Whats Make a photo workshop great?

Whats Make a photo workshop great?



Matt Brandon, Photographer, Malaysia

I have been running photographic tours, workshops or Master Classes for the past ten years. I started back in 2007 when I ran my first workshop with another newbie, David duChemin. We were naïve and thought, “Hey, we’re not bad at this photography stuff, why don’t we share what we know with others on a workshop.” For some reason people bought it.

 I am often asked what should someone look for when choosing a photo workshop or tour. Let me state that for some people there is a huge difference between the two designations; workshop and tour. For this article, the differences for me are not that relevant. The reason being is that what I have to say applies to both a workshop; where photographers home their photographic skills and a photo tour; where photographers are guided around and given the best photo opportunities. In a nut shell, that is the difference.

Some times workshop managment has to get creative.

Alou Brandon wrangles up an impromtu model session.

In our trips the difference between a tour and a workshop is minimal at most. Frankly, I enjoy teaching so much that my tours often very similar to my workshops. The only difference is the expectations of the participants.

I recall one workshop where I was a guest instructor on in Tibet. One of our participants made it very clear from the start he was coming on this workshop but only wanted the tour element. He didn’t want to hear unwanted suggestions from me on how to take a photo. In the end, he was a great addition to the trip and added a lot of value to the critique sessions we ran. He just needed the freedom to go and shoot what he wanted when he wanted, but at the same time, he needed a local expert who knew the locations of the photo opportunities.

“Matt is a great instructor who generously shares his time and knowledge with all participants (novices and seasoned photographers alike).  Matt seemed at first to be a magnet who magically attracts photogenic situations but don’t be mistaken: the man knows how to create photographic opportunities and how to share them with other photographers.” – Dannie Goossens 2015 Rajasthan Workshop

So, what do you look for when choosing a photo workshop or tour? Honestly, I can only tell you what we do. So let me do just that.

At this point in this post, the term workshop and tour will be used interchangeably. 50% of my workshops are run by a team of three; Myself, another instructor and my wife. Why my wife? To manage the day to day operations of running the tour. My wife and I started running cultural tours way back in 1993. In those days we ran Frontier Treks and Tours (FYI: This is where the trek part of the name Digital Trekker came from). FT&T was a typical cultural tour operation: “Here we have XYZ Fort, it was built by emperor Shaw The Man in 1492.” This gave us a huge amount of experience with what it takes to run a workshop and what are the needs of the client. She ran the day to day operations, fought with hotels, made sure the buses were where they were supposed to be – all the little things that keep a tour on track and fun.

A good workshop will take advantage of every oppertunity.

Co-instructor Piet Van Den Eynde sets up a spntanious flash shoot after tea.

Our workshops are often made up of three staff; my wife, a guest instructor and myself. Sometimes my guest instructors are less guest and more partners like Piet Van Den Eynde. I think Piet and I have run five or six workshops together. But whether it is Piet or someone else, like my newest guest instructor, Andrew S. Gibson who will be co-leading my next workshop, running two instructors on one trip gives us an out of the ordinary student to teach ratio of 4:1! Having two instructors enables participants to get a different take on any given topic or technique. It also allows for different teaching styles.

If you do the math you can see that a 4:1 ratio will give us only eight participants. This low number of participants ensures us an intimate group that usually bonds quickly and works well together. It also allows us to be less intrusive as a group of photographers invading a sometimes small community. (read the related article “Beginners You Make Ripples”)

This brings up another point that I strive to achieve in my workshops, and that is a degree of cultural sensitivity and insight. By participants finding workshops led by instructors that either have lived in, or are currently living in, the country, or region where the workshop is taking place is a great bonus. That does not mean that a workshop led by someone who doesn’t live in the country won’t be good or even great! That’s just silly. What I am saying it is, it is a bonus.

My wife and I lived in India for 13 years and have learned Urdu and even more importantly much of the culture. I feel this gives us a slight advantage over other foreign workshop operators in India. We can identify subtle cultural clues and nuances that can help in awkward moments. Years ago I was leading a trek in Kashmir, India. A Kashmiri militant entered our camp at night with his Kalashnikov and found his way into our cook tent. I was in another tent playing cards with our clients. Our fixer came up to me and told me we had a guest that wanted to see me. He told me as we walked away who it was. As I entered the tent, I was calm and gave him my “adab.” Adab is respectful greeting in a high form of Urdu. This took him by surprise. He then asked why we were in that area. I told him we only wanted to walk up the valley and meet people and photograph. I then offered him chai and biscuits. By the end of the night, he said he gave us his “izzat” or blessings to proceed the next day. The situation was defused. I am not saying someone else couldn’t have handled that, but our years of working in India sure helped!

In closing, the biggest compliment I can receive after a workshop is over is when someone says to me, “I felt like you not only help me find the perfect photograph, but you went so far as to sacrifice your opportunity to shoot to give it to me.” In our workshops, the client comes first. I have heard some many stories of workshop leaders that either shoot that perfect moment and then toss the left overs to the client or are so far removed they are of no help at all. For my company, a workshop leader’s job is to find that special opportunity and deliver it to the client. This isn’t always possible, but it is something we strive to do.

I hope you get a chance to experience one of our workshops. We will be announcing our newest Rajasthan workshop for 2018 in the next day or two. Hint: We always open registration up to our email list first. There has been more than one occasion that we sold out before it ever went public. Just say’n!

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

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