How to choose the best workshops to attend

Asian business man has to choose between three options.

How to choose the best workshops to attend

Wow, the floodgates of photography training are wide open. On-line webinars, local or exotic locations, hands-on workshops, hourly seminars, big conventions and small workshops; experts just minted to those old guys. There is more online free training in every aspect imaginable than there are fee based. The choices rage at you like a caffeine fueled hurricane.

Whew, it is mind-boggling, numbing and perhaps even paralyzing.

You want to learn, need to learn; have a fist full of bucks to pay to learn (although those web based freebees look enticing . . .). Which has the value, which will vault you into the promised land of photography mastery?

Yet your budget plus available time will only allow for a precious few. So how to choose?

With these guidelines you will find the most value, the best investment return; dodge the scams so you can gorge yourself on knowledge that will change you.

First, decide what you need and how you like to learn. There are basically 3 types of programs.

  • There is a hands-on learning/training where you have a camera in hand while a live instructor guides you; one on one or as a group.
  • There is the absorption presentation where an instructor presents material, live or online.
  • Finally you have the facilitated experience where someone creates an event, an opportunity to practice, experiment, or expand your portfolio with limited or no instruction.

Next, work out the full or real cost of the workshop. Add to the actual cost of the workshop these extras:

  • Your time away from your business; include travel time, prep time for packing.
  • Meals, travel costs (which could be a trip downtown or around the world).
  • Model fees, tips, add on programs, (like early birds) etc.

I have attended workshops that look cheap but ended up 4 times the initial fee with all the extra costs added in. This can really kill your bottom line.

Speaker at business workshop and presentation. Audience at the conference room.

Having a fix on your cost lets you work out the return. The days of “I just need to learn one thing to make it worthwhile” are gone. Will what you learn from program X translate into more money earned than it cost?

If it’s a portfolio builder program, will those images be in your niche and useable? Will that portfolio generate you more money?

Its ok if you decide that there won’t be a return. It could be a bucket list or so much fun you just can’t resist. Just know that going in.

Now to evaluate the offered education; here is what to consider before you hand over your money.

Who is the Presenter? Look at their work, their credentials, and their history. Have they demonstrated they know what they are about to share?

For example a photographer active for only 1.5 yrs. was teaching a new business model, droves were paying to hear this gold mine approach. 8 months later they burned out, closed up shop, left the industry. They had not been around long enough to prove the model was sustainable.
By contrast, Bradford Rowley is giving a very expensive course on high-end high, high return portraits. His track record has been one to two million annually in portraiture. Some of his students have gone on to do the same.

Yet a fresh young photographer teaching their brilliant new posing approach could totally change your style and income. Balance that with learning core traditional posing from a long known expert.

The more you plan to invest, the more you should research it.

  • Look for real credentials from real world organizations. The PPOC, SWPP, PPA etc. they have hard to earn designations with standards. Holding a marketing or arts degree means depth. For fine art speakers having photographs in national galleries is a real credential. These all speak to the knowledge acquired that can be shared.However, be wary if their awards are marketed as the main reason to attend.
  • Look past the marketing words, which can get carried away at times with the clamor to be noticed. I get suspicious when promises get too wild to be believed.Drill down to the real content offered. Then look at the time frame. If the learn list seems endless with a short time frame, know there will be a lot of skimming. If the knowledge seems light for a long time frame, expect fluff and filler.
  • Find out the level of what is being taught. Many instructors aim for the masses. You know the teaching will be entry level. If that is your goal, great. If it’s not you might not find value. Is the program above your skill set? You will be struggling thus getting limited value.I was taking an advanced Photoshop course where two of the participants had just installed their first version of Photoshop. They were lost while the program slowed down to accommodate them. It was lose/lose for everyone._2933599
  • Ask for their class plan. If they don’t have one, they are not ready to teach. Class plans speak to preparation; presentation experience. Without one a program can drift badly losing it’s focus. If there is no class plan, don’t attend.
  • How are their reviews? Speakers have differing levels of ego sizes, teaching skills and podium comfort. So much so that organizations have rated directories of speakers. Have you seen a speaker whose presentation was designed to sell his products, they never fully explain their technique details, saying those could be found in X DVD. Find out their reputations from photographers who have heard them. Ask photographers who have attended their previous presentations. Be sure its not all ego or sales presentation.
  • Then there is the practical side. Is payment secure? What is the refund policy? What is the cancellation policy? Are there guarantees? A Utah outfit promises you will get amazing images or they will refund your fee. In my Bahamas workshop I guaranteed student’s level to rise to coffee book standard and had a book they could go into if they did.
  • If it’s out of town or country consider the logistics. Where will you be staying, once there how will you be moved around. Is a passport needed? At one convention a speaker found out too late his passport was out of date by two days.
  • If there are models who are they? Are they what you are looking for? What is their experience? How will you be photographing them; with a large group, small group or one on one? What usage rights will you have to the images? Will you be required to supply the models with finished images? (That last one is a hidden cost by the way, that may be how the model getting paid.)
  • Is the program based on specific gear, is it yours? If you are a Strobist going to a workshop on lighting based on using modifiers on high-end studio lights it may not be useful. Same with a program on getting the most out of your Nikon when you shoot Canon.
  • Timing is everything. When you get back from your program will you have the time to implement, practice, put into effect what you learned? Will you have time to edit and produce those portfolio shots? If not done right away your mind loses the knowledge at a scary rate.
  • Investing a pile of money in training where months will pass before you use it will make it nearly valueless.
  • How do you best learn? Is this program being delivered in a way that works for you? Consider three to 7 day programs, very immersive, more expensive but usually higher retention value.
  • Who else will be attending or what kind of photographer is attending? Will there be time to talk to other participants? This is almost as important as the program itself. You can often learn as much from the other photographers, and make lasting connections, than the program itself.

When you do attend a workshop, doing hand written notes help to lock the data into memory, even if you never reference the notes. Connect with photographers attending, this

is the advantage of real world programs. Take what you learned into your studio; practice it until it becomes part of you. Don’t let it become just theory.

There are amazing instructors out there, photographers who will share their knowledge. Mostly they do it to improve our industry, our craft. When you get the chance, share yours too.

Select carefully, it is horrible to realize you spent a bunch of bucks on weak training. There is a huge thrill though when you connect to fantastic knowledge, see your skills leap, your business grow. Great training creates a fantastic path. These guidelines will get you there.



  1. Hi Mark, this is really excellent advice my friend. You are right on the mark with the rise of volume of workshop options yet the drop in quality of things an old-schooler like me takes for granted. Like showing up on time for instance, being fully prepared, having the equipment set and being instantly ready with backups at hand. The part I am most confused about is the lack of organization and common courtesy by some speakers and I also have noticed talented shooters with something rich to say yet they have a poor or disjointed speaking ability in addressing both small crowds and large ones. That’s easily learned with a little practice / training or just go sit down and watch how a Tony Corbell or Bambi Cantrell speaks to a group to learn how it’s done well.
    I want to pay for info, then have it delivered to my brain in a stream that is logically layed out of course, but that also is at the tempo that works for the group.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this, I’ll be re-posting it on my network.
    Much appreciated – Will C.

    • Mark Laurie

      Hi Will, thanks for commenting. I agree with your insights, Tony is a master to watch, he is effortless. I have enjoyed your presentations as well. Been getting deeper into the hybrid approach more and more.
      Thanks for the repost.

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