Behind the Camera: My View on Workshops

· Reading Time: 12 minutes

Welcome back to another installment of my Behind the Camera series.  This is a feature that I do on the first of each month where I go into detail about a question or situation that has arisen over the previous month.  I try to give a little insight into what makes me tick through these entries.  The topic for this month’s feature came to me early on in the month when I was hosting my Spring Decay Workshop.  This was only my second workshop, so admittedly, I was still learning a lot from an instructor standpoint.  I always ask for feedback from my participants to see how things went and what I could improve on for future workshops.  This one had some really good feedback and comparisons to other workshops which had been attended in the past.  This was very important to me since I have never actually participated in a workshop before.  Yeah, that makes it kind of difficult to go out and plan and host on your own when you really don’t know how they are supposed to go.  That leads me to the topic of this month’s Behind the Camera…How do I actually conduct a workshop?

Well, since I have no basis for how a workshop should go, I have been kind of winging it in a way.  Well, there is a little more to it than that.  I have wanted to go to a workshop in the past, and have looked at several of them.  I always ran into two difficulties right off the bat with them.  First is the cost.  They are expensive, with some getting close to $3,000 or more for a couple of days.  Second, they are always to places that require lots of travel to get to, which is even more money.  The whole idea of a workshop is to learn a type of photography from somebody who you think has something to offer.  The last thing I want to do is to spend that kind of money on travel to get to a once in a lifetime location where my main goal is to learn, and not really to capture the best light, or the best images.  I actually would expect my images to be a little less polished than my normal images because of learning different techniques and paying attention to the different concepts that I would be exposed to.  In the end, I would just want to come back and shoot it again on my own after polishing my techniques.  This seems a little counter intuitive to what a workshop should be about.

So much of photography really depends on the weather, and there is no way to plan the weather so far in advance.  Most of my treks are determined minutes before I leave the house after having a broad idea of what I might want to capture based on the forecasted weather patterns.  I would hate to spend thousands of dollars and travel for several days to be met with less than promising conditions.  That has been what has kept me from going on a workshop so far.  I just continue to teach myself as I always have, and at my own pace.  This has worked out great, but has caused a very lengthy learning curve.

When the idea was presented for me to start doing workshops, I immediately declined because I had no idea how one should be run, nor the mechanics behind it.  The more I thought about it though, the more I started to realize that I actually knew how a workshop should be run for my needs at least.  It didn’t have to be a stellar location, there didn’t need to be a bunch of pomp and circumstance surrounding it, it just needed to be an educational experience for reasonable cost.  My idea of a workshop has always been an educational experience, first and foremost, which leads me to something that I learned over my last workshop.

While speaking with one of my participants, I actually learned about several of her experiences with various workshops she had attended.  These experiences confirmed some of my fears about spending that kind of money to go on a workshop.  I’m not sure how many are run like this, so it might be isolated, but her story rang true with me.  She had attended one workshop where the group waited at the gates for a park to open only to rush in and get to the proper location for the sunrise shot.  The host got everything set up for their shot and did their thing for their own photograph.  The group either watched, or shot their own sunrise images.  While there is nothing wrong with this, I personally would have felt very cheated if I had paid money to watch a photographer take their own images.  Sure, I was there and could shoot my own pictures, but I could do that for free on my own time.

She continued to tell me examples where the groups were left to their own devices during workshops with very minimal instruction and no one on one time.  On another workshop, a co-host actually did break away and spent a while helping her find a specific subject in the area that they were shooting.  This was remembered fondly and something of a standout in workshops that she had attended.  She didn’t say anything about any instruction that happened after they found the particular subject, but she was happy that the time was spent.  Most of the time though, she found that workshops were more about watching a photographer creating their own images for their own portfolios.

I don’t wish to talk bad about other workshops, but I wanted to explain the reasoning behind why I chose to write about my take on workshops.  I really wanted to create an experience that I had been looking for over the years while I was learning.  I wanted an education about different aspects of photography, and really wanted to keep the price reasonable since I don’t have the type of income to support thousands of dollars for the day.  The target audience for my workshops are those that are not professional photographers, and are just trying to learn as much as they can to further their own skill set.  In short, I am wanting to appeal to photographers like I was a few years ago.  My goal with my workshops has always been education and instruction first and foremost.

I go places that have the most bang for the buck which I am already very familiar with.  This does wonders on two fronts.  First of all, by being familiar with the location I can cut out a lot of the time spent trying to figure out compositions and finding the shots.  Secondly, I have likely shot these images many times over and will have no need to capture any more.  With these workshops, I want my time to be spent teaching photographers how to get better images and what to look for when finding subjects.  I want to be available for questions from the participants and encourage them to bring all the questions that they have when they arrive.  In fact, in an email that I send out prior to the workshop, I will always ask what is one thing that they are hoping to get out of the workshop.  This sets the tone for how I will conduct the group experience.

