For Photographers: How to Pick a Workshop: Top 10 tips

There is a big buzz going around the interwebs lately about photography workshops. Some if it positive, some of it negative. The consensus seems to be that there are too many photographers trying to cash in on their colleagues by offering workshops, many of which lack the experience, wisdom and the pure intentions necessary to be a good teacher. So for a photographer who wants to continue their education, what do you do? Do you stop attending them altogether, do you pull one out of the air at random? Do you suspend all trust in fellow photographers and resign yourself to never attending a workshop again? Nope! You get smart.

Here are the top 10 tips to keep in mind when deciding which workshop to attend:

1. Pick a teacher whose business model best mirrors the one you strive to create for yourself and can be realistically attained by YOU.

If you want to be a babies-only photographer, select someone who makes a living shooting babies only. It will be hard to learn a niche business from someone who isn’t doing it successfully themselves. And when it comes to photography, even the nichest of the niches can be profitable. You don’t have to generalize in order to make money doing what you love.

Conversely, if you want to generalize and shoot multiple subjects with aplomb, and have separate price and product packages, look for a photographer who shoots babies and seniors and families and pets (or whatever). A generalist of this type will be best equipped to show you how to balance multiple types of photography without becoming overwhelmed.

Additionally, that amazing business with that huge gorgeous studio with 4 employees and a sales manager may seem like a dream come true for you, but for most people, it will only ever remain a dream. Consider how much overhead, and how much risk, you can and will realistically take on, and, if you know your circumstances would prevent you from ever having that fancy studio, or the sales team or celebrity clients, seek someone to learn who has a more modest business model, or you may return home from your much-anticipated workshop feeling depressed, discouraged and like ‘you will never get there’. Ideally you don’t want the dichotomy between where you are now, and where ‘they’ are now to be so huge that it will be impossible to achieve.

2. Select a workshop taught by someone with good, solid, long-term experience who has become a leader in their own right.

In general, one does not become an expert at any type of photography or business after just a few years. If the teacher you are interested in has only been in business for 2-3 years, it automatically throws up a red flag about whether the person is able to see their situation, and themselves, realistically. Sadly the photography industry is filled with egocentric people, who like to believe they are better/more talented/more successful/better looking than the next guy. It would be a mistake to learn from someone whose narcissism is larger than their actual success.

3. Google them!

This seems like a no-brainer, but if you have eaten up a photographer’s reputation through their blog and forums only, you might not have a clear picture of what they are actually like in terms of visibility. The more press and articles and mentions and ‘includes’ you find, the more likely it is they are as impressive as you think they are. If you only find a few pages of results, and/or the only place you find them mentioned is on other photographer’s blogs, give them a few years to ‘mature’, and then come back to learn from them. Try googling their name, and do “-blog” from the search. This will weed out the other photographer’s blog posts and help you see the true press. Ideally you want to look for someone who also receives praise from others (magazines, newspapers, etc) who aren’t photographers.

And equally as important, google their workshop! Look for blog posts from others who have attended, and read what they have to say. Any outstanding workshop will leave the person with a profound emotional experience, and they will write about it on their blog in glowing terms and it will come through loud and clear how touched they were by both the experience and the teacher(s).

4. Beware of learning from habitual workshop attendees.

By this I mean those who make a habit of attending other’s workshops multiple times each year, in addition to teaching their own. The problem with this is that they can easily find themselves selling other’s content, whether they mean to or not. Obviously this is unethical and highly disrespectful to the people they learned from (and in some cases a breach of contract they signed with the other photographer), but the larger concern is that you are learning content that has not been tried and true for that person’s business- merely ‘borrowed wisdom’ that may or may not work for your business model. Ask them how many workshops they’ve attended, and which ones. If it’s more than a couple over a handful of years, buyer beware and pass on. You want someone who is a leader by experience, not someone who has learned from and is re-selling the content and successes of other leaders.

