Photography Workshops, Are They Worth the Money?
By Bob Killen, ACE, ACI
The answer to “Are Photography Workshops worth the Money” is a two-sided affair. On one side, we have the student’s perception and on the other the instructor’s knowledge. How well these two points converge will determine the workshop’s value.
Photography Workshops are a powerful way to learn and grow
Photography Workshops provide aspiring photographers the best of all possible learning paths because workshops are a concentrated, full immersion experience.
A ‘designed for learning’ photography workshop generates a level of concentration, power, and excitement that’s impossible to achieve in the classroom.
Working together closely for 3 to 5, sixteen-hour days guarantees a richer and more varied experience than sitting in a classroom or working virtually with video tutorials. Photography classroom learning dilutes intensity because of time gaps between classes, and thus we lose knowledge continuity when everyone bails at the end of the class. Ideas evaporate before they ever take hold, but in a workshop, students find themselves engaged at all hours of the day and night.
More importantly, an intense workshop inspires self-discovery. Often the relevant internal learning does not take place in the field or in the post classes but between those sessions, or over meals, or perhaps late in the evening when everyone’s sharing images and arguing about the world of photographic art, or possibly the world itself. These cherished encounters, at the fringes of the workshop experience, bring another revelation — that developing new friends is every bit as important to your future as learning your craft.
Great workshop instructors may or may not be credentialed teachers or not, but in either case, most teach from a position of ‘in the trenches’ experience. Their photographic art, techniques, visual voice, and skills usually encompass formal learning but more importantly their knowledge and styles are from the real world of gritty failures and humble pie success.
As instructors (and I am one who teaches 8-10 landscape photography workshops per year) the income earned as a teacher is generally supplemental to income earned from other areas of photography. We teach because we love to see others grow artistically and we professionally refine and expand the learning experience for our students. For most workshops teachers its really simple; we love to teach, mentor and support!
Choosing a Workshop
Understanding the value of the workshop teaching methodology is one thing, but for the workshop student, the process of deciding where and when to shell out hundreds or several thousands of dollars to take a workshop can be an angst filled decision. However, there are value questions that are useful to consider before selecting a workshop that can eliminate your angst (well, most of it).
Where are you today?
Are you a beginner, advanced hobbyist, semi-pro or working professional? Be honest with yourself in evaluating your current skill and visual voice levels, but also be careful not to under rate yourself. Also, consider your post-production knowledge and equipment kit, two items that govern the outcome of how much you can learn in any given workshop.
Where do you want to be tomorrow?
Once you have made an honest appraisal of your current capabilities, the next step is to define where you would like to see your work in the future. The difference between these points is the learning curve you need to scale to achieve your goals. As a teacher, I have found that students often have difficulty with defining their photographic future because of this age-old axiom:
“You don’t know what you don’t know until you know it.”
I encourage them to download and save images they like (or copy them from books and magazines). Review these pieces of inspiration and notate what you like about the work: composition, mood, atmospherics, technique, locations, styling, coloration, and other details that excite your eye, heart, and soul.
What do I need to get there?
Through self-evaluation, you have decided where you are, and you have some idea where you want to go. Now ask yourself what do I need to learn? Do you want to copy a particular photographer’s style, which you can use to pave the road to your own style? Do want to learn a specific technique to improve your work? Do you need creative leadership that will help you find and define a visual voice? Alternatively, are you looking for an opportunity to capture images in an amazing and remote area?
You may not know the answers to some or any of these questions. However, a great workshop with a considerate instructor will help you explore the questions and find the answers you need to advance your goals.
Who can help me?
Workshop Instructor experience, teaching skills, and curriculum planning vary. Excellent instructors have a reputation for excellent teaching abilities that exceeds their personal work. In other words, they focus their time on instruction; they prepare well and provide camera specific techniques, help students explore new visual ideas, and provide a framework that allows each student to grow a unique visual voice— their own.
When evaluating and selecting a workshop, consider these instructor qualities:
The Photography Instructor’s Work— What do you like and dislike about their images, do they resonate with you, and how do others evaluate their work?
Biographic Information— Read the instructor’s bio, which details their experience as a photographer and as an instructor.
Testimonials— Check out past student testimonials or contact past students.
Curriculum— The best photography workshops will provide you with a curriculum to review in advance of purchasing your course. I teach landscape photography workshops within our National Parks using exact GPS locations for our shooting assignments and provide our students with lesson plans that help them achieve technical and artistic outcomes. In my view, it is critical to work with instructors who have lesson plans and student objectives.
Post-Production Training— If you are considering a multi-day, advanced photography workshop, find workshops that include post-production techniques to help you expand and clarify your visual voice. Working in post between your capture assignments accelerates your compositional skills because you can see what has worked, what hasn’t, and make adjustments as you return to the field for the next capture session.
Class Size— A hands-on teacher will want a class size of 3 to 6 students, or if the class is larger, there will be a capable assistant instructor. Photo tour workshops just put you in front of places you have never seen and often with large groups.
Post-Class Support—Some of the best workshops offer online post-production training, which is an excellent way to continue your skills development and explore your visual expressions at a deeper level. This facet plus your dedication to practicing the material taught is critical for long-term growth.
Student Services— The best landscape photography workshops have student service support to help with lodging, transportation arrangements, meals, safety lectures, pre-class guidance and other amenities that make it easy to learn. You want to concentrate on learning, and thus a workshop that provides Student Services frees you from many distractions that can interfere with your class.
“Kelso Dunes Arpeggio” by Steve Ripple, Mojave National Preserve, February 2017 Workshop
Is it Worth It?
The value of a Photography Workshop cannot be measured by the fee or tuition charged. Fundamental costs such as location, learning days, the number of instructors, student services, curriculum, instructor quality, lodging and other factors affect prices. Photography Education is not a cost-plus commodity; it is a value-based proposition. You will pay more to attend Harvard than your local state college, and while both grant degrees, Harvard has more resources and can offer a richer learning experience. However, personal success does not depend upon where you went to school; it depends on what you put into your education and how you used your learning experience to advance your work and life.
The same rules apply to a photography workshop.
Enroll in the best photography workshop you can afford, and show up ready and willing to learn.
Put in the effort to advance your visual voice, master your craft, and to explore personal expression. Give it your all and when you complete your workshop continue to build on what you have learned and archived.
Will it be worth it?