Richard McEnery discusses the various continuing education options.
A father gets a new digital camera for Christmas. He sets out to learn more about his camera, reads about the Nikon School’s one-day digital photography classes and decides this is for him. Now he’s hooked.
An amateur nature photographer does a weekend field workshop with Darrell Gulin and gets some amazing images of an osprey feeding its young. She decides to attend the annual Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show, sponsored by the North American Nature Photographers Association (nanpa.org), and hears Art Wolfe and Mary Ann McDonald speak. She attends some breakout sessions on publishing her work and starting a photography business. And now she’s hooked.
A professional studio photographer is putting together his business plan for the coming year. He’s in the process of converting from film to digital, and he doesn’t quite have his workflow nailed down. He’s also finding that he’d like to do something more creative. He attends classes on marketing and Photoshop at the Professional Photographers of America’s (ppa.com) Imaging USA conference. Oh boy, is he hooked.
For more than a decade, one of the fastest-growing businesses in the United States has been adult continuing education. This is especially true in the photography world, where new schools, workshops and seminars, driven by the digital revolution, have been sprouting up on the web and all over the country. Digital cameras and even camera phones are encouraging people to get more involved in photography. I love being in a class or workshop, whether it’s as a student or as a teacher. It takes me out of the office, opens my mind to new possibilities and gets my creative juices flowing. Many times I learn more by teaching than I do as a student.
I also enjoy attending conferences, where I can interact with fellow photographers, troll the exhibits looking for some hot new item that I just have to have, and discover some interesting new tidbit of information about lighting, my camera or digital workflow that I can put to use immediately. Photography is an art and a skill that requires nurturing, and I find that immersion and the experiential method work best. So with the myriad of schools, conferences and workshops out there, how do you decide which ones to attend? By assessing two critical factors — your own goals and the program in question — and then reconciling the two.
Choose your destinationBefore you can look at your schedule and your wallet, you need to figure out where you are as a photographer and where you want to go. Do you simply want to learn how to take better pictures as a hobby, or do you see it as a potential profession? If you are already serious about photography, what aspects of your work do you feel are your weakest? Education, like many other things in life, is a journey composed of multiple destinations, with exciting and challenging adventures on the way to each one. Even if you don’t have a long-range plan right now, you can choose the first stop on your tour.
A beginner may want to take a basic class to better understand how a camera works and the fundamentals of light, color, composition and exposure. The Mountaineers Basic Photography Course in Seattle, now in its 18th year, is a great course for beginning and intermediate photographers. It’s held one night a week for four weeks, with optional weekend workshops.
Also, for more than 20 years, the Nikon School’s one-day courses have provided photographers with an easy introduction to the basics of photography in an entertaining lecture environment. These courses usually cost $100 to $400.
You can find similar courses at local photography schools, such as Seattle’s Photographic Center Northwest, and local colleges. Many photography schools, such as the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (Missoula, Mont.) and the Santa Fe Workshops, offer intensive one-week courses designed to stimulate your creativity while providing you with a solid technical and aesthetic foundation. Daily shooting assignments and critiques allow you to apply what you have learned immediately and to experiment without risk. Expect to spend $600 to $900 for tuition.
A more advanced photographer might want to focus on shooting certain types of subjects, developing his or her shooting style or point of view, or learning about digital workflow. The institutions mentioned above also offer more-advanced courses, and many travel and photography organizations offer specific workshops ranging in length from two days to a week or more. Great American Photo Workshops and Friends of Arizona Highways, for instance, offer entertaining and informative workshops, with outstanding professional photographers as instructors, in various parts of the country throughout the year.
Some travel organizations, such as Joseph Van Os’ Photo Safaris, arrange trips to domestic and international destinations that are very popular, with top professional photographers as your guides and instructors. Imagine spending a week in Alaska’s Denali National Park with John Shaw and Jack Dykinga, or shooting dolphins in Honduras with Stuart Westmorland.
If you want something more studio-based, how about a week with Joyce Tenneson, studying intimate portraits at the Maine Photographic Workshops, or learning about lighting techniques in Santa Fe with Douglas Merriam? For digital aficionados, maybe spending three days learning about color and tonal adjustments in Photoshop with Ben Willmore in Palm Beach is more your cup of tea.
The immersion factor
Now that you have an idea of what your next step is, you can begin to look at what is available. There are classes and workshops to suit any amount of time and money you have, from a couple of hours locally on a Saturday to weeklong courses throughout the United States and even in some exotic locales. You also can take classes on the web, some of which include field trips that allow you to meet your classmates and instructor.
One important thing to consider is the reputation of the organization and the instructors. Talk to fellow photographers. Post questions on web forums such as Photo.net to learn more about the group and the instructors.
I like to gauge workshops by what I call the “immersion factor.” Is the class once a week, a weekend, a full week or longer? Is the class hands-on, with fieldwork, or does it consist only of lectures? I prefer immersing myself in a class that offers both lectures and assignments and lasts several consecutive days. That way, I’m not distracted by other things, and my learning experience is more intense. This method does require more time, however, and it is usually more expensive.
