Choosing a Photography Workshop Or Tour

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It’s in the gloom of the Northern hemisphere’s winter that many people start planning trips for the new year. It’s also a time some of us upgrade our cameras when the big sales hit in December and begin looking for a teacher to help them get more out of it. A perfect time to talk about choosing a photography workshop or instructional tour. While I lead workshops and tours around the USA and world, I have been on the other side of the coin on more than one occasion in the past. Choosing who you will learn from can be intimidating and a large financial and time risk. I used those experiences and time spent consulting with other tour operators to come up with a list of questions and items to think about when you decide you want to learn more from a local or international instructor.

Do They Listen?

This is the most important aspect, in my opinion. Many people can stand up in front of a class and drone on and on from a textbook. A good instructor will listen to what you are interested in learning and adjust topics to meet those needs. If the structure is still fairly stiff, the instructor can at least relate instructed topics to situations important to you.

Is There A Solid Structure Or Is It Flexible?

Will this workshop be a recital of text or can you work in your own topics? Will the tour have opportunities for individual exploration or do you have to stick to a particular path? One is not necessarily better or worse, it is simply best to know so expectations can be set accordingly.

Do They Ask For Your History Beforehand?

This is an indicator, again, of how much you will learn. If the topics can be molded, there is a better chance the instruction will stick for you. It also shows the instructor’s level of interest in you, more than just as a paycheck. Some operators will cover this step on the first day of a workshop or tour.

What Is Included?

Never make assumptions, especially if the trip is to a foreign country. Always ask for a complete list of what you receive for money paid. Are textbooks included? Water? Meals? Internet access?

What Other Costs Will There Be?

The flip side of what is included is to make sure you know what is not included as well. Again don’t assume. What about a cab from the airport to the first hotel? Entry fees? Tips?

How Long Has The Instructor Been Leading And Instructing?

Certainly more time spent leading groups does not always equate better leading, but it often is an indicator. It also shows if the instructor loves what they do. If they have not been instructing long, get an idea of what they were doing before coming into this line of work. Also ask for references. Sure, they will suggest people who enjoyed previous instruction, but hopefully you can dig a bit deeper by asking past clients.

Do They Have Any Writing You Can Check Out?

Check previous writing by the instructor if you can find it. Blogs and Facebook will help you see what type of voice the instructor typically uses. It also helps show how well they communicate topics that can be confusing. And it will arm you with a list of questions when you talk with them (see last item below).

Is There Any Follow Up?

Is the workshop or tour over and you’re on your own? Or can you ask followup questions? It is not vital if it is one way or another, but it is important to know before signing up. Personally, as a student, I prefer to have the opportunity to ask questions days later as the concepts sink in and I have a chance to practice.

Will Your Equipment Meet The Minimum Standards?

Some workshops are aimed at the true beginner. Some at intermediate or advanced. Will your point and shoot camera or 4/3rds version work well for the workshop? Will you get more out of it if you had a DSLR? Don’t waste your money on a workshop that will tell you how to use different aperture settings if you can’t set your aperture.

What Can You Expect To Walk Away With?

Ask the instructor to list what new knowledge you will gain after your time together. Some workshops also offer software or books for review.

What Is The Refund Policy?

This is pretty easy; how much of your money can you get back if plans should change? Can you reschedule and apply the fees you have paid?

Can You Get A Copy Of The Syllabus?

Websites often list the basics to draw you in. Ask for a complete list of topics covered to see if your time will be well served. If 40% or more of the workshop covers topics you are already solid with, consider private instruction to fill in the gaps. Lastly, if at all possible (and especially when booking a longer tour) get on the phone with the instructor and chat. While many of these questions can be answered in email or by browsing websites, talking on the phone or in person will let you know how the instructor communicates and if you get along. If the workshop is short, just a day or two, compatibility is not too much of an issue if they can deliver on topics covered. But on a longer trip, it’s more vital to make sure you can communicate well with the instructor. You don’t have to be best friends, but a good instructor will make you feel welcome and should be able to listen to your wants and desires for your time together. As you may suspect, many of the DPS writers enjoy helping others learn about photography. Below is a list of tours and workshops offered by dPS writers. Each has different areas of interest and topics covered, as well as geographic locations served.

