On Workshops, Scams, Manners and Foolish Ideas

As a practical matter, if I can’t make a decision on a workshop based on the information you put on your site (and which I can search out online about it), I’m going to move on to a different workshop; I’m not going to go digging into a workshop like Fong suggests except in a really exceptional situation. If you don’t do a good job of convincing me to sign up with your online materials and marketing, I’m not going to chase you down and start asking questions. I’ll find someone else who does a better job of marketing their workshops.

So as a workshop buyer, what am I looking for? It depends on the situation (of course). I break workshops down roughly into four types:

  • Lecture-oriented seminars with larger audiences, like Art Wolfe’s current series, or the Strobist/McNally road tour. Primarily lecture with little or no hands-on.
  • Smaller seminar/hands-on seminars about specific topics. Creative Live’s seminars are a good example, as are Syl Arena’s lighting seminars in Paso Robles. Smaller audience, more hands-on, more personal instruction and discussion.
  • On-location workshops, where in many cases it’s more about the location than the teaching; in many cases, the workshop staff is more guide and teacher, although it depends on the staff and location. When I take that winter workshop in Yellowstone, I expect it to be much more about the situation than about the gear, for instance.
  • Private workshop sessions where you go one-on-one with a photographer.

(I mention all of those because they’re on my short list as options I’m considering).

How do you as a workshop host convince me to sing on?

First, it has to be a topic I’m interested in. Sorry, wedding workshop hosts. Then you need a body of work that shows me you’re qualified to teach the workshop. That implies a rock solid online portfolio (at the very least), and I need to be able to look you up and see that you know your stuff and that what you shoot is compatible with what I’m trying to accomplish; or in an on-location workshop that you know the area and I’ll get direction better than I can get from Fodors or Lonely Planet. It’s amazing how many destination workshops fail this test.

Make sure you’ve got online videos of you teaching something. Anything. short youtube videos doing screencast tutorials is one option. Doing a longer piece at a place like B&H is better. Doing an extended class at Creative Live is even better. I want some way to get a sense of how you teach and how well, but also what your personality and style is. This is great fodder for your blog. You do blog, right? You’re trying to sell yourself online and you don’t? Oh. I’m sorry. (You need to blog. Your blog needs to promote what you do. Your personality needs to come through. If it’s all PR and marketing and zero you, what’s that say about your workshop experience? You need to sell yourself as well as your subject. If you can’t  do that, I’m not taking your workshops).

Promote your previous workshops. Write up the experiences; show pictures. Give us a sense of how it went, and help us want to be on one. Aperture Academy does a really nice job of this, as an example. I may not be typical of this, but I realize things don’t always go as planned. Talking about what went wrong in your workshops and how you adapted to the situations is a lot more attractive to me than finding a gap in your history where a workshop that you had issues with got, um, overlooked on your site. Chances are, someone else who was there will talk about it on their blog. Better you give your side than pretend everything is always perfect.

Encourage your students to blog about the workshops. Link to them when they do. I’m unlikely to ask for references, and I don’t particularly care about your prepared list of people who’ve promised to gush about you. I can find former students of yours online with the search engines. make it easy for me and link to them all as part of your site’s marketing, even the ones that aren’t 100% thrilled with you. And guess what — if I go looking and I can’t find former students writing about your workshops, that’s really, really bad. scary bad, as in “I’ll go somewhere else” bad, because if I can’t find happy former students blogging about you, either you don’t have any, or there’s something wrong here that I don’t want to deal with. I’ll go find an instructor with happy blogging students.

If you’re someone who takes a $1500 workshop from someone who doesn’t do this kind of research before plonking down that kind of money? you kinda get what you deserve. It’s not that hard€¦

The key here? don’t wait for me to ask you for this stuff. It needs to be out there waiting for me when I come looking. Your website, your blog, your workshop site and online marketing material has to look — not pro, necessarily — but polished and competent. If it’s sketchy or incomplete, if there are typos or major mistakes in it? If you can’t run the workshop’s website well, what’s that say about how you run a workshop? (okay, I’ll forgive typos in a blog to a good degree; in fact, I prefer a blog that’s clearly YOU, not run through a marketing team or ghosted by a PR person or intern. But still, at some point, sloppiness and poor execution in your online work is an indicator to how you do everything else).

I don’t need Gary Fong’s letter because if you don’t give me enough information make a reasonable decision without contacting you, I’ll scratch you off the list and go work with someone who does. If you pass that initial list, I’ll track down former students online and see what they say about your workshops. If I can’t find them? I’ll go somewhere else. If you have a tendency to get caught up in your own shooting while teaching a workshop, it’ll come out in the student feedback I’ll find when I look for it, and I think that’s a mis-behavior that’s at the core of the gripe Gary Fong is chewing on. (trust me: I’m not expecting you to NOT shoot. But if I end up feeling like I”m there to fund your photo trip, not to be led on my photo trip, my blog will make that clear€¦)

I’ve mentioned a few organizations that I think do this well: CreativeLive continues to impress me with the quality and breadth of their online classes; Syl Arena is a good example of the one-man-shop topic-specific workshop; Aperture Academy does a good job as the “multi-host co-op” organization, and people I know who’s taken their workshops (I haven’t, yet) have seemed pretty happy with their work. Michael Frye is a good example of a photographer who teaches workshops (through the yosemite ansel adams gallery) on location who uses online screencast-style teaching to good effect as a tool to sell both his books and his workshops.

If you don’t have the body of work — as a photographer or as  a teacher, or preferably both — and you don’t have an online presence that convinces me you are professional enough to pull off a workshop, and you don’t have a history I can find of former students that liked working with you enough to write about it? You got a problem, because there are a lot of workshop operators out there that have all of that. Guess which ones I’ll go to first?

And none of that requires the kind of — attitude — you find in Gary Fong’s proposed letter. It’s well-intentioned, but unnecessary.

(and what am I currently planning? Right now, I’m seriously considering a private one on one workshop session in the field when the opportunity allows. If and when I pull the trigger, I’ll talk about why and how it worked out€¦ Right now, it’s all planning).