InFocus – How to Choose your next Workshop or Photography Tour

The latest issue of Infocus magazine (available for the iPad) has a new feature article titled ‘A World Apart’ on how to choose your next Photography Workshop. The invitation to comment for this article was timed with an interesting email I received asking advice on how to choose a photo safari – “I want to do a safari to Africa next year and as you do not run Safari’s I thought you might be able to give me some impartial advice on how to go about choosing a safari that will give me the best photo opportunities.”

This email got me thinking further about how to best go about choosing the right workshop. In conjunction with the article in InFocus magazine; below are my top ten tips for choosing your next workshop. Just click on the image below to Download the InFocus Article.TOP TEN TIPS FOR CHOOSING YOUR NEXT PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR OR WORKSHOP

1 – ACCREDITATION, PROFESSIONALISM AND ETHICS

There are many ‘photographers’ out there  competing for your business in the workshops and photography tours market. Many of them are not full time professional photographers, but are rather semi-professional, or perhaps professional amateurs is more accurate. These photographers have regular day jobs but present themselves as full time photographers through their websites and social media channels. Beleive it or not this is a very common occurrence. With the ease and availability of DSLR’s there has been an explosive proliferation of  ‘professional photographers’. It is usually not too hard to find out who the real full time photographers are once you start digging, but don’t always accept on face value that a photographer is a full time professional just because their website says so. In the world of photography tours and workshops it may not matter if your leader is a true full time professional, but you should at least know their true status before you commit to travelling with them. It can also give you significant insight into the character of your potential leader and their experience leading trips.

2 – PRIOR HISTORY & LOCAL GUIDES

Has your workshop leader been to the location that you are planning to travel with them? You would be surprised, but there are many operators who want you to help fund their next adventure and there are unfortunately countless examples of photographers who have used paying customers to help them access new locations they have wanted to photograph.  Unless the trip is clearly labelled and marketed as a ‘scouting trip’ you should expect your leader to have prior experience in the areas you will be travelling. They should know the best locations and what time to be there for the best light. They should also be able to tell you some classic photographs at each location as well as view points that are less well known. In other words, they should have on the ground experience in the locations they are planning to take you.

Does the leader you are considering travelling with use a local guide? Local guides are a key component to a successful trip. The ability to read local weather, find out of the way locations, manage local logistics, deal with any accommodation issues, understand local laws and customs is absolutely essential to a successful experience. Sometimes the leader is also the guide and this can work extremely well if it is their home country in which they are guiding and leading. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit a country, there is no substitute for local knowledge and a local guide. Make sure your next trip includes one.

3 – PORTFOLIO OF IMAGES

If you are planning a workshop be sure that the workshop leader has a strong portfolio of their own photographs from the location you are planning to visit with them. The leader’s portfolio is an excellent indication of not only their abilities as a photographer, but also an insight into the time they have spent in that location and their ability to produce strong work as a professional. If your workshop leader can’t show you a strong portfolio of images from the location there is a fair chance they have never been there before or that they have little experience in the area.

4 – TESTIMONIALS AND FEEDBACK

Does the workshop or tour leader you are planning to travel with have feedback from prior participants and prior trips on their website? Testimonials and client feedback are an excellent gauge of the experience others have had before you and can give you a real insight into the sort of person you are about to travel with. A testimonial isn’t worth the paper it is printed on if it does not come with an email address, website or some other way for you to verify that the testimonial is truthful and accurate. Any testimonial should be signed off with the clients first and last name and either an email address or website link. If it has neither, then disregard it. A single testimonial that includes a customers full name and some method of contacting them is far more valuable than a hundred testimonials that contain no contact details. Independent verification is the key to the strength and power of the testimonial.

5 – LEGAL / INSURANCE AND PERMITS

Unfortunately, there are quite a number of workshop and tour operators that operate outside the law to varying degrees. Some of these leaders simply lack the necessesary insurance to lead trips, where as others lack the required official permits. Leaders operating in this manner are not only behaving irresponsibly and unethically (and in some cases illegally), but are also muddying the waters for those leaders who operate within the law and to the highest standards possible. Tour leaders who operate without permits can be asked to leave National Parks and permit restricted areas on the spot with no regard or recompense for workshop participants. Make sure the workshop leader you are considering travelling with has insurance and relevant permits and permissions.

