Choosing a photography workshop

This is the age of the ‘yearning for learning’ and photography workshops have never been more popular. From street photography to fashion, landscapes to astrophotography, weddings to boudoir, everyone wants to do a workshop – and there’s no shortage of people wanting to provide them.

Setting yourself up as a workshop provider would seem to be easy: you need to know your subject, be a reasonable communicator and know how to market your services. You build a website and advertise in a few magazines and the customers will come. In other words, the barriers to entry into this growing sector are low which, in in almost every way, is a bad thing.

A simple trawl through Google will uncover dozens of workshop providers, all after your money and promising great things. Some have been around for years and really know their stuff. Others have invested their redundancy payout in setting up as a trainer, with little to back up their claims and promises. And there’s lots in between.

Take street photography, for example. Almost every week I see new people setting out their stall to offer workshops, with no track record in photography education and, to be honest, with not much of a CV as a street photographer either. Perhaps they think that running workshops is a breeze. Maybe they see a quick buck to be made. Some are professional photographers in other genres who are perhaps not good enough to make it pay as a full-time occupation and need something on the side. Some have even been on one of my workshops, thinking to themselves “I can do that”, assuming that it’s easy. It’s not.

Does any of this bother me? No, not really, but I do feel for the poor souls who part with their hard-earned cash for a very superficial learning experience which is never going to upgrade their skills in any meaningful way.

So how do you find the right workshop for you? Will you be wasting your money or investing it wisely in learning new skills and being inspired by a true professional? Here’s a checklist of some of the factors you should consider and questions you should ask to help you make an informed decision . . .

How much ‘me time’ will you get?

This is probably the most important question you should be asking. Workshops are so much more effective and you will learn more if you are part of a small group (a small group in this context means single figures – anything more than that and you could be taking part in a photo walk, not a workshop). A good workshop leader will ensure he/she spends a proportionate amount of time with each participant, with plenty of individual coaching when and where it’s needed.

Can the teacher teach?

Not always! – but the answer to this question really has to be ‘yes’. No matter how good (or famous) they are, a workshop leader who can’t get the messages across in an inspiring and articulate way is next to useless. A good workshop leader will be enthusiastic, inspiring, professional in approach, committed to the genre and, of course, be a good teacher.

Do they specialise?

Whatever you intend to learn, you really should be learning it with a specialist. A business which offers safari shooting in Kenya may not have the expertise to teach people shooting in Manchester. Sure, there are some large training companies out there who use specialist tutors across a range of genres, but take care to ensure that you’re getting the focused expertise you believe you are paying for.

Does the course leader have a track record as a photographer?

Look at their work. Do you like and admire it? Do you aspire to their style or particular range of skills? Have they written any books? Are they published in magazines and journals? Do they operate as a brand ambassador for any of the major manufacturers? Do they exhibit their work? Are they truly a ‘professional’ photographer?

How will the workshop meet your objectives?

Before you start looking at what’s available, work out what you want to achieve. A workshop is an educational exercise and should be well organised, with clearly communicated learning outcomes.

Does the itinerary work for you?

You should have a clear idea of the itinerary before you book. A vague approach to planning the day may mean a vague workshop. And, of course, you need to know what you’re getting before you part with any cash.

Are you dealing with an established business?

A ‘pukka’ business will have a business-like approach with an informative website, a business email address (rather than something like Hotmail), a fair cancellation policy, public liability insurance and a professional manner in dealing with customers. Also, do you like they way the business communicates with you? Is it’s approach articulate, helpful and friendly? The way businesses handle these initial customer interactions is usually an indication of how workshops are run.

Can you read reviews or testimonials from satisfied customers?

Testimonials on review site sites such as TripAdviser tend to be well regulated and therefore fair and accurate. Don’t be afraid to ask for contact details of satisfied customers and beware of a long list of glowing testimonials which are signed-off by the likes of “Dave from London”.

Do they offer a range of workshops?

In the likely event of you being hooked, can you do a follow-up workshop with them, maybe at an intermediate or advanced level? Can you do workshops in different locations and at different times of the year?

Is there any meaningful follow-up from the workshop?

A good workshop provider will follow-up after the workshop with additional information, advice and, ideally, critique. The latter is a crucial part of the learning process and should be a basic component of any workshop. Beware of the business which walks away, never to be heard from again.

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Street Photography in Prague

I’m writing this in the airport lounge, returning home after six days in the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague. It’s a city of almost magical sights, with gothic fairytale spires reaching for the blue sky and chocolate box architecture. But let’s get down to street level . . .

Prague is a city of contrasts: rich, poor, hippies, perpetual travellers, digital nomads and tourists. Oh, the tourists. I’ve just finished running a street photography workshop with a documentary theme, based on the impact of tourism on a once-beautiful city; the tourists were to become the stars of the weekend.

