animals’ behavior in ways that are harmful to them, taming them and drawing them closer to roads.
Care must also be shown to the homes of wildlife. How does the leader approach photography at nests, dens or roosting spots? Do they respect the habitat as it is or try to modify it to create a more visually pleasing stage, e.g., cutting away sheltering branches from around nests? This can be disastrous to the survival of the young.
In short, is the photographer more of a “stylist,” caring only about a perfect-looking photo and not for the well-being of the birds or other animals? Or is he a person who cares deeply about the welfare of his subjects and is interested in teaching appropriate fieldcraft? As instructors, we have the opportunity and responsibility (and, I feel, the gift) to model ethical practices in the field. As a participant who cares about wildlife too, you have both the right to expect this and the responsibility to ensure it.
Permits And Certifications
All tour and workshop leaders should have the required permits, insurance and medical certifications. This is something you may need to inquire about, especially in regards to the permits, which are particular to locations. National and state parks require commercial permits for photography workshops. They also require that the instructor be certified in CPR and first aid.
What kind of fitness level is required? Will you be expected to hike a good distance carrying all your heavy camera gear or to disembark small boats onto slippery rocks while carrying gear or trudge through deep snow? These are all considerations that you must know in advance that may not be spelled out in the workshop description. It’s distressing to find out only once you’re there that the physical challenges are too much for you. Moreover, it’s a huge bummer if your inability to keep up with the others limits their enjoyment and experience, too.
In addition, if you’re the sort of person who, like me, needs a little rest and downtime in some part of the day, make sure in advance that’s an option that’s available. Ask to see a sample itinerary to examine the pace at which the workshop is led.
Cancellation And Refund Policy
Carefully read over the cancellation and refund policies of any prospective workshop. As we all know, professional or health and other personal issues can arise that make something planned well in advance suddenly not possible. Make sure policies are clear, reasonable and acceptable to you. And seriously consider purchasing trip insurance, which can greatly lessen the financial pain of any last-minute cancellation penalties.
Finally, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and give the instructor a call. You can ask a lot of these questions in person and also see whether you feel a sense of compatibility or not.
I hope these tips prove helpful to you, and that your next wildlife photography workshop or tour gives you the time of your life!