Choosing the Right Photo Workshop

by Kari Post | December 11, 2012

© Kari PostMany nature, wildlife, and travel photographers resort to workshops and photographic tours as a way to visit new destinations and expand their portfolios while learning more about the craft of photography and enjoying the company of other individuals who share a similar passion. Workshops have the potential to be fun and exciting experiences where one can learn and shoot a ton. However, not all workshops are the same and getting the most out of one requires the photographer to do a little research beforehand and pick one that best suits their needs.

Workshops and tours can range from relaxed half-day photo sessions in the field to intensive round-the-clock adventures that extend a couple weeks or more. In some cases, participants stay in posh hotels and enjoy classy dinners at fine restaurants, whereas in others, having a roof overhead and a hot meal of any kind would be considered a luxury. Some have a strong emphasis on photography instruction where leaders concentrate on teaching specific skills; for others, the sole job of the guide is to get participants to a specified location on time and round them up again once the light is no longer good. With so many variables at play, photographers who are picky about the experience they are after should carefully think about what they want from a workshop or tour before settling on a specific trip. Consider the following:

Where do you want to go and what do you want to see?

If you are looking to travel for your photography experience, think about the places you would like to go and subjects you would like to see and photograph. Some may just want to get away to a new place whereas others may have very specific photographs in mind. If the latter is the case, it is important to make sure that the trip will provide access to them, which means getting to the right location at the right time of year with a tour provider that has specific expertise in the subject you are after. For example, if you are dead set on photographing ice floes on the beaches in Iceland but the Iceland trip you sign up for only visits inland destinations, you’ll be out of luck. Similarly, spectacular events of nature, such as the great migration of wildebeest and other African megafauna on the Masai Mara, occur at specific times of the year, and some subjects, such as photographing hummingbirds using multiple flash set-ups, require specific expertise. If you are looking for something specific, don’t just assume that the trip you are considering will get you there. Talk to the trip operators and make sure you know what to expect.

Workshop participant looks through her viewfinder © Kari Post

Are you looking for an instructional workshop or a guided tour?

There is a BIG difference between heading out in the field with someone who will teach you photography and someone who won’t. On an instructional photo workshop, participants should expect the leaders to be student-focused, paying attention to the individual needs of each participant on the trip and providing tips and shooting assistance in the field when needed. The leaders should be both accomplished photographers and competent educators, and should have a high level of photographic expertise, good communication skills, and excellent customer service. On a workshop, the leader should be expected to put the needs of his or her participants and the group above their own when it comes to creating and capturing images. Tours, on the other hand, tend to be more loosely structured. The primary responsibility of tour leaders is to get the group to a specific destination in good light, and in some cases, that’s it. Many tour leaders will go above and beyond and answer questions about photography or will provide insight as to the location or subject being photographed, telling about the history of a place or behavior of an animal, but don’t expect that they will. In some cases, the guide may not be a photographer at all, while in others, the guide may be an accomplished photographer and primarily focused on creating their own images while on the trip. While neither of these is necessarily bad, it is important for a photographer who signs up for a photographic experience to know what to expect from their leader. If you aren’t sure how hands on your tour leader may be and what role they will take during your trip, be sure to ask and get a clear explanation before you sign up and fork over your money.

Similarly, many workshops provide classroom based instruction of some sort. This may take the form of presentations on specific subjects or techniques, workflow and post processing sessions using Lightroom and Photoshop, photo critique sessions, or opportunities for questions and answers. Mostly, these sessions fill up the middle of the day when the light on location is no good for shooting. Before signing up for a workshop, know which of these, if any, will be included.

Greg Downing checks the camera settings of a workshop participant © Kari Post

How intense of an experience are you after? Are you picky about accommodations and other creature comforts?

Some photographers are simply looking for a worry free vacation where the finer details of the experience have been worked out for them. They want to have fun and maybe get some good shots along the way. For them, the experience is as much about staying in a swanky hotel or cozy cottage and enjoying a delicious meal in relative comfort as it is about time in the field shooting. Others will prioritize image making opportunities over just about anything else, sacrificing comfort, sleep, and occasionally even safety to do so. They want to be in the field whenever possible and to shoot for as long as the light, weather, and subjects will cooperate. They might not frown at nice accommodations, tasty food, or regular showers, but if getting the shot means tenting in a blizzard and eating bland oatmeal and energy bars for three days straight, they’re all about it. A lot of photographers probably fall somewhere in the middle, or have moderate expectations for a trip at least. They expect to be well cared for by their guides, kept clean and safe, and to be able to get good photographic opportunities while enjoying three nutritious meals a day and at least a few hours of rest each night in sanitary and comfortable conditions.

