If you’re in the market for a photography workshop, there’s no lack of choice. Photography workshops have never been more popular – from street photography to landscapes, fashion to astrophotography, weddings to boudoir – the possibilities are endless.
However, in the minefield that is the world of workshops – and forgive me if this turns into a bit of a rant – things are not always quite what they seem.
Take my own field, for example; almost every day I encounter yet another person setting themselves up as the latest ‘expert’, hoping to cash in on the wave of popularity in street photography. Their qualification for ‘expert’ status is often little more that a large following on Instagram (which was probably achieved in exchange for hard cash), or they are perhaps the latest YouTube sensation. Don’t get me started on YouTube . . . every day there is someone else posting a ‘how to’ video about street photography; 90% of them are clueless. But as workshop leaders, most of these people don’t have much of a solid track record, either as a photographer on an educator.
Setting yourself up as a workshop provider would appear to be simple enough: you need to know your subject (not always the case), be a fair communicator (not many are good at this) and know how to market your services (many are pretty good with this). It’s all the wrong way round.
You build a website, shout from the rooftops and the customers will come. In other words, the barriers to entry into this growing sector are low which, in in almost every way, is a bad thing.
A quick Google search will uncover numerous workshop providers, all after your money and promising great things. Some have been around for years and really know their stuff. Others have invested their redundancy payout in setting up as a trainer, with little to back up their claims and promises. And there’s lots in between.
Some offer their services very cheaply which, in itself, should raise suspicion.
But let’s return to street photography – it’s a good example. With alarming frequency I see new people offering workshops, often with little experience in photography education and, to be honest, with not much of a CV as a street photographer either. Perhaps they think that running workshops is easy. Maybe they see a quick dollar to be made. Some are professional photographers in other fields who are perhaps not good enough to make it pay as a full-time occupation and need something on the side. Some have even been on one of my workshops, thinking to themselves “I can do that”, assuming that it’s easy. It’s not.
I know that some people come on my workshops to learn the tricks of the trade so that they can do it themselves. What a nerve! But all’s fair in business, love and war, as they say. I recently sold a workshop place to a fellow professional who immediately started advertising similar workshops in identical locations to mine. I’m all for consumer choice but going to these lengths does seems rather inadequate, pathetic even. I’ve even come across workshop providers in other parts of the world who have copied and pasted the details of my workshops onto their own websites. How sad. I do hope they are reading this.
Am I bothered?
Does any of this bother me personally? No, not really, but I do feel for the poor souls who part with their hard-earned cash for a superficial learning experience which is never going to upgrade their skills in any meaningful way. Why someone would want to learn from a workshop leader who is not a genuine expert is beyond me. Maybe cheap prices do actually play a bigger part in the decision-making process than I had imagined.
So how do you find the right workshop for you? Will you be wasting your money or investing it wisely in learning new skills and being inspired by a true professional? Here’s a checklist of some of the factors you should consider and questions you should ask to help you make an informed decision . . .
How much ‘me time’ will you get?
This is your key question. Workshops are so much more effective and you will learn more if you are part of a small group (a small group in this context means single figures – anything more than that and you could be taking part in a photo walk, not a workshop). A good workshop leader will ensure he/she spends a proportionate amount of time with each participant, with plenty of individual coaching when and where it’s needed. In my opinion, any more than six is a photo-walk, not a workshop.
Can the teacher teach?
Well, you would think so, but not always! No matter how good (or famous) they are, if the workshop leader can’t get the messages across in an articulate and inspirational way they are next to useless. A good workshop leader will be enthusiastic, inspiring, professional in approach, singularly committed to the genre and, of course, be a good teacher.
Do they specialise?
Whatever you intend to learn, you really should be learning it with a specialist. A business which offers safari shooting in Kenya may not have the expertise to teach street shooting in the back streets of Manchester. Sure, there are some large training companies out there who use specialist tutors across a range of genres, but take care to ensure that you’re getting the focused expertise you believe you are paying for.
Does the course leader have a track record as a photographer?
Look at their work. Do you like and aspire to it? Do you appreciate their style or skillset? Have they written any books? Are they published in magazines and journals? Do they operate as a brand ambassador for any of the major manufacturers? Do they exhibit their work? Are they truly a full-time ‘professional’ photographer?
How will the workshop meet your objectives?
Before you start looking at what’s available, work out what you want to achieve. A workshop is an educational exercise and should be well organised, with clearly communicated learning outcomes.
Does the itinerary work for you?
You should have a clear idea of the itinerary before you book. A vague approach to planning the event will probably mean a vague workshop. And, of course, you need to know precisely what you’re getting before you part with any cash.
Are you dealing with an established business?
A ‘pukka’ business will have a business-like approach with an informative website, a business email address (rather than something like Gmail or Hotmail), a fair cancellation policy, public liability insurance and a professional manner in dealing with customers. Also, do you like they way the business communicates with you? Is it’s approach articulate, helpful and friendly? The way businesses handle these initial customer interactions is usually an indication of how workshops are run.
Can you read reviews or testimonials from satisfied customers?
Testimonials on review site sites such as TripAdviser tend to be well regulated and therefore fair and accurate. Don’t be afraid to ask for contact details of satisfied customers and beware of a long list of glowing testimonials which are signed-off by the likes of “Dave from London”.
Do they offer a range of workshops?
In the likely event of you being hooked, can you do a follow-up workshop with them, maybe at an intermediate or advanced level? Can you do workshops in different locations and at different times of the year?
Is there any meaningful follow-up from the workshop?
A good workshop provider will follow-up after the workshop with additional information, advice and, ideally, critique. The latter is a crucial part of the learning process and should be a basic component of any workshop. Beware of the business which walks away, never to be heard from again.
So please, please, think carefully before you book any photography workshop – not least a street photography workshop. Whilst this is a huge industry and there’s plenty of work to go around, I do get frustrated when I see people giving money to people who don’t know what they’re doing.