Dirty Secrets of the photo workshop business

I’m writing this article because frankly, I’m upset. It seems that every time I meet with photographers who have attended a previous photography workshop, at least one of them has a horror story about a previous experience. After hearing the stories, I’m surprised they were able to put the bad experience behind and have the fortitude to try again with another workshop leader. What’s really upsetting about a lot of things I hear about the photography workshop business is that it casts a dark shadow on the entire industry. I know that there are a lot of great folks who put on workshops (and in spirit of full disclosure, I have a workshop company myself) and it is unfortunate that many of our peers only seem to be in it for purely selfish reasons. The stories I’ve collected come from the nature photography business. I suspect they occure in other specialties as well, but my direct experience is with the folks who attend nature photography workshops.

Let’s go over a few of the complaints and flesh them out.

Harry the Marmot is upset too!

Very often it seems as if the workshop leader is there to pad his or her portfolio and has little interest in teaching, providing instruction or even the occasional hint. This is probably the single biggest complaint I hear. People do understand that it can be helpful for the workshop leader to have their camera with them and even if they make occasional images. But when people have to struggle with the workshop leader for a prime shooting location or when they get an annoyed look or attitude when they have a question, there is a definite problem. If I were planning to go on a photography workshop, my number one question and concern to the workshop leader would be: “Do you photograph during your workshops?”

I think the following story, told to me by one of my workshop peeps (who we’ll refer to as Mr. X) at my June workshop in Montana illustrates the situation elequently. Mr X is on a photo workshop in Churchill, Manitoba for Polar Bear photography. One afternoon Mr X and the workshop leader go out by themselves in a vehicle to find critters to photograph. They spot an Arctic Fox out on a lake, get out of the vehicle (remember this is Churchill and Polar Bears can literally be anywhere) and start working their way across the lake to get into position to make some pictures. Apparently the ice isn’t that thick and Mr. X partially breaks through the ice and fortunately saves himself by catching himself with his camera which is soaked (and broken as it turns out). Additionally, Mr. X has managed to get his clothing wet and needs to get back to the warmth of the vehicle. So, what happens? The workshop leader stays out on the ice to photograph the Arctic Fox and leaves Mr. X to make his way back, across the ice and the tundra, to the vehicle. In addition to being wet, freezing and embarassed, Mr. X is now terrified at the prospect of running into a Polar Bear by himself without his “expert” by his side. What sort of workshop leader, let alone human being, leaves another person in this predicament? Is it so important to get another fifty images of an Arctic Fox or could it possibly be the right thing to do to accompany the paying client, you know the person who is inadvertently paying for you to pad your portfolio, back to the vehicle?

How about a workshop leader who austracizes people who don’t use their brand of camera? Another fellow at my last workshop had attended a workshop with this professional photographer a number of years ago. At the beginning of the workshop they went over the sort of equipment that everyone was using. Out of about twenty participants only about four others were using my workshop person’s brand of camera. Those in the minority were told, in no uncertain terms, that they’d backed the wrong horse and hadn’t made an intelligent purchasing decision. Those folks felt entirely austracized during the trip and didn’t get a lot out of the workshop. Is this kindergarden or what? Who gives a poop what brand of camera people decide to photograph with? Seriously!!!

And then there’s the story about another workshop leader, who I’ve heard the same story about from three or four sources. This workshop leader has the sort of personality where he can convince folks to spend money on things they might not otherwise do. He’s bragadocious and isn’t afraid to exagerate his accomplishments or influence in the industry. But, he built up a good following of folks interested in pursuing a career as a professional nature photographer, that regularly attended his wildlife photography workshops. Eventually, he convinced a number of them that they should submit their photos for inclusion in a book that his publishing company was putting together. The main caveat being that they had to pay many thousand dollars to participate. In addition to a number of copies of the books, they were promised fame and fortune for their participation and of course the elusive accomplishment of being “published”. The book was eventually produced and the participants received their copies of the books. But the printing quality was brutal and the length wasn’t what had been promised and it turns out the foreward to the book, written by a well known photographer, wasn’t even written by him. But of course the real disappointment came when all of their copies of the books languished in their basements and garages (because folks were embarassed about the quality) and the promised fame and fortune never happened. Later folks discovered that the only one who made any money from the deal was, wait for it; wait for it; you guessed it, the workshop leader! Shocking! (Sarcasm intended).

There is also a workshop leader who collected tip money from his workshop participants, supposedly to give to the guides helping out with the workshop, which magically never made it into their hands but ended up at home with the workshop leader. One of the workshop attendees (this time we’ll call her Ms. X) was attending two workshops back-to-back at the same location and each workshop ended up having a different leader. When Ms. X found out that the money collected as a tip from the first group never made it into the hands of the intended recipients, she was furious. Immediately upon returning home she confronted the workshop leader via email and never received a reply. Eventually about six weeks later, she received a copy of a cancelled check made out to the guides with a small hand-written note stating “I heard you were concerned about this”. That’s all well and good (and apparently the guides did eventually receive the money) but it wasn’t until several weeks _after_ the workshop ended and the confrontational email was sent. Talking with the guides later, Ms. X learned that they hadn’t received tip money before from this workshop leader so apparently the scam had been going on for some time until he finally got caught! Can you imagine the gull of this “leader”? And yes, he still runs photo workshops to this day but strangley not with those guides or their company any longer.

I’ll leave you with one final story told to me by a number of people. It seems that there was a workshop leader who would charge extra if folks wanted to car pool with him to the photography locations! I’m not talking about just a share of the gas money extra, but way beyond that for the “privledge” of being in his presence and soaking up his expertise on the rides to different locations. What I really wonder about is how there was any room for additional riders in the vehicle with the size of this guy’s ego? Come on now, an up-charge for riding with him? Holy arrogance Batman!

All that being said, there are a lot of great nature photography workshop leaders out there. You just need to do your homework and make sure you know what you’re getting. I know that I personally model my workshop business as the antithesis of what you’ve read above. Like many of my peers, I am there foremost and primarily to help my peeps go home with great photos. I’m there for them, and not vice versa.

Do you have a workshop story to share? Please leave the names out of it, but we’d love to hear the stories.

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