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Can We Talk About Photography Workshops For A Freaking Second?

By Ryan Longnecker on March 23rd 2017

Ok, can we talk about Photo Workshops for a freaking second??

Ever thought, “I just wish there was a workshop for photographers where I could go socialize, drink, and hear my favorite artists, and sing around a campfire, and hike” and came up empty-handed? Just couldn’t find something like that?

Yeah, no.

There’s zero chance you came up empty handed. They are like AOL discs in the 90s… volumetrically speaking.

I know I need to tread lightly here; a few of my closest friends run, organize, and speak at these workshops, conferences, collectives, camps, gatherings, trips, retreats, and whatever-else-word-makes-it-sound-unique. I feel a lot of them will agree with a lot I have to say here, though.

From the organizer/speaker point of view, they are an invaluable opportunity to expand your network, get rare face-to-face time with fans/followers and potential brands, and, if they are paid fairly, help make ends meet. Artists don’t always have time to really keep up with the amount of questions they get or have face time with people who follow their work, and these events can be a saturated time of just that.

From the participant point of view, they can be an invaluable time of connection, networking, content creation, creative encouragement, rest, socializing, common community building, and fun. But here’s what a LOT of it is: Underpaid (if paid at all) educators and artists trying their best to inspire and teach or coach large groups of directionless people who mostly showed up to drink and socialize. (Yes, that is a broad statement, maybe overly broad, but you’d be surprised how often this is true.) I’ve been a part of these workshops that do really well by their speakers and attendees… and ones that don’t, but it’s the responsibility of the attendee to ask themselves what they want, not the host.

Notice I said a LOT, not ALL. I’ve had some of my absolute best moments at these events. I’ve met people I still admire and keep up with to this day. I’ve taken pictures of Anis Mojgani who is a poetic giant and hero of mine, and who, because of a photo camp, became a friend; I’ve been able to sit around a table and make breakfast for people who encouraged me to continue while I was starting; to meet people I otherwise never would have. One thing is different about my attendance, though, I never went as an attendee.

I have never paid to attend one of these with the hopes that I would leave feeling creatively and energetically refreshed. My going was always because I was helping in some way, or shooting the event, or assisting operations. And as a people-watcher, watching other people who forked out good money to go I’ve noticed some really sad things happen.

A lot of these workshops are like Coachella; you throw some big names up there, and most people go and take selfies of themselves at the event and spend most of the time getting trashed or skipping classes, or whatever. It’s just ‘being there’. It’s saying you went.

*It’s probably worth noting that I hate Coachella and the idea of Coachella. I couldn’t imagine a place I’d feel more out of my own skin.

Here are some of the things I’ve noticed watching the attendees:

  • the ones desperate to grow or work on a specific topic leave dissatisfied
  • the ones who don’t know what they want/need typically leave being the most critical of the time spent
  • the ones that have a genuinely necessary critical word to say or suggestion or know what they need, typically stay quiet.

So, what should you do?

First, give me a break, this is just my opinion and I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these workshops. Like I said, a lot of my friends are passionate about education and connection so, by all means, go support them and learn from them.

Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t ALL the same. They all aren’t like Coachella. Some are a great value, with real intentional time, well-planned, well-paying for the speakers, etc… I’ve seen it really, really work. But I haven’t attended even most of them. This is meant to hit home for the people who have attended any workshop and left feeling dissatisfied. I’m wondering if that person asked any previous attendees about their experience, or if they knew what they were going for. If it’s for someone to hand them the fixit button to their creative problems, then I feel it’s a waste. Nothing will do that for you, that’s a process we are all in. If it’s because you feel in a rut, or need refreshing or a smattering of creative interaction it can be really good and super helpful for your business. It will just never be THE answer.

Second, know your own expectations if you are going. If I found a group of 50 people who I LOVED partying with once a year for a few days, regardless of the content of the event I’d likely just pay to go hang out with them for fun (hint: this is what’s happening a lot).

