How to Choose a Photography Workshop

by Dr. Robert Berdan
February 13, 2011




Photographers on the Tundra in a workshop at Petersons Point Lake Lodge by Robert Berdan

Group of photographers on the Tundra looking for caribou - this workshop encourages all level of photographers, but the cost $4795 will probably appeal to intermediate to advanced photographers and those seeking adventure. Also to photograph wildlife you want to bring at least a 200-300 mm lens along - don't own one - you can rent them.

Photography workshops are a fun and fast way to learn how to become a better photographer. I have been teaching photography workshops for over 20 years and I have also taken my share of workshops. Workshops can vary from an hour or two or they can last all week and may include a trip to some exotic place. Workshops also vary in price from free to over $10,000. If you are new to photography I would recommend attending all the free or low priced workshops first. Some camera stores offer short 3 hour seminars for about $50.00. If you are completely new to photography and just purchased a new camera then anything you learn new may be valuable and is worth attending. As your skill improves you will want to consider workshops that specialize on certain topics like macrophotography, portraiture, sports photography, studio lighting, flower photography and weddings. When I was starting out I attended photography workshops on every photo-topic that was available Another way to learn is to hire a photo-guide for one-on-one training or training in a small group of 2 to 3 photographers.

What level of Photographer are You?

1) Beginner photography workshops usually focus on the camera controls and basic elements of composition.

2) Intermediate level workshops might focus on how to use your flash, posing your subjects, or possibly traveling to a location where you can work on photographing landscapes, wild life or night photography. These sessions usually include a preparatory class, followed by a field trip and then a follow up critique session which may include a more detailed discussion of composition.

3) Advanced photography workshops might deal with the use of different filters such as graduated filters, how to set hyperfocal distance, panoramic photography, high dynamic range imaging (HDR), photomontages, aurora photography, using Photoshop or specific darkroom techniques. Other advanced topics might include working with models, nude photography, studio lighting, astrophotography or artistic approaches to photography. Usually in advanced workshops participants are invited to bring along a portfolio of their photographs for critique.

For all level of photographers I believe learning should be fun. Also you don't have to have the most expensive gear to take great pictures or learn how to see better. Anyone can start learning photography from grade school to after retirement. New technologies such as auto focus even allow those with poor eyesight to take sharp pictures.

Women photographing Lady slippers using a compact camera by Robert Berdan ©

For many workshops (e.g. wildflower photography) even a small compact camera can take great pictures, remember the photographer is the most important element in the picture taking process.

Factors in choosing a suitable workshop include:

Location - closer to your home is better for beginner workshops and keeps the cost down.

Cost - depends on the duration of the workshop, location and usually how well known the photographer is. More famous photographers that work for National Geographic or that have published extensively will usually charge more.

Topic - the type of photography you want to learn will depend on your interests and varies greatly including: portraiture, flowers, landscapes, macrophotography, sports, travel, wildlife to specialized topics like real estate or horses.

When - any workshop needs to fit your schedule, most local photography workshops are offered on weekends or evenings though private training is often available during the day.

Instructor - ask yourself do you like the type of photographs the instructor takes. Also does the instructor have a good reputation as a teacher. Some great photographers are poor teachers, and some good teachers are poor photographers. Ideally you want to find someone that is good at both and seek out someone whose work you admire.

Adventure photography tour group Kayaking on the West Coast aboard the Mothership III by Robert Berdan ©

Adventure photography workshop on the Mothership III combines kayaking with photography on the West Coast.

Preparing for the Workshop

The amount of preparation a workshop requires depends on the level and location of the workshop. The more advanced the workshop is the more likely you will need to do some preparation. In all workshops, bring the equipment you intend to shoot with, a list of questions you would like to learn answers to, some samples of your photographs and your camera manual if you need assistance with certain features. Although all cameras have similar controls finding where some of them are, especially if they are embedded with menus can be challenging unless the instructor is experienced with your specific camera. I shoot with both Canon and Nikon cameras so I can find most of the controls quickly on these brands, but finding some of the features buried in menus in other camera brands can be challenging sometimes. In intermediate to advanced workshops it is often recommended that you bring along a tripod or monopod.

