Monday, May 13, 2013

Thoughts on Workshops

I've taken a couple photography workshops in the past, and I have to say that I do not think they are a worthwhile investment. I actually wasn't even seeking them out, but signed up mainly because several of my photo friends also signed up - I suppose I wanted to be social and convinced myself it could be worthwhile. Most photo workshops are at least several hundred dollars, not including transportation or lodging (both of the workshops I went on were over the weekend, so it involved an overnight stay). That all adds up to what turned into a significant investment (for me anyway). I have absolutely nothing against the workshop instructors; they were good people, and I did come away with a few tips that I still use today. But how much $$ is an idea worth . . . and could you have found out elsewhere? It's not easy to decide; here are my thoughts.

The main issue for me is cost/benefit. Every time I meet up with my friends to go out and take pictures, I learn something new, something valuable. I've heard people say on several different occasions that a main benefit of workshops is it commits you to actually go out on a particular day and take pictures . . . well, you can actually do that on your own, for free, just using discipline. As in: take out a pencil, mark your calendar, and then follow through. Yeah, I don't do that enough myself (I'm still actually working through a huge backlog of photos I've taken, but not processed over the years), but if I ever had an urge to take another photo workshop, I would instead direct that energy to the pencil/calendar approach first. ;p

I've already posted every tip I learned from workshops that I thought was valuable in the Photography topic section of this blog. To recap those: the main two learnings from my past photo workshops were:

Interestingly, both of these tips were not formally part of the workshop, just random things I either overheard on the day or were randomly brought up through a question. I unfortunately also learned tips that I knew from prior research were not right, or led me astray and I've subsequently abandoned. It's a problem when the people leading the workshops are good enough to be impressive, but not yet knowledgeable enough themselves to help you avoid basically amateur pitfalls. I had even asked in one of the workshops about any tips to help organize gear while you are shooting at critical times of the day (since I always seem to be rushing to find a particular filter, or adapter, or lens, and end up missing opportunities); I was told that was something I should work out for myself . . . and I am taking this workshop, why?
Travel By Twilight
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.

Workshops have the mystique that you will learn something incredible that could change your trajectory and transform your craft, but frankly, I've learned incredible things just by chatting with fellow photographers while out on location, reading photo books from the library, or watching YouTube videos and podcasts. At the end of the day, I would have preferred to invest the money I spent at workshops in a new camera lens or gear (heck, even just more batteries or memory cards which I feel guilty about buying but are incredibly useful in a pinch), or transportation & lodging on impromptu photo trips with friends. Some of my favorite photos I've taken far were from one such trip with friends to Death Valley National Park (ie: Fire & Ice, Heavenly Dunes, and Travel by Twilight, among others).

So, in the end, I'd have to say workshops seem like a pyramid scheme to me. At this point, I'm skeptical of taking advice from photographers that make most of their money through other photographers (via workshops), and not from people who are actually buying photographs (which seems to me the ultimate goal). Again, nothing against workshop instructors; it's just that you can probably learn something similar for free by going on photoshoots with fellow photographer friends and mainly experimenting yourself. 

One of the benefits of workshops is the chance to meet a whole new set of photographers. Networking. Seems like producing good images is only the first step, but networking - or who you know - is a huge second component to becoming a successful photographer. (I suppose that's true for most anything, actually.) The issue is whether spending hard earned money on workshops is the most cost effective means to achieve this. There are other ways to meet up with fellow photographers that are not fee-based, after all. 

It's an individual decision, and it's true that you never know where you will find some gem of an idea that will lead you to the fastest improvement. At this point though, I'm inclined to avoid workshops, and focus instead on individual practice (reading books and consistently experimenting with the various techniques) and more photoshoots with friends.

Hope these thoughts are useful :)

-by Laura A Knauth

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