Squeezing the Value Out of Photo Workshops

Participants of a photo workshop are catching the early morning light on the dunes in Death Valley, California by Noella Ballenger.

Ready to ‘Catch the Light’ in Death Valley, California

During my years of providing photo workshops there was one comment from a student that really gave me pause to ponder: “This was my first workshop, and I didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare for it. I wish I could have had some guidelines.” From my years of teaching and taking numerous workshops myself, I agreed that workshop guidelines would be helpful to both the teacher and the student, so all would begin with the same expectations and plans. So let’s get started and I’ll help you get prepared for your first or next workshop.

Workshop or tour?

Before you can anticipate a successful photo workshop experience, you have to select your package. Your first concern is to differentiate between a workshop and a tour. There are many outstanding photographers who lead tours. They are with you, taking you to interesting places, and may or may not be willing to answer some of your photography questions. Their primary “job” is to get you to the locations listed on your itinerary.

On the other hand, a workshop is an experience in which teaching is the main emphasis. You may visit the same wonderful locations, but the role of the leader switches from guide to instructor. Professional photographers/instructors teach, answer questions, review work, offer critiques and inspiration. They are there to challenge the participant to achieve more.

Participant of a photo workshop gets in closer to a waterfall in Iceland by Noella Ballenger.

Iceland: Photographer Gets a Bit Closer

Questions to Ask

To select the right workshop for you, ask specific questions and listen carefully to the answers. Some of the features to look for in a good workshop are the ratio of students to instructors or assistants, the number of participants, the level of instruction, and the subject matter being emphasized. In addition, ask about the number of field trips included and the kind of field instruction or supervision which will be provided. Will the instruction be personalized and tailored to the level of the student? Will there be an opportunity for one-on-one interaction with the instructor? Can you expect open class discussions and critiques to follow during non-photography times? Some photographers choose not to work in the field with their participants, but will give assignments and do a thorough review of the work at a later point in time – typically at mid-day when the sun’s light is not as favorable. You must decide which teaching style you prefer and weigh that factor when making your workshop choice.

And ask about the basic equipment required and non-photography related issues. Be aware of how you will be getting around, where you will be staying, the typical weather, and if needed, do the instructors have the required permits to be allowed to photograph in certain areas. A good workshop and tour group will provide access to any and all the necessary information and resources needed.

References, please!

Consider the reputation of the instructor as a teacher and not merely as a photographer. Ask for references and details of experience. There may be a world of difference between someone who’s a wonderful photographer and someone who’s a wonderful photography teacher. Workshops are now becoming so costly, it’s prudent to find out what former participants thought about the workshop and what their experiences were.

Do Your Homework

Ask the instructor if there’s a reading list that will help you prepare for the particular subject area to be covered. If s/he makes some suggestions, follow through and do some preparation. If s/he doesn’t have any specific recommendations, take it upon yourself to read up on the area and its history, the local flora and fauna, and the kind of photography (landscape, macro, general travel, etc.) which will be emphasized. Search on the internet or visit a library and look at any books or magazine articles that use photographs by your instructor(s) as illustrations. Study these. The more you can learn before the workshop begins, the more you’ll get out of it.

Participants of a photo workshop are set up on the rocks to make colorful sunrise images by Noella Ballenger.

Photographers Creating
Colorful Sunrise Images

Photographer, know thy equipment!

Now that we’ve decided on the particular workshop and location, how can we prepare for the trip? Photography is an art form as well as a technical experience. You need to know your equipment and know that it’s in good working order. There’s nothing worse than being in the field and either struggling with the specific problems of working with your equipment or having it malfunction. That isn’t to say that you can’t get help from your instructor on how to use your equipment creatively, but changing the battery, working with your tripod and understanding which button to push on the camera are prerequisite bits of information in all but the most basic classes. How to operate your equipment efficiently is something you can learn in advance. And, even if you feel fairly confident, be sure to bring your camera manual with you. You can’t expect your workshop teacher to know the fine points of each and every brand of camera.

Pack Problems from Home

Frequently, you’re asked to bring your laptop with samples of your work to the workshop–sometimes as a prerequisite to entering the class. Look upon this assignment as a wonderful opportunity. As preparation for any workshop, look through previous photographs for those that didn’t work as well as those you really like and organize them in a new folder so their is quick access to them – maybe label it Workshop Samples. You’ll want your instructor to tell you what went wrong and how to make it better. Letting other people view what you think of as mistakes always takes courage, but it’s important. Personally, I appreciated it when my students brought me examples of problems, because it allows me to create specific discussions, lessons and experiments for them to try. It helped me to help others in the group who were struggling with the same difficulties, but who may be shy about sharing them. So, when you bring your work to class, bring the good and the not-so-good. A workshop is supposed to be a learning experience.

Welcome the challenge

You’ve arrived at the workshop. Hopefully, you’re rested. It’s always good to plan your packing and travel ahead, so you don’t arrive anxious and exhausted. It makes learning much too difficult. Often, participants arrive with a fixed agenda in their minds, which immediately sets them up for disappointments. Flexibility is something every photographer needs. Frequently, other, even better opportunities can be created when plans change. Being rigid and inflexible only stifles your creativity and limits your opportunities. Be prepared to ask questions. They are expected and can springboard into some fantastic learning sessions for the entire group.

Photography participants making images of the fall colors by Noella Ballenger.

Working together is motivating and inspiring.

Workshops, in my opinion, are not meant to be competitive. There should be a predominant feeling of cooperation among all of the participants as well as the instructor(s). Workshops are a learning workplace where problems, new techniques, experiments, and exposure to new ideas and methods should be paramount in importance to all. Everyone has something to contribute. The instructor has the primary responsibility to lead, prod, teach, show, present opportunities, and stand back to allow the participant to develop. Be open to suggestions and be prepared to share some of your experiences.

There’s always a question about whether or not the instructors should be photographing for themselves during class. This is difficult to answer; the ethical line is subtle. I personally preferred to have a camera in my hands when I was teaching. It allowed me to be more creative. Sometimes, questions are raised which challenged me, and I needed a moment to work them out. However, getting “my photograph” was not of primary importance to me! Helping you to make your best image was. There are teachers who never pick up their cameras during a workshop–an example of different styles of teaching. The fine line to determine is whether the instructor is there for you or you’re ignored while the professional takes stock images or sets up in the prime location.


So, now your workshop is over. The experience shouldn’t end just like that. You need to take some time to think about what you’ve done, what you’ve learned and what you should be doing to keep improving. Maintaining a relationship with a good workshop instructor is important. There may be other opportunities and workshops in which you’ll want to participate. Also, you may have belated questions or want to have work reviewed at a later time. There could be an additional charge for these services, but it should be reasonable. Sometimes they may even plan a review session after you return home. I think feedback is very important–for both the instructor and the student. Make friends with others in the class and continue to share your work. In this way, the workshop will continue indefinitely as a positive experience.

Happy learning and good photographing!

by Noella Ballenger
All text and photos: © 2014 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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