Third, if you are new, don’t waste too much of your money on them. You could attend every single workshop out there, go broke doing it, and leave just as creatively confused as you started. Build a small network of people you can regularly bounce ideas off and give yourself some freaking slack. Ira Glass has a great bit about ‘the gap’ (check it out) where his suggestion is to do a great volume of work when you feel creatively behind. Get out there and work (thanks Ben).

[RELATED: The Gap: An Inspirational Video For Anyone In Doubt]

The reality is, though, that not all of you have the goal to go to a workshop to improve your business. Which, if this is the case, go nuts. If your plan is to learn something specific, approach the person who you most look up to in that category and see if they do any mentoring or 1-on-1 workshops. If you need business advice it might be best to consult someone who is business savvy. These conferences are like an all you can eat snack bar and a lot of people leave wishing there would have been a medium-rare steak with mushrooms in a white wine reduction.

Maybe you want the Coachella/snack-bar though. Maybe you want Burning Man. Maybe this has nothing to do with growing your photography business but just having a yearly ritual of retreating into a safe creative space where you can mingle with like-minded people. Cool. There’s no shortage of that. But know what you want.

I’m at a point where I’d much rather have a small room, intimate acoustic show. I’m growing to really appreciate the idea of apprenticeship. I know exactly what I would want. And that’s all I’m saying is that these are flooded with people who haven’t even started asking themselves the question “what do I want?”.

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I grew up in the Eastern Sierras and since I was a kid I loved being outdoors and art. I went to school for music and theology and think both of those weave their way into my photography. I have a passion to change people from being cynical about people and this planet to being hopeful and seeing the beauty in it. I have a wife and two daughters and they could care less how successful I am at taking pictures, and that’s great, because it’s a constant anchor to what is best.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Shauna Jackson

    Thank you for two things: 
    1) Food for thought. Your take on “workshops” (conferences, meets, retreats, etc) didn’t strike me as depressing but as perspective worth weighing, especially as we grow both as photographers as well as grow a business and in both of those, as we value our time and money (that’s not as redundant as it sounds, lol). Actually, I feel fortunate that my  two-fold spending vs learning/ value to my two-fold growth has been to the positive side. I’ve not been to anything so “big” as Coachella (no, thanks! And not just b/c of the generation gap. lol) or WPPI – but I’ll admit to wanting to go to the latter, at least once. On the other hand, I had the chance to buy a ticket to something more personal but on a national scale, more outdoor-adventure-ish that resounds w/ promise, but I passed – I just didn’t have peace about the cost-to-outcome probability. Even smaller scale – I participated in an under 20 person retreat in TX last year that reaped ample learning, etc but passed on a much more affordable upcoming local opportunity b/c I think my season is shifting to digging in to what I’ve acquired, building on those connections, and continuing to be very selective about where/ w/whom I invest my time and $$. I can think of folks with whom I can plan getaway opps that include mutual photography practice, discussion, etc and some socializing.  Thanks for affirming that check-what-you-want notion.
    2) Ira Glass’s “the gap” – Thank you for introducing me to that. I enjoyed it thoroughly and am definitely sharing.


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    • Ryan Longnecker

      thanks for the feedback. means a bunch! and yeah I think that being strategic about where you spend your $ in this field is a skill that can only ever be helpful

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  2. Ralph Hightower

    Wow! That’s a depressing view of workshops. One of these days, I’d like to attend Photoshop World.  It looks like they have a talented slate of photographers and interesting, informative sessions.

    One year, Atlanta hosted it; that was in driving distance, but I had tickets to a practice round of The Masters in Augusta and the logistics didn’t work out with attending both. Orlando is also driving distance, but I couldn’t make it this year. Las Vegas? That involves flying, which is an added expense and hassle.

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    • Ryan Longnecker

      Ralph, didn’t mean for it to be depressing, just critical and reflective, and yes, provocative of the workshop culture. Also, like I said, I’ve seen it done very well

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  3. Hugh Tomlinson

    Obviously the US version of a workshop is very different to those we’re used to here in New Zealand & in the UK. Most of ours are run by one or two very experience professionals. There is a social aspect, but even that tends to revolve around the subject at hand. The pros are always on hand to help people out.

