Photo Here comes Kali!

Digging into Photography Workshops

I’ve participated in a few photography workshops now and I’ve formed some thoughts about why I value some workshops while others leave me wanting.

I’ve been a college-level teacher educator for more than 20 years and I’m going to filter my experiences with photography workshops through this lens.

I’m specifically not going to mention any particular photography workshops, but talk more generally about aspects that might have made my experiences more or less valuable.

These thoughts could help photographers who are currently instructors or thinking of offering photography workshops, but I’m mainly concerned with helping participants make sense of their own experiences and helping photographers chose good, quality photography workshops.

Photo Here comes Kali!
One of my favorite photographs from a recent local photography workshop. Taken at the St. Louis Zoo. A child watches the polar bear (named Kali) play in an iced pool.

Those Who Can….

The primary teacher, the photographer conducting the workshop, is very important to the quality of the experience. A lot of workshops are marketed on the basis of one teacher’s photographic reputation. This is all well and good, but remember that it’s only marketing and doesn’t directly speak to the quality of the workshop experience.

Do look at the images made by the teacher and make sure they are quality images. Anyone can market himself or herself as a teacher of photography, but can they make good photographs themselves?

The old saying: “Those who can, do – those who can’t, teach” is probably too strong since sometimes a really good teacher may only be an adequate photographer, but before laying down lots of money for a workshop, check into the photography of the teacher. If they aren’t doing the type of photography that you do – if they don’t see the world as you see it – you may not be happy with the workshop experience.

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And while I’m on this topic, check to make sure the photography instructor is CURRENTLY a photographer. If the last image posted on their website was created in the 1990s, there may be a problem.

Laying the Groundwork

Photography workshops can be one-day or multi-day experiences, but both need pre-workshop planning on the part of the photography instructor. Part of what you’re paying for in a workshop is the creation of an environment that will help improve your photography and this includes location.

If traveling, the teacher should be familiar with the area that the workshop group is traveling to. They should have been there before and you should be able to find photographs somewhere online of their previous trips. You’re also paying for special access to people or places that regular tourists might not have.

Photo Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym 3
Boxer at Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym in Havana, Cuba. The photoshoot was arranged specifically for our photography tour.

Some workshops employ local guides as well to focus more in the travel part leaving the photography instructor more time to focus on the artistic side of things. This is fine, but not all guides are created equal. Guides need to specifically understand the needs of photographers. A guide who is used to leading a tour and talking — slowly — about the history of one building for hours probably isn’t the right person to lead a photography tour.

The tour should include photographically-rich locations and have thought about when the group arrives at these locations. The schedule of a photography tour may (and probably should) vary significantly from a normal tour in order to take advantage of golden hour shoots. Checking into hotels 15 minutes before sunset or sitting in a restaurant for hours is unbearably frustrating for most photographers when there are good images going to waste!

Photo Cuban Classic Car at Sunrise
The tour that I was on in Cuba had enough flexibility to allow for sunrise photoshoots every morning including this one along the Melcón in Havana, Cuba.

Having said this, travel is not necessarily part of photography workshops. A visiting photographer can lead a local workshop. It’s likely you will know the area better, but the visiting photographer still needs to do his or her research and choose a good context that fits the emphasis of the workshop.

Boots on the Ground

A photography workshop is all about improving each individual’s photography. This is the challenge for the photography teacher since each photographer will come to the workshop with varying skills and abilities (and cameras and lenses….)

BUT – the ability to address the needs of each individual in a group setting is exactly what the teacher is paid for!

Teachers have varying styles in how to address individual needs, but one thing that everyone needs is a clear set of expectations for the workshop. What will be the product of the workshop?

Photo Penguin Love
The goal for this local workshop was to photograph interactions between people and animals at the zoo. I wasn’t wild about the assignment at first, but found that the assignment forced me to look at the zoo in a different way. In this photo Clinton (the fellow cleaning the penguin enclosure) is being preened by Elliot, a very lovey Emperor Penguin.

Some workshops are hand’s-on and actual photos will be produced, others are more theoretical and the production will be in the future (post-workshop). I always find hand’s-on workshops much more valuable than information-only workshops, but I’ve gotten a lot out of both sorts.

The important part is that the expectation is clear. If I’m expecting to photograph and the teacher talks the entire time, than I’ll be disappointed. If shooting is involved, is there a theme? How many photos is the instructor expecting? Does the workshop include post-processing instruction?

