What Makes A Good Photography Workshop?

Several people have asked us this question recently.

I can think of dozens of things that go into making a good workshop, but have laboriously boiled them down to the ones that our experiences have shown to be the most important.

  1. Fun
  2. Focused
  3. Educational
  4. Good workshop leaders

Fun – The workshop topic has to be something that is fun to do while giving the participants the opportunity to successfully take good photos. If the participants are having fun and taking good photos, they will learn – which is our main goal.

The workshop topic should usually be something the participants won’t or can’t do on their own, given their current photography skills. We usually propose new workshops to a group and judge their reactions to the different ideas to pick the best topics for that particular group. It will be fun for them only if they are interested in the topic!

Focused – Workshop focus usually involves simplicity… A workshop has to have a fairly limited topic. We usually pick one activity, and then try to develop minor variations on that activity to give variety while staying focused on the topic. This is usually a balancing act, but both the focus and variety are needed to keep the workshop fun but manageable.

For example, a soap bubble photography workshop should use different liquids to give both plain and colorful bubbles. It should also involve using different wands to give single bubbles for a while, progressing to lots of simultaneous single bubbles, then clusters of lots of connected bubbles. Variations to consider for multiple workshops could include photographing just the bubbles, photographing children having fun blowing and chasing bubbles, photographing various objects such as motorcycles or models surrounded by bubbles, etc. But these major variations should not be attempted in one workshop; they should be designed as workshop variations to be conducted at different times.

Unless the workshop is about lighting, the lighting (and other parameters such as backgrounds, etc.) should just be there, and should not be a focus of most participants’ attention. We try to squeegee water drops off the front and back of the aquarium between fruit splash drops while participants are looking at and showing off their latest set of photos so that our cleanup is almost unnoticed.

Educational – Workshops should give participants practice using skills, knowledge, or camera settings/functions which they haven’t yet mastered. But they should also frequently reinforce topics that have already been taught in classes or demonstrations.

Look at our workshop galleries for a few of the educational topics that our workshops emphasize. You’ll see things such as gradient lighting, motion blur, composition, stop-action, etc. We deliberately design workshops to teach and reinforce certain skills as much as possible.

At a recent workshop one lady exclaimed “I learned three new things today!” In spite of having discussed or demonstrated all three things in previous classes, actually using those skills and seeing the results as she took photos made her feel she had actually LEARNED them. (And now she has!)

This is one of our main goals in presenting workshops as a major part of an educational series. We have found that a mix of at least as many workshops or practice sessions as lessons gives the best and fastest results with most photography students/participants.

Good workshop leaders – I’ve attended and observed workshops where the leaders seemed to be following a script and they weren’t about to deviate from it, by golly. That’s not the way to conduct a good workshop.

Leaders have to encourage participants to try new things and to get their creative juices flowing. Photographers learn from experimentation, and even from failures. Good leaders have to be willing to allow that flexibility, even if they think it will result in poor photos. After all, the workshop design and setup almost guarantee good photos before jumping into experimentation, right?  🙂

We always give the participants an outline of the workshop activities, usually verbally. We explain the setup, including lighting, background, suggested initial camera settings, etc. We tell them the main activities and variations and tell them “We’ll all take photos of each variation, and then we’ll play.” During each of the variations we listen for people to suggest things they wonder about or would like to try. “Turn off all the lights at one end of the aquarium during strawberry splash? Of course we’ll try that.” We then point out the resulting shadows and watch to see how the participants handle it, and provide help with adjusting camera settings, etc. as needed. If we have a shy group and get no suggestions we introduce it as a question. “What would happen to the photos if we turn off all the lights at one end of the aquarium?”

Letting the participants suggest and try new variations is part of the fun and learning experience.

So, fun, focus on the theme of the workshop, education through variations, and leaders who actively encourage experimentation are key ingredients for a good workshop.

Please leave comments and suggestions on this topic. What things are important to you for a good workshop or photo outing?

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