Photo Workshop Review

I am not a huge fan of people photography workshops. I recognize their importance in the learning process of beginning photographers, but I do feel that I have reached a level of photographic competence where most workshops are of little benefit to me – usually. There are exceptions. (JT Smith’s Hit The Lodge is one of those exceptions. It’s like summer camp for photographers.)

My standards when considering a workshop are:

  1. Do I respect/admire the talent of the workshop presenter?
  2. Is the concept of the workshop relevant to my interests?
  3. Will I learn something new?
  4. Will the photographer:model ratio be LOW?
  5. Can I take what I learn away from the workshop and apply it on my own?
  6. Will I get useful and useable images?
  7. Is the cost vs. potential benefit acceptable?
  8. Will it be fun?

One thing I have learned about model-based workshops is to never depend on the advertised model line-up. I have yet to attend a model workshop where all the models the presenter said were scheduled to attend actually attended.

Rich Hughes is a local Atlanta fashion/commercial photographer whose work has appeared in Marie Claire, CosmoGirl, Teen Vogue, and even Good Housekeeping. Over the past 5 or 6 years, I have attended 2 workshops put on by Rick.

As part of the 2008 workshop schedule, Rick had scheduled Fashion at Le Moulin Rouge. Based on my stringent standards, I figured that Rick finally got me back to another of his workshops.

Learning to shoot fashion instead of my regular “glamour/pretty girl photography” from an experienced fashion photographer was appealing. The location is one I’ve been wanting to work in for a long time, and, even though I knew better, the model line up had at least one face I was looking forward to working with again. So I signed up.

Criticism number one – after signing up, there was no communication from Rick about the workshop until 3 days before the event. There was no confirmation of registration, no welcome letter. When the first communique from Rick came in, the information was incomplete and required me to send Rick 2 additional emails to make sure I had everything right.

The first day of the workshop was at Rick’s studio. I did not feel at all confident I made the right decision when I walked in and saw there were just 2 models present. Rick’s website had promised a 2:1 photographer to model ratio, and no more than 20 photographers. That meant there should have been at least 10 models present – not 2.

I sat and talked with Rick and a few other early arrivals until the full complement of students showed up. There were only 10 photographers, and one more model arrived late (no surprise at all), making Saturday’s ratio more palatable at about 3:1 – still not as advertised.

Rick did a good job of explaining his idea of what fashion photography was, how it differed from glamour, how to pose the model, etc. He took questions from the students, and answered them satisfactorily. I was, indeed, learning something new.

Rick broke us into groups based on our instructional needs, and we began shooting.

I appreciated that the lighting was one light set-ups. That meant I could very easily take the styling and posing techniques back home and apply them. There were no multi-light set ups that would be difficult to duplicate, and no product pitches.

Criticism number 2 – there were no refreshments available for the participants. No water, no snacks. I have put on a few of my own workshops, albeit much smaller, and always supply snacks and drinks, even lunch, for the participants. It’s just the polite thing to do.

Criticism number 3 – of the three models available to us, only one had experience as a “fashion” model. One of the others was a glamour model – a fact alluded to and joked about by Rick and the model. The third model was almost painfully inexperienced in front of the camera (however, she became my favorite model of the weekend). This made learning to shoot “fashion” more difficult. I did, however, make Rick teach me by having him review my shots and asking for suggestions on how to improve them.

Sidebar – in workshops, especially workshops that require a lot of shooting, the instructor cannot be expected to teach everyone. Some people need instruction. Some don’t. Some people want instruction. Some don’t. There is no way for the instructor to know who needs what unless the student TELLS him. I probably need to whole write up about workshops in general.

Midway through Saturday, Rick announced the location for Sunday, Paris on Ponce, was no longer available to us. He was apologetic, and promised to get us a location that would allow us to still get strong images. At this point, I had a private chat with Rick to express my disappointment and the fact that the hook for me for the weekend was the location. Rick offered a very fair solution to my disappointment which I declined at that point, and told him, “I’ll wait until Sunday. If I’m not satisfied with what I get on Sunday, I’ll take you up on your offer.”

It is the nature of the plans of mice and men to go awry. Shit happens. Was it poor planning on Rick’s part? I don’t know. I do know that the location had another event scheduled for the same day, and had it advertised on their website. Rick’s fault? The location’s fault? I don’t know. I wasn’t happy about the situation, but I reserved judgment until I could see the resolution.

Back at home Saturday night, going over my images from the day, I realized that I had broken another creative barrier, and learned something new. I also realized that I had images from the day that would find a comfortable and long-term place in my book. They were very strong, very usable, and repeatable.

The replacement location for Sunday was Rick’s in-town Atlanta apartment building. This place isn’t your standard run-of-the-mill place. Walking in, I started seeing shooting opportunities all over the place. It wasn’t the rich and lush tapestry of Paris On Ponce, but it wouldn’t be staid and boring either.

At few photographers dropped out after Saturday. Whether they quit with disappointment, or were only planning on one day, I don’t know (well, I do know that one of them was only planning for one day). We also gained a model, and by 11am, there were 8 photographers and 4 models – 2:1 as promised. Rick also rolled in a bunch of water and sodas.

I won’t go through a blow-by-blow of Sunday, but I will say this – I declined Rick’s offer of compensation from Saturday. Let’s go through that check list again:

  1. Do I respect/admire the talent of the workshop presenter?
    Yes, I do.
  2. Is the concept of the workshop relevant to my interests?
    Yes, it was.
  3. Will I learn something new?
    Damn right I did!
  4. Will the photographer:model ratio be LOW?
    It was workable on the first day, and very acceptable on the second day.
  5. Can I take what I learn away from the workshop and apply it on my own?
    Damn skippy! I look forward to putting those techniques to work on my own shoots.
  6. Will I get useful and usable images?
    I can honestly say that I have images that will be in my book for a long time. I added depth and variety to my book, as well as a few images that I will able to use to directly impact my ability to actually get paid to shoot.
  7. Is the cost vs. potential benefit acceptable?
    Yep. One or two paid gigs based on some of the shots from the workshop will pay for it.
  8. Will it be fun?
    Fun is relative. I was tired when it was all done. I was thrilled with the images I got. I enjoyed the company of the models, the other photographers (some of them), and Rick.

Was it perfect? No, it wasn’t. I have yet to see the perfect workshop, my own included. I do think workshop organizers should be cautious about what they promise in their advertisements, and workshop attendees should expect something to go wrong and not expect a flawless experience.

There is one fact that I must also face. Yes, it would have kicked ass to have shot at Paris On Ponce. I am confident I would have come out of that location with at least one “showcase” piece, but the fact is, it would have been very difficult for me to duplicate that image on my own. If I had shot a great prom dress there, and advertised it, I could have clients who want to do the same thing. Duplicating that shot would have been complicated and expensive.

…and that’s all I have to say about that.

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