And if you need help looking for an instructor or workshop, my favorite resource (for photography and other subjects) has been TeachStreet.com. What other questions do you typically ask an instructor before signing up for a workshop or tour? Please add your input in the comments section below.

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Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle and Los Angeles. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • Wait a minute. I need to pay money for somebody to tell me what aperture setting to use? Gee…I guess I’ve been going about it all wrong this whole time.

  • You forgot my workshops…I am a DPS writer (author of the Click! ebook on How to take gorgeous photos of your kids) and teach photography workshops internationally and mentoring in person and online.

    http://www.racheldevine.com/blog/camera-therapy/

  • Dennis Mitchell

    Rick, I recently attended a workshop hosted by a friend ( and fellow guitarist) that was geared for helping beginners get their cameras off automatic mode. There were folks there who didn’t quite have a grasp of the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO/Film speed. There are people who have a good eye for photography, but haven’t got a firm grip on the technical side. My wife is one of those, and having her attend the workshop with somebody other than me teaching her, was a big help to both of us! Me, I learned to take advantage of the existing light on a cool, dreary, foggy day. Not to mention if it’s shooting something that can draw tourists, they don’t don’t go out on days like that, so nobody gets in the way of your photos. And, I got to pick a few tunes in the evening after the cameras were put away!

  • I also recently attended a workshop by a Journalistic Photographer (Sports Illustrated) turned Wedding and Boudoir. He had some great insights about off camera flash. It was only 6 hours but so worth it!

    For this shot we exposed the sky, then subtle fill flash using a speed light and umbrella to bring this touching image of Father and Son reflecting on a Family Shoot at the beach in California

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/high-key-lighting/

  • I have not done anything formally and most of the thing I have learned has been from DPS but I once listened to Steve Winter from National Geographic. And what an experience it was. They conduct workshops too but then I will never ever be able to spend that kind of money. Here is an account of meeting with Steve.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2011/01/meeting-steve-winter-of-national-geographic.html

  • Thank you for the great article Peter.

    I myself always like to learn on a private basis, even if these kind of courses are expensive, but the intensive learning experience is definitely worth the money.

    That’s why I like to offer my photo tours and workshops in the desert of Morocco on a mostly private basis. Like this, I can really meet the customers needs and interest.

  • marc

    Hi. Great tips but I think there is one important one that is only partially covered. Before you go, give yourself an honest assessment of two things. What is your skill level (be brutal with yourself when you stand in front of that lonely mirror!) and two, when the workshop is over, what do you expect to see in your own work one month later?

    Challenge yourself. I once took a workshop on landscape photography so that I could learn to do portraits better (yes…don’t laugh..this helped!). I took an off camera flash workshop so as to understand how to better work with natural light. Unfortunately this workshop was a joke. The instructor set up everything, talked a bit and then had us go up and push the shutter button on our pre-set cameras….very lame. The lesson here was the guy’s work was good, but he was an ass in person and had no idea how to teach. No wonder the model feel asleep at one point while sitting on the posing stool.

  • Rachel,
    My apologies. You have been added.

  • Rick,
    Sarcastic, non-constructive comments really aren’t wanted on DPS. There are 750,000 other readers of various levels and most who come here are looking for help in taking better photos, which is the whole reason this site exists. If a post doesn’t match your skill level, please be kind enough to not comment if you only wish to point out the post isn’t for you, unless you have something constructive to add.
    Thank you
    pwc

  • Rhonda

    Very well said…. Not to mention there are a lot of people who simply learn much better by doing. Not just trying to decipher the “coded” camera manuals.

    My favorite saying :

    I hear, I forget.
    I see, I remember.
    I do, I understand.

    This actually was recited by fellow photographer Rick Sammon at the end of a seminar I attended years ago. It has stuck with me ever since and rings very very true to many.

    Thank you so much for your articles here they are very helpful to most.

