If you want to take a quantum leap forward with your photography in a short amount of time, there are very few things as effective as attending a photography workshop.
Photographing beautiful, awe-inspiring locations under the guidance of professional instructors can expand both your photographic knowledge and vision while sharing the experience with other like-minded souls. For many, the knowledge and experience gained during one of these events far exceeds anything that could be gleaned solely from a book. All you need to do is choose which one you want to attend.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of nature and wildlife photography workshop offerings. For example, when I began doing nature photography workshops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1999, there were only two or three events offered each year by photographers, including my own. Today, there are dozens conducted in the Park and they are growing ever so numerous each and every year.
The options available to you are nearly limitless. From local weekend camera clinics to multi-week treks to exotic destinations, mountains, deserts, coastlines from Alaska to Antarctica, and most locations in between, you can find something that fits your style and tastes.
But before you plunk down your hard-earned money on a plane ticket and tuition for the photography workshop of your dreams, there are some questions you should ask first.
Aside from the obvious who, where, when, and how much does it cost considerations, there are other important, not-so-obvious factors you should take into account. Here are six questions that you may want to ask that could possibly make or break your workshop experience.
1. Is this an instructional workshop or a “photo tour?”
You (and they) should know the difference. A photo tour is just that - a tour. This might be okay if you are only interested in learning the best photo locations in a particular area. But if you want actual hands-on instruction from a pro or you're interested in learning a new technique, a real workshop will be more useful. Be sure to ask.
2. What is the maximum number of participants to be admitted?
An instructional workshop requires much more student-instructor interaction than a photo tour. If you are one of 40 students and there is only a single instructor, you might be lucky to get a handshake and a greeting and that’s about it. In my opinion, anything greater than a 10:1 student to instructor ratio is not conducive to a productive learning environment in the field.
3. What is the necessary fitness level required to fully participate?
This information could work both ways. If you are overweight, severely out of shape, elderly, or disabled in any way, you may not be able to participate if there are long or strenuous hikes involved.
Conversely, if you’re a hiker and you prefer more of a wilderness experience or you’re hoping to photograph locations in the backcountry, you might be disappointed if the group never ventures from parking lots or the roadside.
Know your comfort level and abilities then seek out a workshop that adequately meets them. If this is not stated in the workshop description, ask.
It may seem obvious that an instructional workshop should cater to one’s skill level, but many attending photographers never even bother to ask. A novice is going to feel intimidated and uncomfortable in an event designed for advanced students while an experienced photographer will be frustrated and unfulfilled in a workshop for beginners.
You didn’t pay good money to feel intimidated, uncomfortable, frustrated, or unfulfilled.
5. Does the workshop company or instructor have the proper land use permits or Commercial Use Authorization?
Most public lands, especially National Parks, require photography workshops and tours to obtain a permit or Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) from the Park in advance of the event.
There are many reasons for this requirement, which could include the workshops company’s level of liability insurance, bonding, or first-aid training in the event of an injury to a student.
One recent student of mine shared a workshop anecdote where the instructors drove up to a popular National Park, declared they did not have any permits, and instructed the students to split up and photograph on their own before meeting up later at an appointed time. Some rogue outfits without permits try to fly under the radar illegally, giving instructions to their attendees to say they are only a photo club – just in case any official-looking person asks.
6. Does the instructor practice his or her own photography during the workshop?
This is a valid question and hopefully you will receive an forthright answer. The three possibilities are as follows:
1) “No, never.” That’s a good answer if he or she is being honest.
2) “Sometimes” or “It depends.” Most workshop leaders and instructors would answer the question in this way.
An instructor might use the camera to demonstrate a photo technique, compose a scene for others to see in the viewfinder or LCD, or capture that epic light that only occurs a handful of times each year, right alongside his or her students.
3) “Of course I do. How else could I afford to pad my travel portfolio unless you guys were paying for it?”
