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A Tale Of Two Photo Workshop Leaders

January 27, 2010

I recently had a discussion with a couple other photographers that got me thinking.  Yeah, I know – it’s scary when I start thinking.  It gives me a headache which is why I try not to do it all that often.  At any rate, the gist of our conversation can be summed up with one question, “What makes a great photography workshop instructor?”.  Ponder on that for a moment before reading further.





I’ll assume that you’ve now given some thought to the question. Your reward?  Another question.  Let’s say that you’ve just broken your arm and the bone is sticking out and there is blood everywhere and you’re in mondo pain.  You’re crazy tough so you ride your single speed mountain bike uphill to the ER.  Upon arrival you are greeted by two doctors.  They’re both tall and handsome, or maybe they’re short and fat – your choice, your thing.  One of them introduces himself and says, “I’d really rather be doing anything else and I’m only here because I need the paycheck.  Let’s go inside, photocopy your insurance card and put a cast on your arm.”  The other one says, “I’m here because I’m passionate about helping people.  I can see you’re in a lot of pain so let’s go inside and fix that arm so you can get back to doing whatever it is you love to do.”  Finally, here is the question: which doc would you rather have mending your broken arm?

What does this have to do with instructing photo workshops?  Everything.  You see, there are some photographers who lead workshops only because they can’t make a living in photography any other way.  They don’t enjoy it.  They’d rather be out making photos or hiking or whatever else it is they’d rather be doing.  For the 3 or 4 or 5 days during the workshop they do their best to smile and teach you everything they know about photography.  You will probably learn something.  You might even learn a lot.  Chances are that the instructor will never let on that he’s not enjoying himself.  If you’re asking me, that just freakin’ sucks.

I would much rather take a workshop from an instructor who loves to teach other people about photography.  Someone who gets totally stoked when he or she is working with a workshop participant who all of a sudden says, “Ooooooooooh, now I get it!”  I’m talking about workshop instructors who are passionate about teaching and helping other photographers realize their goals.  These folks enjoy what they do.  They have fun with the experience and engage their participants on a level not possible if they’re just in it for the money.

Let’s be honest here – everybody who leads workshops does so for the money.  What kind of business would we be running if we gave away all of our services for free?  Moreover, how long would we be in business?  I’m thinking probably not very long.  But there is a difference between leading workshops solely for the income and leading them because you genuinely want to help others become better photographers.  Give me a choice between the two and I’ll choose the latter all damn day long.  Wouldn’t you?

Have you taken a workshop from an instructor who you felt was truly passionate about helping you & the other participants become better photographers?  Someone whose energy was contagious and motivated the group to push themselves and do better?  Tell us about it!  Let’s hear about your super positive workshop experiences.  Feel free to include a link to the workshop website, even.  Show ’em some love so that others can benefit from your testimonial.

Workshop leaders: Don’t even think about posting a link to your own site.  I’ll delete your post and make fun of you in public.  This is for workshop participants to share their own honest experiences and NOT a place for you to market yourself.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2010 9:11 am

    Joe Cornish and David Ward – They lead landscape photography workshops in the UK and abroad and are two of the best teachers I could imagine. Both have enormous amounts of knowledge and both really enjoy helping people who want to learn landscape photography. Even better, them team up to provide advanced large format workshops (I’ve been on two workshops with them) and the combination is wonderful. Highly recommended..

  2. Becky Peterson permalink
    January 27, 2010 9:22 am

    Yes – In the last year I have taken at least 7 local workshops in the South Western Oregon area from very a passionate professional Ashland Photographer by the name of Darlene Lyon-Kruse & David Vanderlip who assisted with camera technical tips. Both Darlene & David shared their talent without reservations with all students! Our Urban Medford also included acclaimed professional David Lorenz-Winston. Showing, leading, encouraging, suggesting and all at an affordable price for half day or full day workshops. I highly recommend!!! &

    Thanks for all your helpful & passionate sharing also Bret!

  3. January 27, 2010 9:30 am

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions, Tim & Becky! I’m especially glad to see Tim’s response as this gives folks in the UK some options.

