It’s that time of year when many photographers and studios turn their focus on business administration. The fall and early winter are peak seasons for small studios and the first couple months of the New Year are ideal for housekeeping and professional development.
A good number of established professional photographers offer workshops, seminars, styled shoots and other learning opportunities at this time of year as well. How do you choose the best photography workshop for you? How do you avoid disappointment, and worse?
These are the tips I provide to my students when they are preparing to look for additional education beyond the university/college level experience.
1) State your learning goals
Before beginning your search, write out what exactly you would like to learn. The descriptions should be specific, but don’t worry too much if you don’t have the exact correct term to describe what you want to learn(perhaps you don’t know yet that the term for “glowing light behind a subject” is actually called “backlighting”). Try something like this:
- learn to get sharper focus with my headshots
- learn how to use studio lights
- figure out how to get pictures with glowing light in behind a person
- learn how to pose couples in a less cheesy way
- learn how to apply the matte post processing technique
- find out how ABC Photography was successful in marketing to a new client base
2) Research your workshop options
Start with a google search for some local workshop options. So often we get sucked into the idea that we have to attend the latest and greatest workshop by the next photographer we admire, but you may be surprised at how much solid information you can find right in your own community. Gather a dozen or so workshops that appeal to you. Choose only those workshops that specifically outline the learning outcomes and goals. Each instructor should be able to describe what you will walk away from the class having learned. Think of this like your class syllabus in college or university. It was a pretty straightforward description of what the class is about and what you should expect to take away from that instructor.
3) Compare your options to your learning goals
Using your list of learning goals, match up your goals with the workshops you have researched. Use their syllabus to compare to your list, and keep in mind that you may not be able to learn your entire list from one workshop (I suspect it would be difficult to find a workshop that teaches couple’s posing techniques as well as newborn studio posing, for instance).
4) Evaluate each instructor
There’s a big trend right now asking photographers to demand the financial statements of any workshop instructor before attending a workshop. I understand where this comes from – so many new, fresh photographers jump into offering workshops as an income option in their businesses – sometimes long before they are actually ready to teach. I caution against this screening approach for a few reasons:
- that’s proprietary business information (do you ask your lawyer for her financial records before you learn about contracts from them?)
- it doesn’t prove the effectiveness of the instructor
- you won’t learn if the photographer has the knowledge you need to learn by looking at their financial records
- these are easily faked
- a business’s financial statements are irrelevant to most workshop topics (except maybe, perhaps, business topics)
Instead, take a close look at the number of workshops they teach vs how often they show new material, and compare that to your learning needs. Someone who is teaching 100% of the time may not be the most ideal person to learn about current business practices or market trends, marketing techniques or client relations. They may be an excellent instructor for a particular technique, style or artistic approach. Don’t discount someone because they only teach at this point in their careers, but do consider whether their primary source of employment is important for your learning goals.
5) Look for a “seal of approval”
There is no accrediting body or review organization out there to approve photography instructors. But there are a number of professional organizations that could help you determine how genuine, professional and knowledgeable an instructor might be. Have a look for instructors who are members of professional national or international photography associations. This is, of course, no guarantee that they are effective instructors for your needs, but this can help weed out those who picked up their camera last month.
Also consider where else the instructor has taught. Someone who has appeared on the latest video tutorial website may not be the same caliber as someone who is a guest speaker at a local university. An instructor who regularly teaches at an accredited college or university has already been vetted and screened by some sort of academic body, and is rigorously evaluated by every student who sits in their classroom. While just the act of hiring a particular instructor is not an official “seal of approval” (the university or college is not endorsing a particular instructor) they are certainly making a strong statement about that instructor’s skills as an instructor! My money goes to such instructors!
6) Use social media
This doesn’t mean that you ask your Facebook friends which workshops they like! This is the most futile way possible to research a potential workshop. Your best friend’s learning goals may be completely different than yours. On top of that, one person’s experience with a workshop two years ago may not even be applicable today. Peer reviews are the least substantive and least effective way to evaluate a workshop or learning opportunity.
