How To Pick Your Photo Workshop

I recently attended a photography workshop which was a disaster IMHO.

It was so poorly run and planned that I am going to decline to identify the workshop or give the presenter’s name on the hope that this was a one-off disaster and not what other photographers in other cities on the tour can expect to see.

So what went wrong and what should you lookout for when planning your next photographic workshop?

I kinda figured we were in trouble when we walked into the “studio” to discover no chairs, no air conditioning (this on a 30 degree C day) no room  for 20+ people, no speakers for the video and no models. Oh yes, the studio had a skylight that was open thus rendering the room pretty much useless for shooting models with lights. Our intrepid instructor did find a ladder and after the landlord thwarted an attempt to climb to the roof found a way to nail a sheet over the offending skylight from the inside. There was also one washroom for all of us including three women. There wasn’t any water to drink until someone went out mid-afternoon and brought back a flat of bottled water.

And, there were too many students.

I know the website says that the maximum number of students would be 20 but that’s just too many for one instructor to handle let alone provide the advertised intimate setting for learning. Whenever I did a workshop (and I’ve done a lot of them over the years for school boards, a major camera retailer here in Ontario and lots more privately for individuals and small groups and camera clubs) I almost always had another teacher of equal or superior photographic talents and teaching abilities to my own working with me. On workshops that I organized the sizes were kept to eight to 10 students and we had lots of time to share with each student. We didn’t try to teach everything but focused on one or two major points.

Unfortunately the second instructor for this day, who is advertised on the website, did nothing more than carry the primary photographer’s gear around.

Then Uncle Fred showed up. I’m assuming a friend of the chief instructor, our Uncle Fred showed up in an old beater of car suggesting that perhaps the photography business wasn’t as lucrative as one might wish. For the most part he went around issuing confusing and contradictory instructions to the young model (once she arrived) and most of my shots have some part of Uncle Fred’s arm in the frame as he kept poking a reflector into the setups.

Also (I’m adding this a day later as I just remembered it.) nobody had bothered to make any arrangements for shooting in the neighbourhood so when 20 or so people carrying cameras and reflectors plus a model showed up in a parking lot that was beside a building with a graffiti-painted wall the parking gnome popped up and threw us out. Duh. This was not a class act.

While we waited for our model to show up one of the women who was attending as a student was pressed into modelling for the rest of us while the instructor kept promised us he was really really going to breakout the day for us.

I always get worried when the headliner starts to promote himself instead of impressing us with his performance.

I took an online  two-and-a-half day workshop with the amazing Zack Arias. Zack took the time to setup the workshop before hand. He had a big crew helping him and after a day and half of instruction brought in the indie group Head Like A Kite and banged off this portrait of singer Zera Marvel.

There was an audible gasp from the students in his live audience when this image was projected.

We experienced no such moment. One of the reasons was there wasn’t a real plan of action. If I was to be charitable I might say we were being flexible.

Asking if anybody has any questions is always a good thing to do as an instructor but it’s been my experience that if I’m involving my students directly into the lessons questions will come fast and furious as they work on their own shots. With 20 of us in the room, there just wasn’t the opportunity to practice the simple portrait techniques that the instructor presented. There’s a much better video produced by the mentor to this instructor that’s online and freely available that outlines how to setup the lights, the subject and the camera. I highly recommend it.

Anyway with no questions forthcoming we went to the place where the instructor did most of the shooting and all of the talking and I knew I wasn’t having a quality experience.

When I did the David Tajeda portrait workshop when it came to Buffalo some years ago I found the day very satisfying. Tejada is a first-class photographer who really knows his stuff and he showed us and told us just about everything he knows and then for the rest of the day the group of about 12 of us worked with him and his assistant and three models to duplicate over and over what we had learned about lighting and posing models. I got some great photos from this workshop.