Many local community colleges, art schools and universities offer photography courses as part of their extension programs. These may be held on the weekend or one night per week. The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Art Institute and the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, B.C., offer workshops as well as formal education programs. You can turn a quick weekend trip into a fun educational experience at places like the Coupeville Arts Center (Coupe-ville, Wash.), Cascades Academy of Photography (Issaquah, Wash.), Olympic Mountain School of Photography or Anderson Ranch Arts Center (Snowmass Village, Colo.). If you have the time, you can take a week-long course through the Santa Fe Workshops or the Lepp Institute of Digital Imaging (Los Osos, Calif.) or the Cascades Institute of Photography. Many well-known pro photographers, such as Bruce Barnbaum, Moose Peterson and John Sexton, also offer classes and workshops. If you want to take immersion to the extreme, to live, eat and breathe photography, then the Rocky Mountain School of Photography’s 11-week summer program may be just the ticket.
From sofa to safari
Another factor to consider is whether you want to take a workshop locally or use this as a reason to visit a new locale. You can choose from anywhere in the country, with centers such as the Maine Photographic Workshops, the Woodstock (N.Y.) Photography Workshops, the Vancouver Photo Workshops and the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. Many schools offer courses not only in their locations, but also in exotic places. The Santa Fe Workshops provides an incredible photographic environment by offering workshops every October in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They also have teamed up with the National Geographic Society to offer “On Assignment” workshops in Tuscany, Spain and Scotland with NGS photographers such as Bob Krist, David Alan Harvey and Jim Richardson. Photo tours, which are offered by many well-known photographers, can take you to exotic destinations for a week or more, and will typically include lectures and assignments. Imagine photographing penguins in Antarctica with Art Wolfe, attending a summer Buddhist festival in India with Nevada Wier or Phil Borges, or bouncing around in a jeep in the Maasai Mara with John and Barbara Gerlach.
If you’re the type of person who gets tired just reading about these adventures, perhaps you’d like a more sedate, “couch-based” program. From the comfort of your family room and at your convenience, you can take online courses in many subjects. Robert Farber’s Photoworkshop.com offers a broad range of courses, and you can take as many as you like for a monthly or yearly fee. Or for 99 cents or $1.99 each, you can take short courses at Photoflex’s Web Photo School and learn about shooting jewelry or indoor portraits. The most ambitious web-based curriculum is offered through BetterPhoto.com. They offer more than 50 courses, taught by names such as Jim Zuckerman, Brenda Tharp, George Schaub and Ben Willmore. You have homework, you get direct feedback from your instructor, and some courses even include field trips where you can meet your classmates and instructor. And, of course, there is the dean of photographic educational programs, the New York Institute of Photography, which still offers its basic photography correspondence course as well as a new course in digital.
Some specialty courses are available too. Rich Clarkson and Associates hosts a spring and fall “Digital Photography at the Summit” in Jackson, Wyo., as well as a Sports Photography Workshop in Colorado Springs. Rich has been doing these courses for many years and draws an amazing roster of instructors and special guests. I spent a week in Jackson at the Summit course with several National Geographic photo editors, as well as former editor-in-chief Bill Allen and new editor-in-chief Chris Johns. My classmates and I had the honor of listening to Jay Maisel, Tom Mangelsen and Jim Balog critique our images every day.
Rich’s sports workshop was just as rewarding when I took it. Many sports photographers, such as Dave Black, John McDonough, Robert Seale and Mark Terrill, do seminars during that week. The workshop also includes credentials that give you access to the U.S. Olympic Training Center for the whole week, plus press passes for local sporting events, such as Colorado Rockies baseball games or the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
Other special courses include the Photographers’ Formulary Workshops (Condon, Mont.), which focus on alternative chemical-based processes, and the very well respected Missouri Photo Workshop for photojournalists. Hosted by the Missouri School of Journalism, this program draws some of the leading newspaper and magazine photographers and photo editors from around the country. The National Press Photographers Association’s (nppa.org) Flying Short Course is an outstanding three-day seminar-based program that covers many aspects of professional photography. Also, the American Society of Media Photographers (asmp.org) holds several “It’s Your Business” seminars each year.
Sometimes, instead of immersing yourself in a serious course, you want to sample many different subjects in a short period of time. This is where conferences come in. NANPA, PhotoPlus Expo, FotoFusion, Photoshop World, Wedding and Portrait Photographers International and PhotoImaging & Design Expo are annual conferences, open to the public, that give you the opportunity to learn about a wide range of subjects. Live photo shoots are now being offered at many of these conferences, so you can shoot high-fashion models in studio or location conditions or try out the latest bodies, lenses or digital backs.
With all these options, how do you choose? First, figure out what you want to learn and what your available time and money will allow. Next, look for workshops, courses or conferences that meet those parameters. Then get some feedback from people who have been there. It’s not too late to plan something for this year. Get out there, learn, shoot and have some fun.