Photography Workshops – What Level are You?

DownTheParkingGarage, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

Next in the series about photography workshops, it’s time to talk about levels. No, not levels in Photoshop (though we might talk about those at some point) we’re talking levels of experience here. Many workshops are actually more like master classes than workshops. Since they are master classes, many of the workshop leaders do not want to teach beginners. This is where the levels and the portfolio reviews come in. Since I’ve been through this process before, I thought this is where I might be able to help you out (a bit.)

For starters, the Maine Media Workshops (a wonderful place to take workshops) has a handy list describing experience levels:

  • Level 1 – Students new to photography with little or no formal training. Digital students have basic computer skills.
  • Level 2 – Students have a basic understanding of photographic processes and technology and should be comfortable using a SLR camera in manual mode. Digital students are familiar with Adobe Lightroom software or similar organizational / editing application.
  • Level 3 – Students have at least three years experience making photographs, a portfolio of personal work and some experience in classes and workshops. Digital photography students are comfortable with Adobe Photoshop editing skills.
  • Level 4 – Advanced students and working professionals have at least five years experience and several portfolios of work. Digital Photographers are comfortable with advanced imaging techniques using Adobe Photoshop.

Finding a workshop that matches your level is important. For example, you might be a beginner and try to sign up for an advanced workshop, thinking, “oh, I’ve used Photoshop before and I’ve seen a few portfolios so I’ll do ok” when the reality is that you are going to be surrounded with professionals building upon a body of well-established work. These people aren’t going to stop and help you, so you won’t learn anything from them other than maybe how to be grumpy and shoo people away while you’re shooting. Likewise, it’s frustrating to be working on a body of work and be constantly interrupted by somebody asking, “what’s an f-stop again?” So, try to pick your levels accordingly to maximize your results.

Many of the advanced or master classes will require a portfolio review. I realize too that, while many of you will have the experience, sometimes attending a workshop will actually be the first time you submit an entire portfolio or body of work for review. It’s kind of scary, isn’t it? Yes, well, get used to it.

Get used to it, yes, but you also present the best portfolio possible. How to do that? Well, for starters, you can start by reading their guidelines, most of which are usually posted on their website. In my example of the Maine Media Workshops, their guidelines can be found here. Here’s a sample of what they are looking for: “If your work is B&W prints include ten good inspection or work prints and six contact sheets. The prints tell us about your printing ability and your vision. Your contact sheets tell us how you handle a subject from frame to frame, if your exposures are consistent, and how you approach a subject.” You can follow the link to read more, but they basically tell you how to label, pack, and ship prints, plus also what to do if you shoot in color or digital format.

In this example, somebody applying to that program should expect to submit 10 working prints. They should be 10 prints that fit a theme, that speak to a vision, that represent a body of work. When thinking about body of work, it’s probably best to not only think about a consistent subject matter, but also think “one camera, one lens (no zooms)” here. If you do that, and you provide them 10 reasonably good working prints, along with solid contact sheets, you’ll probably get into the workshop.

Workshop can be very competitive, yes, but you also have to remember that you’re paying for these. Naturally, some will be more competitive than others. If you’re applying to study under somebody famous, for example, it might be harder to gain entry. If you’re serious about the workshop, you might try to go to a local art school, photography department at your local college, etc. and see if you can get somebody to help review your work. Many places around Austin, for example, offer portfolio reviews for a fee (usually it’s about $50 or so-this can be a small fee if you are applying for a multi-thousand dollar once-in-a-lifetime master class.) Often “bribing” a local artist or photographer can produce the same sort of results. The trick is to finish the portfolio as best you can and then to go around locally, getting feedback and perfecting it before submitting it. It almost always happens that somebody (especially another professional or established working artist) will spot something your eyes missed and it’s just good form to get used to getting feedback on your work.

Sequencing your portfolio can be very important as well. Never forget to sequence the work, either arranging it tonally, by lines and shapes, mood, or some other “logical” way. This is where a local review can really help you-another set of eyes can often help with sequencing your work. The big trick here is to not neglect the sequencing of your work-in fact, it’s probably a good practice to do this all the time anyway.

It probably goes without saying but, in case you’re clueless, if they ask for 10 prints, give them 10 prints. Give them 10 prints, nothing but 10 prints, no more than 10 prints, no less than 10 prints. The absolute worst thing you could do is ship them 40 prints. Or six. Nobody is going to want to edit your work and they’ve asked for 10 so give them 10. Learning to edit your work and giving people what they want is all part of your experience level-if you can’t do it yet, you probably shouldn’t really be applying for a master class and need to work on your editing and presentation skills before moving along to the next step.

As you can guess too, it’s probably a good idea if the body of work you present for the workshop matches somewhat what the instructor will present. If you’re applying for a workshop with, say, Jock Sturges, you probably want to show figurative work. If you don’t have figurative work, the best thing you can do is to get as close as possible. Don’t send him flower macros here-try to send him 10 working prints with (at least) people in them, or portraits of some kind, to get you in the ballpark, but expect to be doing nudes as part of the workshop.

Again, here, as you advance in your experience, what you’re really demonstrating is that you’ve moved beyond the “single shot” mentality (found in the camera clubs, for example) and into the “I can do a project” or even into the “I can deliver what the client wants” aspects of being a working professional. Most solid photographers don’t just “get the shot” they deliver consistent results that match what the client wants. If it helps, think of that master class as your first client, and try to deliver a consistent body of work along the lines of what they are looking for-keeping in mind it’s not about one shot, yes, you do have great flower macros (or the like) but that you can also deliver a solid body of work on a consistent theme. The more you can demonstrate that you are capable of doing that, the better your chances of securing that coveted slot in the master class.

Finally, one last, but very important note about master classes, workshops, and the like. If you do attend one, even if it’s not a master class, by all means, put it on your resume or CV. This is so important, I’m going to say it again:

If you attend a master class, workshop or the like, include the location, name of instructor, and relevant details on your resume or C.V.

Really, I cannot stress this one enough. When scanning a CV one of the things people look for is commitment to the field. Nothing shows a sense of tenacity, of commitment, quite like somebody who holds a day job 50 weeks a year, only gets 2 weeks vacation, and decides to spend it in the trenches of Santa Fe or Maine or some other workshop location. Yes, those locations seem romantic, but most photographers are already familiar with the workshops and the workshop experience-they know how much work goes into them and how much you can learn in that short period of time. We all know it’s not a spa day out there, it’s hard work to produce great images. There’s not point in hiding that dedication to your craft, rather highlight it. I’ve heard too many people say things along the lines of “well, I didn’t want anybody to know that I didn’t go to school and I’ve only taken a workshop.” Taking a workshop, short as it is, is still way better than having no formal training at all. Really. Put it on there. And be very skeptical of anybody who thinks that learning is somehow “beneath” them. Even the best photographers learn and pick new things up as they go.

That’s enough about workshops for today. I hope you are enjoying the series and, if you have any specific questions, please feel free to drop me a note and I’ll try to cover these in the next (probably last) installment of the series.

Until next time…

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