Similarly, some people just can’t rough it in the same way others can. Age, physical limitations, health issues, and comfort level all play a factor in what sort of accommodations one needs. Some trips demand intense physical exertion and require long hikes into remote backcountry locations while carrying equipment, whereas others feature destinations easily accessible by car or other mechanized transport or via short walks on level terrain. You may have specific health conditions that create dietary restrictions that might be tricky to meet in some areas or you may require access to refrigeration for medication. You may not want to be far from a hospital or travel in a country that does not have advanced medical care. Be honest with what you can and can’t do as well as what you should and shouldn’t do, and be sure to talk to your trip operator about any concerns prior to the trip itself.

Checking the camera's settings © Kari Post

Consider group size

Get a good idea of how large the group you’ll be going with is. For instructional workshops, a higher leader to participant ratio increases the likelihood that you’ll get individualized attention from your leader. On tours where the leader is serving as a guide primarily, you can often expect to see larger numbers of participants. Some trips have multiple leaders to help manage larger groups or to provide a diversity of instruction and expertise to participants. In general, you can expect to pay more, per person, when there are fewer participants per leader. Most leaders even offer private custom photo trips—at a price.

Additionally, the size of the group also impacts what sort of accommodations you can expect to have on a trip, the locations you can shoot successfully at, and a number of other things. More people means more people, which means you are limited to bigger hotels and restaurants and your group must accommodate the various needs of more individuals throughout the trip. From an environmental and photographic perspective, a large group also limits where your group can and should go. Some locations simply don’t have the room for a dozen tripods and photographers if everyone wants to get a good shot, and many remote natural areas don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with large groups. If you are traveling to an ecologically sensitive location unaccustomed to mass tourism, please do the planet a favor and only visit with a small group of respectful and environmentally mindful individuals. To ensure you end up with such comrades, pick a tour operator that values the integrity of nature more than the profit lining his or her pockets.

In general, I would advise against going on any trip where there are more than twelve participants per leader. More than that, and things just tend to get messy. Some photographers simply don’t like shooting with many other people around, whereas others enjoy workshops largely for the social experience. There are photography events offered by several organizations where large groups of photographers congregate together for social events and classroom presentations, then split off on their own for smaller field workshops. These offer a great, low cost social and educational experience for photographers, but lack the personal intimacy of a more private small group workshop and most take place in destinations designed to accommodate large numbers of tourists. Which is best for you—a private trip, small group workshop, or large gathering—depends on what you are looking for—and your budget.

What’s your budget?

Photography trips can be expensive! Find out what you get for your money. When pricing a trip, tour operators add in many different factors, so it is important to learn about what is included in your fee. Does the trip fee include lodging, meals, and transportation? Are there customs fees and are they included? What about entrance fees to parks and reserves? Lower budget trips often save money by going to less exotic locations, utilizing more humble accommodations, visiting destinations at non-peak times of the year, and loading up on extra participants. Inexpensive doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but it is important to find out ahead of time if there are extra expenses you may incur on your trip and what is and is not included. Sometimes the cheaper trips can really add up when you consider all of the things you’ll need to pay for that are not included in the initial price tag, and often they just aren’t worth it.

If money is a big factor, you may be able to work out your own accommodations or meals, particularly for domestic trips, which can sometimes save you quite a bit. You can check with your trip operator to see what your options are. I would suggest that unless you are already quite familiar with the area or country in which you’ll visit, it is probably best to have someone else do the legwork for you. All inclusive trips are often a great way to be introduced to a new location without the hassle and headache of figuring out all of the little travel details.

Lastly, if you are a photographer still early in the learning stages, I’d recommend choosing a workshop closer to home that focuses on student centered photography instruction over a foreign tour. These tend to be less expensive than exotic international trips, and you will probably benefit much more by learning new skills you can apply to your photography than by just visiting magnificent sights without the instruction to help you capture them effectively.

Alan Murphy with workshop participants in a photo blind

How long?

Often choosing how long you want a trip to last is a decision that is more or less made for you. How long can you get away for? How long can you afford to be away for? Longer trips give you the opportunity to explore and see more, and can sometimes give you more time in a given location, allowing you to start to build a sense of place and a connection with the subject that is important for creating stunning imagery. Some trips are a whirlwind experience and involve traveling from one location to the next day after day, while others pick one or two spots and more or less concentrate shooting efforts there. Does one of these appeal more to you?

Keep in mind that faraway destinations can sometimes take several takes of travel to get to and from. If you have a limited amount of time off from your everyday life, this travel time can cut significantly into the amount of time available to actually be on location. Closer to home locations are often less expensive and require much less of a detour from daily life. These can be good alternatives for those looking to improve their photography skills but who don’t have the time or money to go to a distant exotic location.

