Text and images ©Jack Graham. All rights reserved
The state of the Nature photography business these days is ever changing. Stock agencies aren’t paying what they one did. Few photographers can make a living selling prints so what’s left? Workshops are one avenue to generate an income. Sounds easy right? … Take folks to great locations… show them what to shoot and they are happy… right? ……………….WRONG!
I know folks who think that running a workshop is easy and try their hand at it. Soon, they realize it’s not as easy as it appears. To be successful you have to make your attendees happy. Attracting clients is another story for another time, but without them, you don’t have a workshop to begin with. Attraction and keeping customers isn’t easy as well, especially in the current economy. Like I tell everyone, nobody needs what I provide so I don’t complain. I am happy to be out, in nature, doing what I love with nice people.
Conducting a successful workshop is like being a captain of a fishing boat. No two workshops are alike. Things always come into play that have to be adapted to such as weather conditions, subject availability, group size, the level of proficiency of the attendees and more. I take the time to prepare and send out information regarding what to expect from each workshop PRIOR to the attendees leaving home for the workshop. This not only gets everyone excited with anticipation, but educated them on things such as weather predictions, what to bring, as well as a complete outline of a typical day is so there are no surprises when they get to the workshop location.
Usually groups vary in skill level. With the huge growth in the DSLR market, more beginning photographers are coming on workshops. I totally encourage this. Getting off on the right foot and developing good habits in the beginning is really important. Having a mix of folks ranging from beginners to very advanced armatures can be challenging. It’s also interesting to see customers who have $5000.00+ cameras, along with expensive lenses using their equipment in the wrong way. Unfortunately, this is not unusual and it is my job to correct this situation, while not insulting or offending the customer. Again, I try and keep the surprises to a minimum however, there always are a few. Like everything else in photography, preparation is mandatory to avoid too many surprises. There is nothing worse than looking out at 3AM to see cloudy rainy conditions, when the prediction the night before was for a great sunrise. It happens!!!
Sunrise, Rooster Rock State Park /Col. River Gorge
Running a successful workshop is not easy. Late spring and summer feature long days. 16 hour days, for 4-5 days in a row are typical for attendees. That transcribes into 18-20 hour days for me. Eating at abnormal times and getting little sleep throws your body clock off. It is important that everyone get the nourishment they need and stay well hydrated. This is as important as getting to prime locations at the right time.
Another factor is making sure that all the attendees are happy and are getting the attention they paid for. The bigger the group, the chance that different personalities can affect things as well as different needs and expectations all have to be taken into account.
Mike Moats grabbing a quick hot dog
In our recent Macro and More workshops Mike and I had 10 attendees… not bad, as a 5:1 ratio of attendee to instructor works well for everyone. Fortunately, in the M&M workshop a few folks have been on other workshops of mine so they already knew each other. For the most part I am quite sure that everyone got what they came for. In a group that size, there are always one or two folks that for one reason or another don’t seem to be as happy as everyone else. All I can do is continue to work hard and do my best to get them to quality locations and try and help in making them better photographers. I tell everyone in the beginning that I am here for as much or as little attention that they want. It is also not uncommon for one or two folks who wander off by themselves, and that’s fine, as long as they know I am there for them if they want my help. In essence, I am a photographic instructor, tour guide, and psychoanalyst, making sure everyone is happy and getting along with each other.
Over the years, I’ve seen other workshops in the same locations as I might be in being run haphazardly. I see instructors (and yes some big name instructors… who will remain nameless) doing more shooting than their customers offering them little or no real attention. In these circumstances, only can hope my customers realize the difference. I don’t make a big deal about this, but I know that it is noticeable.
So its 3 AM as I crawl out of my bed, dressing in the dark s to not wake anyone up. Even my 2 dogs know what’s going on. They don’t even budge. They have grown to know when they can go with me and when they can’t. On this particular workshop, I am joined by my good friend and superb Macro shooter Mike Moats. I give Mike every last minute I can before knocking on his door to wake him as well. Sunrise is about 5:30AM and I’ve got everything down to the minute. I am about ½ hr away from meeting our attendees, then another 10 minutes to organize everyone and shove off for location #1; a 20-25 minute drive up the Columbia River Gorge puts us at Location #1 for sunrise about 5AM, when the light should be getting pretty good. I’ve got this routine down pretty good. Just a week before I went through the same routing while doing a workshop for the Great American Workshop folks ( www.gaphotowprks.com ).
No two workshops are alike. The Macro and More workshop featured great light for what we are shooting, but were cloudy & rainy at times, not allowing for any sunrises or sunsets of consequence. I know that a few folks were disappointed but weather is one thing I can not control. The GAPW workshop was just the opposite. Sunny and warm was the order of the day. Yes, we had one great sunrise and average sunsets, but the light made things a bit harder to shoot throughout the rest of the day. Everyone worked hard and got some great images. Believe me, there is nothing worse than getting everyone up at 4:00AM and to the location by 5AM and having a non sunrise, but that’s life in nature. I’ve been in situations that upon arrival early in the morning the chances for a great sunrise was nil, and in the last minute the clouds parted and we had spectacular light. You never know.
Another factor I must remember is that most folks don’t spend 3-4 days of intensive photography. By day 3 or 4 everyone is tired (in which I take pride!). Motivation becomes important. I plan an itinerary for every workshop but remain flexible to weather and light conditions. For example, in the Macro & More workshop, I planned on shooting the Columbia Tiger Lilies that were blooming on Saturday. However on Friday AM, there was little or no wind so I changed the literary to accommodate this. Everyone got some great images. Saturday was breezy all day and there was no way we would have been able to shoot these delicate wildflowers. Here in Oregon, we aren’t concerned with elevation and all that that effects. In the eastern Sierra for example, I leave the shoot at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest for the last day. By them most everyone is acclimatized to the elevation and heading up to 10,000’ isn’t nearly as strenuous.
Scouting the area prior to the beginning of the workshops is also something that has to be done. So a 3-4 day workshop for me is actually a 5-6 day event. We planned the Macro & More workshop here in the gorge to coincide with an abnormally low tide at Seal Rock State Park, south of Newport. The abnormal low tide, along with great light made the last day a fun and rewarding one for our attendees.On the GAPW workshop the last day was spent in the Hood River area. We were lucky to be able to get into Trillium Lake as the road opened up few days before (yes there’s still snow on the ground up there).
All in all I think both groups got what the came to Oregon for. Everyone, as well as Mike and I were quite beat at the end of the workshop. If we all weren’t tired, than I’d be worried. Without exception, at the end of a successful workshop, I always get a good feeling that I provided a long lasting, informative experience for my attendees.
I’ll be repeating this routing in different locations around the west the remainder of the year ending up in Wyoming in December. (Check out www.jackgrahamphoto.comfor details. In a few weeks or so I’ll be posting some images that were shot by my attendees here on the blog. I know you’ll be impressed. Also I’ll be announcing my 2010 calendar in about a month. There will be a few surprises and new locations…. Can you say Smokies?
Contact me for more information email@example.com
Cascading water, Columbia River Gorge. Shot without a polarizer to bring out the color under the water.