The point here is that the instructor should always put you, the student, first. The workshop should not be a veiled scheme by the instructor to finance his or her personal photography projects during your time with your tuition. Nor should it solely pay for the “privilege” of hanging out with Mister Big Shot Professional Photographer or watching him or her practice their trade. Why not ask in advance? Mister Big Shot might just be arrogant enough to admit it.
There’s obviously a lot of grey area on this question, but the bottom line is that any instructor or workshop leader who puts his own photography ahead your needs as a student should be avoided at all costs.
When it comes to attending a photography workshop, it would be nice if you could create a few good images, learn a thing or two from a working professional, and have plenty of laughs and fun too. And by asking the right questions before you choose where to attend, you greatly increase your odds of acheiving all three goals.
Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor. NPN members may also log in and leave their comments below.
NPN Editor-in-Chief, Richard Bernabe has been a full-time professional outdoor photographer and writer since 2003. He's had thousands of publishing credits over the past 20 years and he regularly leads photography tours and workshops across the United States as well as internationally with Mountain Trail Photo and Creative Vision Workshops. Richard also offers regular Online Classes with NPN.
"A lot of people think that when you have grand scenery, such as you have in Yosemite, that photography must be easy".
Registered on 11/26/03, 158 Posts, 574 Comments Comment posted by Walt Sterneman on 05/05/10 at 2:41 pm
Great article Richard.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of Richard's Smoky Mountain workshops a few weeks ago. He was very involved with the students continuously going from one to the next helping out. There wasn't much of a chance to be shy or intimidated, as I thought I might be, because Richard was so helpful. I think he may have taken his camera out once during the weekend, but I was so busy trying to capture the magnificant light I did not notice. He was fully engaged with the students.
We all had a great time and I now have some photography friends that I can remain in touch with. I will do it again, and would recommend it to anyone wanting to improve their work.
Registered on 03/24/10, 66 Posts, 1185 Comments Comment posted by Alain Briot on 05/05/10 at 6:33 pm
These are great points. I also recommend looking at the photography and teaching style of the instructor as well as his/her personality.
I do all I can to help prospective students learn who I am and how I teach by writing essays, publishing books and showing photographs of myself and Natalie (my wife) "at work" as well as photos of students taken during workshops. The last thing you want is find yourself in a workshop realizing you do not like the instructor's style or personality!
Author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, and Marketing Fine Art Photography.
Registered on 09/08/05, 0 Posts, 2 Comments Comment posted by Michael J Greene, on 05/10/10 at 2:37 pm
These are all very good points for consideration Richard. Thank you!
Fine Art Wilderness Photography
"Classically Capturing the American Landscape"
"Even divine mercy will not act independently of human desire" Dr. Lamar Vest
Registered on 06/18/09, 86 Posts, 2317 Comments Comment posted by Lance Warley on 05/10/10 at 5:15 pm
Terrific article, Richard.
Suggestion for an additional question: "What Is The Itinerary?" If you want to photograph sunrises and the instructor start each day at 8 a.m., you're going to be disappointed.
Thanks for a terrific trip last week.
If anyone wants to see the kind of images Richard's guidance produces, just look in the Southern Appalachians gallery on my site.
Boca Raton, FL
Registered on 04/18/07, 52 Posts, 459 Comments Comment posted by on 05/11/10 at 06:43 am
Great information Richard. I am leaving on a one week workshop next Wednesday to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. Pretty sure I made a good choice. I am guessing a 1:4 ratio will be great for us students AND leave time for the instructor to get a couple of good shots.
Registered on //, Posts, Comments
Comment posted by Mark Metternich on 05/17/10 at 1:32 pm
Hi Richard. Excellent artical, thanks for posting it.
Mark Metternich leads Photo Adventure Workshops throughout the NW, SW, Glacier NP, Canadian Rockies and many other locations. He is a Digital Imaging Specialist who produces a wide variety of Post Production Instructional Videos, teaches Post Production online via Skype, as well as does post production for fine art photographers around the world.
*NEW: PHOTOSHOP VIDEO TUTORIALS AND 2013 WORKSHOPS (only 2 left): HERE.