There’s a Workshop for That


Once upon a time, in the days of old, when photographers still used those light sensitive plastic strips in the back of their large black cameras — cameras with funny names like Hasselblad and Mamiya — there were photography workshops. They are not a new invention. They’ve been around for a very long time. But, back in the days of film and cameras with odd names, these workshops were a little different.

wasatimeThese classes were usually taught by someone who had achieved success in photography. Now, I know that success is defined in many ways, but in this scenario, I don’t mean a “Hey-I-really-feel-good-about-myself” kind of success. I mean the kind of success that pays the bills. The kind of success that was proven.

It was a time when instructors had a resume that validated their teaching. Most had been in photography the better part of their life; they had devoted themselves fully and completely to their craft; they had artistic and business “chops.”

Sure, there were some whose careers were winding down, but after a lifetime of experience, those in the audience knew that what they had to teach was valuable. You knew that even the photographer on the verge of retirement after a lifetime of shooting and running a business had something you needed to know.

I’ve attended more of these workshops than I care to count. I have sat in tiny rooms no bigger than a closet, knee-to-knee with my fellow attendees, and I have sat in convention center ballrooms so large they needed a screen so the people in the back could see the presenter.

notebookI have scribbled fast and furious in a spiral notebook (anything called “iPad back then would have been a personal feminine hygiene product”) and I learned. I saw photographers on a stage who had achieved what I wanted. These weren’t stars whose light burned hot and fast for a few years and then were out; they weren’t photographers who burst onto the scene as the result of careful manipulation and positioning by those who stood to make money from their popularity.

No, these were photographers who lived and breathed what they were teaching, down to their core. Was every workshop wonderful and every presenter stellar? Heck, no. Over the years, I’ve sat through my fair share of snooze-fests where the most exciting thing I could find to do was to rearrange the letters in the program to create as many new words as possible while the speaker droned on and on:


Let’s see…








You get the idea.

But the one thing that you could always count on with these speakers was that after the workshop, most of the photographers on stage would shake hands, give hugs, leave the venue, go back to their studios, pick up their cameras and continue running their photography businesses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADid they sell things? Maybe a book or a VHS. (Yes, I said VHS. The under twenty crowd might need to look that up) but that was pretty much it. They would leave their business maybe 3-4 times a year and then return again to photograph clients, sell images and do what photographers do.

Teaching provided a little income, but it was really a wash financially, as they had to take time away from their business. In fact, most couldn’t afford to be gone for too long. The focus wasn’t on selling to other photographers; it was on teaching and in so doing, bettering the industry in which they were still actively working. It was a win-win for everyone.

Fast forward to 2013.

Look around you. Uh-oh; the photography landscape has changed. It’s almost unrecognizable.

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

totoGoogle the keywords “photography workshops” and in .62 seconds you will find over 32,000,000 results. Thirty-two MILLION. These results me reaching for a Benadryl to combat the hives and a large glass of Vodka…well, there’s no real reason for the Vodka. I just like it.

You know the saying, “Everyone is a photographer?” Well, I suggest we amend that to “Everyone is giving workshops.” Because they are. And it’s easy to see why: photography workshops are a lucrative business. Who wants to be stuck shooting actual paying clients when you could be on the road or on a stage or on a DVD getting paid for telling people what they want to hear. Selling the dream.

And the touring. Oh, the touring. These photographers-turned-workshop givers have a schedule that would make even the President exhausted. Some have huge buses that would make Beyonce salivate, and will even give you a tour of the bus via their Vimeo page.

Inside you’ll find espresso machines, granite counter tops, wine bars, stone showers, a fully integrated network with Apple TV’s throughout, and even a “star bed” in the back- a master suite for the current “star of the tour.” And who says selling to photographers doesn’t pay well?