    Keep ’em coming, folks!

  4. kurtbudliger permalink
    January 27, 2010 9:35 am

    What makes a good workshop instructor, good question and one everyone thinking of taking a workshop should ask themselves and the prospective workshop company/instructor? For starters, they should know something about teaching, I mean actual pedagogy (how learners process information, learning styles, methods for teaching, etc.) Just because someone can take great pictures doesn’t mean they know squat about teaching the general public.

    Secondly they should be 100% focused on their clients (as you mentioned), this means not shooting. I’m amazed at how many times I see comments on the web like, “shot this while leading my recent … workshop” or “stole away for a few moments during my recent workshop to make this image.” If you’re leading a workshop (tours might be a different story) you don’t have time to shoot, period! Obviously I feel pretty strong about this.

    Lastly, the company should deliver as promised. If they advertise a maximum group size of 12, then there better only be 12 participants when you show up. If not, you should get some kind of refund. I’ve bumped into groups in Nat. Parks from some of the big names in the industry that had way more than the advertised max. group number. And believe me, peopler were all too willing to share how disappointed they were.

    Just my $.02, as a past workshop participant, current workshop leader and college level photography teacher.

    • January 27, 2010 9:48 am

      “Just because someone can take great pictures doesn’t mean they know squat about teaching the general public.”

      My thoughts almost exactly, Kurt! I think it is important to ask some questions of the workshop leader before signing up. Much can be learned about someone by speaking to them for a few minutes. Are they patient with your questions and do they answer them fully? Are they willing to provide references?

      I will say this, though – while I agree that workshop leaders should not make a habit of making photographs while leading a workshop there are times when doing so benefits the group. I’ve actually had participants literally insist that I photograph, too. I use it as a teaching tool. I might find a composition and then ask the group to come peer through the viewfinder, one by one, to see what I’m photographing. This often leads to great discussions about composition and why I did or didn’t include this or that.

      Thanks for a really thoughtful and enlightened response, Kurt.

  5. kurtbudliger permalink
    January 27, 2010 10:02 am

    “I will say this, though – while I agree that workshop leaders should not make a habit of making photographs while leading a workshop there are times when doing so benefits the group. I’ve actually had participants literally insist that I photograph, too. I use it as a teaching tool. I might find a composition and then ask the group to come peer through the viewfinder, one by one, to see what I’m photographing. This often leads to great discussions about composition and why I did or didn’t include this or that.”

    Oh, I agree wholeheartedly Bret! My fear is that many can’t justify their own shooting in this way and the participants are getting short changed by folks who don’t really know how to teach/lead a group.

  6. January 27, 2010 10:59 am

    I don’t lead workshops – though I’m an educator by profession and I believe I fall into your “caring” instructor category – so you shouldn’t have to delete my message! 🙂

    I’ll just relate a story that I heard during the recent year or two that illustrates some of what you are talking about. I was photographing in a location where I frequently work when I encountered some other photographers trying to work a difficult scene, and perhaps not having an easy time of it. I didn’t want to be a jerk (Hey, do it this way!) but I thought they might gain something from what I could tell them about this situation so I sort of made myself available – and eventually the discussion turned to the photographic problem they were trying to solve.

    We had a brief conversation about. (I had a briefly ego-inflating moment when one of them said, “Oh, you are [that guy]!” as if I was a Really Important Person. My head quickly returned to normal size however. 🙂 They mentioned that they were returning from a paid workshop nearby. We got to talking a bit about that, and I was astounded when they described the experience. Besides some logistical problems that the workshop organizers might have better anticipated, they reported that the field experience was sort of like this: “We went to [location X] and the teachers turned us lose to make our own photographs WHILE THEY WENT OFF AND SHOT THEIR OWN.”

    Astounding. It seemed that, at least from this report, the organizers were quite open about their priority basically being to do their own photography and have the costs covered by workshop participants.

    Buyer beware – and go with personal recommendations from people you know who have attended workshops before you invest a lot of time and money in something that may not turn out as you hoped.


