So you want to attend a photography workshop

GPP 2014 is getting close and I’ll be teaching 3 different workshop there (a hands-on and quite intensive class on portraiture, one on self portrait, one on mixed media).
I’m extremely excited about this and in the last few weeks I’ve been working hard on making sure I make the guys at GPP proud and give the students my best, and after e-mailing back and forth with a photographer friend about “what makes a workshop worth attending?”, I decided this was a subject worth talking about.

I’m mainly self taught when it comes to photography, which was great: it gave me the freedom to explore the medium without fear of “doing something wrong”. When you don’t know there are rules, you can just try and fail until you discover stuff by yourself and make this knowledge your own (only to find out everybody and their mum already knew and they look at you weird because “being over excited about the fact that if you want a white background you need to light it separately from the subject”, is not that big of a deal apparently).
But then in 2002 I got to attend RISD as an exchange student and it was so overwhelmingly awesome: I realized that having a teacher could propel me into doing things way faster and way better and when I got back I started taking photography workshops whenever I could.

Here’s what I learned:

1. A workshop is not a photography course. It’s short and intense and you don’t get to really grow within its duration. You are not going to be a better photographer because you heard a great photographer speak: as much as I wanted to, photography is not transmitted via osmosis nor diffusion1. This means at the end of the day you need to go back to your little studio/room/burrow and start putting what you learned into practice as if your life depends on it, otherwise you’ll just forget it but (and this is the sucky part) you’ll still think you know it, because you remember sitting in that class.

2. Pick what’s best for you and not what’s available or cool. There’s a bazillion workshops out there. Some are cheap, some are insanely expensive. Some are one day long, some last a whole week. Some are held by rockstar photographers, some are taught by people whose name you never heard. How do you choose your next workshop? My rule of thumb is: select something that might help you with what you are struggling with *right now*. Are you constantly screwing up your exposure when you’re working with strobes? Are you good at lighting stuff but you freeze in front of a human being? Do you feel like there’s more to photography than technique, but you can’t seem to figure out how to add meaning to your images? Use this as a compass to look for the best workshop for you, because then you’ll have questions in need of an answer, which brings me to my next point…

3. Have at least one or two specific questions before you step into the room. Stress on specific. You can’t reach a goal unless it’s defined and measurable. “I want to take better pictures” is a crap goal for a workshop: how will you know if they are better? Or better enough to justify the cost of the workshop?  A better goal would be something like “I want to learn where to place my main light, because all of my portraits seem to have weird shadows and that pisses me off so much I want to punch the model in the face and since I’m a kid photographer, this might be a problem”2. Pick the workshop that seems to give you a better shot at figuring this out (e.g. in the example I used, NOT a class on storytelling). If the teacher is not addressing that specific question, ask it. Believe me, it’s not going to kill you.
Choosing a workshop because it’s available and looks cool is like the old joke about the drunk dude looking for his car keys under the street light, not because he lost his keys there, but because it’s better lit.

4. Research the teacher. If you are taking a class on fashion photography and the photographer teaching it does not shoot fashion, never published a single photo in a fashion magazine and all the photos in his portfolio are definitely not something you’d see in a fashion magazine… well… do I need to go on?
A lot of photographers in the last few years started teaching workshops as if they were ATM machines: you get a pretty girl in skimpy clothes, place a couple of lights and lure guys with cameras willing to spend money to post photos of a pretty girl in skimpy clothes on flickr and get a lot of likes from their friends. I’m not judging (too much), but if you spend thousands of dollars in this kind of education  and you don’t seem to get more clients, it might not be the recession3.
Also, if the teacher is someone you loathe, does not share your values, has a sense of humor that offends you, you might want to give your money to someone else. If you are considering taking one of my classes at GPP, you might want to read my series on photographing people I wrote on strobist first, or read a couple of interviews that might give you an idea on how my head works. If you read italian, hop over to my blog: most of my stuff is there.
I’m completely fine with people thinking I suck, I’m less fine with them wasting their time to listen to me talk: remember that you could use the same time (and probably less money) to hire a model or rent some gear you want to test and shoot one-to-one for the whole day and you would learn a lot from that.
On the other hand, if you’re enrolling in one of my GPP classes because Heisler’s are filled up and you plan to stalk him the whole week and need an excuse to be there, I totally support that. Let me suggest one of the one day classes (less money, more stalking time) and remember he likes a skinny latte with 2 fake sugars in it.

5. On taking pictures. Some workshops give students shooting time, some others are more “show and tell”. There are advantages to both formats.
If the workshop you are attending is one of those where the teacher demos how he/she works, use the camera to take notes, if you need to, but don’t be the one shooting from behind the teacher’s shoulder to get a photo “for your portfolio”. That’s just ridiculous. First, that’s not your photo: it’s like photographing a photograph and claiming it as your own. I know appropriation played a significant role in art, and I find Jon Rafman’s 9 eyes project brilliant and poetic4, but what makes it different is the intention. Always have intention when operating a camera. Also, you have paid good money to watch this person work, and you’re spending your time snapping bad photos of the model. That’s not super-clever.
On the other hand, when you are given shooting time use it, milk it, make the best of it. Aim to fail: try stuff you saw or heard during the lecture or demonstration and don’t care about not getting the perfect shot. You are not there to impress the teacher nor your classmates, you’ll most likely never see those people again in your life. As a matter of fact, if you’re not screwing something up, you’re most likely just doing what you already knew how to do. Remember why you are there.

