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Attending a Photo Workshop? 
10 things you should know!

by Gary W. Stanley

As with any endeavor, in our case photography, once your initial interest has been satisfied, you develop the desire to take your skills to another level. You enjoy getting out and photographing everything from the flowers in your backyard to the splendor of the Grand Canyon. You may still have your old Canon AE-1 or may have just purchased the auto-everything Rebel 2000. You've read articles and books on photography, and feel that you have made some progress, but like most of us, realize that there is always room for a little improvement (okay, lots of improvement).

Well Gary, that's very perceptive of you, but what's next? Good question! Attending photographic seminars will help to provide you with an ongoing refresher course and keep you in touch with the basics. Attending a photo workshop on the other hand, will more likely leave a lasting impression on you and help you to get past your initial learning curve.

Having operated tours, workshops and seminars now for about ten years, and having attended a few of them in the past as a student, I can tell you that there are always a lot of questions about workshops and what is entailed. Who's workshop should I attend? What kind of camera equipment will I need? What should I expect? How much is it going to cost me? and so on. Well let's take a step-by-step approach, and let me share with you ten things you should know before you attend a photographic workshop.

1. How serious are you about the learning experience? That seems like a simple straightforward question. Actually it requires some serious thought and here's why. Workshop providers are numerous and the level of intensity varies from workshop to workshop. For example my workshops usually stay on the lighter and more casual side of a learning experience and are no longer than maybe four days. I'll teach you just about anything you need to help you be a better photographer, but in a relaxed atmosphere. A workshop such as Maine Photographic Workshops might offer programs stretching out over an entire summer, in some cases offering a degree or credits for the career minded individual. 

2. So, what exactly is a workshop? By definition, it used to be fairly common knowledge that photo tours were designed to get you to great places to photograph and the rest was up to you. A workshop by contrast, was focused more on the learning experience and classroom instruction than on the location. Well things have changed and rightly so. People certainly want to learn photographic technique, but in a very beautiful location with great photographic opportunities. They want visual documentation of just how much they've learned. 

3. What can you expect to do in the workshop? While I can't speak for every workshop out there, most of them should offer a mix of slide-lecture programs, time to photograph in the field, processing of your slides (provided your location is not too remote), and a critique session giving you constructive criticism of either the work you brought with you, or from the slides taken during the course of the workshop. 

4. What's included in the price? Since a workshop could cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, it's probably a good idea to know just what you are getting. Obviously your location will most certainly affect the final cost. A workshop held in a bush camp some place in Australia, will run a few dollars more than the workshop held in Acadia National Park in Maine, if you live here in New England as I do. Other than that, you'll want to ask these basic questions:

  • Will film and processing be included? 
  • What equipment will I need to bring? 
  • What about lodging and meals? 
  • What about transportation to the workshop destination? 
  • Will I be picked up and dropped off at the airport? 
  • Who makes the travel and/or lodging arrangements? 
  • Is transportation provided once I arrive?

The answers to these questions will vary according to the destinations and the price, but the important thing to remember is to ask them! Then it will be up to you to decide whether this arrangement works for you or not. 

5. What about the reputation of the workshop? The answer here is simple, satisfied customers! Ask for references and testimonials from people who have attended their workshops. Big catalogs and high prices do not ensure that these people have the best programs for your needs. It may mean that they are profitable, and it may mean that they are large, but it will be that word-of-mouth reputation that matters most when the dust settles. 

6. What about the instructor? If you think they are all alike, think again. You can read their bio in the brochure and look at their photo and book credits, but until you talk to someone who has been there, you could be in for a huge surprise. Because they are a good photographer does not necessarily mean they are also a good instructor. Hopefully the workshop will have screened the teaching talents of the instructor so that it is not an issue. What if the workshop is a small operation and the instructor is the owner, much like myself? The answer here again is, satisfied customers! Ask for references and testimonials from several people who have been in a workshop held by that photographer. You should recognize that it is hard for an instructor to be all things to all people. He or she should however, have a good reputation overall. 

7. What about class size? A general rule of thumb is, not more than ten students to each instructor. The variables would be if there were more time spent in the classroom setting, then a greater student-to-teacher ratio might be fine. If a lot of fieldwork is part of the itinerary, then that ratio should indeed be smaller. You would certainly want a class size that allows for your questions and personalized instruction. Don't overdo it, I once had a student that demanded an exceptional amount of time and attention, and when asking what constructive comments the class had regarding the workshop, her remarks were, 'I would like you to be able to give us more personalized instruction'. I recommended a private tutor in Kansas! (Just kidding!). 

8. What about health and diet considerations? Well, these should be questions that both you and the workshop ask. The workshop should ask or you should inform them of any health or dietary considerations. In an emergency this could become very important. If you have any physical handicaps, it would benefit both parties to know this in advance. The workshop may include some strenuous exercise such as hiking that could limit your participation. Better to know that ahead of time. Due to my physical condition, I've never been able to attend the ACME Photo Workshop held each year on Mount Everest for example! 

9. How far in advance do I need to plan? Many of the tours and workshops plan their schedule one to two years in advance, and fill very quickly. I would recommend researching your potential workshop as mentioned earlier. Then find a workshop location and dates that coincide with your schedule and budget. Make your contacts and get the ball rolling. Keep in touch with them if you have any questions. Consider trip cancellation insurance if you will be flying into your workshop destination. If the workshop is cancelled for any reason, you don't want to be left holding plane tickets you've already paid for. As the time for the workshop arrives, it never hurts to make sure everything is a go. 

10. Finally: Repeat steps 1-9. Again perhaps over-simplified, these steps should become automatic if want to ensure the most fun and return on that hard earned dollar. Enjoy and I hope to see you soon!

Note: All the photographs taken in this article were with either the Nikon N-90S or F100 bodies and Fuji Velvia slide film. Tokina's Pro series lenses were used, along with Hoya multi-coated filters. I have been working for the past two years with carbon fiber tripods from Hakuba USA Inc. and I'm very pleased with their performance.

You can check out Gary's Web site at 

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