    • January 27, 2010 12:05 pm

      Yikes! Sounds like a pretty negative workshop experience. That’s really too bad as it gives a black eye to all who lead workshops, even the good ones. I’m glad you stopped to offer some assistance to these guys, though. There are still some good folks out there.

      Thanks for the comment, Dan!

    • January 27, 2010 3:38 pm

      Like Dan, I’m an instructor (software) by trade and definitely in that group you describe as those who teach for the love of it more than the money. I echo Dan’s comments completely as well as those of Gary Crabbe further down the page.

      As a photographer and nature lover, sometimes that natural teacher thing kicks in when I’m out and about. If I think it might be helpful, I’m always happy to answer questions when people are confused or struggling or I overhear them wondering out loud about something (usually a wildflower or bird they want to identify).

      In those situations, I’ve also heard workshop horror stories. Biggest complaint? That the instructors are more interested in what they, themselves, shoot on location than in assisting the participants to learn. One woman told me her instructor helped her place her tripod, went over her settings and then proceeded to set up his own rig right in the middle of the scene she had just composed.

      Also, I’ve heard frequent complaints about poor organization, timing and irrelevant subject matter. A lot of deviation from what was promised in the brochure. Lodging mix-ups. Poor quality food, e.g., hot dogs in lieu of promised “gourmet” meals. And all for very high workshop prices.

      You definitely want to get feedback from people you know who have taken workshops from the specific instructors. While signing accident waivers is typical, all workshop leaders should have thorough knowledge of the location and know how to handle an emergency (what authorities to contact, where the nearest hospital is, etc.) And don’t lead your people into places that they can’t handle physically. Just because you can run 40 miles with a full pack, doesn’t mean your participants are gonna make it on a short hike to an alpine lake.

      On a separate note, I want to mention that I have also encountered people on location who are participating in workshops and are completely rude. They will descend on a prime spot, hog the entire area, even march right in front of you to set up. If you say anything, they will announce “We’re part of so-and-so’s workshop.”

      As Steve Martin used to say, “Well, excuuuuuuse me!” It’s as if the price of the workshop entitles them to own everything in sight for the duration. Good workshop leaders shouldn’t allow this. Unless you’re on private land and shooting there by special permit, any other photographers who show up should not be denied a chance to shoot.

      There are very well-known workshops I will never take because they have encouraged these exclusivity practices. Whether you’re an instructor or a participant, be considerate. No amount of money paid for even the most prestigious of workshops entitles you to be rude and obnoxious.

      • January 27, 2010 4:14 pm

        Another great comment with some excellent points made. Thanks, Kahlee!

        One thing I forgot to mention is that any workshop conducted on federal land, whether it is within a national park, or on land managed by the BLM or Forest Service, must have a permit issued by the respective agency. Often called “Commercial Use Authorization” permits, they are not cheap nor are they easy to obtain. Nonetheless they are required. All of these permits require that the owner of the workshop company carry a minimum amount of liability insurance and be certified (at least) in First Aid and CPR. Before you sign up for a workshop ASK THE LEADER IF THEY HAVE THE REQUIRED PERMITS! If they don’t, I’d consider it a red flag.

  7. January 27, 2010 11:24 am

    Brenda Tharpe. I took a workshop with her at the Maine Media Workshops this summer. She is wonderful. She took time at the first classroom session to ask each student what they wanted help with or to grow in. She took careful notes, and then, when we were in the field, she approached each of us at just the right time to offer specific help. Example: I told her I wanted help composing the big landscapes. She saw me struggling one day at the shore and came over and offered suggestions. She did NOT take photos herself. I think that is a rule of the Maine Workshops. It freed her to really help us. And, she is an excellent critique. Our in class sessions were so helpful.

    On the flip side, I went to Patagonia with a group sponsored by Safariwise, an Austrialian outfit. The photo leader hogged all the best shots and did not offer much help. I only got help from him by sidling up next to him when he was taking a photo, under the assumption that he must have a good shot lined up. He also put us into a very dangerous situation in Torres del Paine on an extremely windy day because he was after a certain shot that he had seen someone else do. He dragged us there against our protests and one of our group nearly got blown into an icy river. BAD! Do NOT use Safariwise.