6. Go home and start working. I am the nerdy type, so I take a lot of notes, but I also bring a separate piece of paper to class to write down ideas for stuff I want to try. It might be something technical, like “place a beauty dish in front of a softbox, same axis” (thanks, Heisler) or something that might make little sense to the passerby, such as “birds hair”.
As soon as I go home, before normal life sucks the enthusiasm out of me, I start planning to make these notes happen. I make appointments with myself, as if I was a client, and I test out stuff.

At the end of the day, a workshop can be a great tool to propel yourself, but can also be a great excuse to postpone the actual work (I can’t take photos because I still don’t know everything there is to know about photography). A lot of people seem to be waiting for someone to put the hand on their shoulder and tell them “you are ready know, here’s a bucket full of money” and that’s just never going to happen. If what you need is the permission to be a photographer, here: have mine. Go take photos.

 

  • 1. Don't know the difference between osmosis and diffusion? http://www.diffen.com/difference/Diffusion_vs_Osmosis
  • 2. On a side note, you might want to take a class on anger management. And please, don't breed yet.
  • 3. Also, I'm thinking of selling a 1000$ workshop on how to avoid scam workshop: it's me slapping you with a trout for hours and it's a great value because I use a fashion trout. Paypal me the money if you're interested.
  • 4. You can also watch Michael Wolf speak of his Google Street View work here: http://vimeo.com/20667709, or check Sherrie Levine's work on Walker Evans and Richard Prince's photos of magazine clippings.
About the author
I take pictures, I sleep too little.
9 Responses
  • patpro on January 22, 2014

    Your post is very interesting. I’ve attended few photography workshops in the past and certainly will again in the future.
    But my comment is about something on the margin of your post: GPP. Few years back, I’ve contemplated the idea of going there, then I’ve remembered what is Dubai, what it represents in terms of Human Rights. Even if it’s one of the most free UAE country, it’s still a UAE country. Meaning there is censorship, huge discriminations, etc.
    I find it quite uncool, disturbing that many talented photographers close their eyes on this during 1 or 2 weeks, just because the event is huge.
    I could certainly have written this same comment to Zack Arias, David Hobby or Joe McNally. It’s not targeted against you personally. It’s more an expression of what I feel about GPP. May be I’m wrong.

    Reply
    • Sara Lando on January 22, 2014

      I totally don’t feel targeted and that’s a legit question to raise: I raised it myself before going to Dubai last year. I was afraid of the cultural shock and -as a woman- I had my moment of “how do I feel about the way they treat women there?”
      I spent a lot of time reading about it and decided that assuming something without experiencing it would be kind of arrogant, so decided to go.
      I spent some more time reading about what I was supposed to do, how I was supposed to dress not to offend anyone (and I packed several scarves so that I could cover my head if needed, as I didn’t want to look like american tourists going into italian churches during summer. I learnt several ways to wear a hijab on youtube).
      First thing first, no-one asked me to change the way I dress or even gave me the stink eye. I was actually surprise to see several women dressed in clothes I honestly found way to slutty to be worn out of a strip club in one of the malls.
      I talked to women, some were foreigners living in Dubai, other were born there. Some were muslim, some were not, some were covered, some were not. Most of them were quite opinionated and not afraid to voice their opinion in public.
      I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff going on I didn’t see, just like visiting Italy you’d probably eat pasta and marvel at the art and never think about domestic violence.
      And you know what? After that experience I realized that assuming that a woman being covered is a form of disrespect is a bit of an ignorant assumption on my part. Is like someone saying to me that I’m not free because I decide not show my boobs in public knowing that it would hurt my husband’s feeling.

      Let’s talk about discrimination for a minute, shall we? I live in Italy, a free first world country. I could talk about countless times when I stepped on set with my male assistant and the client started talking to him assuming he was the photographer and asked me to bring coffee.
      I could talk about how many times raped women here are told it’s their fault for not being careful enough. I could talk about the fact that an italian girl knows how to cook and clean a house when she’s six while her brother never does, because it’s something his mother does for him and then his wife.
      And if we decide to consider the US, the first thing that comes to mind is how -for example- when Hillary Clinton and Sarah Paling were running for president all the media talked about was how they appeared (one was too bitchy, the other was pretty). Or Todd Akin speaking of “legitimate rapes” and women shutting “the whole thing down”.
      Or we can talk about how we teach girls they need to be pretty and seductive if they want to be successful. How they need to be ladylike and proper, meaning they don’t have to talk back, they need to be quiet, they need to restrain.

