I have had the good fortune to present photography workshops for the past 15 years. I generally focus on lighting for beauty, but I’ve covered other topics as well, including how to pose a subject so it looks natural on camera. I have also participated in many workshops of well-known photographers and lesser-known names. Being on both sides of the desk, I developed a good understanding of what makes a good photography workshop. Here are 3 tips you might consider if you find yourself tasked with presenting a photography workshop.
Don’t take your audience for granted
Be sure to deliver everything promised in the workshop description. I once attended a workshop presented by a photographer who had promised to do a portrait 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 even knows what specific workshop he promised to present at this event. Because I had presented several workshops at this particular camera store where this was presented, I was invited to attend the workshop at no cost. Towards the end of the presentation, one of the participants asked the presenter when he would be photographing portraits for the participants, as promised in the description of the workshop. The presenter said he didn’t bring any lights and wasn’t ready to photograph the attendees. The entrant pointed out that the description stated that each entrant would receive a free portrait. Since I hadn’t paid for this workshop, it didn’t concern me, but I was shocked that someone could be so cavalier in promising something and not delivering it.
Another situation I have encountered frequently is when the presenter is running out of time and unable to present certain aspects of the workshop that were promised to paying attendees. I remember attending a workshop on how to use color gels for creative looks. The presenter started with a monologue about the existence of 2 types of gels – creative and corrective. He explained how you could use a green gel to counteract the color tone of ambient fluorescent lighting. Then he talked about CTO gels and informed everyone that the initials stood for orange color temperature. None of this was relevant to the subject the audience wanted to learn. As expected, the audience had a limited time to photograph the model under colored gels as he wasted a lot of time talking about things unrelated to the subject the audience wanted to learn about.
In a shooting, posing or lighting workshop, the public is there to learn a solution to a problem they encounter or they are there to learn a new technique. Your job as a presenter is not to show everything you know about photography. Your job is to provide the specific information the audience needs to improve their photography. Lack of time is an unacceptable excuse for why you haven’t delivered 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 coming and ask if anything has been confusing so far. Guide them through the shooting process.
Make sure your attendees are having fun
Create a balance between teaching and practical application. For me, an ideal workshop provides instruction on a specific topic and also allows participants to take photos. I attended events that were nothing more than paid opportunities for amateur photographers to take pictures. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when the host isn’t qualified to teach anything. Many photographers never have the opportunity to shoot in the studio and some have never worked with an agency model. It is therefore valuable to give these photographers the opportunity to take photos that they could not take otherwise. However, this type of event should not be called a workshop or seminar. It’s a shooting opportunity and nothing more. Towards the end of my studio days, I started offering these types of shooting opportunities and described them as Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp for photographers. If something is labeled as a workshop, however, there should be instructions.
Teaching is not the alpha and omega of a photographic workshop. Having the ability to take photos is fun for any photographer and having the presenter there to critique the images and help set up the shot is invaluable. A workshop may also provide an opportunity for a participant to use lighting or photographic equipment that they would not otherwise have access to. However, the presenter must ensure that everyone has a fair amount of time to film. This means that the workshop should not be overbooked. And when shooting time is offered, the studio should allow enough time for everyone to get a decent shot.
You’re the presenter, but it’s not about you
Keep “Helicopter” stories to a minimum. Helicopter story is a term I coined to describe a self-centered, outlandish, boastful story that serves no purpose other than letting you know how cool the storyteller is. It looks like this: “…and they had told us several times that the area was closed to all photographers. But let me tell you something, at 7:15 p.m. I was hanging out of a helicopter window with a Nikon Z 9 and a 70-200 f/2.8 VR lens, 20 feet above this volcano, the sweat dripping on my camera, and I got this shot.
Photography is a participatory sport. Not a spectator. When people attend the workshop, they do so because they want to learn how to get vaccinated. They are less interested in how you got the hang of it. There is a place where the presenter can show her work and explain all the elements that came together to create the final image. And this information can indeed be valuable to the participant. There’s also a point where these stories, how I got the pictures, are just selfish and overbearing. When the point of the story is to let you know how cool the storyteller is, it’s not fair for the listener to pay to hear that story. It’s best if personal stories offer insight into the shot when things aren’t going well, or offer a point of view that participants might never have considered.
As the workshop facilitator, it may be helpful for the participants if you take pictures. They can learn by observing your process. If you’re showing a lighting setup or talking about your subject’s posing methods, it’s good to prove you know what you’re talking about by taking a few photos during the workshop. However, the attendees didn’t pay you to sit and watch you take photos for your portfolio. So make sure your shot serves a purpose that benefits the audience.
Have a lesson plan for what you will teach, but be flexible based on the needs of the participants. If the goal of your workshop is to pose, but you see that the participants are weak in the area of lighting, you can spend time on a topic that you know will benefit your audience. The audience should feel like you are teaching the people in the room. If it seems like you’re just going through the steps and presenting the same workshop for them that you’ve presented 100 times in the past, they may feel disconnected. It may seem like you have no real connection to the people in the room. You’re just here to do what you did in Ohio last month and your main concern is getting your check at the end of the workshop. It’s best to have a plan for what you’re going to teach, but monitor your audience to gauge how you might modify the presentation to best benefit those in the room that day. You can even do a quick oral or written questionnaire before the workshop starts asking what participants hope to learn. This exercise can also help you determine the skill level of the people in the room and this information can be used to further refine your presentation for that specific group.
Share the spotlight. Let your audience ask questions and allow your answers to become discussions. Let participants share short stories about their experiences behind the camera. In the clip below, notice how willing I am to share the spotlight with the contestants playing the part of a cold approach to a stranger. Remember that audience members can also be a great source of knowledge for each other. You might be an expert in lighting a beauty shot and people in the audience are eager to learn from you, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only person in the room with knowledge to to share. If you position yourself as someone who is knowledgeable but always ready 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 your suggestions for a presenter?