Serious Play

The Workshop for Me?

by Olaf Willoughby & Eileen McCarney Muldoon

Let me start by declaring an interest. This is a post about photo workshops and Eileen and I teach photo workshops. Clearly we think they are a good thing.

And we are supported by a Google search on ‘photo workshops’ which yields over 6m hits. That equals popularity and choice.

There are photo safaris, adventures, expeditions, courses, classes, meets and walks.

The groups can be small or large, with prices from free to $15K+ and they can last from a couple of hours to several weeks… apparently there’s something for everyone.

Assuming you’re interested, the obvious question is, how do you choose between so many options?

Well, it is easy if you have a specific goal in mind – i.e.; travel to Cuba, how to use my new camera, sharpen my skills, learn Photoshop, etc. But there are many of you who know your craft already and are looking for new inspiration and ideas to reboot and reignite your flame.  Now the task of finding the right workshop becomes more complicated.  Along with finding the correct motivational path you need to find the correct instructor, one that will extract draw out your strengths.  Before making the leap, consider these five questions. They should help lead you to the correct workshop:

1 – Do I want to sharpen my overall skills or work on a specific such as portraiture, street photography or creativity?

2 – Do I want to learn my skill in a classroom setting or in the field?

3 – Is part of my goal to return home with good photographs or is it more important to learn how to use the tools? i.e. B&W printing, digital asset management…etc

4 – How much time can I devote to this workshop?

5 – Do I want a travel workshop? If so, am I looking for an instructional workshop in a dream destination or am I looking for more of a challenge, a workshop that takes me perhaps to remote inspirational locations?

These are just a few of the questions that should help you decide your goals.

Although this is helpful always be on the lookout for the unconventional. A location, instructor or course syllabus that initially seems like a bad fit  but in practice may lead to new insights and inspiration. 

Once you’ve chosen your workshop let’s review the pros/cons to see what you can expect to gain.

What makes workshops tick

Most people have a busy daily routine. A workshop is a forced break offering the opportunity to concentrate on your photography, practice what you learn, develop your personal voice/style 24/7. Even the commitment of enrolling means you are more likely to be receptive to new ideas.

Art history is littered with examples of people encountering creative block. It’s part of the process. We could argue that if you don’t come across it occasionally, you’re not trying hard enough. It’s that time when the groove becomes a rut and motivation seems hard to find. At times like this a workshop can serve as a creative gym. The discipline of immersing yourself in the work of a master or a particular genre and shooting daily assignments often sparks new ideas and new work.

You expect inspiration from the teachers and/or the location but often overlooked is the ‘group effect’ of working alongside other students. Time and again the group will return from the same location with hugely varying, imaginative images.

The discussion and feedback ‘buzz’ which can almost be felt in the room as work from the day is presented helps everyone dig deeper into their photography than they are likely to do outside the workshop environment. It’s logical. Time is being spent with like minded people with shared passions. Everyone is quietly challenged to raise their game.

The mark of a successful workshop is only realized after the event when you leave with new tools, techniques or ideas which energize your on-going personal work.

What makes workshops tock

So far so good but what about the times when something is lacking? I have seen odd comments about poor time management or disruptive egos (teachers and students!) but fortunately those times are rare.

I suspect that more commonplace and often not reported is the wrong match between the interest or skill levels of the student and the course curriculum and we’ll tackle this subject in a separate post.

Mantras can be another issue. Sometimes people come along ready equipped with notions of the ‘right way to do things’. The rule of thirds, proper street photography excludes shooting from the hip (too much luck involved), get it right in camera… and so on. These mantras aren’t necessarily wrong but they do limit that persons capacity to experiment – which is one of the key advantages of workshops.

Our LightDance workshops

My collaboration with Eileen is magical because we both share a passion for creating new, unique and engaging workshop formats. We present highly unusual challenges (work in pairs, photograph a poem, shoot exclusively in the style of master x…) which quickly cause students to immerse themselves in a different approach. We only create workshops where we have already tried and tested the ideas through our own private collaborative projects.

That is the essence of our LightDance workshops. The letting go of expectations and the gradual assimilation of fresh shooting and seeing skills which transfer naturally back into personal work.

We recognise that photo workshops may appear to be about temples, streets, icebergs, workflow or even photo gear. But they aren’t. They are about rewarding the commitment you made to an inner journey when you clicked that’buy now’ button.

Our ideal is to take students on a ‘serious’ journey where they are free to ‘play’ and enjoy the results.

Thoreau summarised it well with, ‘“The question is not what you look at, but what you see. ”

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A group of Serious Players after our workshop at the Leica Store, New York City

A group of Serious Players after our workshop at the Leica Store, SoHo, New York City

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