If you are asked to bring a portfolio of your work, usually this means 10-20 of your best images. If you photograph different subjects be sure to include a range of different types of images that you take. Also understand that just because someone famous says a certain photo is not very good or criticizes some aspect, you don't always have to agree with them - just keep the comments in the back of your mind. I once showed my portfolio to one of the editors of National Geographic including a print of the Carmanah Valley (see picture below). He liked the image but said it was not saturated enough. I couldn't help respond, "well maybe the lighting in here isn't very good because if I made the image any more saturated it would be fluorescent"! Anyone that looks at my images would probably agree - colour saturation is not something my images are weak in - if anything I tend to oversaturate some images and I am trying to tone my colour saturation down so the pictures appear realistic but still have impact.

Carmanah Valley - Giant Sitka Spruce by Robert Berdan ©

Carmanah Valley Forest shot - taken on Velvia, and processed in Photoshop. It was suggested I should make this image more saturated by an editor of National Geographic, but I disagree. Sometimes you need to trust your instincts.

Generally speaking it is pretty easy to critique technical components of an image, exposure, sharpness, quality of tone etc, but when it comes to composition - the more I study art, the more conservative my comments become. I usually start by asking the photographer what they are trying to show or say with the image if it is not clear. If more then one instructor or respected photographer makes the same comment about your image it would be wise to pay attention. Which brings up another interesting component and that is if there is more then one instructor you may get different opinions and that is a good thing if it makes you think about your image. Audience response is also a good indicator of how an image is perceived - if there is a lot of interest and discussion, you probably produced a very effective image.

Take Notes:

Some instructors provide notes, but you should always come prepared to take your own notes. You may learn something from other students that you want to write down or perhaps just jot down their contact information. Look at what equipment other participants are using and ask them if they are happy with such and such widget and where they got it. Also if there is a follow up presentation getting a chance to see other students photographs can give you some perspective and ideas. Some instructors may post notes, tutorials or additional resources on their web sites for students to get after the workshop and this can be a valuable asset that more teachers should consider. A good instructor or one that cares will also welcome you to email them questions even after the workshop is over. Learning is an ongoing process and doesn't stop when the workshop is over - it's just the beginning.

Size of the Workshop:

Generally speaking a small group of 3-12 photographers is ideal, I like to keep the instructor to student ratio below 1:6. If the group size becomes larger then this then it becomes more difficult to learn or give each student individual attention. Never be shy, you paid money to take the workshop - try to get all the answers to the questions you brought with you. Also remember that in nature photography it's not just about getting the "trophy shot" spend some time observing and learning about the biology of an organism. If possible read up before or after the workshop to learn more about the species you will or have photographed. In fact the more you prepare and read beforehand, the more likely you will be prepared to see certain types of animal behavior or details others might miss. Remember you can only see what your mind is prepared to show you. See with your mind as well as your eyes. If you are attending a workshop on Photoshop or Lightroom, frankly a seminar can only show you what is possible. It's much better to attend a workshop where you work on the computer and follow along with the instructor and actually learn. A good instructor might follow a text book or provide set of notes with instructions that can be followed later. Even better if the instructor also provides you with the image files and step by step video clips that you can take home with you so you can review them at your own time and pace. My Photoshop workshops include a cookbook of notes, images and step by step videos on a DVD that students take home with them or I give them access to my online workshops afterward. The version of software you are learning with is usually not critical if you are learning the basics, but if you are learning advanced techniques the class should have the latest version of the software program.

David Lilly assisting with a macro photography shop in the Wildflower workshop by Robert Berdan ©

Getting tips in the field is one of the best ways to learn photography. Dave Lilly above wearing a Tilly hat is offering suggestions on how to make a more effective flower composition.

Some students prefer one-on-one instruction, this way students are assured of learning what they want and for some it is the most effective and fastest way to learn learn photography.

