Why Should You Go on a Workshop, Tour or Retreat?

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Photography workshops, tours and retreats are a wonderful way to interact with other photographers, learn new skills and forge new friendships. Workshops can be anything from a few hours long to days or even weeks. They can be all about the technical aspects of photography, where you learn what buttons to press and how they affect your image; or they can be about the artistic side of photography, where you immerse yourself in an environment that makes it all about learning how to develop your “style”. Tours tend to be more focused on the destination with a healthy dose of photography included and retreats tend to be totally immersive experiences where the emphasis is on shutting all the troubles and interruptions out while you learn in a wonderfully relaxing environment.

Who should go on a workshop, tour or retreat?


Behind the scenes at the Budapest Photography Masterclass

The short answer here is “everyone”. Everyone should try to take part in a workshop, tour or retreat at least once in their life. You really do learn and grow when you participate in them and you should always be in a state of learning and renewal. If you ever reach the stage where you ‘know it all’, then it’s time to give up and move on. The reality is you will never reach that state, or at least you shouldn’t. Sure, you’re going to improve. Your knowledge is going to grow and you’re going to ‘know a lot’. But you’ll never ‘know it all’. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you should always be open to learning new things… new techniques or new ways of looking at things. Don’t close your mind to the possibilities and you’ll continue to grow. That of course relates to everything, not just photography, but it’s most definitely something that should be applied to the art of image making!

Generally, when you take part in a workshop, tour or retreat, you’re going to be getting together with a group of other people that all share the same passion for photography as you. They’re going to be there for the same reasons and will be looking forward to the experience. You’re all going to have different life experiences and photographic skill levels. Some people you’ll be able to learn from and others you’ll be able to teach. Everyone brings something different to the table at these events.

Workshops


Image of a model made during the Budapest Photography Masterclass

Taking part in photography workshops is going to be fun. If you’re not having fun on a workshop, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong one. There are a lot of workshops to choose from, covering all sorts of genres. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding one that fits your needs and likes. Do your research and choose the style of workshop that suits you. Don’t worry about what other people say you should do, choose one that suits your own lifestyle and requirements.

Workshops can be simple events that last only a matter of hours or they can stretch out over days or even into weeks. They’re often more about the technicalities of photography… learning the mechanics of what makes a good image. That could be anything from how to work the camera to using artificial light or working with models. There are many different types of workshops you can attend and many of them will be held within easy travelling distance to where you live. Just search around and you’re bound to find something not too far away. Longer workshops will have a “live in” component where all the participants stay at the same accommodation, which is usually a nice hotel that’s conveniently located and has suitable facilities for the workshop attendees. These longer workshops will sometimes include some or all meals while you’re there too.

Tours

Tours will differ to workshops in so far as the emphasis is on the travelling experience and seeing new places. There will be photography built into the tour and the itinerary will usually be developed around the best times to be in particular locations to make the best photographs possible. They can simply be an organised tour to get you to those prime locations, or they could include photographic tuition as well. Sometimes the tuition will be in the form of group sessions in the evening followed by you putting into practice what you’ve learned the following day with review and new teaching the next night. Some photography tours will have more “hands on” teaching while you’re out at each location. Quite often the tour group numbers will be quite small in that circumstance so the instructor can give everyone on the tour a suitable amount of time and attention. Larger tours will generally be the evening lecture and daytime practice type of tour.

Retreats


The Courtyard at La Pitchoune in Provence, France

Retreats are a whole different kettle of fish. Sure you’re there to learn; and learn you will. Retreats tend to be held in locations that are renowned for their relaxing atmosphere. They’re all about an holistic approach to learning. You get to experience the land, the people and the culture of the location the retreat is being held.

A retreat is “a place of refuge, seclusion, or privacy” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/retreat)

When you go on a retreat, whether it be photographic or otherwise, you’re completely immersing yourself into the experience. You’re giving yourself the best possible opportunity to enter a state of flow, more commonly known as “getting in the zone”. You become so focused and involved and enjoy the experience so much that everything else in your world becomes completely irrelevant, at least for a time. It’s when you’re going to be most relaxed and open to new experiences and learning. Retreats are less common than either photography workshops or tours, but can be the most rewarding of the three.

Why you should participate in a workshop, tour or retreat

The other participants on workshops, tours and retreats can become like family members. Friendships are often forged that last many years and while it’s true you might not get along with everyone, the chances are you will make new lifelong friends.


