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Workshop Season

Time to sell granny

in General Rants , Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I’m in the mood for a bit of a rant.

It’s the season for emails soliciting for next summer’s photo “workshops” in exotic parts of the world, in particular, for me, due to my track record, the higher latitudes. Although such outings have never, on the whole, been particularly cheap, despite the general economical situation, I’m getting the feeling that a threshold has been crossed: prices have passed “expensive” and are now in full blown “outrageous” territory.

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What is a “photo workshop” anyway ? I suppose generally one might imagine that it involves an intensive period taking on a challenging subject in a small group setting, led by an experienced photographer who also happens to be a good teacher - a rare combination. That photographer might even, in an ideal world, have some formal teaching qualification of some kind. And actually, in the worlds of studio and street photography, such workshops do exist.  But what I’m talking about is nature photography workshops, in far flung places, and the nature of these is more group travel with a focus on photography, and with optimised itineraries and schedules.

Obviously some places are hard to get to, and hard to travel around if you don’t know the area or language. So the first advantage is that somebody else takes care of the logistics, and you pay a price which covers your share of the overheads and a fee for the organiser / guide, who after all is making a living. Fair enough. But where things start to go a little out of control is where the guide is basically a hired hand and the workshop is run under the aegis of some “star” photographer in who’s glow you will theoretically bask. And who will basically be taking their own photos, building their own portfolio, and actually getting paid to do so. Of course there is a sliding scale here. I’m absolutely not going to name names, but there are some “star” photographers who will go out of their way to help and advise their clients, and there are others who will behave like absolute prima donnas, considering that their clients should stay out of the way and speak only when spoken to. 

As far as costs go, here’s one benchmark: in 2010, myself and 9 others arranged a co-operative tour of Svalbard. We hired a 12 berth ocean-going sailboat, with expert crew of two, for 14 days. The cost, including all food, fuel, harbour charges, etc, worked out at almost exactly 50% of the mean price being charged for several significantly shorter and/or less flexible trips offered for 2014. Even assuming that we got a very good price, one can’t help but wonder where that 50% is going. Well, actually you don’t need to wonder too much.

So what, though? It’s a free world, and if people have the money and feel that the prices are justified, well then the market is well adjusted. But on the other hand, it is driving access to places which should, and could be, an accessible dream to a lot of people, into the luxury market. And that’s a shame.

There is also the label “workshop” itself. I may be wrong, but I would imagine that the average person is not going to head off to the Arctic to learn how to set an aperture or exposure dial. And yet many prospectuses seem to offer just that - and little else. Some vendors are actually forthright about this, and differentiate between “workshop” and “expedition”. This is commendable, in my opinion.

So what should you do if, say, you want to go to the Arctic, to Patagonia, to Greenland or other far flung destination ? By all means search for “workshops” on offer. But also look for general interest tourist trips, and compare prices. Then you’ll get some idea of the markup charged by the star photographer. If it’s over 25%, forget it, it’s money down the drain. You’re basically buying bragging rights to say you’re Best Friends Forever which whichever Canikon poster boy. Also, on the vendor’s website, in the workshop pages, look out for photos taken by workshop participants, and not (only) the photographer him/herself. Such photographers who are genuinely pleased to showcase their clients work are probably those you will learn the most from, even if their own work is not full-on National Geographic level.  Ideally, if you feel you can manage it, try to organise your own group on a cost-sharing basis, and write your own agenda. It’s not as hard as it seems. And don’t get discouraged by ridiculous, inflated prices which would take you over 3 months to earn.


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