Attending Online Photography Conferences

With the second year of Covid lockdowns and restrictions upon us, many photography professionals have turned to online delivery of presentations and workshops. Whole multi-day online conferences have emerged, bringing together talent from across the world. These professionals have innovated and adjusted, bringing what would normally involve hands-on guidance to the small screen.

As the Program Director for our local camera club, I have had two “challenges” arising from the lockdown. The first is providing meaningful events and entertainment to our club membership online. The second is finding ways to transfer knowledge when hands-on in-person options don’t exist. These new photography conferences would seem to serve both purposes amazingly well. Or do they?

One of the unique features of a club like ours is that we have our own experts. These are members who join the club for the cameraderie of like minds. But they also become teachers and mentors to new members just learning the craft. It happens by creating events that bring everyone together and it happens organically, by osmosis. A question asked becomes a friendship made and the exchange of ideas begins.

These teachers and mentors are inevitably asked time and time again to provide a quick informal discussion or individual coaching. So much so that their time becomes really constrained. But frankly, being an expert or a mentor doesn’t necessarily mean that they are interested in or equipped to deliver a flashy presentation lasting 90 minutes or more online. The effort to assemble content and the stress of being front and centre with 130 club members staring at you, even on a small screen, is not always seen as positive. Not at all the same as mentoring an individual or two. Not sure I blame them.

I deliver such talks, and my effort to prepare the talk is at least 8 hours for every hour of final product. Even when delivering a “canned” presentation, I customize it for the audience, so I might as well almost start all over again to prepare it each time. And I hear all good performers suffer nerves terribly before going on. Well I must be a good performer, because my stomach is in knots beforehand and I feel like I have run a marathon afterward. In some ways, the positive response afterward makes up for it all, but not completely. I sometimes tell myself, even with the adrenaline of accomplishment at a high, that I will never do it again.

So the option of trying a new approach for club member education is/was really appealing to me. The one good thing (if there is a “good” thing about Covid) is that geography is no longer a constraint for us. Similarly, commercial photographers and software specialists have realized that online conferences provide a good revenue source and expose them to much wider audiences than their individual face-to-face activities or maybe even their own online activities.

I’ve tapped into 4 online conferences personally recently and plan to continue doing so. I’ve also attended events featuring only one professional, who spends all or part of a day on their own work. I find there are some interesting differences in the delivery decisions for each of these events.

I attended the virtual Adobe Maxx in October 2020.

Adobe Maxx serves many purposes but it’s a showcase of all things Adobe first and foremost. It’s about new features, new products and how pros are using them. The pros are pretty much window dressing. Each session is only 30 minutes, so deep dives are impossible. At this event, the presentations often abruptly ended, often in the middle of something cool, with apologies from the presenter. I also found that I selected the sessions to attend based first on who was presenting and second on what they were presenting. Perhaps not the best way to approach things. So the lessons learned here are that sessions need to be long enough to properly convey a concept, and the most important concepts probably need to be conveyed by the most familiar names.

I attended the Flash Photography Conference with Scott Kelby and Joe McNally in November 2020.

This was a superb event, although I must admit that I attended it to see Joe, not Scott. Joe is a magnificent creator and the structure of the two day event allowed us to watch him work live with models in a studio setting, everyone of course adherring to Covid protocols. He had a plan, but the plan was often thrown out the window as new ideas emerged. It was wonderful. Broadcasting this kind of experience is a huge “challenge”, requiring multiple cameras that could reposition themselves as needed. Each day was broken up into shorter segments, allowing the makers and the audience to take breaks and avoid screen fatigue (and just plain fatigue!). This seems to be a common theme when delivering events online. So the lessons learned here are that even when conveying full day events with a single theme, lots of breaks are needed. And also, the effort required to professionally stage an online event when that event includes demonstrations away from the computer can be huge and complex.

I also attended Dave Cross’ Photoshop Summit Second Edition in November 2020.

I had previously attended the first one. Here, makers had a full hour, sometimes two, to present a complete concept for working in Photoshop or through Photoshop on a wide range of tasks. The recognized experts in each area were the presenters for that area, and only one session was scheduled each hour. That made it easy to decide which session to attend. All of these sessions were pre-recorded at the makers’ locations, and my only complaint was that the camera and microphone equipment used by some makers didn’t always live up to a professional standard. More than anything else, poor sound quality can affect my attention span and I sometimes left a session because of this. So the lessons learned here are that finding the perfect length of session is important and that delivery details matter – investing in a good personal camera and microphone is key if you intend to be an online presenter.

Lastly, I attended a private special event staged by an organization to which my camera club belongs, also in October 2020.

This event featured Denise Ippolito, who spent two full mornings on her work. The sessions were live, but included pre-recorded segments to minimize the likelihood of software issues while demonstrating certain techniques. Sessions were broken up into approximately 2 hour segments, with quick breaks in between. Some techniques were quite detailed and it was helpful to have two days to understand them. The lessons learned here are that a mix of live and recorded sessions can work really well, and that the level of detail/complexity of the demonstration should determine the structure of the session(s).

All of the above events also included recordings that could be reviewed again after the events. In some cases, the recordings required a separate purchase, in some cases, they were included with the original registration. In all cases, they provided the opportunity to “self-regulate” the length of time spent in front of the computer. Live events, of course, also included the ability to ask questions, usually through a typed “chat” function. The ability to interact was therefore somewhat limited. A question may or may not be answered.

So how has all of this helped me in my other role of providing meaningful events for my camera club? The obvious answer is that we have more choice. We can tap into many online opportunities, in addition to staging our own. But staging our own online events also has had to recognize things like screen fatigue, delivery details and the complexity of presenting topics that require demonstrations away from the computer. As a volunteer organization with a limited budget, the answer might be a simple one: leave it to the pros to handle the complexity and tap into all the opportunities now available out there. Just find a way to make it easy for club members to attend.

I like simple answers. I suspect that even when we return to live in-person meetings, we will continue to see and tap into online events. It’s really the only way to be exposed to a wonderful global expertise. So, thank you, Covid, for the little good that you have done, but go away now, so we can enjoy ourselves in peace.

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