Also beware of those who recently took a workshop from a competing photographer. If it seems fishy that a maternity photographer announces their own workshop just 6-9 months after taking another maternity photographer’s workshop, it’s because it is. Fishy and highly suspect. This is because it takes *at least* 6 months to develop content and plan for a workshop, and anyone who attends a competitor’s workshop less than a year before launching their own has to already know they want to offer a competing product at the time they attend the other photographer’s workshop, and I don’t need to tell this audience about how unethical or just plain wrong that is. Sadly in this industry it’s not uncommon for photographers to take advantage of and use other photographers (see egocentric/narcissistic comments above). Seek out teachers who haven’t taken advantage of their competition. Only photographers who respect their colleagues will truly be successful, and those are the people you want to learn from.

One thing you can do if you suspect someone who is a workshop HOLDER is a habitual workshop GO-ER, is find out the last 1/2/3 workshops they attended, and contact the organizers of those workshops to find out what the person is like. As a teacher you learn a lot about workshop attendees, and get a really good sense of the kind of person they are. The last thing you want to hear is that the person you want to learn from was disrespectful toward THEIR teachers in any way. Ideally you want someone who is gracious and very grateful for their own educational experiences, and showed great respect toward others they learned from.

5. Ask yourself (and your workshops teacher) some hard questions:

Do they fully support themselves or are they also supported by a spouse? What does their spouse do for a living?

If they say their spouse works in upper management at Microsoft, you can pretty much bet that they don’t need to be pushing nearly as hard to make a profit as you will be with your spouse finishing off his PHD work in chemistry. If it’s easy for them they won’t be able to teach about the necessary drive you need to make it work for yourself. You need to know how to support yourself with your business, and it won’t help to learn from someone who can leisurely book one shoot per month and still have plenty of money to spend. In other words, steer clear of RHWC (“rich housewives with cameras”). If you see them buying all kinds of fancy gear on their blog and tweeting about their new collection of L-series lenses with nary a client shoot in sight in the past 3 months, you can bet that they aren’t getting their dough from their business. Of course, it may be possible that they are making money off of commercial shoots (which, by contract you can’t publicize), or image licensing, but if that’s the case you’d at least have an indication of what they are doing work-wise through their facebook or twitter.

What are their per-client sales averages?

You could even go so far here as to ask them what their last client ordered. If they can’t give you a concrete answer then that may be throwing up some yellow flags. This can also help you determine if they have the same kind of business model you’d like.

How many shoots do they do per month?

Factor this and the per-client sales into account when determining what is reasonable, as the number of shoots per month is less important than what a photographer grosses per client. Per-client sales of only $750 at 6 clients per month is not enough to sustain a business. Likewise- per-client sales of $350-$500 with 16 clients per month is considered a high-volume business. If this is the business model you’d like, excellent! If not, find another photographer who has a low-volume/high sales model who works with few clients per month and has high sales averages. If they say they gross $2k or more per client, do only 4-6 shoots per month, and have no overhead or studio, you can be confident that they have the low-volume business model you’d like to learn how to achieve.

Also, take a look at their blog. Are all of the photos from the past 6 months of their own dog or kid?  Ideally you want to have a logical explanation for the amount of client work on their blog. If it’s not something like they are traveling the country on the lecture circuit, working on a commercial campaign, book or other major project, or the past 6 months are their normally slow period (as in wedding photography), you can conclude that they don’t have much business. Pass and find a teacher who knows how to market themselves to get clients, and needs the work in order to make a living.

Where is their business physically located?

To me this question is always a litmus test of how honest a person is. If on their website/blog/facebook/twitter they say they are based in Dallas, but their answer to you is that they are physically located in Plano TX, telling the world that they are based in Dallas is factually incorrect. You want to learn from someone who has great integrity and doesn’t attempt to inflate their importance, either of place, or of status or grandeur. (See egocentric comment above). Seek honesty as the most important quality of someone you take a workshop from. (Yes, I realize that many of you will say this is just semantics, but I see nothing wrong with saying “Based in the Dallas suburb of Plano TX.” This is honest, direct and factually correct.)

How long have they been a full time photographer?

Sure you can learn from a part-time photographer, but if you want to make a living at photography, wouldn’t you rather learn from someone who doesn’t have a day job in order to support themselves? There is a huge chasm between doing photography part-time and having it fully support you. It’s literally like two completely different businesses. Given that it’s extremely hard work to make a living as a photographer shooting *any* subject, you need to learn the tools to do this from someone who already is.