Many workshop givers also have their own online stores. If you can think of it, they sell it: online classes, webinars, weekend retreats, templates, marketing classes, DVDs, forums, online schools, actions, presets, albums, etc…which begs the question, how on earth do they find time to run their actual studios? I’ll let that question roll around in your head for a little while.

babyphotogAnd it’s not just established photographers who have jumped aboard the workshop train: we are seeing a huge influx of photographers in the business for just a year or two advertising their classes. Or mentoring. Or both. New photographers have learned quickly that workshopping is a great way to make money, especially when your actual business is struggling. And really, it’s never been easier.

Just today, I came across a online special for a $29 workshop PowerPoint kit. Everything is written out for you and ready to go. Simply insert your logo, press play, and you, too, can have your very own workshop and teach others. Well, provided you have a computer and you can read English.

We even have workshops on how to give workshops. Even better, we have non-photographers giving workshops on how to make money in photography. It’s like the industry has slipped into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Now, before you go thinking I am anti-workshop, let me assure you that I am not. There are some great ones out there, given by people who are not seeking fame or fortune as their primary objective.

flashbusProfessional photographers who KNOW what they are doing and take time out of their truly busy shooting schedules a few times a year to teach others. And I mean, really TEACH. Photographers whose names rhyme with, say, Rack Zarias, Roe McJally and Havid Dobby.

You won’t find these photographers teaching on how to organize a closet or what foods to avoid eating or giving you tips on how to have an amaaaaaaaazing marriage (yes, these are all topics found in many of today’s photography workshops) You will, however, find them teaching on what it takes to be successful, on doing things the right way.

Now, I’ve got to warn you, they won’t build into their presentations a need for the products they sell, because most simply don’t have any to sell. They aren’t going to manipulate emotions or fill hours of paid instruction time with fluff. They won’t tell you in one breath you need a marketing campaign and then turn around in the next and try to sell you theirs. At a discounted price. For TODAY only.

These guys and gals are not deriving the majority of their income from their workshops, so they aren’t going to tell you what you want to hear, but they will tell you what you need to hear; what the entire industry needs to hear to better itself.

And we would be wise to listen.

Image credits: Photo illustration based on Pixar RenderMan Technical Artist Dylan Sisson speaks to VFS students by vancouverfilmschool, spiral notebook by theilr, photo illustration based on Jedi Salesman by brad montgomery, Pajarito, pajarito by Ricardo Navarro (Doc)

  • G.Arroyo

    Well said! I also have a issue with the hard sell that goes on at many workshops.

  • KevinNewsome

    You mean there are photographers who teach photography? Sounds old school, I mean, who’s got time for learning photography? I’ve only got a year or two to get my butt on stage where the REAL money is! HAH!

    Thanks for the observant perspective. Common sense is always a refreshing change from the chaos of dreamworld!

  • Tommy Sar

    “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” – I forgot who said it.

  • Chip Kalback

    Regarding the Flash Bus tour with David Hobby and Joe McNally, I went to the Denver stop and found it to be very well worth the price of admission. It was great getting to hear what they had to say, watch them work, ask questions, etc. I would definitely go again if they did another tour in the future.

  • Guest

    If a photographer of retoucher (or any person for that matter) is going to teach me in a clear way what I need to know I couldnĀ“t care less if they haven`t shot a wedding or an ad campaign in years.

  • Edgar David

    If a photographer or retoucher (or any person for that matter) is going to teach me in a clear way what I need to know I couldnĀ“t care less if they haven`t shot a wedding or an ad campaign in years.

  • 54432324543

    well that you call it a workshop does not make it a workshop.. there are no 32 million workshops on google trust me…..

    some wannbe making a youtube video how to use the clone tool in PS or how to hold a reflector…. that is not a workshop…

  • peaceetc

    Absolutely, but that’s not the point of the article. If they are there to teach something useful, then more power to them. If they’re there to sell themselves, that’s different. A lot of the “rockstars” nowadays are personalities who want to sell, sell, sell, and will do whatever it takes to make money. They don’t care about photography.