Instead, use social media to do a little detective work on your own. Browse LinkedIn to see where the instructor received their own photography education (extra points for a formal post secondary education, in my books). Check out Google+ to see what their client’s reviews are. Take a look at how long they have been in business (does their Facebook profile list their starting year as 2001, and their LinkedIn profile list it as last year?).
7) The “too good to be true” test
Most complex skills take 5-10 years to truly master. This rule of thumb has existed since the beginning of training and education. Look at how long humans spend in post secondary education.
5-10 years will get us a Masters or Doctorate – the kind of certifications that proclaim that we have mastered a skill set. Look at trades and apprenticeships throughout history, 5-10 years. Look at how long doctors train and learn before they begin to practice medicine. Look at any of the greatest painters, photographers or artists in any field and you’ll find that they begin to reach their peak of mastery within that 5-10 year time frame. (People who achieve a level of mastery after a shorter time, say 3-5 years like Mozart, are often called prodigies because they are so unique, so unusually early!)
So, if an instructor is offering education and workshops a year after they have opened their own business, before they have possibly managed to master their own craft, consider that this may be a little “too good to be true”.
Apply that “too good to be true” test to the content of the workshop as well. Does the workshop description promise to teach you everything about running a successful family photography business in 1 day? Chances are you’ll have just five hours of instruction during a single day’s workshop. Is it even possible to distill 5-10 years of knowledge into 5 hours? (I know I can’t manage to do it in even five weeks with my students in a college setting!)
8) Talk to the instructor
Most instructors will happily make themselves available to answer questions from a potential student, particularly when there is a substantial investment in learning. Ask critical questions and pay attention to how they interact with you. You should receive clear answers to all your questions (even if the answer is “we’ll cover that in detail in the class”).
I personally tend to choose workshops and instructors who will make themselves available for a five minute phone call. Why? Most photographers seem to avoid the phone like the plague. If a photographer is invested enough in their student’s learning that they will extend themselves to take five minutes to chat with me by phone, I have more confidence that they will be invested in my learning during their workshop.
9) You get what you pay for
Like most anything in this industry, you do get what you pay for. I think that an established, working, photographers should be making at least a week’s worth of their usual income from their workshop offering. Between the preparation, curriculum planning and the actual work during the workshop, paying models and assistants, catering etc, even the smallest one day class can take about a week of a photographer’s time to plan and set up.
A photographer also needs to recuperate the costs of not having their regular volume of clients in their studio that day. If they would regularly earn $3,000 from clients that day, they will have to ensure that they make up that lost income through the fees they charge students.
If a full day workshop fee for any established photographer is under the $500 range, you may either experience a very crowded class (volume based selling), or a poor learning experience over all. Do the math yourself and pay attention to any red flags.
10) Check for surprises
Is there an extra fee for lunch, another for coffee, and another for the workshop materials? Added fees to be removed from the email list, or to arrive at the location early? Is there a silent auction, or a paid raffle? Or are their suddenly a number of “corporate sponsors” giving away (or selling) products to participants? Perhaps you’re surprised with a last minute non-disclosure agreement. Or you may be surprised to find that you’re asked to sign a contract handing over all your images, after you’ve already registered for the course.
If you find that you’re constantly surprised by new information, or changes while you research a workshop (or between the time you signed up and the time you attend). Give this learning experience a second thought. Yes, organizing a learning experience for a group is hard work, and a photographer is bound to forget something while planning the class! But, if the surprises keep coming, and you’re increasingly uncomfortable, it’s worth picking up the phone and chatting with the instructor.
Kat Forder creates stories of life, love and make-believe from her studio in Maryland and around the world. On her days off you can catch her curled up with a cup of tea and a good book, or roaming with her two Shetland Sheepdogs.