Is that a Workshop, Tour or Seminar [Part I]

Is that a Workshop, Tour or Seminar [Part I]

There is a modern day aphorism:  Those that can – do. Those that can’t – teach.  I believe, however, the later part of the phrase should be amended to read “Those who can’t – shouldn’t.”

A majority of photographers working today as professionals ply their trade in the commercial, wedding and portrait disciplines. There are also countless photographers who have historically made images of landscape and nature pictures – the kind of stuff we all love to do. These image makers would typically place their material with a stock photo agency to license their work on their behalf. Unfortunately this business model has been collapsing over the past five, or so, years and will likely continue.

The by-product of this collapse in landscape and nature picture sales has translated to a deluge of photography workshops, tours and seminars.  Many of these instructor-photographers bring impeccable skills and talents to the table; unfortunately an even greater number bring little more than platitudes and promises.

The novice photographer will have to do some research to learn what firm offers something worthy of your hard earned cash.  You will have to sift through a lot of chafe to find the nice gems, fortunately they do exist.

Is the intensity of a workshop what you seek, or perhaps the enjoyment of a tour or the diversity of a seminar? Hopefully this little primer will help steer you in the right direction by explaining the differences and offering some suggestions to ensure you get the right fit for what you are seeking, and at the right skill level.

The workshop offers the opportunity to try out all the gear you might own with good critique from the instructor.

The workshop offers the opportunity to try out all the gear you might own with good critique from the instructor.

A workshop is first and foremost a teaching venue.  It will in all likelihood be based from a single location where you will eat, live and breathe photography.  A secondary consideration is the actual location, the physical presence to facilitate the theme of the workshop.

The better workshops usually come with a systematic structure: early morning shoot, late morning lecture, early afternoon lecture or critique session and late evening shoot. The shooting sessions will usually always concentrate on the topic presented at the day’s lecture session(s). By the end of the workshop you should have received sufficient lectures, personal evaluation of your efforts, and an overdose of encouragement to meet the objectives outlined. The course syllabus should be available for your study in advance of enrolment.

Before you do enrol, research to see who the lead instructor will be as well as the supporting teachers, and whether that lead is on site or just loaning their name. Does that leader come with a pedigree that includes accomplishment in their chosen field through innovative techniques, or writing of their findings in books or magazine articles? Are they continuously exploring their own vision, and what is their reputation from previous students?  Contact those testimonial writers personally – they could be just friends of the workshop leader.

One of the very first clues you might have whether the workshop is for you is by asking the question: “Will the instructor be making photographs during the workshop?”  If the answer is yes, you might want to consider moving to another workshop that interests you. The logic being, how is it possible for the instructor to teach and offer guidance if they are concentrating on looking through their own viewfinder?  You, the student, should have their attention; the instructor can take pictures on their time – you have already bought and paid for that time.

Most importantly, is the lead instructor an instructor or a teacher? As ridiculous as this might sound, almost anyone can stand in front of a small audience and regurgitate from a prepared lesson plan. A teacher, on the other hand, has that inner quality of being able to instil a desire to learn, of generating an excitement enabling students to be part of a process, promoting confidence and self-esteem all while offering constructive criticism without the student ever knowing. A teacher has a true passion in their chosen art, the art of sharing.  Their enthusiasm is contagious.

Next up: What is the photo tour?

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Dale Wilson is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner Garry Black.'

Some Older Comments

  • Darlene Hildebrandt August 10, 2013 04:20 am

    @Dale well written and I agree, there's way too many "instructors" and way too many without any qualifications to be doing so in the first place. Great advice.

  • Alec Hosterman August 8, 2013 02:10 am

    Dale - I think setting out basic specs on workshops is a good thing, and you offer some good suggestions on what potential participants should research, however I have to disagree with you on your assertion about the instructor shooting with the students. I believe having them work alongside the students, showing how *they* make photographs, is as powerful a teaching tool as working one-on-one. I am a college professor (15+ years) and I have been making photographs for 20+ years. I recently had my first weekend workshop with a professional photographer. Watching her work - from managing camera settings to composing shots to interacting with people - was valuable to me and the other workshop participants. Watching an artist do what they do and then mimicking it is a valuable pedagogy - and one of the earliest forms in recorded history. From there, students begin to develop their own way of doing. So rather than simply putting them off because they make photographs at the same time, perhaps a potential workshop participant might ask the leader how much they interact with students, what kind of feedback they give in the field, etc.

  • Dave August 7, 2013 09:27 pm

    @Bill - there's a difference in whether the workshop leader shoots for education purposes or their portfolio while conducting a workshop. If the image is used for teaching, I see no problem with that. If the leader is shooting for their personal portfolio, then I for one would attend a different workshop.

  • ellen August 7, 2013 06:35 am

    I have taken classes from the Reeds in Ludington, MI, Mike Moats on macro photography and John an Barb Gerlach and they are all amazing people and lead great workshops, etc. Strong recommendation for all of them. Their work is amazing. Check them out.

  • Bill August 7, 2013 05:33 am

    I like most of the article. Where I disagree is whether the pro should be shooting or not. The few workshops I have been to I think I learned more when the photographer did take pictures and used them to teach while out in the field and during critiquing session.

  • Jerome Shaw August 6, 2013 01:50 pm

    I think this is a great distinction to make. I have been a photographer for over 30 years and have been teaching since 1997. I have taught classes, workshops and hosted seminars. In the last few years I have begun to lead tours which is very different than teaching a workshop. I'll be interested to read part 2.


  • Carl August 5, 2013 10:08 pm

    I've been lucky and had several great instructors over the years (Tim Cooper at Rocky Mountain School of Photography, Bob Evans, Tim Grey, Mark Bowie and Stephen Johnson). I got a LOT from each of them. I firmly believe in spending time with professional instructors no matter how good you may think you are -- it's time well spent.

  • AnnB August 5, 2013 09:34 pm

    When I started reading your post I was taken back a bit when you said "modern day aphorism" -- that's been around for a long time! We used it when I was in high school back in the 60s!
    I do however agree with your "Those who can't -- shouldn't" and I might add "Those who can do better -- teach!"
    Thanks for all you do, I really have been enjoying it.