Are photography workshops worth it? It depends on you:
1. Don’t listen to me
To start off, I am (very) biased. Because I teach photography workshops for a living.
However, I will try my best to give an honest appraisal about why you should attend photography workshops, what to look for before signing up for a workshop, based on my experiences teaching workshops, as well as attending photography workshops in the past.
2. Invest in experiences instead of stuff
One of the best reasons to attend a photography workshop is that you can learn how to make better photos. I believe that investing in experiences is a much better investment than investing in stuff (like camera gear, equipment, etc).
$500 can give you life-long tools to improve your photography, forever. $500 can maybe buy you a lens in terms of gear, which will probably end up collecting dust somewhere on your shelf. Or even worse— a $1,500 digital camera will become outdated and redundant in 2-3 years.
The great thing about education and experiences is that they will stay with you forever, and continue to pay dividends over time.
3. Who should not attend a workshop?
Workshops aren’t for everybody. You have to know yourself.
Do you prefer being in a group setting, and getting encouragement and guidance from an instructor? Or do you prefer to fly solo, and teach yourself?
I also don’t think it is good to attend a photography workshop if you’re not willing to try something new. If anything, the point of a workshop is to try something new— to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and to gain a new perspective.
4. The benefits of workshops
The benefit of attending a workshop is that in just a few days, you gain distilled wisdom from photography from the instructor. I know that when I attended a Magnum workshop with Constantine Manos and David Alan Harvey — I gained nearly 100 years of combined photo-wisdom, in just the course of 5 days. Talk about an efficient use of time.
Not only that, but the benefit I had in attending a workshop is that I made new friends. My buddies Karl Edwards (already friends), and my friend Quoc (already friends) both attended. I gained a deeper friendship with them, and also made a new friend — Kile Brewer.
Honestly, half the time the most memorable things from the workshop wasn’t the photo-related stuff. It was waking up at 5am everyday in Provincetown, catching the morning light, having breakfast and coffee, and talking about life. I think the same is with the workshops that I teach — it is really less about the photography, more about building confidence, conquering your fears and meeting new like-minded peers. And hanging out afterwards, and drinking a few beers.
I think the greatest thing bout photography is how social it is. I like going out and making photos with others, because it is a time to connect deeper with someone else, who shares the same passion as you. And workshops are a great place to meet equal-minded peers; and other creatives. It is like throwing a bunch of colors into a barrel, and all that mixing gives you new ideas, and a new color and hue.
5. Choose your instructor carefully
The important thing about attending a workshop is to choose the right teacher.
You want to choose a teacher whose work you like. But the sad reality is that the best photographers are often not the best teachers.
So you need to have realistic expectations. If your photography-idol is teaching a photography workshop, don’t expect them to hold your hand the entire time, always be willing to hang out and talk with you. Many photographers are artists— not teachers. And the best photographers often don’t know how to teach their craft.
Regardless, I still think it is better to attend a workshop with a skilled photographer than a skilled instructor. Because at least, you can gain nuggets of wisdom from a true practitioner— rather than someone who might be a great teacher, but doesn’t know how to make good photos.
I know for myself, I am not the world’s best photographer. Far from it. I think I have above-average photography skills, but I have a lot of confidence in my teaching skills. I genuinely care for my students, try to show them love, and try to impart as much wisdom and practical tips as possible.
6. You get what you put in
I know when I attended the Magnum workshop, you get what you want from the workshop the effort you put in.
For example, I wanted to learn how to work on a photo-project/essay. I got good advice from David Alan Harvey: to just visit the local bar, and to make conversations with the people there, and to make some photos. Also big thanks to my buddy Quoc for being the inspiration to photograph the ‘Old Colony’ bar in Provincetown.
Each night, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. I had to talk to the locals, and ask to make photos. No teacher could encourage me to do that. I had to push myself. But certainly the teacher was a good spark, to inspire me to take the first step.
So when you attend a workshop, know that you need to work hard, if you actually want to improve your photography. You can’t just attend a workshop, and expect your photography to be spoon-fed to you.
7. It is good to pay money
Honestly, we all love free— I know I do.
Yet, the irony is that by paying money— you work harder.
For example, if you attend a photography workshop and spend $2,000 — you’re going to work really hard, to make sure you get your money’s worth.
This is why a lot of people who want to lose weight, have bets with their friends. For example, if I don’t go to the gym everyday, I have to pay my friend $500. What a good way to motivate yourself — by risk-aversion of losing money.