It also may be the case that although they have run a photography business for 8 years, they have only been doing it full time for 2 years. Depending on the type of photography, ideally you want to learn from someone who has been running a full time photography business for 5 or more years. Although there are the rare businesses who are profitable in the first year or two, it takes the average business 3-5 years to even clear the red and make a profit, not to mention the fact that the lessons learned in the first 5 years cannot be undervalued. I was on the precipice of being ready when I taught my first workshop in 2008, and in many ways, was too green to do it at just 5 years into my business, even though I had a high demand and by most accounts had a successful business by then. At 7 years in now, I know a lot more than I did even two years ago. You grow so much as a business owner in the first handful of years, and you really want to learn from someone who has the most experience possible.

Why did they decide to teach workshops? What was their inspiration? What is their motivation for teaching?

I have a feeling this question goes unasked and unanswered most of the time, which is really a shame, because it can be very telling to hear the answer to what made the teacher decide to help others in the first place. The answer can tell you a lot about what the person is like on a more personal level. (Of course, they could always BS you with their answer, but that’s where doing the rest of the stuff in this post comes in handy!).

What kind of demand for workshops did they have BEFORE they decided to start teaching?

It’s one thing for someone to decide “I’m important and smart enough and good enough that other people should learn from me”. It’s another thing altogether if others are already WANTING  to learn from the photographer before they even decide to become a teacher. Ideally you want the latter. Anyone can think they are important, but it’s when others think they are important too that there is the most truth that they actually are. Humility is a great quality in a teacher, and if your workshops instructor says that they had been getting requests for years before deciding to teach, it shows they are humble and won’t fill the air in their workshop with overinflated self-congratulations about their accomplishments (yuck).

How many models/subjects will they have for the attendees to photograph at the workshop?

One of the most common complaints I have read on blogs and forums is that photographers were fighting over models. As a teacher I definitely take this to heart and want to make sure that each attendee has both ample shooting time and an easily accessible model (in my case dogs). Models are usually pretty easy to come by, so there is no reason not to have 1 model for every 3-4 attendees.

Will the photographer be shooting for their own portfolio during the group shooting portion of the workshop?

Another common complaint I’ve read is that most of the group shooting time was spent watching the photographer shoot the model, with little time for the attendees to practice and get material for their OWN portfolios.

As a teacher this is hard to balance, because often payment to models is made in images or prints instead of cash (by the model’s own preference). Because of this, the teacher needs to spend at least a little bit of time trying to get print-worthy shots. But having said that, you definitely want to find someone who places more value in their attendee’s practicing and learning than filling their own portfolio. Ask how long they will be photographing the models during the group shooting portion. 15 minutes is a much more desirable answer than 2 hours. Of course, some photographers do actual (or mock) client shoots, where the attendees just watch, which can be just as valuable as shooting themselves. In this case I’m just talking about the group shooting portion. The last thing you want is to be trying to elbow your own workshops teacher out of the way to ‘get the shot’!

How much personalized attention will there be during the group photography portion?

Ideally you want a photographer who goes around helping individuals, showing them settings on their camera, answering questions and solving problems, instead of just standing on the sidelines watching. It can be a confusing and chaotic environment to have 15/20/25 people all shooting at once with models everywhere, and sometimes all it takes to feel more comfortable is a little personalized instruction- to know your teacher is there for you.

Will the photographer be eating their meals with the attendees?

Ideally you want someone who isn’t ‘too cool for school’ and will sit down and BS with you over lunch. You can continue to chat about business and even get into more personal stuff, which is always fun. You can learn a lot about your ‘idol’ by breaking bread with them.

How long are the workshop days?

If you are a person who is used to working 9-5 and carrying the same simple routine every day, you may find a workshop to be completely exhausting. Speaking from experience, I usually watch attendees start to melt after about 9 hours of learning, and at 10 hours they have the full-on ‘glazed-eyes-deer-caught-in-a-headlight’ look. If you are expected to be focused and learning for 10-12 hours each day AND have energy to get up bright and early the next day, the schedule may be too much for you. It would be a tragedy if you didn’t retain any of day 2’s content because you were too busy trying to recover from day 1. Be realistic with yourself about how much ‘doing’ you can handle in a given day, and plan accordingly when selecting a workshop. (Ideally you’ll have a fat workbook to take home with you to study so you can continue to retain your new knowledge well into the future).

