Rants

On Photography Workshops...

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. 

The Cost

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. 

Environmental Damage

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. 

Attitude

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.

16 Annoying Things Photographers Do (Don't Be That Guy)

This is a fun rant I've been thinking about writing for some time. Over the years I've been bothered by the actions and bad habits of a few other photographers. Read it with a sense of humor. The list below of the 16 most annoying things other photographers do is meant to help readers become better by breaking bad habits. Just between you and me, I'm guilty of a couple of these myself ; ) In order to become a better photographer and avoid irritating others in the process, please don't...

1. SET UP TRIPOD AT EYE LEVEL ONLY

You've paid for a decent tripod, camera, lens, books, workshops, photography classes, spent countless hours researching the location, making a shot list, spent the money to get there, and got up before Christ to arrive during good light. So, why would show up on location and only set up your tripod at eye level and not move it?!?! What are the chances that eye level standing provides the most interesting composition? Slim to none. What are the chances that the first and most obvious place you set up to shoot is the best? None. Your tripod is designed to do more than hold your camera conveniently in front of your eyeballs. Try various angles. Get low, really low (take that blessed center column out!) and see how that looks. Don't like that? Move your ass! Use your feet! Don't simply walk up to a scene plop the tripod down and consider it done...

2. TAKE ONLY ONE LANDSCAPE SHOT

A lot of landscape photographers these days are under the impression that they're going to create a beautiful body of work and somehow make a living from landscape photography by taking only one shot and moving on. I would be out of business fast if I only made one shot in the morning and one shot in the evening and called it quits. When I'm shooting landscapes, I milk the scene for all it's worth. I do not pick one composition and go home for a whisky. I'm not done until the light is gone. Before it is, I'm running around like a crazy chicken with a tripod trying to get as many great compositions as possible from as many different vantage points as possible (the Galen Rowell method). Maybe I'll only come away with one great shot of the lot, if so, that's fine, but very rarely is that first composition I pick the best or the one that is sold. 

I do appreciate personal projects like Jim Brandenburg's one shot a day series and I have emulated that approach on occasion. I also understand that large-format film photographers don't want to waste film, and they already spend lots of time walking around to find the perfect composition before shooting. As a "stock photographer", however, I have to take lots of quality pictures in order to get paid. One image a shoot just doesn't cut it for me.

3. ASK EVERY NEARBY PHOTOGRAPHER THEIR SETTINGS

"Are you shooting in aperture priority?" "What f-stop?" 
There is always that one photographer who, bless their heart, isn't very confident about what they're doing yet. That's fine. A good way to learn is to ask questions, but an even better way to learn is to make mistakes and figure out what works best for you on your own. It's part of the long and arduous process of developing your "style." If another photographer tells you the formula they're using, it's not going to help you do much more than emulate the look of their images. Read your camera manual, learn the exposure basics, and go make some mistakes. It's the best way.

4. ASK "HEY, WHAT ISO ARE YOU USING?"

This goes along with the previous annoyance, but because this specific question is asked to me consistently, especially when shooting wildlife, I thought it deserved it's own spot. So, what ISO am I using? I don't know. That's usually the answer. Modern DSLRs are so great now I don't really think much about ISO anymore, especially when photographing wildlife. I often shoot in manual mode with auto-ISO turned on and let that value float between 400-1600 (maybe more) with moving wildlife. That's because I'm more concerned about using a fast enough shutter speed so that the animal isn't blurry. When it comes to landscapes and still subjects, I'll use ISO 100. Essentially, I try to keep that number as low as I can, but if ISO 2500 is what it takes to get the shot, then that's what it is. Instead of worrying so much about exposure settings, try and ask yourself why you're photographing the subject and what it's significance is to you or your audience. 

5. ASK QUESTIONS DURING GOLDEN HOUR

No, I don't know what lens you should get. Yes, I like my lens. Yeah, large format is cool. No, I've never been to the Galapagos. Please let me shoot this scene before the light goes away.

6. USE FOCUS ASSIST BEAM WHILE TRYING TO AUTO-FOCUS AT NIGHT

The other night I was photographing the northern lights at a lake with about 50 others. Several of them were using built in focus assist beams in order to focus in the dark. This was rather annoying because the lights from their cameras interfered with some of my exposures. If you would like to know the right way to photograph the northern lights, click here.