Valerie Jardin, Lee & Mandy Herbet – lifelong friends made on workshops

It goes without saying you should be learning something from the workshop, tour or retreat leader. If you’re not then there’s something wrong – either with the leader or with you. You need to make sure you have the right attitude and are open to learning. If you turn up with a closed mind, no matter how good the leader is, you’re probably not going to learn or enjoy the experience.

Don’t expect to be spoon fed everything though. The measure of a good workshop, tour or retreat leader is helping you on your journey of discovery and learning. Their role is not to give you the exact answer all the time. You’ll learn much more reliably if you discover answers for yourself with the aid of a good guide. Like most things in life, you get out what you put in, so be prepared to participate and you’ll be rewarded with new knowledge and skills that you can continue to hone long after the workshop, tour or retreat has finished. Be prepared to answer questions – questions you’ll be asked by your group leader or questions you find yourself asking. Workshops and retreats in particular, place an emphasis on discovery.

Remember that most, if not all of the other participants are there because they want to learn. You’ll all have different levels of ability and if the group leader is doing a good job there will be a willingness among everyone to help one another out. Photography is a craft that requires both technical knowledge and artistic interpretation and everyone has something they can share with the group. It’s impossible for one person to know everything there is to know about photography… I might know things that you don’t, just like you will undoubtedly know things that I don’t. With the right learning environment everyone can share their knowledge and every participant, including the ‘teacher’ will come away richer and more knowledgeable than when they started.

Can’t I get all the information online?


There’s more to workshops than technical details – there’s also the interaction you have with other participants

When you choose a workshop, tour or retreat to invest your money in you’ll quite often find the technical information online long before you attend the event. Things like what aperture or shutter speed to use in different conditions or discussions on things like zone focusing are not hard to find. A quick search of Google will usually turn up more than enough links to information you can use to answer your questions. In fact, you’ll often be overwhelmed with the amount of articles and information that Google returns in your search. There’ll be so much information you might not know where to start. What you won’t get with a Google search though is interaction. There won’t be any feedback from like-minded photographers, or the group leader. You won’t get daily inspiration or the extra encouragement to do something out of your comfort zone. Search engine results won’t encourage you to approach that stranger in the street and ask to do a street portrait. Without the group interaction you won’t build your confidence.

So, yes. Yes you can get much of the information being taught straight from the Internet, but there is so much more you’ll get out of the experience of actually participating in a workshop, tour or retreat that you simply can’t get any other way!

What makes a good workshop, tour or retreat?

There are many things that make a good workshop, tour or retreat. Things like –

  • Interaction and peer learning;
  • Knowledge of the workshop leader;
  • The environment;
  • Visiting new locations.


Workshops, tours and retreats allow you to visit new locations like Notre-Dame de Paris

There’s also the one to one reviews and instruction that many workshops, tours and retreats offer. There are, quite simply many things that go together to make the workshop a good experience and good / great value for money.

If you’re looking for a more intimate experience where you can get one on one time with the instructor or at least maximise the time you spend with them, then you should seek out workshops, tours and retreats that have small group numbers. Larger groups mean the instructor has more people to cater to and simple logistics mean they can’t spend large amounts of time with each individual participant. Smaller groups of people tend to feel more like families too, which often leads to a more pleasant experience overall.

The workshop, tour or retreat leader needs to be passionate and focused on your learning. There’s nothing worse than spending a large sum of cash (or even worse, adding to your credit card bill) for a workshop and feeling like you’re just there to make the numbers up and make the instructor some money. There needs to be a true connection between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’. Sometimes workshop leaders need some ‘alone time’ in order to carry out logistical or other tasks related to the running of the workshop, however, those that disappear as soon as the ‘instructional hours’ are over are not demonstrating a passion for their workshop or the participants. Their job is to help you learn and often the best learning experiences come ‘after hours’ when you’re sharing a meal together, talking and relaxing.

The ability of the ‘teacher’ to personalise the experience is also invaluable. Whenever a group of photographers get together, there are going to be different levels of knowledge. If the workshop content is rigid it might not be a good fit for you. It might be fantastic for someone with either more or less knowledge than you, but it could simply be a complete non-learning experience for you as an individual. The instructor needs to be aware of those differences and be able to tailor information and instruction to suit everyone’s level of experience by perhaps spending more or less *one on one* time with some participants.

