Workshop Advice

WARNING: Sharing again a long post about Photography Workshops. I mean, really long post. The kind of long that makes you say, “Are you writing a short story, here?” I don’t apologize for this. You should have seen the unedited version. xoxo

I received the following question on my Facebook page from Carolyn, who has a Workshop Dilemma. I totally love this. I feel like Dear Abby. Well, if Abby wore yoga pants and drank vodka.

“I’m curious. I see you post a lot of negative things about workshops, and I wonder if you think they are all a waste of time and money or just some of them. I went through a serious lull last year (not a creative lull, more like a business and marketing lull), and I almost spent money on a mentor or attended a workshop for some guidance. I was completely on the fence about the whole idea. Then, when I saw a “mega photographer” (whose workshop I was considering) pull some shady business on her fb page, I dropped the idea completely and decided to revisit it later. Your posts about workshops have made me feel better about that decision. Every time a little hatchling, fresh out of high school with camera in hand, asks me what classes she should take to become a professional photographer, I tell her, “Business.” I tell her that it doesn’t matter how good you are with a camera, if you don’t understand business (or have the money to pay someone to understand it for you), you only have a hobby. I’ve been saying this for years, and now I feel I’m at a place where I need to kick my business up a notch, get some REAL marketing and financial guidance on where I should go from here, and I’m not sure where to turn. Advice?”

Do I have advice on workshops? Is the Pope Catholic? Does rain fall down?

Dear Carolyn, here, take my hand and allow me to guide you through the murky waters of PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS. These waters are very very murky, so you’ll need to hold on tight. Let’s talk about the days of old. (I realize that sentence sounds like I should be in a rocking chair on a porch somewhere, wearing a cardigan and support hose and cradling a Hasselblad. If we were outside of a Cracker Barrel this would be more effective. Plus we could play checkers and look forward to biscuits afterwards.)

Photographers have always taught other photographers. In fact, that used to be PPA’s hallmark–they encouraged Masters in the field to teach and mentor those new to the industry. In fact, to become a Craftsman, you had to teach and give back. In fact, you still do.

It was expected.

If you were accomplished and experienced and had achieved much in your career, you were expected to give back to those just starting out: to share your knowledge, pass it on. This was done maybe 2-3 times a year. Photographers would speak and share their insight and then…and here’s the amazing part, and if you know me at all, you know how much I DON’T use the word “amazing,” so this is big…those teacher photographers would return to their studios, pick up their cameras and continue making their living with…wait for it… THEIR CAMERAS.

I know. It sounds unbelievable, right? It’s easier to believe in zombies and growing dinosaurs in a lab.

Fast forward to today, and girl, the business of workshopping is an industry in and of itself with people getting into the industry JUST to workshop.

Because there’s money to be made off of photographers, especially if you’re new.

And not just a little money, but A LOT of money. Like, I can buy a vacation home and a Tesla, kind of money.

As cameras became cheaper and technology became more accessible, photography folks saw a Cash Cow in the form of new photographers. It was like an untapped gold mine. Just like the Gold Rush, the folks who prospered were not the ones panning for gold, but the businesses selling the pick-axes and gear to the prospectors so full of hope and promise.
Photographers have become the equivalent of the Gold Rush of 1849: “There’s gold in them there photographers!” The fine folks in our beloved industry have become a target. And not the fun Target with the $1 bin and the Starbucks inside the door.

No, you’ve been selected as a “market.” A previously untapped revenue stream. A “business.” An opportunity to make money for other photographers.

People with no proven track record began workshopping; people who couldn’t grow their own businesses turned to Coaching. They figured out that all they had to do was APPEAR successful (and cute, I mean, hello?) and they could make money selling the dream to those ready to buy.

And buy it they have. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear that by listening to a coach or a workshop giver that they, too, can achieve “Photography Riches.” And, even better, they can do it in a snap on a FastTrack to Success. It’s like those diet pills that promise 10lbs gone in a week without dieting.

Sign me up, right?

We have packaged up the dream, complete with templates and one hour monthly Skype calls and put it on sale. It doesn’t matter that the same folks doing this have been in business for a total of 2-5 years; oh no. Because the package is so darn attractive and marketed so well.

Let’s face it, I have underwear older than the business licenses of most of today’s photography workshop givers.

And the masses grow.

The Facebook Photography Pages multiplied faster than Tribbles on the Enterprise. And those who AREN’T new looked at the explosion and got, well…frustrated. It’s completely understandable; they owe no one an apology for that.