Walk around the Old Town and everywhere you look are cheap trinket shops, donut stalls, touts for guided walks, beer tasting marathons or pub crawls, scammers, gangs of men or women on a stag / hen night ‘mission’, rip-off foreign exchange kiosks and beggars. All this is not exactly ideal for the locals but if you’re a street photographer running a documentary project it could be your lucky day.

My trip started with a flight from Manchester. Whilst I’m not normally one to say no to a beer, I was slightly concerned to be the only sober passenger on this morning flight. The plane smelled like a brewery; the bawdiness had started, even before we left the tarmac. This was my first taste of the following six days in Prague, the stag capital of Europe. And this was a Wednesday morning - it wasn’t even the weekend.

Having spent Thursday finding my street photography feet and ‘reccying’, I had a one-to-one workshop with a lovely lady who is taking the first steps on her street photography journey. We went through some technical basics, explored three approaches to street photography - based on the moment, the narrative and the aesthetic - then hit the streets in some glorious sunshine.

I’d decided to take my Fujifilm x100F and XF10 cameras on this trip, giving me the flexibility to work between 18mm and 23mm (28 to 35mm in full-frame terms). I nearly always shoot wide on the streets, rarely going longer than 23mm, which gets me up-close and involved, ultimately bringing something extra to the image in the form of emotion, drama or energy. And, as the trip had a documentary flavour, the ‘real life’ perspective of the 23mm felt just about right.

My settings for street photography

The weekend workshop started with an hour-long briefing in the wonderfully eccentric Globe Bookstore & Cafe before setting off into the Old Town. The weather was so-so, dry but grey - a disappointment after the previous day’s glorious sunshine. Except in the case of dramatic change to the light, my settings remain pretty much the same: my maxim is ‘set it and forget it’. This usually means aperture priority mode, f/8 and auto-ISO (with a minimum shutter speed of 1/320 sec). I’m quite happy to let the ISO run as high as it likes - these cameras can handle it well. The small-ish aperture is a good compromise - it lets in a reasonable amount of light whilst giving me a decent depth-of-field (which is essential as I use zone focusing).

These settings help me get it right 98% of the time. Street photography is not about perfection, it’s about getting the shot, capturing the moment. That means I need to be able to work quickly and without thinking or worrying about what’s happening with the camera. It’s a pretty failsafe, tried and trusted formula.

Before I leave settings, it’s probably worth a quick shout-out for the ‘snapshot’ mode on the little XF10.  Press a button and the camera sets itself to manual focus (you can toggle to focus at either 2m or 5m) and the aperture resets to f/8 (at 2m) or f/5.6 (at 5m). I always go for the 2m option which, with this wide 18mm lens, gives me a massive operating zone, so I don’t ever have to think about focusing on the right part of the scene. It’s liberating.

In search of the moment

the first task for my five students was to learn to observe the ‘moment’. It’s that split second where something interesting, awkward, emotional, dramatic, peculiar or funny happens - and it’s what I consider to be at the heart of most good street photography. We spent half an hour in Staromestske Nameste, the Old Town Square, watching the tourists with their selfie sticks, their awkward poses, pints of beer and ironic bridal gowns. I could have spent the whole day there - you can’t fail to find ‘the moment’ in a place like that.

The street photography documentary project

All of this quest for the moment ran concurrently with our focus on the documentary project. To help the visualise how such a project might look, I asked the students to imagine opening a copy of, say, the National Geographic or Time magazine and seeing their images over 5-6 pages; what would those images look like? Would they be in monochrome or colour? How would they tell the story? How would they work together as a cohesive set? Pre-visualising an assignment in this way can help set some parameters - perhaps even the terms of reference for a project.

We spent the rest of the morning in the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, dodging a heavy shower over a beer and a goulash, before crossing the river to the quieter Maleo Strana district. Here we found lots of swans - great for more tourist madness - and a giant ‘beaver rat’. [Note: I’m writing this on the plane home and have just spotted a guy with a ‘Drink More’ T-shit and two black eyes] . 

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Layers in street photography

In Kampa Park we found the David Czerny sculptures (large bronze babies with enormous bottoms) which was perfect for an exercise on how to construct an image using layers. This is an important street photography technique and I try to incorporate a similar exercise into all my workshops. Using layers - say three - to construct an image helps to add real volume and depth to the image and is a technique used exquisitely by Alex Webb (see his book, ‘The Suffering of Light’ for examples).

There were three of four of the ‘babies’, all on different planes which, with a smattering of tourists, helped us to experiment with building layers whilst generating more material for the documentary project.

The Charles Bridge, a thunderstorm and another rat

At 5am on a clear morning, the Charles Bridge is a go-to destination for photographers. At 4pm on a grey Saturday afternoon it amounts to tourist hell - but with some more potential for our documentary project. I took a picture (discreetly, I thought) of a guy with a white rat, who went berserk and demanded I delete the image (which of course I didn’t); he was starting to get a bit violent but when a couple of fellow workshoppers surrounded me he backed off (thanks Andy and Tobias!). Still, it was a lesson for everyone to stand your ground and reaffirm your belief that it’s not wrong or illegal to take pictures in a public place (though not in every public place - I’ll write a separate article about the legalities of street photography).