Legal issues

There are a hefty number of tour operators and workshop leaders out there running trips illegally. These guides lack the proper permits and insurance required to lead trips. Not only is such behavior irresponsible, but it paints an ugly picture for all photographers when tourists, park officials, and others observe a bunch of naively haphazard photographers tramping around a national park or other wilderness area, oblivious to rules, regulations, and often proper etiquette. The experience for a participant on these trips can be an awful one if the law decides to smack down. Tour leaders lacking permits can be fined and asked to leave an area, and all participants kicked out along with them. Underinsured guides also carry with them numerous other risks for themselves and participants in the event of injury, stolen or broken equipment, or cancelations from contracted services. Ask your photo trip leader what insurance and permits they have, and when in doubt, consult with other photographers privately. You can even check in with the locations you’ll be going to, asking if a permit is required and if your guide has one. Unfortunately, tour leaders dishonest enough to run trips illegally are unlikely to confess so to a potential client. However in some cases a naïve photographer will start to lead trips for supplemental revenue having no idea what is involved and may just need a wake up call.

Workshop participants conceled with lens hides

Other things to keep in mind

Nature, wildlife, landscape, bird, and travel photography is largely dependent on things beyond our control. Weather, for example, does what it wants, regardless of what trip operators have planned, and as much as we try to predict when natural phenomena will happen each year, sometimes nature just does her own thing. You may find that the sun never appears once on your five day trip to Maine or that wildflowers in Colorado bloomed three weeks early and the workshop you signed up for missed the peak entirely. Wildlife is notoriously finicky, and some subjects may be extremely difficult to come by even in the best of situations. Good leaders will do their best to make the most out of the situation, and participants should be ready to adapt if a leader decides to change plans last minute due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances. If you have your heart really set on something, get an idea from your leader how likely you are to see and photograph it. Regardless of what they say, keep in mind that no subject in nature is guaranteed, and know that you might just have to change your expectations.

It is a good idea to know the participant and leader cancelation policies as well. Most leaders will not run trips without a minimum number of participants, as that is not a cost effective business strategy, and they usually have a cutoff date established when they can tell if a trip will run or not. Rarely, a situation will come up where a trip will need to be canceled for other reasons, such as when Midway Atoll, a popular destination for photographing breeding albatrosses near Hawaii, was unexpectedly closed for the 2013 season. As a participant, any number of things might happen between the time you sign up for your trip and when it actually departs, and you should learn what part of your trip fee is refundable should you need to cancel.

If traveling to another country, a passport, visa, vaccinations, or other may be required, or there may be travel restrictions that prohibit certain individuals from entering a country. Your trip provider should be able to tell you what these are and can let you know if there are any other specific travel requirements or recommendations, such as medications for altitude, motion sickness, or illnesses. Be sure to plan to get necessary documents and medicines well ahead of time, as some can take months to process.

Alan Murphy with workshop attendees at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Texas

Talk to other photographers

One of the best things you can do before deciding on a photo trip is to talk to other photographers. Find someone who has already been on the trip you are considering or done another trip with the same provider. Ask them what their experience was. Was the trip described and marketed accurately? Did they enjoy themselves? Did they learn something? Were they able to come away with photographs they were happy with? What was the best part of the trip? The worst? Did the trip meet their expectations? Would they recommend it to someone else?

Many leaders and trip organizers will provide testimonials from previous clients on their website. Read them carefully and look for any nuances or omissions. For example, a bunch of testimonials that tout how excellent of a photographer one is doesn’t actually say much about that person’s ability to lead or teach others. Look for testimonials that hype what you are looking for. Do you want to go on a great vacation? Then look for testimonials that mention having a good time and seeing amazing things. Are you hoping to learn something? Then seek out leaders with testimonials that say what a good instructor the photographer is. Because everyone has different needs and goals, the right trip or leader for one person may not be the right one for someone else.

In Conclusion

Choosing a photography workshop may seem like a lot of work, but it really doesn’t have to be, and a little effort now can potentially save you a giant headache later. By narrowing in on your own needs and taking some time to determine how well a workshop or tour caters to them, you can select a photography experience that you’ll get the most out of, and that won’t later feel like a waste of time or money.

About the Author

Kari is a self-described adventurer, photographer, outdoor enthusiast, conservationist, and nature lover. She loves being outside in nature, exploring the world around her, and doing just about anything that keeps her on the move. Kari picked up photography as a young girl and developed a serious passion for the still picture in high school. In college, she combined her photography hobby and love of nature and began photographing wildlife and outdoor subjects, which now make up the bulk of her work. Kari views photography as a way to share the beauty she sees in the natural world with others. She hopes her images can be used help educate and inspire others to appreciate, preserve, and protect wild places and creatures, and aspires to one day work as a photojournalist for National Geographic documenting conservation issues. Visit Kari's website at: www.karipost.com and her blog at: www.karipost.com/blog.

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