The Value of a workshop
We all know the US economy has been less then vibrant over the past four years. Basic economics dictate when money gets tights people start looking for auxiliary sources of revenue and one of the first places they turn to is their hobbies. As a result of this need of the American family to find new ways to help pay the bills there has been an explosion in the number of photographers jumping into the photo workshop and seminar game.
In and of its self the increase in educational opportunities for aspiring photographers is a good thing. Unfortunately not all workshops, seminars and shoot outs are created equal. Many providers simply see the workshop as an easy way to separate the attendee from their hard earned money and offer very little in return. Others offer incredible value for the dollar spent while most fall somewhere in between with enough to offer to make it worth your investment of time and money if you are there to learn and not just see the pretty girls.
As a general rule your satisfaction with a workshop event is going to be defined by your expectations going into the event. There are several types of workshop attendee and each has a different level of expectation coming in so before looking at the workshop lets define who is going and what they expect from an event.
1. The Aspiring or Emerging Professional - this is the top level of photo workshop attendee. They may or may not have extensive workshop experience but they are sure to be coming in with a desire to learn and fully expect an educational opportunity from the event they are attending. They have been shooting for at least a year or two, often longer, have the best gear they can afford and already have a reasonably strong portfolio.
This attendee’s expectations will be high from any event he or she attends. There is no mistaking them they have questions and expect answers. They are there to learn something they do not already know or sharpen skills they already possess but don’t yet have the equipment or space to practice on a day to day basis. This attendee is looking for those last few nuggets of information and experience to help them in their transition from Enthusiastic Hobbyist to Full Time Working Professional.
2. The Enthusiastic Hobbyist - This is the photographer who shoots for no reason other then they love the craft. They are typically shooting pro level gear or gear that was pro level an upgrade or two back and regardless of the gear they have at hand they are more then capable of capturing an image on their own. They may have been shooting for years and they may be doing so at a professional quality level. Their expectations can vary and they can be the easiest of the most difficult attendee in the group to please. They are there more to shoot then to learn but most still carry an expectation that the instructor will have something to offer that they did not already know or at least will be able to confirm or make clear an issue they have been working on that they were not fully settled into.
This attendee has likely attended many events and thus has been to good and bad and has a standard by which to compare events may well be on the cusp of making the decision to transition to professional but they probably have a good job that is not too unpalatable to them so they take the occasional paid shoot here or there just to offset some of the cost of the hobby or to justify the expense of going to workshops.
3. The Neophyte - this attendee has just recently in the past year or so discovered an enthusiasm for photography and is still exploring and discovering the elements of the craft that excite them the most. They are shooting with entry level gear and they may or may not have an understanding of the basic operation of that gear. Some are highly excited about learning the craft and are a veritable sponge for any and all information. They come in with the full understanding that they have lots to learn and fully expect that the workshop will remove a veil or two for them. The fact that they still have a great deal to learn makes them easy to please and they will keep coming back as long as they feel that they are indeed learning something new each time they attend a session.
4. The GWC or the Guy With Camera - this attendee is the bane of the photographic world. He does not show up to workshops about shooting food, landscape, product or still life photography. He only cares about one thing and that is coming in close proximity of female models, preferably naked or nearly naked ones. The GWC is sure to show up at any event offing models. There is no pricing the GWC out of an event as the event is a conquest for him and often times represents the only opportunity this individual has to interact with members of the opposite sex. He is the Great Pretender and often actually posses a wealth of technical knowledge of photography and top end gear which he uses to try and create an air of professional legitimacy when dealing with the models. He is not opposed to spending every penny he has to try and achieve his unachievable goal of obtaining a model girlfriend. Often socially inept this individual has found power in the camera, he has discovered that when he has a camera in his hand he can put on the persona of the pro photographer and feel like he has the social skills and life that he lacks in his day to day life. While he has no desire to learn he will typically be the loudest critic or the head cheerleader for an event depending on how fulfilled his expectation of access to pretty models is fulfilled.
Now that we have a general idea of who goes to a workshop lets look at the different types of educational products that photographers looking to up their game will typically find. Events are offered at a local, regional and even a national level and the experience they offer is as varied as the attendees who support them. So let’s see if we can define what to look for in a workshop experience to ensure you get the best experience possible for your dollar.
Lets define the typical products:
Workshop - the very name implies that this is an educational event. A good workshop will have a limited class size on average they will have room for between 4-12 attendees. They will provide all the lighting equipment needed and will have as a clearly defined educational goal. Workshops will be led by one or more instructors with credible experience in the field or genre they are teaching.
A quality workshop will include a lecture / demonstration session where the instructor will take the time to discuss and demonstrate the skills to be taught in the session. The effective workshop will offer a balance of opportunity for attendees of all skill levels to learn. The instructor will define the goals of the session, demonstrate the technique that is to be used, explain the how and why behind the specific gear selected for use, the lighting, metering, camera settings, lens choices, posing techniques etc.
This segment of the workshop may even allow the attendees to participate in the setting up of the lighting and set though for the sake of time management most workshops will already have the set up done and will simply walk the attendee through the how and why of it. Lectures will typically occupy 1/3 of the session time leaving ample opportunity for the attendees to actually shoot and work one on one with the models.
