Picking a photo workshop

How do you know if a photography workshop you are considering is right for you? Good question, huh? I’ve asked it myself and I’ve heard it asked many times, so I thought I’d try to answer it in case it’s a question that’s on anyone’s mind.

Here are some considerations, in no particular order, that you might want to take into account.

  • What do you want out of a workshop? – Sounds like an obvious question and I think one of the most important questions we should consider. Are you looking for a workshop that will accommodate you as a novice shooter or are you closer to the other end of the spectrum, only looking for someone who can get you to the right venues at the best times? This might suggest differentiating between a workshop and a photo tour. More on that in a moment.
  • Even before you narrow down your search for a workshop, it’s great if you can get an opportunity to hear the leader speak. Often this is something you can experience via your local camera club or Meetup group. If the leader is a “bigger name” you may get the opportunity to attend a presentation or a mini-workshop at a national or regional event such as those sponsored by photography associations such as the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) or the Professional Photographers Association (PPA)



Does the workshop leader make time for one-on-one instruction or to assist individual photographers?

Regardless, you need to do some research. It would be great if you had the opportunity to speak with a previous participant in the workshop you are considering. If you do, go for it. Most often, however, that’s not a viable option. Rather, if you are like most of us, you will rely on three opportunities: the workshop leader’s reputation, reviews or testimonials on the leader’s website or detail on the same website that outlines what to expect. I’d begin by taking the time to study his or her photos. Are they the kind of photography you enjoy or want to learn to create? If you are not impressed move on to other options. There’s no shortage of workshops.

Sometimes getting there is half the battle.

While on the workshop leader’s website be on the lookout for answers to some important but too often overlooked questions. If you don’t find the answers you need on the website, for sure connect via phone or e-mail (if not in person) with the workshop leader and get the answers.

  • Is the workshop being held somewhere you want to go? This is important though not necessarily critical to your decision. Last year, for example, I went to a workshop in Death Valley National Park. The park itself wasn’t high on my list of places I wanted to visit, but the fact that Guy Tal and Michael Gordon were leading it was enough reason for me to make the cross-country trip.
  • How familiar is the workshop leader with the area where the workshop is located?
  • Personally, I would not attend a workshop if I could not communicate with the leader beforehand, either in person (likely on the phone) or via e-mail. You can get a good feel for the kind of leader you will be working with during a brief telephone conversation. You can also learn a lot about the kind of responses you will get during the workshop if the leader takes the time to really answer your questions and any concerns in advance.
  • Is there going to be classroom-style instruction? If so, what are the subjects and how much time will be dedicated to each?

    Be sure to ask about any special gear needs . . . especially in the winter.

  • Should you expect one-on-one instruction throughout the duration of the workshop, especially in the field? If this is important to you then you’ll want to explore how others have found the leader’s abilities in this area. Is the leader knowledgeable, experienced and patient (with a capital “P”?
  • How many others will be participating? It would be a rare workshop leader, in my opinion, who could manage more than six or eight photographers and provide any meaningful one-on-one learning experiences.
  • Does the leader photograph during the workshop or is his/her attention totally on the participants’ needs?
  • What equipment will you need? Lenses, filters, tripod, flash, etc. Is a laptop computer necessary or simply nice to have?

    Are you interested in formal classroom instruction?

  • What’s a typical day’s itinerary?
  • Are there any gear or clothing recommendations? – hiking boots, high-water boots, winter clothing recommendations, bug repellant, sunscreen, etc.
  • What’s the likely make-up of the folks in the workshop you are considering? This is important to understand because it will impact the time your workshop leader has for you and your questions. Often, as is typically the case in my own workshops, there’s a mixed level of experience. I think this is good because, in addition to learning from the workshop leader, there are many opportunities to learn from fellow participants, too.
  • How physically demanding will the workshop be? Is serious hiking or climbing involved? Will you be driving to venues? If driving, do you need your own transportation or will you be carpooling? Will venue access require a vehicle with off-road capability?

Some other questions to consider:

  • Is the event you are considering a true workshop, which will include instructional opportunities or is it more of a tour? Nothing right or wrong either way. It’s just a matter of what you expect. If you are considering this event for the opportunity to learn from the workshop leader that’s one thing. If what you want is more of a guide who can get you to the right place at the best time that’s another. I’d consider that a tour. Of course, even in a workshop, you need to be confident the leader will “get you to the church on time.”

    Sometimes the workshop leader may be called upon for a little gear maintenance. (Photo by Sherry Dans)

  • Are there any permits needed for the area(s) you’ll be photographing and has the leader taken care of that?
  • Will the workshop include the opportunity for you to see your work as a finished product? It can be very rewarding to go home with a beautiful print.
  • Are there any permits needed for the area(s) you’ll be photographing and has the leader taken care of that?
  • How physically demanding is the workshop? Is serious hiking or climbing involved or will you be driving to venues? If driving, do you need your own transportation or will you be carpooling? Will venues require a vehicle with off-road capability?
  • Are you a “techie” kind of person who’s very interested in what’s under the hood? If so, is your leader of like mind? Many folks like to explore all the technical detail whether it has to do with the camera or lens or post-capture software. Not all leaders are prepared to go into detail about why one camera sensor is better than another or how much you can accomplish in processing with Lightroom vs. Photoshop.
  • Are you really more interested in landscape photography versus wildlife photography? Do you get excited about photographing wildflowers? Are you anxious to get out early in the morning to photograph the morning dew and the tiny critters that won’t get active until the morning warms up a little?
  • How do you feel about long days? Most days in my workshops begin before sunrise (how long before depends on how far we have to travel to be on location at the right time) and wrap-up each day after sunset. If that’s too long for you, can your leader accommodate your need for a shorter day or is there enough downtime during the day for you to be able to catch your breath?
  • What’s the plan for meals? Should you plan on bringing snacks into the field? Will the workshop leader have water and/or a cooler available for participants during the day?
  • Is the leader being sponsored by anyone? I would not rule out a workshop just because the leader was not sponsored. Some leaders don’t want sponsorship for a variety of reasons. Some have major sponsors like camera manufacturers. Others have photo equipment retailers who know them and there work and offer special opportunities to participants in their workshop. You may consider either beneficial.
  • How many people have attended more than one workshop by the leader you are considering? You might ask how many repeat attendees are registered for the workshop you are considering. It would appear to be obvious that if the leader’s workshops regularly include folks who have attended previous workshops that’s a pretty good sign that the workshops are worthwhile.
  • Besides formal instruction, does the leader make time available for image reviews during the workshop? In my experience, this is often one of the most appreciated opportunities in a workshop.
  • Will the workshop include the opportunity for you to see your work as a finished product? It can be very rewarding to go home with a beautiful print.

There are countless other questions we might consider.  Any question you have deserves an answer and getting that answer before you sign-up is important.