  • robert gardner

    I checked out one of the suggested workshops in Ca. The information stated that the workshop would be held in April and June 2112. The subject was to capture the moonglow in May of 2011.
    Best of luck.

  • robert gardner

    I checked out one of the suggested workshops in Ca. The information stated that the workshop would be held in April and June 2112. The subject was to capture the moonglow in May of 2012.
    Best of luck.

  • For anyone planning on a visit to Yosemite National Park, consider going out on a Photo Safari Yosemite excursion. Each Photo Safari is custom planned to the individual’s abilities including basic instruction on composition and exposure for beginners to being expertly guided to the “right places at the right time” for everyone. Excursions can be Full Day or Half Day all year round.

    For more information see: http://www.photosafariyosemite.com.

    For recent Photo Safari user reviews on Trip Advisor link to: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g32228-d2266320-Reviews-Photo_Safari_Yosemite_Day_Tours-Coarsegold_California.html

  • Peter,

    great article! And thank you for the post. I am the founder of citifari (http://www.citifari.com). We offer photo tours in New York City, organized as a workshop. Our tours sound a lot like Dennis’ friend except the for fact that I am not a guitarist. I have also written for DPS https://digital-photography-school.com/switch-to-manual-mode and plan to continue doing so. You can therefore add me to the list.

    Best,
    Sam

  • Steve Gray

    What amazes me at times is the people who obsess over what gear to buy, but whose photos suggest that they don’t have a clue when it comes to technique or style. They scoff at dropping a few hundred bucks to invest in some learning, but they think nothing of thrown thousands around for hardware.

    (I’m not pointing fingers at anybody in particular; this is just a general observation about folks I’ve seen on a variety of forums.)

  • MoonShadow

    I recently went to Rome and booked a photo tour (Rome photo tours) which looked like they outsourced to independent pro photographers. I ended up the only one in the tour and had the whole thing customized for my level of experience. It was fantastic to not only see Rome from a local but to have that expertise as well. If you are going somewhere make sure a photo tour is the first thing you do to get all your photos looking great.

    My tip, tell them what equipment you are bringing so they can match your gear, that way they can show you practical examples as well.

  • Dave Woolcock

    I really enjoyed the article. Being in Australia it is not realistic that I can utilise some of the companies advertised but the same check ups do apply. But if you are in my neck of the woods my experience with two very professional photographers (Michael Snedic & Mark Rayner of Trekabout photography) was exceptional. My mate and I were not novices but did need a lot of coaching so when we signed up for a 6 day workshop we were hugely excited to be in a group of no more than 8. When we got there we found we were in group of 2 (for some unknown reason the others had cancelled!!) – These two guys did not cancel the trip (for this I am really grateful) and for the next six days they catered to our every request and (sometimes silly) questions. What a blast!!! I have never had so much fun taking photos. These guys are so good that we did another 6 day adventure to Central Australia with them and again we learnt a lot. Yes their are some charlatans out there but if you look hard and do some homework their are many very dedicated professionals willing to share knowledge at an affordable price. Looking forward to my next adventure with these guys. And maybe one day getting to the US and joining some of the other groups that have been recommended as I feel that you can always learn some new trick when we get involved in group photography tours.

  • AJ

    You forgot the most important thing on a destination workshop. Will the instructor be shooting? I have been on workshops where the instructor took the best location at the best light, spent his time shooting and not teaching. You have to talk to previous workshop participants when you are spending alot of money to go on a destination workshop. I don’t need to pay for an instructor to go on the trip, they have to give me something of value (though I’ll admit sometimes the value is entry into a place or models that I could never get on my own).

  • Interesting insight, also helpful to anyone thinking of starting up in this sector?

  • Annika Larson

    I have been wanting to learn more about photography, and I feel that photo tour would be a great opportunity for this. As you said, it’s important to consider if your equipment will meet the minimum standards and expertise level that you sign up for. Thanks for sharing these tips. I’ll be sure to keep them in mind as I plan a photo tour in an exotic place. http://www.nickigeigert.com/about

Some Older Comments

  • PaulB January 15, 2012 02:05 am

    Interesting insight, also helpful to anyone thinking of starting up in this sector?