  • Edgar David

    What is “to care about photography” for you? And It is a sincere question and not a sarcastic one by the way :-)

  • Jason Kirby

    This reminds me of Gary Fong’s “So You Want to Be a Rockstar Photographer”, I could not agree more, but my only point to bring up is “photographers” would not be selling to other photographers if they were not buying it. I always encourage my students to do their research and make sure they are getting value whether I am teaching them or someone else is. There are definitely a lot of people that should not be teaching, we have people in our town copying our business model identically, but they never last because they don’t add real value and don’t truly care about their student’s progress.

    It is nice to see posts and content like this to keep people aware that not everyone out there should be on stage taking their money.

  • peaceetc

    Honestly, the people I’m talking about could be giving workshops to anyone and have the same content. As Ms. Frost said in the article, they talk about things like marriages, food, and clothing, which is silly stuff but it’s stuff they can make money on. Some people make their money on the backs of photographers, expecting them to fund their lifestyles while getting very little in return. Obviously, people don’t have to follow them, but they target newbies who don’t know any better.

    I’m much more interested in those who actually want to help people get better as photographers. Those who want to make money, yes, but they aren’t out to make millions of dollars and have fancy tour buses and electric cars, they truly want to help the industry.

  • Chris Newhall

    I went to the Seattle one and agree with you completely. Very informative and educational while remaining pretty darn inexpensive.

  • Edgar David

    Yeah, that is true… And it is happening in every industry. Tim Ferris comes to mind :-) Google his name if you dont know about him.

  • Mary

    Can you name some names? I’d like to see if you are referring to any of the photogs I currently follow….

  • Abby Normal

    and we simply say… amen

  • Gregg Le Blanc

    Another name for off-camera flash and advanced lighting, who is GREAT at what he teaches is Syl Arena.

    His method is intense (4-5 days of shooting, critique, and positive-but-tough hands-on work with gear / model / scene setup). He is Canon-centric, but does know Nikon stuff too. He gears the course work to your level, but expects a LOT out of you. He does have 2 books that are good references.

  • Richard Ford

    teach….or write about it. Yes famous saying.

  • Jack

    Thinly veiled shot at Jasmine Starr is thinly veiled.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Except teaching is a completely separate and real skill in itself and many who can do ‘stuff’ who then try and teach their ‘stuff’ are utter rubbish at it.
    And teaching kids is a different skillset from teaching adults too – way harder!

  • ilo_photo

    I’m quite sure that “amaaaazing marriage” dig was aimed squarely at the CONNECT retreat we attended (and are attending again next year) just a couple months ago, but if I could offer even just a slight rebuttal: that retreat was for married, Christian couples, who also just happened to be in the photography industry. I’d say the split between marriage and faith-based teaching and sharing vs photography business or shooting tips was about 95% vs 5%.
    I pretty much agree with everything else in this article, though, and we have been left scratching our heads more than once when a new and very green local photographer suddenly announces their workshop or that they are mentoring!

  • eric

    Those who can do, those who understand teach.

  • Jeremy Lawrence

    Indeed. In the main martial art I did, you had to have taught in order to gain your black belt. To be able to teach you have to understand what you are talking about, as opposed to just blindly copying what someone has shown you.

  • Helmut Newton

    This trend is not surprising at all, considering the number of people who are mediocre photographers, but excel in marketing and salesmanship.

  • ilo_photo

    I wouldn’t put those two in the “here’s your workshop template” beginner category the author is speaking of here though; those (esp McNally) are some solid names!

  • Chip Kalback

    No I’m not at all. As the author said in the blog post, there are some great workshops out there and I wanted to reiterate that the Flash Bus workshops were one of them!

  • Werner

    My workshop is now discounted–you get a free ‘un with every shoot you book. And a big @ss canvas that looks like it was spray-painted. Seriously though, this phenomenon is not unique to photography. “Teaching”, webinars and howto products dominate every sector. Amongst the gravel exists some real gold if you know where to dig. The best workshop I’ve attended was hosted by Jonas Peterson. And I’m not even a wedding photographer. The trick is not to fool yourself into thinking that hearing or reading about photography is the same as actually doing the work.