A good gauge of figuring out if students are having a good time or having fun is this: are they smiling, laughing, and is there a positive energy around? – Eric Kim

Workshops, Tours and Retreats I’ve attended or want to attend

I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend numerous photography workshops over recent years. Every one of them was, in my opinion, good value for money. They were each quite different and had different objectives. They’ve ranged from half day workshops to week long experiences. Some were local and for some I travelled to the other side of the world. There are others I’d like to attend and am working towards those goals in the future.

In no particular order here are my recommendations –

Retreat

The Artist’s Voice Photo Retreat (May 5-8, 2016)


La Pitchoune in Provence, France – location of The Artist’s Voice Photo Retreat

A retreat being run by Karen Hutton and Makenna Johnston. To quote Karen, “This adventure is all about releasing your “Artist’s Voice” as a photographer, in a land where people know that art comes from a life well-lived. And that a well-lived life is an art unto itself!”

The retreat is being held at La Pitchoune – a lovely house once owned by Julia Childs in Provence, France – which is only ten minutes from Cannes. It’s a completely immersive experience with the highly acclaimed Karen Hutton teaching photography and equally acclaimed Makenna Johnston teaching cooking and business. This retreat is on my list to do in the future.

Workshops

Valerie Jardin – Normandy Photo Workshop


Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, France at sunrise.

This was my first workshop hosted by Valerie Jardin, but it wasn’t my last! We spent a week travelling around and exploring Normandy, having a truly wonderful ‘French cultural experience’. Valerie was born and raised in Normandy and knows the area like the back of her hand. Her local knowledge really enhanced the workshop experience – photography, travel and vision. Although Valerie is not offering the Normandy workshop at the moment I highly recommend this workshop when it’s back.

Valerie Jardin – Paris Through Your Lens


A street artist making a portrait in Montmartre, Paris.

As I’d already travelled to France for Valerie’s Normandy workshop, I took the plunge and followed on with her Paris workshop the following week. Obviously doing two workshops back to back was expensive, both in money and time. I consider it to be a valuable investment though. Both workshops were well worth doing and I would have no hesitation in suggesting back to back workshops with Valerie if they’re offered. Both were quite different experiences and provided two weeks full of learning and friendship.

Valerie Jardin – Melbourne Photo Workshop

This was another workshop by Valerie Jardin, this time held in Melbourne, Australia. Seeing Valerie experience Melbourne for the first time was a valuable experience. Her passion for photography and her ability to see photographically were really apparent. It’s pretty obvious that I like the way Valerie runs her workshops and there are still a few I’d like to do one day – particularly New York and Rome (which I’ll be doing in April 2016)

Italy Masterclass

Run by Jeff Medford of MZed Education for Creatives. The instructors for the Masterclass I attended were Clay Blackmore and David Ziser.

Budapest Masterclass


A view of Chain Bridge across The Danube in Budapest, Hungary

Another workshop run by Jeff Medford of MZed Education for Creatives. The instructors for this Masterclass were also Clay Blackmore and David Ziser together with Jared Platt. I had such a good experience at the first one that I signed up for this one too. I highly recommend any of these workshops put on by Jeff and his team.

Lee Herbet Video Editing

This was a one day workshop hosted by SUNSTUDIOS Melbourne. The instructor on the day was Lee Herbet who is a font of knowledge when it comes to Apple Inc products. The workshop focused on video editing for photographers, using Apple Final Cut Pro X. This was another well run and useful workshop. Lee also runs multi-day workshops along the same lines. I would recommend keeping an eye on his website and if you have an interest in learning about video, don’t hesitate to try one of his workshops.

Tours

Darlene Hildebrandt Photo Tours

Darlene Hildebrandt runs photo tours through her Digital Photo Mentor site. She says the photo travel tours to Nicaragua, Morocco and Cuba are designed around the best light, the best locations and more time at each location!

We travel or experience the culture… we learn or relax when the light is harshest and shoot when the light is best. It’s a custom designed travel tour, by photographers for photographers.

I’d love to do her Cuba tour in the future.

Wrapping it up

There are so many photography workshops and tours and a few retreats, the choice is almost endless. There’s something for just about everyone at all sorts of price points. The next thing on my list is to attend a full photography retreat. It’s something I haven’t done yet, but it’s certainly something I intend doing when I can.

You don’t have to do any of the events I’ve suggested, but they would be a good starting point. Find something that fits your style and genre and research the people running it. If it looks like a good fit for you, then I would encourage you to take the next step and commit to doing either a workshop, tour or retreat this year.

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