How can I write this without sounding like I'm completely against photography tours and workshops? I have a lot of mixed feelings about them...mostly leaning toward the negative. So, I guess let me begin by stating up front that I think there are both negative and positive things about workshops and I don't blame other photographers (necessarily) for making an income by teaching them. Lord knows it's a challenge making money as a photographer.
Workshop participants need to be selective when choosing the right one. Some leaders blatantly price gouge. Some pack their tours full of so many students that the foot traffic alone hurts the environment they want to photograph. In my field experience, I've even come across groups that thought they had more reason (or more right) to be in an area than I did, and that simply by being in that place with a camera, I was somehow interfering with the experience they had paid thousands to have (even though my tax dollars and admission fees grant me the same usage rights).
I've never participated in a photography workshop. I went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with a small group of college students led by our photography instructor, but that only cost me $100. Most of the participants spent the week on the beach or sleeping in. Only a couple of us (instructor included) were really there to make pictures. I learned a lot on that trip, probably more than I had learned in the classroom during the semester-long course. For that reason, the fact that workshops can provide in-depth guided instruction in the field, I see the value of such tours. As a photographer trying to make a living with my images, however, I find coming across a group of a dozen or more other photographers all clumped in an area for the same scene both annoying and a hindrance to my creative process.
I work alone. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, my wife is there with me. For the most part, especially in the great outdoors, it's just me. For the early part of my decade-long love affair with photography I was able to create images in nature with very little interference. I might have seen one other photographer and the occasional hiker. As time passed the number of individual photographers I've encountered hasn't seemed to increase, but the number of photo workshops has many times over. I've come to expect that I'll run into at least one every time I go into the Canadian Rockies at any time of year.
Photography workshops are expensive. Are they worth it? That depends. Most are not. There are a few photo tours available from experienced professionals I trust that are very reasonably priced (in the $500-$2000 range). I'm tempted to join them. Because I like to travel as cheaply as possible, however, I've yet to feel like I should pay the extra money. No matter what the workshop costs, and no matter what you think the benefits are, you can do any trip on your own for a lot less. Traveling as cheaply as possible makes good business sense. I'll unlikely be able to make the $6,500 (not including airfare) I hypothetically spent on a photo workshop back in image sales from that trip. But, if I can do that trip for $1,500 (with deductible expenses), that's a lot easier to profit from.
Not everyone is a working photographer and needs to make money from their images of course. Most do workshops because they have money to burn and are willing to part with thousands more than necessary in order to hang out with a "master" of the craft they wish to learn. From what I've seen in the field, well-off pensioners, doctors, lawyers, and dentists are the usual clientele.
Same Bears, Half the Price
To give a real example of how much you can save by creating a shooting trip on your own, let's take my upcoming excursion to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary in British Columbia. This area is an extremely popular place for photographers to visit and photograph wild grizzlies in a pristine habitat. Only a couple hundred people are allowed in each year and by permit only with the help of float plane pilots and licensed guides. Trips are booked up months in advance (sometimes a year). After being flown in from Prince Rupert, I will be sleeping on a sailboat with a few others and exploring the inlets in search of bears for 4 days in an inflatable zodiac.
One particular famous Canadian wildlife photographer offers a photo tour into the Khutzeymateen for $6,200 (airfare not included). The max number of participants is 6 (plus boat captain and instructor). It sold out months ago.
My Khutzeymateen trip costs a little bit less, at only $2,900 total. That includes everything: airfare to/from Prince Rupert, accommodation throughout, hotel the night before the trip begins and after it ends, all meals, and the tour itself (led by an experienced operator and ship captain instrumental in the creation of the sanctuary). I booked it all myself and I'll even be there the same dates as the other photographer's tour. We'll be looking at the same bears. The only major difference is the photo tour's boat will have that famous wildlife photography instructor in it. Is he worth another $3,300 (not including airfare)? Unless he can magically summon the bears into the open and make them do fun tricks for the camera, I think not. I'm sure the participants will get some knowledge from him that I won't be privy to, and to be fair that trip is two days longer, but I'll have the knowledgeable ship captain and tour guide and two fewer people in the boat to knock elbows with.