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On Sunday we checked out the smaller of Prague’s two railway stations, the photogenic Karlin tunnel, the ‘JZP’ church and square and Zizkov’s controversial TV tower, before catching the metro to Wenceslas Square. The Prague metro is an interesting place for street photography, with its quirky backdrops and no shortage of interesting people. 

So, as a destination, Prague has lots to offer for street photographers, especially in good light. Travel light, be prepared to walk lots and make sure you use the metro and trams.

 

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First views: the Fujifilm GFX 50R

I’ve been having fun recently with medium format, in the shape of the new(ish) Fujifilm GFX50R. Based on the same technology as the successful 50S, the 50R has the form of a rangefinder camera and is therefore more aligned to what street photographers expect. I used the camera on a recent trip to Venice and was blown away by the image quality and the amount of detail in the huge images.

Sure, it’s bulkier than your average digital camera but it’s really no bigger or heavier than a full-frame DSLR costing a similar amount. We often think of digital medium format cameras as being expensive but this camera puts 150mb files well within the reach of the serious amateur.

The image quality is just breathtaking, build quality is up there with the best, handling and ergonomics just ‘work’, it’s weather resistant and there’s a good range of superb glass available. What’s not to like? Well, from where I’m standing, not much: okay, there’s no 4k video, the AF is not the fastest and the burst mode is only 3fps. But does any of that really matter? No: street, documentary or travel photographers really shouldn’t be too troubled by any of this. It’s a superb camera which I’m finding hard to put down.

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Street Photography with a Film Camera

Despite the explosive advances in digital technology, film is still with us and it has made a big comeback in recent years. Suddenly, people are interested in film once again and labs are dusting down their enlargers, community darkrooms are popping up and film sales are booming.

If you’re still in possession of a film camera, you’re in luck. If you’re not, they are in plentiful supply and you can find them for sale in car boot sales, in charity shops and on auction sites such as eBay. Whether it’s roll film or 35mm, colour or black & white it doesn’t matter. Just buy some of the stuff, load it up and shoot some street photography – you’ll be in for a real treat.

Here are 12 good reasons to shoot film:

  1. Celebrate ‘slow art’! Shooting with film will really slow you down and think more about what you’re shooting; you will pay more attention to the composition and also to exposure and focusing.

  2. Rather like learning theory in music, it will help you better understand the technical aspects of your camera.

  3. If you shoot only using film, your images will take on a consistent look (film shooters tend to find one type of film they like and then stick with it). It will help you develop your own personal style.

  4. If you really get into film and do your own developing and printing, your hobby takes on a whole new meaning and you learn a completely new skillset.

  5. You won’t be chimping (reviewing shots on the LCD screen) all the time and will be able to concentrate on the ‘here and now’.

  6. You will be more thoughtful when shooting – more conscious of your surroundings and more ‘in the zone’. You’ll also be more discerning about what to shoot and will become more self-critical.

  7. You won’t obsess about gear as much as the simplicity of film shooting will act as a ‘digital detox’.

  8. You will develop as a digital photographer as film shooting will make you think more critically about how you capture and process every single image.

  9. If you don’t fancy having a darkroom, most labs will develop a film and send you an envelope with the negatives and also a CD with all the JPEGs – this takes you right back into the digital process.

  10. Prints made from film have a ‘look’ that digital can’t seem to replicate.

  11. It’s exciting: there is no instant gratification and the anticipation of waiting to see your a feeling like no other for the photographer.

  12. Everyone will love you! Walk down the street with a huge DSLR round your neck and you’ll be public enemy number one. But when people see a film camera they’ll smile and start to reminisce. Old cameras make people happy.

Do give it a try. Get yourself an old camera and commit to using it exclusively for a month. Be highly disciplined and don’t be tempted to reach for anything digital until the month is over. You will almost certainly relish the experience, producing stylish images and growing as a photographer.

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I'm now an 'Official Fujifilm X-Photographer' . . .

I’m very pleased to have been asked to become a brand ambassador for Fujifilm – an ‘Official Fujifilm X-Photographer’. You may know that I’ve been using Fujifilm gear for street photography for some years and rate it very highly; I’ll now be working more closely with the company to run workshops, to test equipment and to help the company with its product development.

But to make one thing clear: this does not mean I get free gear – nor does it mean I’ll be banging on about it relentlessly through every channel available. If you’re already a Fujifilm user, you’ll benefit from my access to the company for technical support, advice and updates; I’ll also be running some Fujifilm-specific workshops later this year. If you’re not a Fujifilm user, don’t worry – nothing changes! I warmly welcome users of any make or model of equipment on all my courses and workshops and everyone gets the same level of personal attention.