Workshops are worthless. Unless…
Just about every photo-blog (except this one) will tell you that if you really want to improve your photography, don’t spend more money on gear — spend it on a workshop.
But then, just about every photo-blogger (except me) is touting his own and his pals’ workshops — not to mention ebooks, DVDs, speeches, photo tours, etc. — so that’s what you’d expect them to say.
What’s the real scoop? Can writing out a check for the privilege of spending a few hours with a photo-guru and a handful of like-minded enthusiasts really sharpen your technical mastery and jump-start your creativity?
A whole industry — not to mention a passel of individual workshop-peddlers — depends on your believing the answer is “yes.” But my own experience leaves me very, very skeptical.
For example, earlier this year I took a two-day workshop that should have had everything going for it. The topic was tightly-focused enough to cover in one weekend. The group was small enough to give everyone a chance to interact. The local organizers were enthusiastic, sociable, and efficient at lining up locations and models. And the visiting instructor, a guy named Don Giannatti, was terrific: an excellent communicator, a patient teacher, an entertaining storyteller, and — most of all — a veteran professional with a vast range of real-world experience and a huge fund of practical knowledge and cleverly simple tricks for making shots work.
But in spite of all that, by the end of the first day I was convinced I had wasted my time and money.
I had found that the local organizers and most of the other participants already knew each other; I felt like an outsider at a meeting of a cliquey camera club. And in planning the shooting sessions, the organizers had naturally favored their and their pals’ photographic interests — such as rock bands and aspiring models — which didn’t align very well with my interests.
(I’ve got nothing against rock bands, but zero interest in photographing them. And while the aspiring models were terrific, I figure that the kinds of photos a model needs to get work are a little more formulaic than the kinds of photos I’m interested in making. After all, the point isn’t to have the client say, “That’s a great-looking photo” — the point is to have the client say, “That’s a great-looking model.”)
So by the end of the first day, my net educational returns were as follows: I had shielded a laptop from the sun so another participant could see the results of his rock-band shoot; I had swept a floor to make a clean foreground; I had helped plan a pizza order; and I had tried, awkwardly and not very successfully, to shoot some model-portfolio photos generic enough to be of some actual use to our models for their portfolios. I felt as if I were in a workshop for photo assistants.
Fortunately, as it turned out, the second day went much better — once I managed to jettison both my preconceived objectives and my pique at not being able to achieve them.
I gleaned some nuggets from Giannatti’s one-man knowledge warehouse that eventually I’ll be able to use in my own photography. I got better at directing the models. I made a few pictures that I liked at least a bit.
And to my own surprise, I wound up having a pretty good time — once I stopped treating the workshop as a misfired Learning Experience, and instead as one of those nonfiction-TV shows in which a group of strangers try to perform some pointless but telegenically intriguing challenge.
So my take is that workshops are worthless — unless…
…Unless you’re prepared to be a bit assertive. Let’s face it, photography as a career tends to attract individuals who are, er, pushy. Sure, they’re friendly, social, and gregarious, but they’re also accustomed to telling other people where to stand, how to look, and what to do, and having them do it. Unless you’re prepared to hold your ground, in the nicest possible way, they’ll instinctively do the same to you, and your workshop experience will wind up consisting of shielding laptops, sweeping floors, and ordering pizza.
…Unless you can curb your competitive instinct. Likewise, photo workshops tend to attract people who enjoy competing: for the instructor’s attention, for the models’ enthusiasm, or for prestige among the other participants. If you let yourself get drawn into a contest for who has the coolest gear or the biggest collection of Photoshop plug-ins, you certainly can use a workshop as a competitive arena — but you probably won’t get much else out of it.
…Unless you’re willing to let go of your preconceptions. I had read the course description carefully, and had a very clear idea of what I expected to get out of the workshop I took — but so had all the other participants, and their ideas and mine weren’t always in sync. Until I got over my frustration at what was not happening, I wasn’t able to get any utility out of what was.
…Unless you can get over being “results-oriented.” The way workshops work means that inevitably, your pictures are going to look a lot like the other participants’. (Some workshops tout themselves as “portfolio-building,” but do you really want a portfolio that looks just like a half-dozen other people’s?) Dance-photography genius Lois Greenfield — whose workshops are never worthless — warns participants right at the start that they should not expect to go home with a CD full of epic images; the goal is to learn from the process rather than to get quick results.