Are Workshops Helpful?

This past week, I attended a photography workshop. The subject was bird photography. It was held at a location known to be a key flyway for spring migrating birds here in Canada, particularly for warblers and related species.

I am not a bird photographer – my nature interests lie in landscapes. So I thought it would be interesting to experience the event and to learn about this fascinating subject that seems to delight so many of my friends.

The workshop was held over 5 days, with each day offering an early morning and a late afternoon outing. Outings were only marginally planned, to coincide with weather, wind direction and the observed arrival of birds that day and the day before. Our workshop leader was experienced, with many decades of knowledge about birds, bird photography and this location in general. So how did it go?

Physical fitness was not a requirement for this workshop, but every day involved walking along well sculpted and graveled pathways, while carrying a heavy camera and long lens. That proved to be more of a challenge than I initially realized, and along with the impact of other health issues, limited my ability to stay with the group for the full duration of each day. So please take my remaining comments in that context.

There seem to be two groups of individuals that attend photography workshops. First, those who are there to learn, seek out guidance and practice what they are told. Second, those who don’t need the instruction, are taking advantage of special access to a location or special rates for that access and/or want the camaraderie of like-minded souls. Both are equally valid, but different, and we had that mix in our group.

There also seem to be two different types of instructors. Those who keenly watch their students and offer helpful advice even if not specifically asked for. Then there are those who simply lead and let their students follow, without much explanation. They feel their role is more to act as location guide rather than photography instructor. I suppose these styles match up to the two groups of “students” described above.

The last couple of workshops I have attended have been with the latter type of instructor. Their job was to source the experience, guide us to it then let us loose. If we had questions, we could ask. Some of us never did. Some of us didn’t even really want the “group experience”, just the location or the subject. I find it odd to pay for all the elements of the broader event and then not want to use them. But I also find it equally odd when the instructor doesn’t bring the full experience out more.

In my previous working world, a workshop was something that lead to an outcome. It was something that revealed information not known before. It was something that lead to a new idea or concept. In the context of photography workshops, that outcome-based approach would have been (should have been?) photographs not taken before. There should also have been time to discuss the effort, the result and to share our work with others. In neither recent case was that the case. Not even the offer to do so after the fact, if as stated, the light was too important to waste sitting at a computer. I get that and support it. But no feedback at all is not a good thing either.

I’ve also recently attended one workshop where the exact opposite design was in play. The instructor gathered us together, introduced the topic, provided some general insights, answered questions, then worked individually with each of us while the others tried out a few ideas on their own. We then all got back together at the end of the day to discuss what we had learned. None of this happened in a classroom – it was all outdoors. And after the fact, we could send a few images to the instructor for individual feedback. It was a perfect design, in my view.

I’ve also run workshops myself where I first gave context and the “big-picture view” (pardon the pun), injected more background knowledge, explaining the “why” right along side the “how”. Strangely, these have had mixed reviews, with some being very well received and appreciated, while others were labelled as too prescriptive because people just wanted to shoot. Didn’t matter that they didn’t know how. I guess instructors have to be ready for both kinds of clients.

I have no doubt that my physical limitations on this latest workshop contributed to my feeling of a less than ideal experience. But it is also true that I was able to get the same quality of shots wandering on my own (with rest breaks) as I was able to get while standing beside the instructor. And I also got great advice from some of the people I randomly ran into, wandering just like me.

So I am rethinking the role of photography workshops in my future. I suspect there won’t be any more, particularly if physical limitations prevent me from fully participating. And while I fully support any talented photographer asking a fair fee for sharing their knowledge, all the scouting efforts, planning and logistics, it’s more difficult to swallow a fat fee when the experience is the one I had this last week. So I encourage anyone who is a workshop instructor to really be clear about what they are offering, and to be a bit more honest about it in their advertising. And maybe do some pre-work with each group, to find out what each individual might need.

That said, the experience of being in that environment last week was fantastic. I fully plan to go back next year.

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