    I am headed to Death Valley today with Gary Hart from Sacramento and look forward to this. He has been recommended…we will see!

    • January 27, 2010 12:00 pm

      Thanks for the great comment, Barbara! You make some valid points, one of which I would like to highlight: any workshop leader who physically endangers those who have paid good money to learn from him is an idiot. I really hope this is a very rare occurrence. As a participant you should ALWAYS feel comfortable saying “no” to something you simply aren’t comfortable doing. I think this is where redernce checking is really valuable.

      Let us know how your workshop with Gary Hart goes. Thanks again for reading my blog & taking the time to leave a comment.

  8. January 27, 2010 11:49 am

    Keith Walklet and Mike Osbourne in Yosemite (available through Yosemite Gallery). Knowledgeable, fun and outstanding instructors both.

    • January 27, 2010 1:48 pm

      Great mention of Keith Walklet and Mike Osborne. I’ve met both of them in the Yosemite back-country and I’ve had the good fortune to join them on one of their shooting adventures. Both are wonderful people, fine photographers, and tremendously knowledgeable and articulate about photography and about the locations that they know so well. Both have extensive experience in Yosemite and know much of the back-country like, well, the backs of their hands. If you want to know about rivers, lakes, and waterfalls in Yosemite, Mike is your man!

      I’ll also (strongly) recommend their sometimes shooting colleague Charles “Charlie” Cramer. I’ve had the incredibly good fortune to have spent some time with Charlie on the subject of printing – and it is hard to imagine anyone whose knowledge, skill, and aesthetic strength exceeds his. Charlie does workshops – one very cool one is coming up at the end of the month: He and John Sexton (!) are doing a join printing workshop.


      • January 27, 2010 1:51 pm

        I’ve never taken a Charles Cramer printing workshop but I know several people who have. Without exception, every one of them raved about the experience. i guess that’s my way of providing a somewhat unqualified recommendation for one of his workshops.

  9. January 27, 2010 1:55 pm

    The great b/w photographer and silver printer Per Volquartz leads several FREE workshops/get-togethers on the west coast every year ( There is no reason for Per to do this other than altruism. He’s a great guy and a big inspiration for many.

    • January 27, 2010 2:01 pm

      Wow, this is awesome information, Michael.

      For those who don’t know, Michael Gordon and Guy Tal (two of my absolute favorite photographers and good friends of mine) lead amazing workshops throughout the Western U.S. You can see their workshop site at I’ve only ever taken one photography workshop and it was with Michael & Guy. In that workshop I learned more about finding (and losing yourself) in photography and developing your own creative vision than I ever imagined possible. I also made several good friends, drank a few beers around a campfire and just generally had an awesome time. I can’t recommend their workshops enough.

  10. January 27, 2010 1:57 pm

    Ah yes, I’ve also done a couple of printing workshops with Charlie Cramer. Great guy, amazing photographer, and wonderful teacher with a great sense of humour.

  11. January 27, 2010 2:06 pm

    Oh, the tales I could tell about Galen’s old workshops… 🙂

    I’ll only go on record to say that if someone doesn’t put their clients interest, education, safety, and making an enjoyable experience first, foremost, and paramount, they shouldn’t be doing it. Period. End of Story. Exclamation Point.

  12. January 27, 2010 2:58 pm

    This is a big reason I have never done a workshop, I fear the treatment that isn’t very good.

    I have on more than one occasion planned trips carefully and gotten there to find one or several workshops! I don’t know what that says…

    I do think a workshop would benefit me, I guess I just haven’t been able to get one I think would be good for. Perhaps Cramer’s printing workshops will be my first one, it is actually the only one that I have been interested in more than once…

    Anyway, they are offering their teaching services, and need to offer that. If they can teach while shooting then go write ahead…

    If participants are lazy and want to hang out in the bar then they are probably a little bit justified in going off to shoot on their own…Galen Rowell got his amazing rainbow behind the Tibetan Monastery shot in that situation! Nobody wanted to go with him…

  13. January 27, 2010 8:19 pm

    Hey Bret, let me start by saying: Get out of my head! I was paging through the NPN Workshops forum today and have been thinking about a workshop but you really have to stop saying what I’m thinking.