Problems with photo workshops
Workshop participants have no less right to photograph an area than I do and vice versa. The issue is not who should be there. The issues are the number of people in an area, the damage they cause to the environment, and the added pressure on wildlife. The negative attitude that some workshop leaders and participants feel toward non-participants that share the area is also becoming a serious issue, as well as the fact that (no matter how you slice it) workshops stifle individual creativity.
One to three photographers won't do much damage to an ecosystem, especially if they are inclined toward environmental stewardship. A workshop of 6 to 12 people, plus one to three non-participants surely will. Workshops require larger vehicles with higher emissions. They require more emissions from air travel. They require more packaging for food and trail snacks and bottled water to leave behind on trails (accidentally is no better than intentionally). They need more space to hike and thus widen trails, cause more erosion, and trample the delicate and increasingly rare plants of alpine ecosystems. Large groups are more likely to stress wildlife. You can't argue against it. People in an environment change that environment. The fewer, the better. Bringing in a photo workshop (not even considering the numbers of normal tourists) guarantees that some sort of damage will be done.
I'd maybe have a slightly more positive view of photo workshops if I hadn't experienced the occasional dirty looks from both participants and leaders when I've tried to photograph the same area. I'm not even talking about the same scene. I'm not squeezing in with the tour group. If I encounter a workshop at a popular spot, I typically move on or try to find a composition that the cluster of well-equipped sheep don't even know about. Inevitably, I'll at some point get too close, either hiking in or out, and get those frustrated looks. "Who's this butthole?" "Why is he here? He didn't pay for this?" It's written all over their faces. Luckily I haven't had a confrontation....yet. I have been told that others have had words with either workshop leaders or students.
The worst I've experienced is when I was trying to photograph an autumn scene in the rockies and a workshop showed up (several minutes after I'd set up and was waiting for the light). They crowded around me and bumped my tripod legs with their own. I lifted myself out of the group and walked to different spot, then another smaller workshop began to gather around me there. I live in Canada, and polite is the always the first approach. I said, "how are you?" to one of the ladies from the smaller workshop since she was only three feet away. She looked my way, but didn't respond, just kept setting up her shot. I decided to get further into the scene, careful not to block anyone else's shot. This was difficult considering there were about 30 photographers in total set up around this small lake. The lake doesn't even have a name and is not a known photo spot, so I assume they were riding by, saw me setting up, and decided they had to get the scene too.
I walked through thick ankle-high lakeside mud around a bend thinking I would finally be alone to do my work. I heard a sucking sound behind me and turned around. I was being followed. I got a few good shots and started back to the car as the others began to pack it up as well. Squeezing through the cluster along the narrow trail, I gave the occasional hello when making eye-contact. One of the participants asked if I was in the workshop- they must have known otherwise; when I said no, they rolled their eyes.
Workshops vs. Learning on Your Own
You don't need to pay thousands and join a workshop or tour to learn photography. The information is out there in several forms. The internet, books, youtube videos, and your camera manual will provide all you need to learn the technical aspects and get you started on your creative journey. The rest is best accomplished by getting out there and doing it. No instructor needed. You can save thousands and afford to go on more trips by creating your own tours. You'll improve on your own just as well. Make mistakes. That's a good thing and an important part of the process. You can't be spoon fed all it takes to create great work by someone else. It just doesn't work that way. You can sure as hell pick up some good tips and feedback from a seasoned pro, but I've always found the best teacher is the mistakes I've made, aided only by trails through the woods or crooked cobblestone streets, and my intuition.
As I stated earlier, workshops and photo tours are for folks who have more money to burn than a will to go their own path. It's a vacation. If it's the friendship of people with a shared interest they seek by joining a tour, then fine. I get that. If the instructor has an environmental conscience and works to better participants' knowledge and respect for nature, well I can sure as hell get behind that too....just pick an instructor who will encourage students to do more than cluster together for the same scene with only slightly different compositions. And please have respect for other photographers- not just those in your workshop group.