See, in today’s workshop world, a lot of it is simply an attempt at making money. No more than that. Much of it is not intended to raise the bar of excellence, but rather, to raise the bank account of those giving the workshops. I receive emails all the time from photographers who have saved or borrowed money to purchase a course or attend a workshop, only to find themselves filled with regret. These folks would have been better off taking their money and burning it. At least they’d get a pretty fire and could make s’mores.

(True Story: I watched a pretty boudoir photographer speaking during an online class. She’d been in business maybe a few years. A question was asked of her regarding what she would do in a certain situation. I don’t recall the actual question, but I do remember thinking it was a good question, because it was a problem everyone has experienced. The pretty boudoir photographer looked puzzled and then said, “I don’t know how to answer that because that’s never happened to me.” I remember talking to my computer screen, saying, “That’s because you haven’t been in business long enough for that TO happen to you.” And then I left the room in search of Vodka and Advil.)

So, in the interest of guiding you, I’ve come up with a

Red Flag Workshop Checklist:

If a photographer’s Facebook page is filled with nothing but workshop info, it’s a red flag.

If they have a shortage of actual paying client work on their page, but lots of models and tons of their own precious children, it’s a red flag. (Note: I only have two kids, but looking back, I could have grown my portfolio faster if I had had more. Hindsight, right?)

If the words, “When I started back in 2013,” is anywhere on their bio, it’s not a punch line to a joke; it’s a red flag.

If they are busy pushing products and workshopping, then they aren’t busy shooting REAL paying clients. It’s just not possible, and it’s a red flag.

If they are, in any way, snippy to their workshop attendees, it’s a red flag.

If they haven’t updated their actual studio page in over 2 years (yes, this is real) but update their Workshop Page as frequently as I go to the bathroom, which is a lot, because I have a little bladder and I drink coffee like other people drink Big Gulps, it’s a red flag.

If the words “passion,” “next level,”or “secret to success” are found anywhere on their website, it’s a red flag

If they promote other products as part of an affiliate program in order to earn a commission and in so doing, become the photography equivalent of the Sham Wow guy, it’s a red flag

If they tell you anything other than” running a photography business is damn hard work, and you should not hang out that “Open for Business” sign until you are as prepared as humanly possible, for to succeed, you will need to be 100% committed in every aspect, and that no one but yourself and your determination will get you there: no forum, no group, no organization…nothing but your willingness to do what it takes…” it’s a red flag.

(True story: I once had a photographer message me upset with what a photography organization was doing. I mean, this guy was irritated, and rightly so. He explained that HE didn’t want to say anything about this issue, which was the reason he brought it to me. Why did he not want to voice his opinion? Because he still was trying to BECOME ONE OF THEIR CONVENTION SPEAKERS. Oh boy. Kids, that’s messed up.)

So…what’s a photographer to do when they can’t easily look to their own industry for answers? Easy…look OUTSIDE the industry.

Carolyn, as you so astutely pointed out, business and sales are key. It doesn’t matter how great of a photographer you are, if you can’t sell your work, you won’t make money.

And there are lots of people to learn from in regards to sales and business. Unfortunately, most of them are dead.

But, luckily, their wisdom lives on. Folks like Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar and my absolute favorite, Jeffrey Gitomer. (Jeffrey is not dead. He is alive and well. I attended Jeffrey’s seminar years and years ago and from that moment on, I became a Gitomer Girl. If you don’t have his book “The Sales Bible,” then stop reading this and go get it. Seriously. Right now, just get in your car and drive to the bookstore or go to Amazon or SOMETHING, because you need to have this book. (disclaimer: I am no one’s affiliate and in no way connected to Jeffrey Gitomer. I would like to be though. So, if by some miracle, Jeffrey, you are reading this, call me. We can do lunch.)

See, Carolyn, I think the people you need to learn from are the people actively DOING that thing you want to do. Find them; watch them; study them and learn from their example. If you want to learn how to run a truly successful business for the next 20+years, find someone who has truly a run a successful business for the past 20+ years and take notes. Be warned, though–you will have to find them; they won’t be on a stage or flooding your inbox with offers. They are too busy running an actual business to bother with becoming a Workshop Celebrity. But they are there, I promise you. And they really, truly love this industry.

So, dear Carolyn, after over 1500 words on the subject, I can sum it all up with this:

When it comes to workshops sure, there are still a few that are worth the time and the money, but more and more, my advice to photographers is close your wallet and open your mind.

You’ve got this.


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