    Now that’s out of the way, I’ve never taken a workshop though I’ve been considering it lately. I just like hanging out with photographers and talking about photography. I have, however, taught small groups and a lot of 1 on 1 sessions of different aspects of photography and am listed as an SME (Subject Matter Expert) in a lot of areas where I now work and frequently teach new hires so I have some definite ideas about imparting knowledge to people.

    The point has been made by others that different people learn different ways and that has to be recognized. Also a couple of folks have touched on workshop leaders that shoot during the workshop and while I agree the instructor should have his equipment on hand (for demonstrational purposes ) I don’t think I’m really interested in financing that instructor’s opportunity to enhance his/her stock files. There’s even one guy listing his stuff on NPN that says blatantly “you’ll be setting your tripod up next to mine and while I’m shooting I’ll explain composition and exposure…” Not my cup of tea. Additionally, I think it’s critical to communicate information in a way that folks can understand. I understand Betas and Gammas but nobody cares about that. They just want to know how to make better images.

    Finally, an anecdote about one of my encounters in the field with a workshop group. I was shooting a few years ago in Upper Antelope Canyon near Page and had lined up a shot then stepped away to toss some dust into a sunbeam. When I turned around to get back and shoot before it all settled, the “leader” of a workshop had actually moved my tripod and placed his where mine had been. I know this because my lens was facing away from the shot. What followed was him screaming and cursing at me because I wouldn’t move out from in front of his lens so he could make the shot and me screaming and cursing at him for having the arrogance to suppose that because he was leading a group they had priority over my shot. Ultimately neither of us gave in so nobody got the shot. Great, eh?

    Bottom line: If I take a workshop the instructor needs to understand he’s there for me. And just because you are leading an expidition doesn’t mean you can disregard common courtesy.

    • January 27, 2010 11:30 pm

      Hey Bill,

      I’ve heard similar horror stories about workshops in Antelope. That’s just ridiculous. Very good point about explaining things in a way that people will understand. I’m one who needs things dumbed down and I always try to keep things simple in my workshops as I’d rather speak under someone than over them.

      As always, I enjoyed reading your comment (even though you can’t spell “expedition”). 😉 Thanks for reading!

  14. January 27, 2010 9:16 pm

    And for the record it’s “expedition” not “expidition.” Where’s spell check when I really need it?

  15. January 27, 2010 9:54 pm

    RE: A Tale Of Two Photo Workshop Leaders
    Hello Bret,
    Your article on workshop instructors leaves me “ponding” what was your point. You state the obvious that there are good and bad instructors, this is true with any profesion, financial planners, house painters, gardeners, etc. I read the piece and wondered what was the lesson, the point, the pearl of wisdom? Im sorry, but I don’t see anything except you stating the obvious. I’m a photographer and I love what I do, as a matter of fact, I give workshops in the Eastern Sierra. I love photography and am very good at it. I love teaching, and I love seeing a students eye’s light up when they get it right. I had my wife read your article and she too didn’t get the point, if anyhting she thought it was negative! Are we missing something? Your article was forwarded to me by my co-instructor’s daughter. I didn’t insult her by asking what I was supposed to get out of it. What am I supposed to get out if it, other that anyone with two brains cells to rub together wounldn’t already know? I guess your point is that if one is going to spend their hard earned cash, they need to do their homework. There are good people in this world and I couint myself as one of them!

    • January 27, 2010 10:25 pm

      Hey Bill,

      Thanks for stopping in, reading the post and taking the time to leave a comment. I’m sorry you didn’t find the information useful although I would argue that you did find a “pearl of wisdom” in the post as your next to the last sentence makes a pretty solid point. I’m sure you’re a good person and I’m sure you have more than a couple of brain cells to rub together, so that’s a good thing. It’s also a very good thing that you seem to be leading photo workshops for the right reasons. For that I applaud you!

