Why and How to go on a Photography Workshop?

Horseshoe Bend outside Page, AZ
Mary and I have been on seven photography workshops in various guises over the last three years.  There are many many photographers and companies that do these workshops.  They vary widely in agenda, process, experience, cost, and ultimately quality.  Our experiences are not exhaustive, but we have learned quite a bit along the way.  Here are some things for you to think about as you choose to go on a photography workshop and then how to pick one.

There are three good reasons to go on a workshop

#1 The first is location.  The most important thing you need to do is pick the location you really want to photograph AND that it is a location that is hard to work with.  This is exactly why you want to use a guide, professional photographer, and workshop.  For example, you would be foolish to try and photograph Monument Valley, UT and the Antelope Slot Canyons in Arizona on your own.  You need Native American guides for both of these areas and you need to know where to go, at what time, and how to get there.  Even some place you think you know well, like San Francisco, can be a completely different experience as seen through the eyes of an experienced photographer.  Again, you can photograph San Francisco on your own, but if you want the iconic and unique shots with the right light, and want to get them all in the shortest amount of time, you should go on a workshop.

Upper Antelope Slot Canyon, Page, AZ

Travel to and from workshops is almost always on your own as well as rental cars.  The workshop leader should arrange for hotels, but you will pay on your own.  If you are on a serious workshop in a remote area, do not plan to be in luxury digs.  Mary and I are getting used to Best Westerns.  Likewise, if you are photographing sunrise and sunset, especially during the long summer months, plan to eat out of your car, and clearly gourmet meals are out of the question.  Every once-in-a-while if the schedule permits, we have had some good meals at local restaurants and even some decent wine, but don’t plan on it.

Sunrise at Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, Death Valley, CA

Before you go on a workshop, make sure you can work the basics of your camera.  We went on a workshop one time where a guy announced the night before the workshop that he just got his brand new Canon 7D in the mail the day before and was going to stay up all night figuring out how to work it…5 AM sunrise came very quickly for him.  You should bring along a laptop and have working photo software.  You do not need to have Photoshop or complicated processing software, but you do need something to get the photos off your camera and onto your PC or a jump drive for photo review.

Saguaro Cactus outside Tucson, AZ

The most posh workshop we have been on was with National Geographic.  The attraction here was to meet and work with a National Georgraphic photographer.  We met and worked with Catherine Karnow and Jennifer Davidson from the Santa Fe Photography School.  Unlike most workshops, we stayed at a very nice resort in Tucson.  The nice resort and the brand name attracted many women, a few couples, and mostly novices.  We spent more time in a “classroom” than other workshops and it was larger than other ones we have been on.  There were 25 or so people.  This was a challenge logistically and did not afford much one-on-one time.  This kind of workshop is perfect for beginners and the instructors spent a lot of patient time helping people learn to use their cameras.  This crowd was very different from the usual workshop attendee – middle-aged men.

#2 Developing Your Photography Skills

This could easily be #1 and may be the best reason to go on a workshop.  If you like photography and just want to get better, you could take on-line classes or even go to a photography class at a local college.  However, there is nothing better than learning in the field in an intense immersive experience.

Approaching storm in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

While in the field, you can not be shy about asking for help or advice from the workshop leaders.  At first, Mary was very good about asking for help and she developed her skills quickly.  I did not ask for help, but did things on my own.  After an “ah ha” moment in Joshua Tree after Jack Graham helped me compose a Joshua Tree and taught me about “spacing”, I saw and felt the need to seek and listen to advice.  I have found that the absolute best thing you can do is ask the professional about composition.  In a sense, you are using their eyes and seeing what they see.  Once you know how to use your camera and execute well on exposure, depth of field, and focus – COMPOSITION is the difference between an OK photo and a great photo.  Take advantage of the professional’s experience and eye, and you will bring back better photos.

Joshua Tree Sunrise and Moon set - notice the gap between the stock of the main tree and background trees

One of the greatest benefits of a workshop is the opportunity to have your photos reviewed and critiqued by a professional photographer and other photographers.  You should be prepared for and insist on honest feedback.  The only way to get better is to show your photos to strangers and ask them what they think.  AND, its not just your photos.  Pay close attention to the feedback that every photographer is getting.  You will learn a lot this way.  This photo review process is key to learning and getting better (see our blog on Practice).

#3 Networking – Meeting Other Photographers

One of the delights of any workshop is meeting other photography enthusiasts.  We have made many great acquaintances and several close friendships.  When you are with some people almost 16 hours a day for 4 days, eating together, travelling together, photographing together, and learning together –  expericing a crucible – friendships emerge naturally.  We have now gone on a couple of trips with people we met on workshops (see Greg Duncan’s and  Mark McDermott’s website).  With email and Facebook, you can stay in touch with people you meet and continue to see their photography and meet up with them on another workshop or just going out together.  See Jesus Sousa’s Flickr Page.

Don Gale's Death Valley workshop, December 2009

So, given all of this, how should you pick a workshop?

The Mittens at sunset, Monument Valley, UT

Again, chose a location and then use the internet to search for workshops.  Ask for and get referrals before you sign up.  This is probably the most important thing to do.  Also, look at the professionals’ website and photographs.  Do you like them?  Why, why not?

Check out Facebook and WordPress for photographer blogs.  There are a number of photographers we are following because they write well and make beautiful photographs.  These two are especially good.  Don Smith Photography and Guy Tal.  Interview the photography workshop leader before you sign up.

Ask yourself, are you looking for a nice vacation?  You will want a nice hotel and plenty of free time.  We experienced this on a National Geographic workshop in Tucson.  Do you want to see a lot, shoot a lot, and get critiqued – we recommend Jack Graham.  There are also hybrids.  At our Don Gale workshop, we had a nice mix of shooting, light critique, and a lot of socializing with the other workshop participants.

Ask about the workshop itinerary, size of workshop, and ratio of being in the field versus classroom and photo review.  Are there going to be assistants?  Remember, most of the time these are “shooting” workshops, not “processing” workshops.  At the National Geographic workshop, most of the people wanted to learn “quickly” how to process in Photoshop.  This did not happen AND, by the way, there are no short cuts to learning Photoshop or learning how to process photos.  Take on-line classes or a class at a community college if you want to learn to process.  Workshops are for shooting, not processing.

Another great option is one-on-one work with a professional photographer.  It will cost more, but you will learn a tremendous amount in a very short time and the timing and itinerary is all yours.

Heceta Head Lighthouse in Oregon, taken with Jack Graham on a private workshop.

Lastly, what’s your budget?  Do you want to or have to go with a world famous photographer like Art Wolfe or John Shaw?  You will pay for the big name.  Plan to pay anywhere from  $600-$4000 for a 4 day workshop plus expenses.  Our favorite workshop leader is Jack Graham – check out his website.  To see more of our photographs, go to www.pamphotography.com.


  1. Jack Graham

    MAry & Peter,
    Thanks you for your kind words. Lots of the “masters” have( back in the day,) heped me out. My passion is giving back and teaching in a way that I was taught ( and I am still learning as well!). In adddition the friendships and relationships that I have made are very important to me as well.
    You should publish your “Jackisms”.
    Besr regards,
    Jack Graham

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