What type of materials come with the workshop fee?

If you are really in need of contracts and other forms, you will want to look for a photographer who offers up their own. The more forms, email template responses, vendor/resource links, contracts, etc, you can get, the more time you will save with your own business.

Is there any ongoing support for workshop attendees after the workshop?

Not all workshop holders provide this, and you have to respect their schedule as *usually* photographers who teach are pretty busy themselves, but if you know you will be needing ongoing support, or at least want the opportunity to continue to network with friends you have made at the workshop, you will want to find someone who offers ongoing online support in the way of a private forum. Ideally this will be a place where you can safely share photos for critique, get advice on your business, upload logos you are deciding on, announce events you are holding, and continue to make friends.

6. Learn from the photographer’s strengths.

Some photographers are outstanding technically, yet suck at business and marketing. Some are amazing at marketing and promoting, yet their images are just average. IMO it’s perfectly acceptable to take a workshop from someone who is only selling their main strength, and only learning that one area- whether it be post-processing, photography techniques, or how to acquire clients and make sales. Of course, you don’t want to take a more comprehensive ‘all things’ workshop from a photographer who creates great images yet doesn’t know how to market. Conversely if you really need better technical skills, you won’t want to take a workshop from a great marketer who teaches photography, if their photo taking skills are lacking.

I think it would be great if more photographers offered single full day ‘mini workshops’ – not trying to be all things, but really selling their #1 strength. Then you’d be able to mix-and-match and really find the educational experiences that work best for you. It would be kind of like the salad bar of workshops.

7. Read the testimonials on their workshops website and contact past attendees.

I recently stumbled on a workshops website that had ‘anonymous’ testimonials without the name of the person listed. I actually laughed out loud and thought “how do I know these are even real?”. It made me suspicious that the people holding the workshop just made it up, because otherwise, why wouldn’t they have posted the names?

You want to look for a workshop where the testimonials listed are from real people who you can contact, and you should do just that!

You will invest a tremendous amount of time and money, and trust in this photographer (or photographers) to help shape the future of your business, and you need to make sure the investment you are making is worth it. Sometimes just a little asking around can help you determine if a workshop is the best fit for you. Sending a quick email to a former attendee can be all the ‘advice’ you need. Don’t be afraid to ask the teachers for a list of their former attendees, which they should happily give to you. I make it easy on people in regards to my own former attendees- they are listed on my blogroll (those who have businesses anyway).

Also, keep in mind that a few negative criticisms are normal. In a workshop of 15/20/25 people it’s impossible to please everyone, and just like in working with private clients, there will always be people who can’t be pleased. Speaking from experience, getting the food right for a large group is always hard, shooting conditions are challenging, by nature of a workshop setting and having multiple photographers in one place, and there will always be those who are simply unhappy being outside of their comfort zone and daily schedule. Don’t let a few niggling criticisms stop you from attending if everything else looks great, especially if the teacher has been holding workshops for years and has taught a lot of people, as the more people they have taught, the more likely you are to hear some complaints. Of course, if all you are hearing from past attendees is unhappiness and dissatisfaction, grab your wallet and run!

Lastly, remember that not all workshops are right for all people. Just like working with private clients, there is a target market, in this case, photographers who need the information from the business teaching it, to help better their own. If your business model is drastically different, or your expectations won’t be met (i.e. they don’t do studio work and you want to add it to your services) , you won’t have your needs met. For this reason it’s a really good idea to define your expectations first. Grab a piece of paper, and write: “I need”- and list those needs out. This can help you clarify who will be the best teacher to meet those needs.

Although most of the listings on this site seem to be outdated, you can find reviews on workshops here.

You can also find reviews and comments on workshops on the Photo.net forum here.

8. Adjust your expectations in order to get the very most out of the workshop you have your heart set on, even if it isn’t ‘perfect’.

In business, as in life, sometimes we have to suspend some expectations in order to get other ones met. Perhaps the workshop you want to take is offered by the 4 teachers you would just *die* to work with, but is offered in a quiet rural setting in Maine, when what you really want is to be shooting with them in the exciting heart of Manhattan. Or you really only want to photograph children and the photographer also teaches shooting newborns as part of the program. In these cases you may need to accept that your needs won’t be 100% met; that it won’t be the ‘perfect’ workshop of your dreams, but the value of the rest of experience will make it completely worth it.