This is why it often makes sense to sign up for a gym membership, or a Yoga membership. The pain of losing money is horrible. Therefore you motivate yourself to go and workout.
I think the same happens in photography workshops. A lot of my students who attend my workshops want to conquer their fears in street photography. Therefore, they spend good money to attend the workshop, and often spend a lot of money on their flights and hotel. So when I give them a photography assignment which makes them feel uncomfortable, they are more likely to do it— because they have made the monetary investment.
8. How much money should I invest in a workshop?
In terms of how much money to invest— it is up to you. Whatever fits in your budget.
I know for myself, I would rather spend $1,500 to have a week with Bruce Gilden, rather than spending that money on a new camera.
9. What do you want to gain from a workshop?
Another good thing to consider when you attend a workshop — why attend a workshop? Do you want to improve your photos, do you want the teacher to pat you on the back and tell you that you’re a good photographer, or do you want to find more personal meaning and direction in your photography?
I know one of the benefits of attending a workshop was that it helped me gain focus. It helped me realize— my primary strength in photography is street portraiture, I love monochrome, and I needed to make photos with emotion and soul.
I also learned that photography is more of a personal journey for me. I also prefer working on series and projects, rather than just random snapshots. I like working on the Cindy Project, to find more meaning in my personal relationship with Cindy, and to find more meaning in my life through my photos.
10. Photography workshops aren’t for information
You can get all the information you want about photography on the internet. You don’t need a workshop for that.
For example, everyone who attends my workshops already knows all the information I have given online for free. What they are looking for is an experience. They are looking to be given support, direction, and practical tips & techniques that can only be demonstrated in real life.
Not only that, but a lot of the students are interested in meeting like-minded street photographers. A lot of students who are interested in street photography don’t know any other street photographers in real life. So building a network from the students is great. A lot of my students keep in touch and become friends both during and after the workshop.
11. Have realistic expectations from photography workshops
I think if you attend a workshop and have gained at least 1 new idea that changes the direction of your photography in a positive way; the workshop was worth the investment.
You won’t become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson after attending a workshop. You won’t gain a million social media followers.
The most important thing isn’t the workshop. It is what you do after the workshop, with the new tools you learn from the workshop you attend.
12. How to choose your teacher
Of course anyone can teach a workshop. But whether the workshop will be good or not is a different question.
If you’re considering signing up for a workshop, I’d recommend Googling reviews of that photographer’s workshop. Not only that, but see how long they have been making photos, and how long they’ve been teaching.
Generally photographers who have been teaching workshops for a long time (and are still teaching) are good. And you want to know the personality of the photographer before you attend the workshop. Are they a hands-on photography teacher, or hands-off? You need to find the photography teacher that suits your temperament. Just like how you need to find a shoe that fits your foot.
13. Photography workshops versus schools
I do not believe in photography education in schools. I think it is a huge rip off— $200,000 of debt to learn how to make photos? I think that is a horrible investment— unless you get a scholarship, or unless it is free (maybe in some European countries).
Never go into debt to attend a photography class or workshop. I still think workshops are a good investment, because the downside of the cost is a lot less. And you invest just a few days, instead of years. And workshops are generally more practical and technique-focused, than photography classes, which are generally theoretical and very boring.
You also want to attend a workshop where they put you to work. Where they give you photo assignments. Instead of sitting in a lecture room, and just swallowing information. I’d rather just stay at home, watch YouTube lectures, with captions on at 2x speed.
14. Can I teach my own photography workshop?
Of course you can. If you want to learn how to teach your own photography workshop, read my series: Photography Entrepreneurship 101 >
15. What is the worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario of attending a photography workshop is that you wasted money, and learned nothing valuable.
So if you sign up for a workshop, expect to get nothing from it. But still— work hard, ask questions, and be inquisitive. If anything, one of the most valuable things about attending a photography workshop is getting to know the photographer (you admire) in real life, and being able to build a real-life connection with them. For example, I still feel a warm glow knowing that Constantine Manos and David Alan Harvey has taught me.
16. What if I can’t afford a workshop?
If you have no money, you can still learn from the masters of photography for free. Especially the dead photographers— read articles on them, see their images online for free, and watch their interviews on YouTube. You can still learn a lot from them.
17. Education is always money well spent
I agree. A lot of education is superfluous, but any investment in your personal growth and investment is worth it.
So buy books, not gear, and attend workshops, not laptops.
Conclusion: You decide
Once again, I am very biased because I teach workshops for a living. At the end of the day, make the decision for yourself.