As a follow-up to my earlier post in which I talk about liking photography workshops, here are some recommendations for picking a photography workshop. While this is focused on landscape / outdoor photography, much of the thoughts can apply to other forms of photography.
Please remember: Every choice you make will cost you some combination of time and money.
When starting out, you should choose a workshop based on your skill level. Sure, it may be fun to go on a once-in-a-lifetime $25,000+ trip to Antarctica as a beginner, but you may not be able to get the full value of this trip until you have some experience.
In the beginning, it is best to stay local until you start to have a good handle on your gear, your post processing software, and just as importantly, your style of photography. The greatest landscape photography trip won’t be that great for someone who doesn’t enjoy landscape photography.
No matter what genre of photography you choose, the first step is to learn the technical parts of the camera. Some camera stores will offer a free ‘intro to your camera’ type class if you buy a camera from them.
When you are a beginner, simply reading a lot and filling your head with technical knowledge is ok, but if you are not shooting as well, you will not enjoy the experience. On the flip side, going out and shooting without researching questions that come up is also not a good idea. You, in general, want some sort of balance between learning and shooting.
If you have to pay for an intro class, these should be at least 4-6 hours, and, at least in the USA, cost no more than around $80-$100. Remember, these are only needed if you are really new to cameras and are not comfortable shooting in anything other than Auto mode. Since everyone learns differently, you may be able to learn some of this via an online video. As some camera stores will give you a free intro lesson if you buy a new camera, you should consider taking advantage of this free session.
You also want to be using your camera as much as possible, as this will help you figure out what questions you need to ask. You’d be surprised how many times just trying something leads to more questions. When starting out, you really don’t know what you don’t know.
While it is funny to think about now, I used to like to use the lower numbered f/stops because it made the shutter speed lower. I had no idea about Depth of Field nor any idea what it did. I even wondered why the other f/stops even existed, 1.8 was the only one you ever needed.
Once you start to get comfortable with your camera, you can look into 3-4 hour walking tours, photography meetups, etc., in your local area. You may also wish to consider in-person 1 or 2-day sessions on the software you wish to use – Lightroom, Photoshop, DxO, and others. While online resources exist, I personally needed the in-person sessions to get to a start. Everyone learns differently, so find what works best for you.
Don’t overly focus on learning the technical side of things. You should be both learning and practicing as much as possible. This helps to solidify what you are doing on the technical side by backing it up with the practical side – i.e. ‘I’m doing X when I shoot because it results in Y when I am working on the computer later’.
After you have a grasp on the absolute basics, you can begin to look at 1-3 day photo events. Look at your nearest city / metro area and see what is available. Travel no more than 1-2 hours and practice, practice, practice with your camera until you can use most of it in the dark without looking at any of the buttons.
You are looking for 2 things in your beginner classes – getting to go to some neat areas, and the instruction. Both are valuable.
Look online to get some inspiration and ideas on how to use the software and your camera. Video sharing platforms are great for this. Photo sharing sites / apps will also give you ideas.
While you are still a beginner, you are trying to discover your style, what you enjoy photographing, and find out the questions you never even thought to ask. You are also traveling to local events, especially the close and inexpensive ones, and learning how to use your camera.
Some inexpensive local events are things like airshows, car shows, spring flowers, fall colors, snow, parks, etc. Many areas have migratory birds, which can offer a great subject. When I lived near DC, some options were the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, the Joint Services Open House airshow at Andrews Airforce Base, bald eagles at the Conowingo Dam, as well as a plethora of museums, monuments, and parks. Often, local photographers will run mini workshops, of 3hrs to 2 days, in locations / events like this.
After you have become comfortable with your camera and your software, it is time to consider a bigger event.
For this, you are looking for a 3-10 day outing, ideally with at least 6 others. You may need to travel and will be booking a hotel or other accommodation. You are not looking to get completely off the grid, nor are you looking for the super expensive celebrity photographers.