6 – INDUSTRY RECOGNITION / ACCOLADES AND AWARDS

Industry recognition and award are a key indicator to the standard of photography from your potential tour leader and will likely give you significant insight to their professionalism. Have a look if your tour leader is accredited by a professional photographic body such as the AIPP Australian Institute of Professional Photography or other professional body – they should be. Photographers who are members of professional industry bodies are usually held to the highest ethical standards as part of the organisations charter.

Awards and accolades are great indicator of the quality of work your potential leader has produced. Look to their awards and accolades for their ability to make a great photograph – not for their ability to mentor or teach as those are very different skills. However, a leader who has consistently won awards for their photography likely has a strong ability to produce good work on a regular basis. You can potentially learn a lot from watching how they work in the field, how they compose and create their photographs. Industry awards and accolades are also also a good indication of peer recognition. They are also a good indicator of prior experience. For example, a photographer who has won numerous awards for their Africa images likely has significant experience travelling in this area.

7 – TAG TEAM

It is becoming increasingly common for workshop leaders to team up on trips to add both benefit and credibility to a trip. Chances are if you see a workshop is being led by multiple well respected leaders there is a very good chance you are booking onto a great experience. Tag Team trips also help reduce the instructor / student ratio so if you are looking for good solid one-on-one time with your leader/s Tag Team workshops are a great idea. Multiple leaders also helps spread the workload so your leaders will likely be more relaxed and better able to help you.

8 – GROUP SIZE

Look at the maximum number of participants on the trip. Are you willing to travel with that many other people? The instructor / student relationship is very important if you want serious one on one time with your tour leader. If the trip is ship based then you should look carefully at any landing restrictions for places you will be visiting. You want to avoid being on a ship where you cannot go ashore because there are too many people on board (this can happen in Antarctica with IATO restrictions).

9 – ACCOMMODATIONS AND FOOD

It goes without saying that you should fully arm yourself with the knowledge of what to expect in the way of accommodation and food during your trip. Most photography tours and workshops include accommodation and food in the total cost. Make sure you request a single supplement if you want a private room and make sure you check if any special dietary accommodations can be catered too. Ask your operator what sort of accommodation and food to expect for the duration of the trip.

10 – PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP OR PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR?

The difference between a photography workshop and a photography tour may not be immediatetly apparent to many people. However, there is a vast difference between the two and it is important to understand the difference so that you can better choose which is right for you. Photo workshops should be instructional in nature and the leader should be student focused, helping each participant with assistance in the field when required. The leader should be not only an accomplished photographer but also a comptetent educator (and the two do not often go hand in hand). Just because the photographer has won multiple award does not necessarily make them a good teacher. This is where testimonials can really help you evaluate the leader you are considering travelling with.

Tours, on the other hand, tend to be more loosely structured. The primary responsibility of tour leaders is to get the group to a specific destination in good light, and in some cases, that’s it. Many tour leaders will go above and beyond and answer questions about photography or will provide insight as to the location or subject being photographed, telling about the history of a place or behavior of an animal, but don’t expect that they will. In some cases, the guide may not be a photographer at all, while in others, the guide may be an accomplished photographer and primarily focused on creating their own images while on the trip. While neither of these is necessarily bad, it is important for a photographer who signs up for a photographic experience to know what to expect from their leader. If you aren’t sure how hands on your tour leader may be and what role they will take during your trip, be sure to ask and get a clear explanation before you sign up.

Similarly, many workshops provide classroom based instruction of some sort. This may take the form of presentations on specific subjects or techniques, workflow and post processing sessions using Lightroom and Photoshop, photo critique sessions, or opportunities for questions and answers. Mostly, these sessions fill up the middle of the day when the light on location is no good for shooting. Before signing up for a workshop, know which of these, if any, will be included so that any expectations you have are met.

BONUS – SENSE OF HUMOUR

Believe it or not a sense of humour is one of the most important components a workshop leader requires. You are going to spend anywhere from a single day to a month with your workshop leader which means you need to take into acount and consider the personality, attitude and sense of humour. The choice of leader is as important as the destination and your choice will likely be the difference between a wonderfully enjoyable experience and one you might care to forget.

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