9. Don’t pick a workshop based on price alone.

Just like any other service, with workshops, you get what you pay for. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is! And if the price of a new workshop seems too low and you decide to wait to take the next (or 3rd, or 4th) workshop, your desired teacher may just realize by then that they aren’t getting paid for the amount of work they are doing, and decide to raise the price by 50%, 75% or even 100% in which case you would feel duped if you had your heart set on attending ‘the next one’. Price increases are normal in business, but any program that has doubled in price in a year throws up yellow flags about preparedness of the organizers, and how much feasibility analysis they did before launching. You can bet that if the feasibility analysis was lacking, there will be other shortfalls as well. Shortfalls that would be impacting your pocketbook should you decide to go.

The value of learning from someone who has made all of the mistakes you get to avoid cannot be undervalued. I never studied pet photography in college, yet paid over $15,000 to attend, and am a career pet photographer now, using few of the skills I learned in college. In retrospect, paying $1,500/$2,000 even $3,000 to attend a workshop to learn what I know now would have been an absolute bargain. It would have saved me over $13,000. (GAH!).

If you think of in as investing in your future, and being an investment you can expect to pay off with revenue created for your business from the tools you learned at the workshop, it helps to shift your thinking about price a bit.

10. All other things being equal, pick a workshop in a location you’d like to vacation in for a few days.

The entire workshop, and all expenses associated with it, is a business write-off under the category of ‘professional development’. So- airfare? Paid! Lodging? Paid! Food for the workshop days? Paid! All paid by your business. So taking a couple/few days to go explore the area is far more affordable when you are already there, and might be a little less attractive in a dingy suburb of nowheresville than the beautiful beaches of Santa Barbara. Treat yourself to a little mini-vacation. After all of the hard work of the workshop, you’ve earned it!

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And if you are firmly on the fence about attending, because you are having a low-confidence moment, believe that your future and your business are worth it. Give yourself permission to go!

There is no time like the present to grab the future by the horns, look it in the eyes and say “watch out- here I come!”. Attending a workshop offered by someone you respect and admire may be just the kick-start you need to take your business from ‘blah’ to ‘wow’! You never know what’s possible until you try, and in business it’s really true that nothing risked, nothing gained. And if you can’t do it yourself, I give you permission to ‘go for it!’.

I hope this helps someone out there who is trying to determine what their future educational path should look like! Leave me a comment if you found it helpful, and/or if you have your own workshop experience or advice to share.

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5 thoughts on “For Photographers: How to Pick a Workshop: Top 10 tips

  1. I’m extremely pleased to discover this website. I wanted to thank you for your time for this particularly fantastic read!! I definitely enjoyed every bit of it and I have you book marked to look at new stuff in your site.

  2. Thanks for all the fantastic advice! This is the first year I have been able to attend workshops and what a great investment it has been for my business (although some were by far better then others)!

  3. Some great thought about the subject. Thank you for sharing this insight into the realm of photography workshops. Coincidentally, a fellow photographer friend of mine and I were discussing this same topic 2 weeks ago. We were musing how many (but not all) photographer workshops were from individuals who were not busy enough shooting, so they create workshops to generate revenue. There have been classes that have bettered my skills, and there are those that was a complete waste of time. One of my red flags is “I have this GREAT new: Photoshop action/flash adapter/manual/book/software/system/idea/cheese grater/sheep shearer/etc that will completely solve your photography problems….. for only $$$$$”

    However, there are those with a genuine heart to serve the photographic community and want to raise the bar for everyone by offering practical and useful resources and experience at reasonable rates. The humility, grace, kindness and openness of these individuals can not be counterfeited.

    Thanks again for sharing. Hopefully, it will spare someone of the grief of attending a worthless workshop.

    Have a great day!

    – Curtis

  4. Interesting blog post, thanks! Definitely some good tips here. But I have the feeling that if someone were to follow all of these guidelines to the letter, they probably shouldn’t limit themselves to the pursuit of a career in photography. This person might be selling themselves short. He or she might wish to consider a career in private investigation….or perhaps insurance fraud.

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