The best workshops will offer model to photographer ratios of 1: 4 or better and many workshops especially in the fashion, glamour or nude genres will also offer at least one Feature Model who is well known and not generally accessible to the average workshop attendee. Obviously the higher the ratio of models to photographers the more time each attendee is going to have available to shoot with the models.
Quality workshops only offer one on one shooting and do not allow other photographers to shoot over the shoulder of others. By restricting the shooting sessions to one photographer at a time each participant has the ability to approach the shooting as if it were an actual shoot. They have the full and undivided attention of the model and are able to work on all aspects of the skill set being taught.
While photographers are busy shooting the instructors should still be available to the shooter or the other participants waiting their turn to shoot. During this time the instructor will be pointing out the small but relevant details of what is happening during the shoot, assisting the photographer who is shooting or chatting with individual attendees in order to answer the questions that arise during the shooting segment.
When properly managed every photographer should leave a workshop feeling they were presented with an educational event that allowed them to jump in with both feet and get their hands dirty in the process. At the end of the day the value of a true workshop comes from a solid collaborative effort between instructors, models and attendees. If you go in looking to learn and put into practice the skills that are presented then your workshop experience should be favorable.
Depending on the price point of a workshop the event will offer one of two types of model release. Most will offer a release that allows the attendee to use the images in their portfolio, for their personal marketing efforts and or for the furthering of their education via posting on internet forums for image critique but will not allow image sales or licensing of any sort.
Alternatively others will provide a full commercial release though the attendee may be asked to provide an additional gratuity or release fee for a full commercial release.
Seminars - The seminar differs from the workshop in that it will typically be presented in a classroom format to a much larger group then the workshop and is far more lecture and demonstration centric then the workshop. The opportunity to actually participate and shoot is generally limited at best and often not present at all. Generally a seminar will be presented to a large group at a low cost and will feature a noted professional presenter. While they may offer question and answer segments as a general rule one on one time with the presenter is limited or non-existent. Seminars tend to be a good value for the money and can be a great way to reach into the thought process of respected professionals who you might not otherwise have access to.
Shoot Outs - There are two types of shoot outs that are most often offered a good one and a bad one. A well run shoot out is an economical co-op alternative to a workshop where one is more interested in the opportunity to shoot then to sit in a group and listen to someone speak and demonstrate technique.
While generally carrying a price point somewhere between workshop and a seminar some shoot outs are run more like a loosely organized workshop then shoot outs. In these events the lecture segment will be missing but the model to photographer ratios will be kept high and a modest level of personal instruction or guidance is available to those who require and ask for it.
The average shoot out will consist of a larger group (15-40) then a workshop. It will have a lower model to photographer ratio most likely in the range of 1:6 and possibly as high as 1:10. Like a workshop models are provided and a Feature Model may be offered as a marketing technique to aid in the sales of tickets. General lighting equipment will usually be provided though often it will be restricted to basic gear with fewer options available then in a workshop. Many shoot outs are conducted outdoors in public locations which limit the lighting equipment to reflectors and on camera flash.
At a good shoot out attendees will be presented with one of a couple situations. They will arrive to find models on pre lit sets where they can then line up and take a turn shooting for a predetermined amount of time. Rather then limit the time some organizers will set a frame limit per turn. Both options are effective and provide participants of the shoot out with ample shooting opportunities throughout the session. Alternatively this situation may be varied to include small groups assigned to a given set for a predetermined amount of time before rotating to the next set. In this scenario the models may also be rotated through various sets to provide more diversity in the shoots and a chance to practice techniques learned in workshops and to build ones portfolio. The one common thread in both situations though should be that shooting remains restricted to one photographer at a time.
The Free For All Shoot Out: Sadly this shoot out will often be offered and disguised as a workshop and as a result many will leave the event with a bad taste in their mouth and a false negative opinion for workshops. As one could imagine the Free For All Shoot out is a Safe Haven for the GWC who is only there to take snapshots of naked or near naked models.
At the Free For All Shootout organization is nonexistent and no semblance of order is present and should you try to instill a little you are likely to find yourself the focal point of a GWC uprising. At this event all photographers roam freely from model to model shooting at will. All regard to quality of experience is left at the door during these events, and participants have no regard for the creative effort. With all participants shooting at the same time the model becomes confused and quickly frustrated and her enthusiasm will wane and in short order she will cease any real attempt to model and will simply be present on the set.
The value of this event is null, no one really benefits here except the GWC who fills many gigabytes of compact flash cards with snapshots of a girl that he will later use for purposes which will remain undefined.
So how do you choose? In the end your decision process is going to boil down to a simple determination of your needs and expectations. Don’t blindly choose an event simply based on the marketing verbiage and photos an organizer uses to market the event. Often the most loudly marketed events produce the least desirable results because the organizers real motive is selling tickets. So do a little research, talk to those in your community either locally or online that have attended events produced by the organizer you are considering and listen carefully to what they say. Typically in today’s social media driven marketing platforms it is not to difficult to obtain solid background and history information about a workshop host. Now on the flipside remember that no matter how good an event an organizer puts together there will always be a small minority of attendees who simply cannot be pleased and typically that one guy may speak louder then 5 guys who were really happy with an event. So take single bad reviews of an event with a grain of salt, talk to a couple extra people and make an informed decision. With just a little research you should have no trouble finding a quality educational workshop in your area.