    Perhaps you guys should start looking outside the US, but please, don’t swamp us  ;-)


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    • Ryan Longnecker

      I don’t think my critique is for all of the options here stateside, I just think people need to consider their goals first

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    • Ryan Longnecker

      haha, well get me an invitation to NZ ;) I’d be happy to participate for many reasons

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  4. Matthew Saville

    Hahaha, sounds like nothing’s changed, unfortunately. I remember seeing this complaint 12+ years ago WRT the “wedding photographer rockstars”

    Did this rant happen to be inspired by a certain recent photography convention in Vegas? That one has always been just one big frat party, IMO. It’s only worth it if you’d like to party and meet people, not so much if you want to learn a ton.

    Of course, there is still plenty to be said for small-size workshops that focus on quality information and one-on-one time, instead of hype and a “big name”.

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    • Ryan Longnecker

      haha, I’ve never attended ‘that’ conference, but no it was spurred on by the fact I’ve been a fly on the wall for a lot of people reflecting on their time at workshops critically and some of it has to do with the event’s organization, the other part is the attendees not doing a lot of homework beforehand. I’ve seen it done really well too, and yeah the smaller the group the better it seems to be.

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  5. Erin Guest

    The problem I have with this article is the definition of the word “workshop”. I have been to probably 100 workshops in my photography career. There has been no booze, no laid back socialising, no networking. It’s been instruction and practical learning and I come back with a card full of photographs.  Conferences and conventions are certainly what you describe, and frankly, I avoid them if my purpose is for anything other than playing with new cameras or fawning over a favourite photographer who happens to be presenting.

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    • Ryan Longnecker

      hey erin, I was careful to include a lot of the words used to describe the gathering of photographers. Some workshops are very strictly workshops, and some operate like social clubs. I just used the word ‘workshop’ in the title broadly speaking

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  6. Stephen Jennings

    I usually go for the beer, food, and if it’s sponsored by a camera company try out new toys. The two things that always bugged me about workshops is that 1. The topics are almost always aimed at beginners to intermediates .. for the advanced photographer that just wants to learn someting new, creative workshops, experimental lighting, whatever, they are indeed hard to find outside of the big shops with big names and big ticket prices. 2. Particularly with most small local workshops, the information provided is usually .. eh .. not the best. The beer selection is usually spot on though. 

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  7. Kasey Loftin

    I completely agree with all of this. If you don’t know what you want to get out of a workshop, you’re almost guaranteeing you leave disappointed. I’m a parent of a small child running a full time business and being around other creatives every once in awhile is invaluable to me to recharge and refresh my creative thinking. So I personally love these workshops. But I have that expectation going in. Great point of view Ryan. And thanks for saying what needs to be said. 

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  8. Griffin Conway

    Ryan, I’ve got to say that I admire the bold stance you have taken.  In an industry where it is easier to go with “what’s in”, I certainly appreciate the honest opinions on these types of events.

    I can’t say I’ve been an attendee to any of the aforementioned workshops, but I can definitely see how they might not be the best learning environment. However, intuition tells me most people are more interested in the networking and social aspects as opposed to learning artistic or technical skills.

    Great read though, thanks for sharing.

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    • Ryan Longnecker

      there’s a lot of great opportunity for education and socialization out there, but there’s also a social environment that tends to lure people actually hoping for really intensive strategic growth of their business. Thanks for your kindness always Griffin!

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  9. Jasser Abu-Giemi

    As a conference organizer myself I couldn’t agree more.  The vast majority of events are about the names that involved.  We have to get out of that “hero worship” mode in this community.  It’s not doing anyone any favours.  

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  10. Kishore Sawh

    I’m with you on pretty much all of this, and particularly the value of mentorship. In my opinion, better to pay for 1-on-1 time with someone who’ll take the time to answer precisely what you want to ask and learn, and even remotely. 

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    • Ryan Longnecker

      thanks dude. Yeah from what I’ve heard from people that actually give mentorships they are also always a little bummed that they can’t fully get into the answers for some of the questions when the time is spread thin across the board. I’m still asking myself what do I want, and when I really know the answer you better believe I’m going to reach out to someone for a mentorship :)

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