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It’s important that the teacher communicates clear expectations —- and then follows through! I’ve wasted precious workshop time trying to meet an expectation only to find that the instructor wasn’t really serious about it.

Sometimes, the expectation or theme of the workshop is enough to challenge the participants to go beyond their current photography skills. For instance, one of the most valuable workshop experiences I had was when the instructor expected me to approach people on the street and actually TALK to them before I took the photo. Yikes!

Photo Dog's Life
I would have never taken this photo had one of my photography instructors hadn’t done an intensive one-on-one session with me trying to get multiple elements into one photograph – and interact with the person, in this case a shop attendant, for more than just one quick photo.

Some photographers will need lots of specific instruction, for instance on the exposure triangle, others need input on their composition. A good instructor will be able to teach the photography core at both the beginning and advanced levels.

In the Field

Nowhere is the difference between being a photographer and being a photography instructor more apparent than when the workshop includes a photo shoot in the field. The instructor is not – or should not be – just another photographer. A casual observer should never be confused as to who is the teacher and who is the student.

Photography instructors have a couple of ways of working in the field. Some are very hands-on moving from student to student and working with each on technical or compositional elements. Other instructors are WILLING to help students individually, but tend to wait until the student comes to them. Know that this type of instructor exists and don’t be shy! You’re paying for their expertise – so ask – frequently! There is no limit on the number of questions you should ask. You’re not bothering the instructor – really.

Photo A Soft Goodbye
A Soft Goodbye.
I was only able to capture this photograph because my photography instructor had me specifically trying to anticipate how Cuban parents said “good-bye” to their children when dropping them off at school.

Some instructors are very hands-off and provide almost no instruction even when asked. I have a problem with this type of instructor. I feel left to figure things out on my own — if that’s the case, than why do I need an instructor? I’ll just go find the answer online. I always feel that the workshop was a bust and I probably should have just done the photo shoot on my own.

As I’ve mentioned before, the point of a participating in a photography workshop is to improve your individual photography. If the workshop includes making photos, than your photography won’t improve unless the teacher is actually instructing you while you’re making photographs.

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Photographs start with the photographer’s eye – it’s what the photographer sees that makes the photograph. A good photography instructor can help you see the scene differently than you did before. They can focus your attention on details or composition or colors or shapes or textures…..

Part of what you’re paying for is the eye of the photography instructor – so use it!

A photography instructor may make photographs alongside their students and this is fine. It only becomes a problem if the instructor is more interested in taking pictures than working with his or her students. Some teachers specifically don’t take photographs when they are instructing in a workshop so as not to divide their attention.

After the Shoot

If the workshop includes making photos, than what happens afterwards? Post-processing is a big part of photography and most digital photos aren’t really considered finished until they are post-processed. Not all instructors are good at both the compositional elements and the post-processing component, though many of the good ones are. Some photography instructors specifically work in teams to cover both elements.

At minimum, some sort of critique is expected. This is particularly important during longer photographic workshops. If there are no critiques, than the students are left to make the same photos – and possibly the same mistakes – day after day. Ideally, there is a critique session after a day or two of shooting with more photography following in which to apply the lessons learned from the critique.

Photo Cuban Schoolgirl
I used some of the techniques I learned in a black and white workshop to re-edit a photograph from a workshop in Cuba.

The content of the critiques is also important, but I think I’ll leave this topic for another posting. What I will say is that photography teachers need to be positive and specific in their comments. It’s all about individual improvement!

Finally, does the instructor keep in touch? Photography instructors are mixed in their ability and willingness to keep in touch with their workshop students. Some teachers are amazing – I’ve had one-day workshops with instructors who keep in touch for years with their students through social media. Others forget you the moment the workshop is over. You can probably guess which type of instructor I find most valuable!


Photography workshops can be expensive and it’s important to get as much out of each workshop as possible. The way the photography industry is, many photographers teach to make ends-meet and may or may not be good photography-educators. Before shelling out good money, do a bit of research on both the workshop and the photography instructor.

Many instructors do their best, though some are all about the financial incentive or the ego boost that comes with leading a photography workshop.

Just traveling with a famous photographer won’t necessarily make you a better photographer and sometimes the best educational experiences are right on your doorstep.

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