7. PUT A $9,000 CAMERA/LENS COMBO ON A $100 TRIPOD

If you have a spankin' new Nikon D5 and 300mm f2.8 VR and you put it on a $100 travel tripod, you're nuts. That is all.

8. OWN A $6,500 SPORTS CAMERA AND NOT KNOW HOW TO USE IT

I see an increasing number of people freshly retired that have suddenly discovered their love of photography and thus have invested in brand new flagship DSLRs with pro lenses - combos that total more than my college tuition. I have also seen these folks miss opportunities or struggle with camera gear in the field. I observed a couple nice pensioners attempting to shoot a sunset a few weeks ago and not only had they forgotten their tripods, but had their faces down while pressing buttons and flipping dials on their Canon 1DX Mark II's. By the time they pointed their 24-70 f2.8 lenses up, the light was over. 

9. SHOOT OVER THE SHOULDER OF ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPHER

Just don't do that. I've walked around all day, scoped out the scene hours before, and waited until the good light to take my shots. Don't walk up behind me and shoot over my shoulder...

10. THINK THEIR GEAR ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH AND SO THEIR SHOTS WON'T BE

My first digital camera was an 8 MP Canon Rebel with the kit lens I bought 10 years ago. That's what I shot for two years until I bought anything else. Photos I made with that camera are still being licensed today, and I have prints of several that look great at 11 X 14. Don't fret if your gear isn't as new or fancy as the next guy's. That's the wrong thing to focus on. Remember that our great photography mentors (Steve McCurry, Galen Rowell, Ansel Adams, Jim Brandenburg, etc.) made their most iconic images with way less sophisticated equipment than we have today. 

11. TRY TO CRAM A CAMERA BACKPACK INTO THE OVERHEAD COMPARTMENT WHEN IT'S OBVIOUSLY NOT GOING TO FIT

You probably don't need 3 camera bodies, 6 lenses, 2 flashes, a full size tripod,19 filters, a GoPro, and a drone for your weekend trip to Paris...

12. SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON PHOTO WORKSHOPS

$8,000 plus airfare and accommodation to be crammed in and shuffled about with 10 other photographers for 6 days is probably not the best use of funds. That's the cost of a semester of photography classes at a good art school. That's the cost of airfare for 8 trips to Iceland for two on a budget airline. That's the cost of a trip to Antarctica for one. For half that you can spend a month in Alaska photographing brown bears on your own, including hiring private guides and transportation. For a quarter of that price you can spend two weeks exploring Patagonia all inclusive. 

I'm not arguing against reputable photographers teaching workshops. It's hard to make a living in this industry, and I don't blame anyone for teaching workshops, but leave the high dollar workshops for doctors and lawyers. Instead, plan your own adventures or choose a day or weekend workshop for a few hundred bucks. 

P.S. Just because you did pay thousands for a workshop doesn't mean you have any more right to shoot a location than anyone else who isn't part of the class!!!

13. ONLY SHOOT IN BURST MODE

There are times you need 12 frames a second- like say football games....and times you don't- like landscapes.

14. DEBATE NIKON VS. CANON, FUJI VS. SONY, OR FILM VS. DIGITAL

That horse has been beaten to death, shot, set on fire, and rolled down a hill into a river and swept away...

15. ONLY REVIEW GEAR ON THeiR YOUTUBE CHANNEL

Isn't there enough of that? Show me some pictures, not just what you shoot with. And I don't mean pictures of teddy bears at ISO 3200 or paint cans, or brick walls, real pictures!

16. MAKE AMAZING, HIGH QUALITY YOUTUBE VIDEOS, BUT THEIR PHOTOS SUCK

My YouTube Channel is not great. I'll be the first to admit that. I'm on the fence about whether I'm going to continue it or not. The reason is that it is very difficult to shoot a good quality video of myself out shooting and make the images I need in the process. A few guys are pretty good at this, but only a few of the lot. If I feel that filming a YouTube video is distracting me from what's important, I won't film. 

There are a lot of really popular, million subscriber-strong channels that have high production value, yet never show us the images the dudes are making, or if they do, they're not that great. I'm not interested in your channel or your advice unless you can show me you can make incredible shots to begin with. Don't just tell me the specs of the latest gear and whether I should buy it or not, show me some awesome photographs!