Another consideration on the location comes in the form of convenience.  I don’t believe in hiking all day to get to a location to shoot.  That limits the amount of participants that would be willing to join.  I look for places that are easily accessible and have lots of opportunities within a confined area.  I don’t like the idea of dragging people all over creation spending more time driving or hiking than actually behind the camera.  A workshop should be photo heavy, not travel intensive.  The goal is you leave with a better understanding of how to capture a specific subject and can use that knowledge on your own when you want to spend a lot of time going to different locations for a shot or two.

So, how does the experience go on a workshop by Greg Kiser Photography?

Photo used with permission from Randy Rogers

Well, I usually start early so that if there are limited clouds we can take advantage of the warm, early morning light.  If it is a sunrise location there is a good chance for a sunrise capture if we get there early enough.  While getting everyone to the first subject of the day I will go through a lot of preliminary instruction about some of the basics like composition, focusing point, and exposure.  I will talk about looking beyond the subject and examining the background to determine proper camera placement.  From here, I will have everyone set up and compose their shots.  I will then go person to person asking how things are looking and if they have any questions.

As these questions come up, I will answer them for that photographer, and will also come out and provide any advice from that encounter that I think would benefit the group.  Those will usually prompt other questions which keeps me pretty busy.  Once everyone is in their groove, I just kind of look for any puzzled looks and go over to see if there is anything that can offer to help them along.  This really is the formula for the day.  I don’t worry about getting my own images, but I will have my gear just in case a once in a lifetime shot develops.  Or, in the case of the above picture, I was showing exactly how to use a wide angle focal length to accentuate the large front end of this particular truck.  It was not about getting the shot for me, although I did like the image when I looked at it later on in the evening.  It was about using my equipment to demonstrate what I look for in a composition, and how the polarizer pulls the glare off of the metal.  I feel more comfortable working with my own camera than using a participant’s rig to demonstrate a particular technique.

Broken Halo“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

This was the image that I captured in my demonstration of the techniques.  It wasn’t until a few days later that I saw the results of the instruction from one of the participants.  I was really happy with how his picture turned out, and made it worth my while showing the shot with my rig.

Photo used with permission from Russ Mann

This image that Russ shot went on to be featured several times on social media as cover shots as well as with different hubs dealing with decay photography.  This is what I want out of my workshops.  I want the participant to come away having learned something and seeing improvement in their own work.  This is the only way I can justify charging any money at all for my time.  I just don’t ever want it to turn into a group photo outing because you can do that with folks in your own photography club as they will normally go out on group trips.  Workshops should be about learning some specific things like how to work specific subjects or situations.  That is where the host comes in, and really should have something to offer the participants before charging them a single dollar.

At the end of the day, I expect everyone to be tired and have a lot of images in their cameras.  For me, I expect to have no voice left, and if I’m lucky, two or three shots in my camera.  So far, in both of my workshops I have come away with images from just a single location.  In one instance, everyone was doing their thing and I decided to break out the camera and shoot a waterfall that I don’t normally get in that particular condition.  In the other, it was to demonstrate the use of a wide angle lens and how I composed a shot.  Both times I kept it fast and got out of the way so that everyone else could have plenty of time on target and could benefit from any advice I might have.

This is the part that I still have the most problem with.  It is hard for me to accept the fact that I have reached a point in my photography where I can really offer good advice to the participants which in many cases have been shooting more years than I have.  I am proud of my photography and how much I have learned over the years, but it is another thing entirely to just blindly assume that I know more than somebody else.  However, I am learning that many of the things that I am teaching are actually concepts and tools that folks don’t know, or are just not proficient at.  A great example of this was from my last workshop where I started talking about how I shoot in manual mode and one of the participants stated that he had not made that jump yet and wasn’t sure how it all worked.  By the time I finished demonstrating manual mode on his camera he realized that it wasn’t that much different from the Aperture Priority mode he had been shooting in.  This didn’t take long at all to go through, and it answered a question that he had been carrying around for a while.

Examples like this are why I want to do photography workshops.  It is not to have an audience for me capturing pictures.  I would much rather do that alone.  It is not about having somebody finance my trip to a wonderful location on another continent.  Again, I would much rather explore those places alone and get in touch with the landscape myself.  It is all about bringing confidence to those who are continuing to learn photography, and teach how to shoot those subjects that I am very comfortable with.  I want to help other photographers become better at their craft, and make sure that they have a safe place to ask those questions that we all have from time to time that we think we should already know the answer to.  A workshop should be a safe time and place to ask those questions, not come away with a whole new trunk full of questions that need answers.

If this sounds like the workshop experience for you, please consider checking out my upcoming workshops over the next few months.  At the end of June, I will be taking a group up to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Doughton Park for a Summer Landscape Workshop experience.  I have picked this location because there are a lot of opportunities that can be worked regardless of the weather, and we won’t need to spend the day driving all over to different points of interest.  The next workshop will be in September where I will revisit the subject of decay with a Summer Decay Workshop held at the same place that I have talked about here.  Again, there are plenty of subjects to keep the group busy all day long and it can be shot in nearly any weather.