Photography Workshops: Everything a Photographer Needs to Know

15 years ago, photo workshops were not yet a thing. You could sign up for a photo excursion on a cruise ship or other tour for which you had no instruction, but dedicated, stand-alone photo workshops were not really prevalent until around 10 years ago. Today, there is hardly a corner of the world or subject matter that is not served by a photo workshop.

You can book a tour in Kansas that does storm chasing, go to Antarctica, or learn how to shoot (photograph) basketball. You can go to Fairbanks, Alaska to stand out in minus 25 degree temperatures hoping for an aurora borealis. There’s a guy in Washington state that does forced-march backcountry hiking excursions for the ex-Marine mindset to get into remote wilderness areas; this trip is only for those who WANT to be monumentally uncomfortable. If you believe his website, he sells out every one.

And, there’s a very well-known photographer who shall remain nameless — were I to mention his name you’d recognize it immediately — took 47 people to Italy one year at $6,700 a person. That workshop did not repeat.

Types of Photography Workshops

What has evolved are basically four types of photo workshop companies.

Workshop Type #1. Huge student factories that hire guides to take groups. Itineraries and schedules are rigid. You have no idea who’s leading your group. Yes, they give you his or her name, a two-sentence resume, and a small snapshot of someone you’ve more than likely never heard of. There is a degree of potluck involved here. You can get a great guide and a meaningful experience, but the rigidity of schedules and itineraries means you may well walk away from developing shooting opportunities that did not fit the schedule. Cry in your camera bag.

Workshop Type #2. Folks who lead their own workshops to an area in which they are experts . Itineraries are very fluid and, especially in landscape workshops, react to weather conditions quickly to decide on shooting locations. Individual attention is usually very good.

Workshop Type #3. Boutique workshops, highly specialized in both subject and geographic locations, and vary greatly in specialty; studio portrait, boudoir, outdoor portrait, sports, birds, Kodiak grizzly bears, wild horses, flowers, studio equipment, high-fashion or glamour featuring scantily clad “models”, the list goes on.

Workshop Type #4. Tours. They offer no photography instruction, only a ride or car-pool to various shooting locations in a geographic region. Often they drive busses of 28 people and stop for a few minutes in this or that guidebook vista. These are not necessarily bad, just know what you’re getting into. These are great to quickly gain an orientation of the lay of the land for future solo exploration, but do not count on being able to sporadically change the schedule because you sense a shooting setup. Ain’t happening.

So… Google: “[location] or [subject] photo workshops” and you’ll probably find several choices from which to choose. Therein lies the conundrum; how to choose.

But in order to get to that answer, let’s talk about you. What is it you hope to achieve in attending a workshop?

An outdoor photography workshop. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 NL.

Types of Photo Workshop Students

There are three basic types of workshop students.

Photographer Type #1. Those who want to learn the art of photography, both from a technical and artistic point of view. They are beginners, possibly newly retired, who want to elevate their game. They have decent equipment, based on what the camera store salesman recommended, and a couple of good lenses, but really have not mastered their equipment and want to improve. They have a thousand questions and are eager to learn and absorb every tidbit of knowledge they can accumulate. They exclaim with glee at learning a new shooting technique or technical shortcut. (Most workshop students are this person)

Photographer Type #2. There are those who do not need help with their equipment. They’ve mastered the technical aspects of their hobby, they just want someone who knows the geographic region or subject matter of the workshop. They have excellent equipment and several good lenses in a variety of focal lengths. They want to make their own decisions and only need a guide to show them the shooting locations. Often they are quiet, ask zero questions, are not particularly outgoing, and stay to themselves. Or, the outgoing, friendly ones in this category are happy to answer technical questions about equipment for other students and enjoy contributing to the overall experience. This person is the workshop leaders’ favorite student.

Photographer Type #3. And then, there are photographers who want time away from their spouses or an out-of-town excursion with a friend. They travel in photo workshops for the perceived safety in numbers. They laugh it up, talk about every subject except photography, and although they are not the least bit interested in photography, they make a cursory effort to shoot every now and again only enough to perpetuate the ruse. Don’t get me wrong; they fit right in keeping the mood light and relaxed, and are friendly and sometimes the life of the party. Fun to have around, but just not particularly interested in photography. This type is rare, but they are out there, just so you know.

Now, there’s not a single thing wrong with any of these basic student types. I offer these observations only to point out that photography workshops are a people business. And it follows that the people who conduct workshops are as varied as the students who sign up. In order to avoid disappointment and a waste of time and money, it’s important to develop the skill of picking a workshop that will fit your needs and temperament.

You obviously know what you want, I’m sure you knew which of the 3 types of students you were as you read the descriptions above. So… How can you know, or at least how can you drastically reduce your chance of disappointment when choosing?

A wedding photography workshop on a beach.

How to Choose a Photography Workshop

The first thing; look at the website. This is the center of the universe in sizing up a workshop. You’re going to look for the following attributes:

#1. Quick loading with obvious use of current web development technology. Old, static, outdated Dreamweaver and even FrontPage websites built for 640 screen resolution are obvious. Move on when you see this.

