A portrait from a photography workshop I attended recently.
“Your photography is really good, you should do this professionally!”
I am very blessed to have friends who appreciate and compliment my photography. And yes, it is flattering. Like many photographers, I have thought about ‘going pro’, but I am very aware of the difference between a good amateur and a great professional. So on such occasions, I usually thank the person for the compliment and say no, I’m not yet ready to be a full-time photographer.
However, I have dipped my toes into the water before, although unfortunately it was not the most positive experience. A few years ago, I made the acquaintance of a businessman who organised a breakfast networking group for other business owners. He happened to be looking for a photographer to cover his next networking event and asked me if I knew any photographers.
Without knowing why, I volunteered my services and got my first client.
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I came across this busker in one of Melbourne’s laneways, and I thought his 1920s attire made an interesting juxtaposition against the modern graffiti surrounding him.
There’s never been a better time than the present to learn photography, because photography knowledge has become a lot more accessible. In particular, workshops now present a viable alternative to photography school or the traditional route of assisting a working photographer.
Today, there are countless workshops catering to photographers of all levels, from the complete beginner to the working professional. So how does one choose the right workshop, especially if you aren’t familiar with the instructor?
So here are some suggestions of things you can do before parting with your hard-earned cash. Learning photography should be fun and it’s always best to seek out the most positive experience you can find.
Check out the photographer’s work.
These days, there’s no excuse for any photographer worth his/her salt not to have an online portfolio. Study the instructor’s work from a technical and artistic perspective, it should demonstrate a high level of photographic skill. If not, the instructor isn’t ready to teach yet.
See if the photographer’s style is one you wish to be influenced by.
I strongly believe you get the most value from a workshop run by a photographer whose style is one you like and admire.
Check out the instructor’s credentials and experience.
Make sure the photographer has the skill set needed to teach the workshop. I wouldn’t take an ‘advanced studio portraiture’ workshop run by a photographer whose main specialty is landscapes.
Get reviews from past participants, preferably by people you know personally.
Look past the glowing testimonials on the sales page and get some honest feedback. Ask around, if the photographer has been teaching for a while chances are someone in the photographic community has been to that workshop. If you don’t know a past participant personally, try asking around in your local Flickr or Meetup group. Ask specific questions, like “What did you gain from the workshop?” and “What did/didn’t you like about it?” Of course, exercise common sense and judgement in online forums, they attract both the loyal fans and odious detractors.
Find out the photographer’s teaching style and ability.
Some photographers produce brilliant images but unfortunately are unable to effectively communicate their knowledge to others. Similarly, don’t go to a workshop where the instructor is known for tearing the students apart with negative, hurtful comments.
Check the course outline.
While some instructors prefer a free-flowing format to a strict timetable, it should at least be clear what they plan to teach and the prerequisite level of experience the student needs.
Check out the workshop format.
Is it a lecture, or will there be hands-on learning? Make sure the delivery format matches your learning style. Don’t sign up for a sit-down lecture if you really want someone to look over your shoulder while you shoot in a controlled environment.
Don’t buy into the hype.
The photography industry is not immune to the cult of celebrity. There are photographers who have built a following on feel-good buzz but whose work and teaching ability is often mediocre at best. Things like, ‘revolution,’ ‘world tour’, ‘award-winning’, ‘world-renowned’ are usually nothing more than marketing terms. Be wary of empty promises and maintain realistic expectations. One workshop alone is unlikely to transform you into Annie Leibovitz overnight.
Interview the photographer if you can.
See if you can get him/her on the phone or better yet, in person (for instance, if you can grab him/her at an expo). Ask questions about the workshop and the photographer’s credentials (but be polite in doing so). Try to get a feel for his/her personality. If you get a bad vibe, don’t sign up. Trust your instincts.
Decide if the price is worth it.
Workshop prices vary wildly depending on the material and ‘star’ power of the instructor. Generally, expect to pay more for the time of a highly-respected photographer. However, make sure you’re getting value for money. Compare prices with similar workshops offered by other photographers, both domestically and internationally. For instance, if it costs $5,000 to attend a 5-day workshop by a veteran with ‘living legend’ status, does the $10,000 2-day workshop from the latest photographer-celebrity offer that much value?
Last month I had the opportunity to participate in a photography workshop conducted by Melbourne (now Singapore-based) photographer Rommel Atienza. I hadn’t heard of Rommel before, but I liked his portfolio when I checked it out. And as the workshop was organised by an active member of a Meetup group I belong to, I decided to give it a go.
The half-day workshop was a fashion & portrait shoot with a fitness theme, and our location was a cool, grungy gym which is actually photographer Tony Ryan’s studio. The organisers had also promised professional models and a make-up artist, which I was quite excited about as I’d only done one model shoot prior.
There were eight of us attending, myself included which I thought was just right. We arrived at the studio on a cold Saturday morning, and chatted amongst ourselves while waiting for Rommel and the models to arrive, who were fashionably late (but not by much).
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