Nice size group for winter photography workshop by Robert Berdan ©

Winter workshop with 12 students and 2 instructors for a ratio of 1 instructor to 6 students. Fewer students means getting more attention or time with the instructor. Remember you can also learn a great deal from other students in the workshop and make new friends.

One of the things I do when I want to improve some aspect of photography is to seek out the best photographers I can find and where possible learn from them. For instance I went to a workshop by Craig Richards and Keith Logan about 20 years ago in Canmore. Being a keener I arrived about half hour early with some of my Illfochrome prints. When I arrived there was no one there yet, but both Craig and Keith had some of their prints on display. Keith's colour prints were so impressive that I no longer wanted to show my images and after the workshop I hounded Keith for years to learn how he printed his photographs using masks. I also bought a large format 4 x 5 inch camera so I could match the detail both these fine art photographers had in their prints. Shooting with a large format camera taught me to slow down, how to use a spot meter and approach photography differently. Because 4 x 5 photography is so costly (about $7 per shot) I would write down the F-stop, shutter speed, and type of lighting that day. As a result after a few years I could estimate the exposure quite closely even without a meter. Although I no longer shoot with a 4 x 5 camera it taught me many important lessons that improved my photography. When I wanted to learn studio lighting I went to Rinus Borgsteede's studio and he show me more in an afternoon that all the books I had read. Seek out the best photographers you can find and learn as much as you can from them even it means hiring them for a one-on-one session. A good mentor can help you learn more quickly.

Rinus Borgsteed

Rinus Borgsteede providing some one-on-one instruction on how to photograph wildflowers.

Anytime you want to improve, seek out the best photographers you can where ever you live - some will offer some advice for free, but understand if they make their living with photography they also appreciate being compensated for their time. If you can not afford to pay, offer to help them in some other way, carry their camera bag, shovel snow off their driveway or offer to assist them with a project they might need help with. Learning from someone whose work you admire and respect is one of the best ways to improve. Also don't ignore the great number of books available in the public library and educational web sites - like the Canadian nature photographer.

Seek out Different Photography Instructors

No photographer or teacher has all the answers and it is good idea to expose yourself to different ways of doing things - the more the better. If you favour a particular instructor or style of teaching by all means take more then one workshop from them, but realize they may be good at a few things, but the more advanced you become, the more specialized your photography interests may become. It's impossible to be great at photographing everything, just like no athlete can be great at all sports. Workshops that have more then one instructor are often good because you may be able to relate to one instructor better then the other. I usually bring on another instructor when the group size exceeds 6 in the field. I also believe good instructors have a sense of humility - there are no absolutely right or wrong ways to take pictures and no recipes for taking great shots - each good photograph has to be earned and sometimes requires being in the right place at the right time. Good instructors are also open to new approaches, ideas, and are open to learn from their students as well.

Left - Robert Berdan and on the right - Rinus Borgsteede. Having instructors with different approaches and styles makes any workshop more interesting and offers students different solutions and opinions. Having a sense of humour doesn't hurt either :-)

Generally a good instructor is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, patient ( I try to limit myself to one cup of coffee) and can not only explain how to do something, but can show you. A good instructor should also put your needs before their own, but understand that if a once in a lifetime event occurs in front of you the instructor might stop to take a picture too just so long as they don't stand in front of you :-) In more advanced workshops instructors often set up opportunities and may not provide instruction, it is up to you to ask questions.

If you are passionate about photography learning will be fun. A good instructor will try to push better students harder and challenge them. We learn more by making mistakes then by our easy successes. Anyone can master the controls of the camera in a short period of time, seeing and creating pictures that have something to say takes much longer and the more experience and knowledge you bring with you the more likely your images will be successful. Be a knowledgeable and interesting person and you will take more interesting photographs.


Links and Resources

Note Dave Lilly offers photography workshops for beginners through London Drug's in Calgary, SW contact Dave for more information by visiting his web site. See my links page for photography classes in Calgary at local colleges.

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