Why Go to a Photography Workshop?

Why go to a photography workshop when there are so many other ways to improve your skills? Let’s face it, there are a hundred ways to learn new things. Well, maybe there are really only three or four, but one of those ways is “online” and there are hundreds of places online to learn just about anything. Want to learn math, or cooking, or French or how to change your oil? No problem. A quick Google search and a few YouTube videos later you are on your way.

Of course you can still learn by taking a class, or reading a book, or watching someone else in real life. You can even pick up the old “trial and error” method if you would like. You’ll learn something.

But, for me at least, there is very little that replaces the accelerated learning process that happens at a workshop. My biggest strides in photography – or at least what I have learned about photography – have always happened in a group educational session, especially when that session involves “hands-on” opportunities. I’ve taken a few classes that are set up that way, attended an outstanding lighting class with Tony Corbell at the South Carolina Lamarr School, and have even done a couple of group activities around Charlotte.

This spring I had the chance to take advantage of a great opportunity when the Create Photography Retreat was held in my own backyard in Charleston, SC. By design, this event is more than a workshop, or a series of workshops. Yes, there were dozens of classes that covered everything from Real Estate Photography to Drones to How To Clean Your Sensor. I sat in classes taught by people whose work I have seen in major publications, but there was far more than that. Models were kept busy in two dedicated shooting bays all day, as well as another dozen or so who were available for shoots throughout the event. There were field trips to iconic locations in Charleston and even a night photography session out on Folly Beach. There were even more hands-on sessions before and after the event. In short, if you didn’t burn through a few batteries in Charleston, you had no one to blame but yourself. This was an opportunity to use your camera often, improve your skills and even learn some new areas of photography.

There are opportunities for workshops everywhere. Whether you are just figuring out how to get your camera out of the box, out of the automatic mode or out under the stars, there are plenty of learning opportunities. Let me suggest a few immediate benefits to reserving your place in one near your home.

1. The opportunity to use your camera

I know. You can take photographs anywhere, at anytime of nearly anything you want to. But if you’re like me that “time” element is often your worst enemy. Life is busy and photography has to take it’s appropriate place in the hierarchy of family, personal health, work, worship, and whatever else it is that fills your day. At a photography workshop you have scheduled the time to be there, and arranged the rest of your life to allow you to enjoy those days or hours focused on photography. Just putting your camera in your hands and your eye to the viewfinder over and over again may be the biggest benefit of the event. As a case in point, I should mention that the photographs from my last two posts – both regarding the 52 week challenge that I have undertaken this year – were taken at the Charleston Retreat.

2. The company of like-minded people

My wife is very supportive of my photography. She is encouraging, complimentary and a frequent model/assistant/second set of eyes. She has stood and watched the grass grow along more trails than I can remember as I have happily spent hours trying to find just the right composition or light. However, even with her willing disposition, I am mindful that watching me take pictures can’t be all that exciting.

So having a chance to spend a day (or two or three) with other people who share a common interest, knowing that you aren’t slowing them down, learning from their skills and sharing what you can with them is a great change of pace. As I have seen images from the workshop posted online, I am fascinated by the fact that several of us stood in the same place, looking at the same things, and walked away with images that are completely different from the rest of the group.

My own creativity was fueled by watching the process of those around me, seeing what they saw, and how they went about capturing it. It was a great way for me to learn to open my eyes and “see” better. And I gained a few friends along the way!

While the “birders” in our group were busy with their long lenses, I was settling in for some landscape compositions, when this fellow landed right in the middle of my shot! Audubon Swamp Garden

3. A place to learn and practice new skills

We were encouraged to take a class or two in areas of photography that we don’t normally shoot. I did, and I found myself fascinated by some really “artsy” portraiture that I would have never considered shooting. But I am certainly looking for ways to incorporate that material in the future, both in portraiture and even in my landscape work. The photograph below is one of my favorites from the event. It falls into the “landscape” category, but it is an approach that I had never considered before, and it gives me another tool to use in the future.

Intentional camera movement creates and impressionistic feel. Audubon Swamp Garden

4. The benefit of expert instructors

Most photographers have learned a lot by trial and error. As long as you can recognize your error, know how to correct and have the discipline to keep at it, that’s fine. But what if you don’t even know that something is wrong, or could be improved upon? Having someone right there who can respond to your question, critique your images and offer suggestions for more improvement is immeasurable. By the way, these instructors (at least in my limited experiences) are eager to be there and are enjoying the process themselves. After all, they’re photographers, too. They live and breathe this stuff, so when they find an eager and attentive ear, they are ready to share.

Personally, I took advantage of the opportunity of dark skies over the Atlantic Coast to take my first steps into Astrophotography. That’s one of my photographic goals this year.  Rusty Parkhurst was kind enough to accompany a large group of us to the beach on frigid (in South Carolina terms) night to help us make the most of that experience. (You can read Rusty’s perspective here.)

A photography workshop can help you learn new skills, like Milky Way photography.
My first attempt at the Milky Way. Folly Beach, South Carolina

5. The simplicity of just showing up

Some workshops are fairly simple to set up. Others, like the retreat in Charleston are models of complexity and logistical nightmares. But the hours put into planning were obvious. All we had to do was show up, and follow the instructions. Want to shoot models on a plantation overflowing with azaleas and dogwoods? Or do you prefer wildlife in a pristine setting? Or maybe architectural and street photography in one of America’s oldest cities? Or macro, or studio work, or World War Two aircraft? All of that, and more was available. You just showed up, put on a wristband and pulled out your camera. Even when weather created problems, there was always a plan B warmed up and ready to go. My next trip to Charleston to shoot, will require much more planning on my part, even though it will just be me and my wife.

A photo of Middleton Place taken during a photography workshop.
Someone else’s planning made it easy for me to take this shot at Middleton Place

6. Motivation to move forward

I came home from Charleston with a better understanding of photography, a clearer perception of my own goals, several new skills and an eagerness to keep working on them. (I’ve already penciled in a date for my next Milky Way session.) You would think that after that much time with a camera in my hand I would be ready to set it down for a bit, but that isn’t the case at all.

I’m looking forward to returning to the same event next year. I’ve already determined some ways that I can make it even more profitable. And, if it’s possible, I might find my way to a smaller workshop between now and then. They are definitely worth the investment of time and money.

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