      And even not going to the feminist stuff (this might get boring soon: I tend to talk a lot), let’s talk about the idea of judging a whole country based on the assumption they all think with a single mind.
      It’s like saying people shouldn’t come teach in Italy because of Berlusconi and Mafia. Or USA, because of guantanamo bay, gun policies and the obvious fact that glitz pageants is child abuse. Or Canada because… I dunno, because they’re too polite, I guess.
      I met the people who organize GPP and they are amazing human beings, with a passion for photography who bust their asses like no one I met in the photography workshop industry. So hell yeah I’m supporting them, and hell yeah I’m not going to show in class the part of my work that would be considered offensive there, just like I would avoid full frontal nudity teaching to US people because they’d find it offensive in most cases.

      I don’t think my work as a photographer is to change the world, or even change the way the world think about women just because I am a woman. Having a vagina doesn’t give me the right to assume my way of thinking is the right one on a global scale. What I *think* I can do is try to be the best person I know how to be, teach what I know, and form my own opinion on people through interaction rather than assumptions.

      Hope I don’t come off defensive or angry: it’s just a subject I think a lot about and I tend to have a bunch of opinions.

      Reply
      • David Hobby on January 23, 2014

        I am totally with Sara on this one. There is a lot of perception-vs-reality that rationalizes itself when you actually go and see something first-hand.

        And if I only visited countries without any injustice, I couldn’t go anywhere. Couldn’t even live in my own house. The people who run GPP are some of the best people I have ever met in my life. The attendees are a international mashup of photographers who will allow you to experience much of the world from the comfort of a bar stool at The Vista where we all hang out.

        The world is for discovering.

        Reply
      • patpro on January 24, 2014

        Sara,

        thank you for your detailed answer. I’m afraid you do sound defensive and a little bit angry, but thats ok ;). I really do get what you wrote. I’m well aware that european countries (I’m french) or the USA are not exempt of injustice or blatant social/moral problems. I know that, as David and you wrote, there are incredible people everywhere, and that you can’t judge a country from news headlines or political posture.
        But does it mean that the “big picture” is wrong? Say, for example, the rsf.org Press Freedom Index 2013, or the freedomhouse.org 2014 freedom is the world ranking. They both make solid and backed up statement about every country they enlist in the ranking.

        My purpose is not to argue here. I just think you are focussing on specific areas based on your subjective experience, when my “uneducated” feeling is about the big picture as a whole, that no first-person experience can give you.

        Cheers

        Reply
        • Sara lando on January 24, 2014

          What I don’t get is: assuming you get the big picture and I don’t, what exactly are you doing to change it, if it’s important to you, by just staying home?
          How exactly not speaking my mind *there* would be a step towards freedom?

          Also, I don’t base decisions on lists or I’d never leave my house. I visited areas that were considered “dangerous”, mingled with people with a criminal record (following your line of reasoning I should have avoided contact with them) and I have always found that basing my opinion on personal interactions makes more sense for me.
          Shunning, either people or places, doesn’t really work for me, sorry.

          Reply
          • patpro on January 24, 2014

            I’m sorry, it seems I’m having some trouble making myself clear. I should have studied english more thoroughly, I don’t feel comfortable expressing my views with all necessary nuance.

            You are making a point: speaking your mind in Dubai is certainly a step to freedom. And may be Dubai is one of the more free UAE country because people are creating events such as GPP that allow different cultures to meet and mix. This is a very positive aspect.

            I don’t really base decisions on lists either. But I do fuel my reflexion with them amongst many other things, when I feel I should.

            My idea was more to question the idea of endorsement. The more famous people are (artists, politics…), the more responsibility they have toward the public. Participating a big event in a country that raises concern about Human Rights could be seen as an endorsement of what is going on there*.
            But as you wrote, not going there does not really help, and may be going there is a way to spread the virus of freedom ;)

            (* you can google “Divas and despots” for a detailed article in The Telegraph, Sting’s point of view is interesting)

            Reply
  • Dan on January 23, 2014

    Love this!
    [Making decisions without critical thought] “is like the old joke about the drunk dude looking for his car keys under the street light, not because he lost his keys there, but because it’s better lit.”

    I am by profession an engineer, and continue to be surprised when people working for me start troubleshooting problems “under the street light” instead of applying critical thinking before acting.

    Ironically, I’m trying to put less thought and more feeling into my photography. I’ve been concentrating on technique so much that I’ve lost touch with my instincts.

    Also ironic, in some “street photography” situations, I find it useful to hang out near streetlamps because the lighting is better, anticipating something beautiful to move through the light.

    Reply
    • bruko on January 23, 2014

      more than looking for “feeling”, which is a bit to general to be useful, I’d suggest the 2 old questions: what am I trying to say? Who am I speaking to? If those two things are clear, the rest takes care of itself.
      E.g. Same girl, 3 portraits: one to send to her nana for Christmas, one for a job interview, one for her boyfriend as a wedding gift. They say 3 different things, they’re for 3 different people, they’re going to be different and techniques makes sense now, because it has a goal.

      Also ironic, in some “street photography” situations, I find it useful to hang out near streetlamps because the lighting is better, anticipating something beautiful to move through the light.

      but are you drunk while you do that? ;)

      Reply
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