#2. You should immediately see what they are specializing in. It should jump in your lap immediately. If not, move on. Anyone who puts up a website and cannot convey immediately what they are selling is running a train wreck workshop. If you have to play detective to figure out the basic stuff, move on to the next possibility.

#3. Navigation of the website is also a very close third place in importance. You need to be able to quickly find info on location(s), lodging, duration, time of year, maximum group size, cost, cancelation policy, and FAQs. So many workshop websites hide the cost until the very end, sometimes even in their online shopping cart which is way too late to reveal that important information.

#4. There should be easy-to-find contact information for both phone and email. Check to see if the bottom header of the website indicates the current year.

#5. Look at the galleries; if the description says “Our most recent outing” and the shots are all 3 or 4 years old, not good. Same for the specific class offerings. If they are still posting classes for dates that have clearly passed, move on. If they don’t care about their own website enough to keep it current, they will not care about you in the field.

Contact the Photography Workshop

Next, if you find an operator who looks interesting and passes the above attributes, send a dummy-question email and call the phone number to see how you are treated. If your email goes unanswered for more than 36 hours, or your phone call is either not answered immediately or the message is not returned the same day, it’s an indication of how you are going to be treated on location.

Let’s say your phone call and email are responded to; how do they treat you? Especially on the phone, are they paying attention to your questions, do they respond with interest? Are they patiently listening as you frame your question? Are they taking the time to make sure all your questions are answered and not trying to end the call? Do they remember your name?

Now, all this may seem like small things, but this will be an indication of how you will be treated in the field when you get there. If you are looking for instruction and attention, this may not be for you if you sense a disconnect. On the other hand, if all you want is a tour guide, you may still find this workshop might work for you.

So, your choice hits the bullet points, you sign up and submit your deposit or full-pay. Look for a confirmation within 24 hours. You should have information about workshop travel logistics, schedules for the first meeting, lodging choices, etc. If your choice of workshops passes the above requirements, you probably will have no problem with the rest. But, if you do not get a confirmation within 24 hours, submit a gentle reminder that it hasn’t been received and you should get their attention.

Photographers on a street in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Pricing of Photography Workshops

There are some things I would like to note about the pricing of photography workshops.

All-Inclusive vs Workshop-Only

Now, as for the issue of “all-inclusive” or “workshop-only” in the price. Some people like the all-inclusive where all lodging, meals, and transportation are included. I can’t advise you on this issue. But what I can say is, don’t be afraid of workshop-only pricing. YOU control the quality of your lodging. You can control your meals, especially if you adhere to a special diet.

Drive your own car, be it your personal vehicle or a rental. You may find you are in the wrong workshop or an emergency occurs at home and you have to leave early. Or the opposite, you had the time of your life, you learned TONS and you want to extend your visit and explore on your own.

Often you can save money doing it a-la-carte because if pricing is all-inclusive, you can bet the operator has built-in cost padding to account for the unexpected. This is not an abusive practice or a bad thing, it’s the necessary function in order to ensure the operator can deliver what was promised and to hedge against the unexpected.

Beware of Workshops That Are ‘On Sale’

One additional point on pricing; anytime you see a workshop go “on sale”, meaning the operator is discounting his price, it’s a sure sign he’s having trouble filling the class. Typically, the class size is currently just barely enough to prevent cancellation, so they discount to add bodies in order to not have to do refunds. This might be an opportunity to save money, but also be aware there is a stronger chance of cancellation. Make SURE you read the cancellation policy thoroughly before plopping down your money.

Don’t Be a Rude Cheapskate

Another consideration on price; Photographers can frequently be notorious skinflints. Cheapos in the extreme. Part of the appeal of the entire hobby for this person is being able to engage in the activity with a minimum of expense; they buy only used equipment, make things in their garage “that work”, travel in off-seasons, etc. So, they look for the least expensive workshop and publicly criticize online if they think something is overpriced.

Leading a workshop has become a very expensive enterprise. Lodging costs are skyrocketing, gas and travel expenses, food, car rentals, insurance, advertising, and even online payment processing are all rising to dizzying levels. In national parks, the requirements for permits to operate a workshop are absurd. Many workshop operators are pulling out of national parks for that very reason; for example, in Yosemite National Park, fully 50% of workshops that used to operate prior to the COVID-19 pandemic have elected not to renew their permits for 2022.

If you want a good experience from a long-standing workshop operator who has a long history in the geographic region or subject matter, just pay the man (or woman). If you can’t afford it, save your pennies for when you can. Don’t send malicious or unpleasant emails or dicker on price.

However, one legitimate question may allow you to save some bucks; find out if they allow your non-photographer wife or husband to tag along. Some do allow it, and it’s worth asking to avoid paying full price for someone who just wants to go with their spouse.

Well, there you have it. Put this information to work and it’s a safe bet you won’t regret your decision to sign up for your next workshop.

Image credits: Header photo by Phil Hawkins, and stock photos from Depositphotos