  • AJ December 16, 2011 05:21 am

    You forgot the most important thing on a destination workshop. Will the instructor be shooting? I have been on workshops where the instructor took the best location at the best light, spent his time shooting and not teaching. You have to talk to previous workshop participants when you are spending alot of money to go on a destination workshop. I don't need to pay for an instructor to go on the trip, they have to give me something of value (though I'll admit sometimes the value is entry into a place or models that I could never get on my own).

  • Dave Woolcock December 3, 2011 10:41 pm

    I really enjoyed the article. Being in Australia it is not realistic that I can utilise some of the companies advertised but the same check ups do apply. But if you are in my neck of the woods my experience with two very professional photographers (Michael Snedic & Mark Rayner of Trekabout photography) was exceptional. My mate and I were not novices but did need a lot of coaching so when we signed up for a 6 day workshop we were hugely excited to be in a group of no more than 8. When we got there we found we were in group of 2 (for some unknown reason the others had cancelled!!) - These two guys did not cancel the trip (for this I am really grateful) and for the next six days they catered to our every request and (sometimes silly) questions. What a blast!!! I have never had so much fun taking photos. These guys are so good that we did another 6 day adventure to Central Australia with them and again we learnt a lot. Yes their are some charlatans out there but if you look hard and do some homework their are many very dedicated professionals willing to share knowledge at an affordable price. Looking forward to my next adventure with these guys. And maybe one day getting to the US and joining some of the other groups that have been recommended as I feel that you can always learn some new trick when we get involved in group photography tours.

  • MoonShadow December 2, 2011 08:11 am

    I recently went to Rome and booked a photo tour (Rome photo tours) which looked like they outsourced to independent pro photographers. I ended up the only one in the tour and had the whole thing customized for my level of experience. It was fantastic to not only see Rome from a local but to have that expertise as well. If you are going somewhere make sure a photo tour is the first thing you do to get all your photos looking great.

    My tip, tell them what equipment you are bringing so they can match your gear, that way they can show you practical examples as well.

  • Steve Gray December 2, 2011 04:58 am

    What amazes me at times is the people who obsess over what gear to buy, but whose photos suggest that they don't have a clue when it comes to technique or style. They scoff at dropping a few hundred bucks to invest in some learning, but they think nothing of thrown thousands around for hardware.

    (I'm not pointing fingers at anybody in particular; this is just a general observation about folks I've seen on a variety of forums.)

  • sam levy December 2, 2011 04:22 am

    Peter,

    great article! And thank you for the post. I am the founder of citifari (www.citifari.com). We offer photo tours in New York City, organized as a workshop. Our tours sound a lot like Dennis' friend except the for fact that I am not a guitarist. I have also written for DPS https://digital-photography-school.com/switch-to-manual-mode and plan to continue doing so. You can therefore add me to the list.

    Best,
    Sam

  • Pat Althizer December 2, 2011 03:56 am

    For anyone planning on a visit to Yosemite National Park, consider going out on a Photo Safari Yosemite excursion. Each Photo Safari is custom planned to the individual's abilities including basic instruction on composition and exposure for beginners to being expertly guided to the "right places at the right time" for everyone. Excursions can be Full Day or Half Day all year round.

    For more information see: www.photosafariyosemite.com.

    For recent Photo Safari user reviews on Trip Advisor link to: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g32228-d2266320-Reviews-Photo_Safari_Yosemite_Day_Tours-Coarsegold_California.html

  • robert gardner December 2, 2011 03:39 am

    I checked out one of the suggested workshops in Ca. The information stated that the workshop would be held in April and June 2112. The subject was to capture the moonglow in May of 2012.
    Best of luck.

  • robert gardner December 2, 2011 03:39 am

    I checked out one of the suggested workshops in Ca. The information stated that the workshop would be held in April and June 2112. The subject was to capture the moonglow in May of 2011.
    Best of luck.

