Like any other photographer, I’m always looking for ways to improve my skills. There are a lot of options out there: books, magazines, community college classes, online videos (free and $$$) and local photography clubs. And then there are the photo workshops — they’re everywhere. I’ve attended two workshops in the past few months, and while that certainly doesn’t make me an expert, I do now feel like I know what to look for in the next one. (I’m not including the San Francisco stop of the FlashBus 2011 Tour, which was fun, but more of an event than a workshop.)
In March I attended a workshop led by Derrick Story. A good friend, Scott Loftesness, had been to one of Derrick’s earlier workshops and enjoyed it. Since I was able to talk Scott into trying another one with me, and because Derrick’s classroom and studio are in Santa Rosa, California (just an hour from home), it was a low-risk investment. The two-day workshop included eight students and cost $495. Derrick provides lunch both days, but you’ve got to get yourself to Santa Rosa and pay for a hotel room unless you’re local.
Two weeks ago I went to a very different kind of workshop: the Mentor Series Photo Trek in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This three-day program had 37 students, two instructors, a bus and driver for the first two days and cost $1,000, which included no food, housing or transportation to/from the event. Mentor Series is owned by Popular Photography and runs about a half-dozen workshops each year all over the world.
So how did they compare? In the case of the Mentor Series Trek, it’s “trek” that’s the operative word. It’s more about the location and somewhat less about photography. Yes, the attendees are all photographers (some with some very fancy gear) but you spend virtually all your time on the go. The first two days we were on the bus getting from one scenic location to the next a few hours each day, and once we arrived, there were often miles of walking to do. Beautiful scenery to be sure, but more hiking than shooting. And certainly not a lot of time to stop and “work” a subject for an extended period. The best shooting was actually the day they dumped the bus and we walked the city of Santa Fe on foot: once at sunrise and once at sunset. [Santa Fe is one of the best cities I’ve ever shot in. You could easily spend two or three days just walking its streets with a camera. Great art and architecture, terrific light and shadows, and a community that is very accepting of (and used to) photographers wandering around.]
By comparison, Derrick Story’s workshops often include a location such as a local safari park or (as next month) an early morning balloon launch, but there’s usually just one outside event per weekend. The rest of the time is spent in his studio — he usually includes at least one model session — and in the classroom. And it’s the classroom (and the class size) that really sets the two experiences apart. Derrick spends some of his time actually teaching from a podium and he gives the students actual assignments. For example, he might send you into the studio to shoot a model using only a single strobe. That’s something you can do when there are only eight students and they break into groups of four. With 37 students — forget it; everyone is on their own.
This brings up the question of why take one of these workshops at all. Professional photographers on assignment are obviously going to shoot a lot. But we serious amateurs have an interesting challenge. When my wife and I recently went to Egypt, I would have loved to have been able to stop and spend an hour or two studying the light and playing with the composition at each location. I would have given up half or more of the less-visually interesting sites in order to have more time at a few of the good ones. But that’s just me. My wife doesn’t particularly enjoy standing around while I study and experiment, and certainly the 22 other non-photographers in our tour group wouldn’t stand for it.
In one sense this is the role that weekend or weeklong workshops play. They allow the serious amateur to immerse him/herself in photography, surrounded by other photographers in a context where their peculiar habits of stopping, studying and shooting are socially acceptable. I imagine this is why Trekkies go to conventions. Wearing Mr. Spock ears to the grocery store is going to earn you some very strange looks. At a workshop you can truly geek out. Even when you’re on a bus, it’s all photography. All the time.
And what about the other students? Looking back, it’s not too surprising that a group of 37 would include a wider range than one of only eight. But I was surprised that the Mentor Series Trek included same true novices, some with the most expensive DSLRs. There were times when the instructors had to explain the relationship of aperture to shutter speed and ISO, and that surprised me. The instructors were even cornered by students with questions like, “What is ISO and how do I set it on my camera?” or “How do I focus this camera?” (Perhaps not surprisingly, some of these technically naive students sometimes produced some of the compositionally most exciting pictures.) In the smaller group of Derrick Story’s workshop, the range of skills was somewhat narrower although it still varied more than you might expect. Derrick does a good job of giving assignments that are applicable to each student’s skills.
In Santa Fe, I had relatively little access to the instructors given the 1:18.5 ratio as opposed to 1:8 at Derrick Story’s workshop. But even in Santa Fe, they were there if you had an important question. Towards the end of the Mentor Series weekend each student had the chance to show each of the instructors five images for critique (ten images total), and those sessions were quite valuable. We each got four or five minutes of constructive criticism that was appropriate for our skills.
Another benefit of any workshop or joining a photo club is the chance to see how other photographers interpret the same objects and locations. This happens in both the small and large workshops. No matter your level of experience, there are always those moments of, “Wow, I missed that!” that are truly educational.
So which of these two (or any other) do I recommend? It depends on what you want, of course. If pure learning is your goal, then I’d recommend a workshop with the smallest number of students, even a day of one-on-one. And I wouldn’t worry about finding the absolutely best photographer. So long as it’s someone whose work you respect and has been shooting it for a lot longer than you, you’re going to learn. Of course, reviews and opinions of previous students will help a lot.
On the other hand, if it’s a destination you particularly want to shoot or if you particularly want to travel, a larger more-distant workshop might be better for you. Mentor Series, for example, runs treks to places like Switzerland, London, Hawaii, Sedona and Wyoming. If you’re drawn to one of those locations and you want to experience the places in the context of photography, these might be better choices for you.
As for me? My prejudices probably show through in this blog post. I’m signed up for Derrick Story’s Hot Air Balloon Photo Workshop in a few weeks. None of the Mentor Series treks are on my calendar. I’m going to continue looking for small-group workshops that I can get to without hopping on an airplane. I’m also going to spend as much time as possible taking photo walks with friends. For example, tomorrow Scott and I will be shooting at the San Mateo Maker Faire as we did together last year. It’s tremendously visual and there’s enough to keep you engaged for a full day or more.