The Thing About Photo Workshops - by David Hobby

David Hobby knows a thing or two about photography education.  A photojournalist for 20 years, he is also a gifted teacher who has taught and inspired thousands of photographers around the world, through workshops and from his blog, strobist.com, a lighting blog that promotes practical knowledge over gear. It was named one of the "25 Best Blogs of 2010" by Time Magazine and has an online monthly readership of more than 350,000.
 
There are lots of ways to learn how to be a better photographer. The obvious thing — and what you should be doing as often as possible — is to just be out there shooting. But you also can read books or study via websites. You can learn from specialized video, or even via YouTube.
 
Having learned (and taught) using all of those methods, I know that they are each valid in different ways. But diving into a good workshop will easily trump them all. Let me explain.
 
Books, websites, videos, etc., are one-way information flows. Workshops are more of an ecosystem, with an active environment, other students, constant feedback and full access to an instructor with (ideally) many thousands of hours of experience. All of those things not only matter, but they also work together in a very synergistic way.
 
Let's look at a workshop from several perspectives.
 

Your Photography Workshop Instructor

Even before the workshop, I am already studying you. I make note of any questions you ask. I might even send you some questions of my own. I'd certainly want to see some of your favorite photos before we even get started.
 
As we get started, I'll be asking the group questions. I'll be watching to see the subject areas where you seem confident, or less so. Even if I don't specifically ask you about your hurdles (but I probably will) I'll be trying to glean that information in any way I can. That opening night dinner or cocktails? I am a student and you are my subject.
 
As we get to know each other as the week progresses, I'm trying to give you support when you need it — or a kick in the butt when you need that. Do you learn better when I tear down your photos and then build them back up? Or do I need to gently suggest that your already very good photo might have been even better if you had just moved a few feet to the right?
 
The more often we interact throughout the week, the more I will be zeroing in on your abilities, difficulties, motivations and anxieties. By the end of the week, I'll probably know you better than I do people with whom I have been casual friends for years.
 

You as a Photography Student

If you are like most students, you'll arrive at your workshop with a mix of anticipation and anxiety.
 
A whole week to yourself and your photography. A cool and novel environment. Working together with like-minded people. Fast friends, a la summer camp.
 
But the worries will creep in, too. Am I good enough to be here? What if I am the worst photographer in the group? (Don't worry, everybody thinks that.) What if I spend a week in [Great Location] and don't come away with good photos? Are the people gonna be cool? Will this have been worth it?
 
The first day or two, you might be nervous. You might be trying too hard. You might feel frustrated. But by mid week, you'll be hitting your stride. It's kind of hard not to. The support structure of a workshop is fantastic. The location was chosen with you in mind. You have full-time access to an instructor whose primary goal for the whole week is to actively assist you. But perhaps even best, you are co-learning with a group of peers.
 

Your Fellow Photo Workshop Participants

It's easy to overlook that last thing, but it's honestly a pretty big deal. It's like learning with a tailwind.
 
Put it this way: If you were Bill Gates and came to me and said, "I'm Bill Gates. I'm rich. And I want to hire you to do a one-person workshop. Money is no object," I'd tell you that if you wanted the best workshop experience possible, you're going to need more people. A group of friends would be fine. A group of strangers would probably be even better.
 
Individually, you are each like a node on a network. But taken together, each person makes the group a better vehicle for learning. As a group learning in the same shared environment, you're better, more diverse and more robust. It's an ecosystem oozing with positive feedback loops. It's pretty hard not to experience a period of significant growth.
 

The Odds Are Stacked

If, somehow, you think you'll still be able to fail, here's a little secret. As the instructor, I'm not gonna let you fail. Because if you did, I would take it as a personal offense. It is my job to help you succeed.
 
That means, if you are having trouble getting a concept, I'll work with you individually until you get it. If you are having trouble with the technical stuff, I'll go out with you to shoot. If your gear is giving you problems, I'll let you borrow my camera. I'm simply not going to let you fail.
 
There are lots of great things about workshops. But the best thing about a good workshop is that nobody gets left behind. We all learn. We all grow. It's baked into the process.

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