  • Rhonda November 30, 2011 09:25 am

    Very well said.... Not to mention there are a lot of people who simply learn much better by doing. Not just trying to decipher the "coded" camera manuals.

    My favorite saying :

    I hear, I forget.
    I see, I remember.
    I do, I understand.

    This actually was recited by fellow photographer Rick Sammon at the end of a seminar I attended years ago. It has stuck with me ever since and rings very very true to many.

    Thank you so much for your articles here they are very helpful to most.

  • Peter West Carey November 30, 2011 04:52 am

    Rick,
    Sarcastic, non-constructive comments really aren't wanted on DPS. There are 750,000 other readers of various levels and most who come here are looking for help in taking better photos, which is the whole reason this site exists. If a post doesn't match your skill level, please be kind enough to not comment if you only wish to point out the post isn't for you, unless you have something constructive to add.
    Thank you
    pwc

  • Peter West Carey November 30, 2011 04:49 am

    Rachel,
    My apologies. You have been added.

  • marc November 29, 2011 09:06 am

    Hi. Great tips but I think there is one important one that is only partially covered. Before you go, give yourself an honest assessment of two things. What is your skill level (be brutal with yourself when you stand in front of that lonely mirror!) and two, when the workshop is over, what do you expect to see in your own work one month later?

    Challenge yourself. I once took a workshop on landscape photography so that I could learn to do portraits better (yes...don't laugh..this helped!). I took an off camera flash workshop so as to understand how to better work with natural light. Unfortunately this workshop was a joke. The instructor set up everything, talked a bit and then had us go up and push the shutter button on our pre-set cameras....very lame. The lesson here was the guy's work was good, but he was an ass in person and had no idea how to teach. No wonder the model feel asleep at one point while sitting on the posing stool.

  • Sarosa November 29, 2011 12:00 am

    Thank you for the great article Peter.

    I myself always like to learn on a private basis, even if these kind of courses are expensive, but the intensive learning experience is definitely worth the money.

    That's why I like to offer my photo tours and workshops in the desert of Morocco on a mostly private basis. Like this, I can really meet the customers needs and interest.

  • Mridula November 28, 2011 03:35 pm

    I have not done anything formally and most of the thing I have learned has been from DPS but I once listened to Steve Winter from National Geographic. And what an experience it was. They conduct workshops too but then I will never ever be able to spend that kind of money. Here is an account of meeting with Steve.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2011/01/meeting-steve-winter-of-national-geographic.html

  • Erik Kerstenbeck November 28, 2011 12:26 pm

    I also recently attended a workshop by a Journalistic Photographer (Sports Illustrated) turned Wedding and Boudoir. He had some great insights about off camera flash. It was only 6 hours but so worth it!

    For this shot we exposed the sky, then subtle fill flash using a speed light and umbrella to bring this touching image of Father and Son reflecting on a Family Shoot at the beach in California

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/high-key-lighting/

  • Dennis Mitchell November 28, 2011 10:46 am

    Rick, I recently attended a workshop hosted by a friend ( and fellow guitarist) that was geared for helping beginners get their cameras off automatic mode. There were folks there who didn't quite have a grasp of the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO/Film speed. There are people who have a good eye for photography, but haven't got a firm grip on the technical side. My wife is one of those, and having her attend the workshop with somebody other than me teaching her, was a big help to both of us! Me, I learned to take advantage of the existing light on a cool, dreary, foggy day. Not to mention if it's shooting something that can draw tourists, they don't don't go out on days like that, so nobody gets in the way of your photos. And, I got to pick a few tunes in the evening after the cameras were put away!

  • rachel November 28, 2011 10:35 am

    You forgot my workshops...I am a DPS writer (author of the Click! ebook on How to take gorgeous photos of your kids) and teach photography workshops internationally and mentoring in person and online.

    http://www.racheldevine.com/blog/camera-therapy/

  • Rick November 28, 2011 06:32 am

    Wait a minute. I need to pay money for somebody to tell me what aperture setting to use? Gee...I guess I've been going about it all wrong this whole time.

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