I’ve been fortunate present photography workshops over the past 15 years. My focus is usually on lighting for beauty, but I’ve presented on other topics as well including how to pose a subject so they look natural on camera. I’ve also attended many workshops from both well-known photographers and lesser-known names as well. From being on both sides of the lectern, I’ve developed a good understanding of what makes a good photography workshop. Here are 3 tips you might consider should you find yourself tasked with presenting a photography workshop.
Don’t Take Your Audience for Granted
Be sure to deliver everything that was promised in the workshop description. I once attended a workshop presented by a photographer who had promised to shoot a headshot for each of the participants. The photographer was a sponsored photographer who regularly presented workshops on a variety of topics. I don’t think he was even aware of which specific workshop he had promised to present at this event. Because I had presented several workshops at this particular camera store where this was being presented, I was invited to attend the workshop at no cost. Near the end of the presentation, one of the attendees asked the presenter when he would be photographing headshots for the participants as was promised in the workshop description. The presenter said he had not brought lighting and was not prepared to photograph the attendees. The participant pointed out that the description said each participant would receive a free headshot. Since I hadn’t paid for this workshop it was of no concern to me, but I was shocked that someone could be so cavalier about promising something and not delivering it.
Another situation I have encountered frequently is where the presenter runs out of time and is unable to present some aspect of the workshop that was promised to the paid attendees. I recall being at a workshop on how to use colored gels for creative looks. The presenter started with a monologue about there being 2 types of gels — creative and corrective. He explained how you might use a green gel to counter the color tone of ambient fluorescent lighting. Then he talked about CTO gels and informed everyone that the initials stood for color temperature orange. None of this was relevant to the topic that the audience wanted to learn. As might be expected, the audience had limited time to photograph the model under colored gels because so much time had been wasted talking about things that were unrelated to the topic that the audience wanted to learn.
In a shooting, posing, or lighting workshop, the audience is there to learn a solution to a problem they are having or they are there to learn a new technique. Your job as the presenter isn’t to show off how much you know about photography. Your job is to provide the specific information the audience needs to improve their photography. Running out of time is an unacceptable excuse for why you didn’t deliver something you promised. Create a schedule for what you will present and follow it. During the shooting portion of the workshop, walk around and connect with as many participants as possible. Thank them for attending and ask them if anything has been confusing so far. Guide them through the shooting process.
Ensure Your Participants are Having Fun
Create a balance between instruction and practical application. For me, an ideal workshop provides instruction on a specific topic and also allows for the participants to take photographs. I’ve attended events that were nothing more than paid opportunities for amateur photographers to take photos. There is nothing wrong with that, especially when the host isn’t qualified to teach anything. Many photographers never get a chance to shoot in a studio and some have never worked with an agency model, so providing an opportunity for these shooters to take photographs that they could not otherwise take, is valuable. However, this type of event should not be labeled as a workshop or seminar. This is a shooting opportunity and nothing more. Towards the end of the time when I had my studio, I started offering these types of shooting opportunities and I described them as Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp for photographers. If something is labeled as a workshop, however, there should be instruction.
Instruction is not the be-all and end-all of a photographic workshop. Having an opportunity to take photographs is fun for any photographer and having the presenter there to critique the images and assist in setting up the shot is invaluable. A workshop may also provide an opportunity for a participant to use lighting or camera gear that they would not otherwise have access to. The presenter must ensure that everyone gets a fair time to shoot, however. That means the workshop should not be overbooked. And when the time to shoot is offered, the workshop should allow enough time for everyone to get a decent shot.
You Are the Presenter, but It’s Not About You
Keep the “Helicopter” stories to a minimum. Helicopter story is a term I coined to describe a self-centered, outlandish, braggadocious story that serves no other point than to let you know how cool the storyteller is. It sounds like this, “…and they had told us repeatedly that the area was closed to all photographers. But let me tell you something, at 7:15 pm I was hanging out of the window of a helicopter with a Nikon Z 9 and a 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens, 20 feet above that volcano, with sweat dripping onto my camera, and I got that shot.”
Photography is a participant sport. Not a spectator one. When people attend the workshop they do so because they want to learn how they can get the shot. They are less interested in how you got the shot. There is a place for the presenter to show her work and explain all the elements that came together to create the final image. And that information can indeed be valuable to the attendee. There is also a point where these, how I got the shot stories are just self-serving and overbearing. When the point of the story is to let you know how cool the storyteller is, it isn’t fair that the listener pays to hear that story. It is best when personal stories offer some insight into getting the shot when things don’t go well or offer a point of view that might have never occurred to the participants.
As the facilitator of the workshop, it can be helpful to the participants for you to take photographs. They can learn from watching your process. If you are showing a lighting setup or talking about methods of posing your subject, it is good to prove you know what you are talking about by taking some photographs during the workshop. However, the attendees haven’t paid you to sit and watch you shoot images for your portfolio. So make sure your shooting serves a purpose that benefits the audience.
Have a lesson plan for what you will teach, but be flexible to the needs of the attendees. If the focus of your workshop is on posing, but you see the attendees are weak in the area of lighting it is ok to spend time on a subject that you know will be of benefit to your audience. The audience should feel like you are teaching the people in the room. If it seems you are just going through the motions and presenting the same workshop for them that you have presented 100 times in the past, they may feel disconnected. It can feel like you have no real connection to the people in the room. You are just there to do what you did in Ohio last month and your main concern is getting your check when the workshop is over. It is better to have a plan for what you will teach but monitor your audience to assess how you might tweak the presentation so that it is of maximum benefit to the people in the room on this day. You can even do a quick verbal or written questionnaire before the start of the workshop asking what the attendees hope to learn. This exercise can also help you determine the skill level of the people in the room and that information can be used to further tweak your presentation for this specific group.
Share the spotlight. Let your audience ask questions and allow your answers to become discussions. Let attendees share brief stories about their experiences behind the camera. In the clip below, notice how willing I am to share the spotlight with the attendees who are role-playing a cold approach to a stranger. Remember that audience members can be a great source of knowledge for each other as well. You may be an expert on lighting a beauty shot and people in the audience are eager to learn from you, but that doesn’t mean you are the only person in the room with knowledge to share. If you position yourself as someone who is knowledgeable but still willing to learn, you will find that your audience is willing to share their knowledge.
If you have ever attended a photography workshop, what was the experience like? What are some suggestions you’d offer for a presenter?