What you are looking for is a reputable organizer who has been doing this for a while. Alternatively, some trade schools (for example, Maine Media in Rockport, Maine, USA) will offer 1-week long workshops in a variety of photographic genres.
You are not yet looking for harsh environments. In terms of temperature, you are looking for something from about 20-100 degrees F, or -5-35 C.
For landscape photography, you are looking for photography from about 2 hours before sunrise to 2 hours after sunset. Perhaps even star trails and overnight photography.
At this stage of your learning, you are beginning to get to the point where someone can point you in the right direction, and you can be happy with the outcome.
When you are looking for an advanced workshop, you are already fairly skilled. At this level, you are looking for a workshop to get you to a location, and then the leaders will stand back, unless you ask for their opinion.
For an advanced workshop, you will begin to look for trips to help you get to difficult places, or access to difficult places, that you could otherwise not reach on your own. These workshops may be international, in a country you are not familiar with.
For some advanced trips, you are looking for a trip that revolves around photography. You are looking for a trip where there are considerations made to help the photography side of things. This may mean that you can carry more stuff than a normal trip, or there are less people in the area, because your trip leader has purchased all of the spots. This also means that your trip will be more expensive than a traditional tourist trip. See my previous post on this for reasons why this may be a good thing – Things I Enjoy : Photo Workshops.
What the Instructor/Leader Does for You
At all levels, if you are paying for a trip that is run by professionals, you are paying for their expertise. You should always feel free to ask them for their help whenever you can. You should also be able to ask the professional to move out of the way, and they will even let you put your tripod in the same spot, if that’s what you wish.
The group leader’s job is to help get you to the places you want to photograph when the light is good. They should be an expert in the type of photography you are doing, as well as the location where you are trying to get these photos. They are there to help you with composition, or post processing, or something you cannot otherwise do on your own. Sometimes, they are just there to help you to realize you are already doing it right.
At the Beginner skill level, the Instructor really holds your hand.
At the Advanced skill level, the Instructor gets you to the right place, or helps you get somewhere you cannot get on your own.
Checking out your Instructor
As the price of trips increases, you need to spend more time to ensure an instructor / leader is ‘real’ and the trips they run exist.
I personally, like to follow someone online for an extended period of time, ensure they continue to have quality posts on whatever site they post things to, and that the quality of their work is consistent.
For my first large international trip, I followed the leaders online for over a year before I contacted them just to ensure they were real.
Many instructors/leaders work in groups. That is to say, the same people who take a trip/workshop with one leader are in the same circle as the other. In these cases, I trust the recommendation of the instructor I know, especially if I’ve taken a few workshops with them.
Some famous YouTubers are now running workshops. If you like their style, and they have been producing good, consistent content for a while, they are worth considering as well.
Participant to Instructor ratio is important. The lower the better, but the more expensive. Outside of some exceptional cases, you generally don’t want this to be higher than about 10:1., ideally it is closer to 6:1.
Total cost is always a consideration. When choosing a workshop, the posted price is not the total cost. Look into what is included in the listed price – meals, transportation, hotels. When all of the extras are added up, what is the total cost? Remember to include getting to the starting location. A workshop in Zion National Park is a lot cheaper for someone who lives in Utah vs someone who lives in Australia. A workshop where transportation and meals are included can be cheaper than a workshop where everyone rents their own SUV and pays for their own meals.
The final consideration for joining a workshop – meeting the photographer / instructor. If you really like the work of a photographer, you may wish to consider signing up for a workshop just to make the connection. I have done this before. The photographer I met has become a friend and his workshops have been a great way to meet other photographers.
When looking for a workshop, you are looking for some knowledge you don’t have (technical, compositional, knowledge of the area) and can’t easily or time-efficiently get on your own. If you are looking for knowledge, you can get it. If you are looking for how to safely navigate an area, you can get it. If you are looking for access to somewhere difficult, you can get it. If you are looking to get great photographs without spending months/years scouting and learning the area, you can accomplish this.
In a future post, I may post a list of all of the workshops I’ve attended, when, and what I got out of them.