      I guess I’ll close by saying that I would be foolish and arrogant to think that everyone will find my blog full of useful information. Every once in a while, I might just write something that may even be considered a rant with absolutely zero educational value. Who cares? I’m not beating anyone over the head and forcing them to read my blog. If you get a couple sentences in and you’re bored close out the browser and find something else to do. I’m okay with that.

      Thanks again for your comment. Have a great weekend!


    • January 28, 2010 6:40 pm

      Hi Bill – I think the point of Bret’s post was to encourage conversation about instructors and to comment about good experiences, for which it has done a splendid job! Tim

  16. January 30, 2010 2:47 pm

    The logical conclusion from the “tale” would be that one should take workshops preferably from photographers who have been demonstrably successful at selling and licensing their photography. Because since such a photographer doesn’t really need the money, he is more likely to teach because he loves teaching.

    I’ve noticed several critiquing instructors for photographing during workshops. What do they think of this thought from Alain Briot?
    “Personally, I believe that all art is performance and that, in this respect, the proof that one is a professional artist is being able to perform one’s art in public. Working with students does offer this opportunity, and so does photographing places visited by numerous people, such as the main overlooks of Grand Canyon National Park, or photographing in Paris, for example. But more importantly, this performance aspect that photography, like any art, possesses, means sharing what you do with others instead of just sharing the resulting product of what you do.” (from

    • January 30, 2010 4:25 pm

      Hi, QT,

      Thanks for reading the post and leaving a comment. Fantastic quote from Alain Briot. As I said, I do some times photograph while on a workshop and I don’t think it is entirely wrong for other instructors to do the same. However, instructors should be mindful that the workshop participants have paid them for instruction. I think that should be the primary focus for the instructor. If we get to make a couple images during the workshop – great. If not, oh well.

      I can’t say that I agree with your statement that one should take workshops from photographers who have been successful at selling & licensing their work. Such an individual might just be greedy, leading workshops only to pad their bank account. Conversely, it is entirely possible for a photographer who has never sold a single image to be an outstanding teacher.

      On another note, if you’ve never seen QT’s work I encourage you to visit his website at He is an amazing and well-traveled photographer. Enjoy!

  17. January 30, 2010 6:00 pm

    Thought-provoking response, QT. (I enjoy your work a great deal, too.)

    I would not rule out the idea of a workshop instructor making some photographs during a workshop as long as the primary focus of that activity is on sharing the process with the students. In other words a skillful and articulate photographer who can bring participants inside his/her process in this way and help them better understand the technical and aesthetic considerations might use this approach effectively.

    (Let me use an analogy to illustrate this. I studied music in college, and at one point I was fortunate to study conducting with an extremely gifted conductor. Most of the class was spent either telling students about how to approach a score or teaching the technical aspects of this work. A lot of time was also spent critiquing individual students as they conducted. This is not that much different conceptually from what might go on at a photo workshop. However, at one point, when I was working individually with this conductor he gave me a gift that changed my notions of conducting entirely. He stood 3 feet in front of me and simply conducted the second movement of Beethoven’s 6th as if he were conducting the full orchestra. I stood in awe and saw for the first time into the mind of the conductor – and inside Beethoven – in a way that I had not imagined. Note two things. 1. He did “do his art” in the class. 2. He did it briefly and only once.)

    I don’t think that anyone is faulting a workshop teacher who effectively teaches using any and all methods, including inviting participants into his/her approach to creating a photograph. When done well, this gift can change workshop participants trajectory in significant ways. The problem that people are referring to is those occasions when the instructor is not offering this to provide insight – and then following up by paying close attention to how participants leverage this experience as they make their own photographs.

    No, instead the problem under discussion is the unfortunate situation in which the instructor is simply using the workshop as an opportunity to finance their own time at an interesting photo location. Even that is OK, if the instructor shoots before and after the workshop, and no one will have a problem if a few shots are made – and shared – during the workshop. The problem – and it is certainly not universal – comes when the instructor doesn’t understand the clients are paying for full attention to their learning and deserve to get it.

    Take care,



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