Another workshop I highly recommend is the David Ziser workshops. Another old-time wedding and portrait photographer what Ziser doesn’t know about shooting weddings isn’t worth knowing. Plus, in person, he’s a gracious and delightful instructor. Humble and dedicated to his art he exhausts his audience with his encyclopaedic knowledge of photography, portrait and wedding photography. I took the Ziser workshop when it came to Buffalo and learned tons of stuff I thought I knew but really didn’t until David straightened me out. Highly recommended.

Same thing for the Sandy Puc workshops which do come to Canada, Sandy is famous for her baby photograph but I went to her Toronto workshop a couple of years ago because I could see that she understood how to market her photography and her photography courses and again I learned a lot from this workshop and highly recommend the workshop or her DVDs. If you shoot babies or portraits and you want to learn how to run your studio then Sandy is the go-to photographer.

Gary Fong of the Lightsphere fame is another guy I’d go see again as he knows how to make tons of money as a wedding photographer. Also recommended is  Jay Maseil (Jay, who has been called a living legend, hosts a five-day shooting course out of his New York City brownstone building for $5,000. This is a workshop I’d love to do.) who I saw last year and Philip Bloom the British-based videographer who is also amazing and very generous with his time with newcomers to video work. If Joe Bussink comes back to town I’d walk over broken glass just to sit in the same room. His was the only workshop where I cried (and I wasn’t alone) when he projected images of his shots at his son’s school for autistic children. He shots the best wedding shots of anyone anywhere at anytime period.

Anyway back to our more recent less stellar experiences:

Our first model showed up late an hour or so into the workshop and thankfully she was a stunner. Amazing what drop-dead good looks in a healthy, happy 20-year-old (I’m guessing) can do to compensate for little to no professional experience but hey the girl got the job done. Unlike some models I’ve worked with, she was personable and very photogenic. It’s too bad her mother dropped by at noon to pick her up.

What didn’t work for me was most of the shooting was just posing fellow students outside using available light and little of what we were taught in the first hour of the workshop. As I said our model had to leave and it was around this time that our instructor started to solicit strangers on the street to pose for $20 an hour. This was embarrassing for all and more than a little tacky IMHO especially when one guy was asked to take off his t-shirt for some shots.

The next model showed up after lunch (which was not provided) and  was perfect for portraiture work and there was some real value here. We reviewed a card of portrait poses and most anyone who wanted to do a setup a shot could do so. If we’d had more of this work on a one-to-one or one-to-four basis I’d have been happier.

Then two more models showed up and they were dancers. Unfortunately there was no room to dance in the studio and no time for the students to shoot anything so the instructor did all the shooting. The models were middle-aged and were in some sort of mid-east garb. The afternoon shooting took on an air of some kind of Diane Arbus sideshow event. Very weird indeed.

It was around 3:30 p.m. by now and our instructor was struggling with his Canon flashes trying to get them to fire remotely. One of the other students quipped that if he was using Nikon’s CLS flash setup he wouldn’t have these issues. We all got a good laugh out of that.

It was at that moment I checked with by buddy who came with me and both decided we’d seen enough and we left.

The redeeming feature of this calamity is we’re supposed to get a download of a $99 piece of software that I’ve wanted for sometime so I get at least half my money back in kind.

Let’s be fair here, the workshop is well-know in the photo teaching industry and the instructor knows his stuff. He’s a little full of himself but I can live with that. His now deceased mentor was one of the best of the old-time portrait photographers. The basic instruction and system for shooting portraits is something everyone should know whether they take this workshop, view the online video or buy the book written by the now deceased master. Also the cost of this day-long class was $200 which is cheap especially considering the software bonus but still….

There was some talk about a three-day workshop in the fall and all I can hope is that workshop is better supported by the sponsor ( a well-known photographic retailer), better planned by the Toronto support group (if there was one) and better taught because the instructor does know his stuff. He told us so enough times and all I can hope is he had an off day because if the rest of the tour goes like this nobody is going to go home happy.


2 thoughts on “How To Pick Your Photo Workshop

  1. Hi

    Found your blog through Michael Willems … sounds like we took the same course – the Saturday class was not much better… and only one bottle of water the entire day… and talk about HOT – I am awaiting my email so I can download the software.

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