On Workshops and Teaching

With only a month to go until the first of January’s photography workshops, I’ve received a few questions that I’m also going to answer here, and talk a little about workshops and photography tuition in general.

We’ll get your questions answered first.

Will you teach me to shoot like [insert photographer here]?

Yes. No. Sort of.

I may be able to show you how a given photographer created a particular image, and then you can go out and try to reproduce that to your heart’s content, but you wouldn’t really learn anything.  You still won’t understand why that particular technique works or, more importantly, how to fix problems when that technique fails to yield the results you expect.

You will be shown the principles and fundamentals of photography that will allow you to make your own decisions about how you want to do this or that, armed with the knowledge to do it with confidence and purpose.

You see, there are no shortcuts in photography, but once you understand the underlying principles, with practise you can go out and create whatever look or style that you want.

Can you show me how to use [insert specific piece of hardware here]?

It’s unlikely.  Yes, the point of a workshop is to learn, but that is true for everybody attending.  There is so much equipment out there these days, that to expect any individual to be fully versed in the operation of everything photographic is a bit unrealistic.  I don’t want to be taking time away from others in order to learn how to use a random piece of equipment during a workshop before showing you how to use it.


But, again, while the specifics of operating a particular piece of equipment may differ from one of the alternatives, the general principles of a particular type of photographic equipment will generally apply to all equipment of the same type.  To find out which buttons to push to make your equipment perform a particular task, consult your manual, but first you need to understand what task you want your equipment to perform.

Is this just a slideshow lecture where we sit, listen and take notes all day, or will we actually get to use our cameras and shoot something during the workshop?

I’ve always believed that a hands on approach teaches you far more than just listening to somebody prattle on about this and that for several hours, so you will absolutely get to use your camera and make some photographs.

This does not mean that lectures and talks are inherently bad.  They can be fantastic, but if what you want is a workshop, and you end up on a lecture, you may be disappointed (especially if you’ve had to hand over a lot of cash to attend under the misapprehension you’re attending something a bit more hands on).


Notice above that I said “make” and not “take”?  You will make photographs with intent and understanding of what it is you want to achieve.

You will understand the principles of what you’re doing and the consequences of changing this or that, how it will affect your final image and how to compensate for those changes if need be.  You will be able to recognise the problems you see in your photographs, what’s causing them and how to fix them.

You will set up the shot yourself, utilising the information you will learn through the day, and you will be learning how to make your camera see the vision in your head.

So, with those out of the way, I want to talk a little about what I don’t consider a workshop to be.  Not all workshops, nor all teachers, are created equally, so here’s my question.

What is a workshop not?

A workshop is not an all day lecture.

As I mentioned above, I strongly believe in a practical approach to learning, and certainly when it comes to photography, with lots of visual demonstrations, and exercises to try yourself.

Just reading off facts and figures, and numbers is all well and good, but that’s nothing you can’t find online somewhere anyway.  It isn’t really the best way for most people to learn, and is no substitute for actually having a go and seeing the results of changing this or that with your own eyes.


Again, that doesn’t mean lectures are bad. They can be very inspirational things, but they’re not the same as being able to get in and try things out for yourself.

A workshop is not a school classroom.

Packing a room full of 30 kids might’ve worked while you were at school, but even then, how often were certain individuals left confused without attention from their teacher?  It can’t be helped, teachers often spread themselves too thin, dedicating more of their time to those they feel “deserve” it.  You also didn’t really have much of a choice.

As an adult, choosing to learn or pursue something you’re passionate about, this just doesn’t cut it.  This is why we limit the size of our workshops to a maximum number of participants (usually between 6-10, depending on the workshop).  That way, everybody attending can get the attention they deserve (because everybody deserves it), and everybody has the time to ask questions and try things out for themselves.

Of course, even as an adult, you still have to have a bit of fun along the way.


Unfortunately, limiting numbers does mean that we may have to charge a little more for some workshops in order to cover the costs, but would you rather pay half as much so that twice as many people could attend, not have half your questions answered and not fully understand what it is that you came to learn?

A workshop is not a clone factory.

There are a number of people out there running workshops who are simply showing you how to do what they do, and not really teaching you how or why what they do works the way it does.  They’re simply “copy me, and magic happens, you don’t have to understand it, just do it” days.

In earlier years, I made the mistake of paying to go on a couple of days like this myself.  They weren’t that common back then, but in recent years they tend to appear far more frequently.

This is not to suggest that the people running these workshops are deceptive or intentionally hold back information for fear of “training up the competition” (although, this happens).  They often don’t even realise that this is what they’re doing, they’re just not great at teaching.

They fully understand what they’re doing in their photography, but they may simply not know how to relate this along effectively to others, or they take certain knowledge for granted and go on auto-pilot, assuming everybody watching just knows what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and can fill in the blanks themselves.

The thing is, once you understand the principles of light and photography, you can just look at somebody’s work and make some pretty solid guesses as to how they create some of their images, and will be able to confidently experiment in order to try to prove your theories.

A workshop is not a destination.

A workshop is but a stop along your journey.  If you are very new to photography, it may just be the beginning of your journey.

No matter how good the teacher, you can’t expect to go on one workshop and then suddenly know everything there is to know about photography, going on to produce a masterpiece every time you hit the shutter.

Although you get to try out the techniques right there and then, ask questions, and see the results of any adjustments you make, you just can’t learn and fully understand everything there is to know in a single day (or even in a lifetime – nobody on this planet knows everything there is to know about everything about photography!).

Even if you could, it’s still down to you to decide how you wish to implement them in your photography.

Only you can see the vision in your head until you manage to record it on your sensor (or film).  The only way to figure out how to get your vision into the camera is to shoot, keep shooting, and shoot some more, with a lot of playing around, experimenting, trial and error, and mistakes large and small in between.

Your photography should be an ever evolving process.  Your interests, styles and preferences will change over time, as will your skill and ability.  Today you may enjoy wildlife.  A year from now, landscape.  Five years from now, portraits, or architecture, or food.

Who knows what might spark your interest in the future and cause you to completely rethink your approach?

And the point of all this?

If, you choose to pay for photography tuition, wherever it may be, whether it’s private one-to-one session, a group workshop, or night courses at the local college, make sure you ask questions and do your research first, to help ensure you’re going to get what you’re paying for.