Whether you’re a total beginner or an experienced pro, there’s always something new to learn in photography. Practice is essential, learning through trial and error, but you can fast-track your improvement by interacting with other photographers, sharing difficulties and successes, and getting feedback from expert instructors. Whether you prefer to learn at home at your own pace, join others in a classroom setting or travel to exotic locations with like-minded fellows, there’s a class, workshop or tour—or a combination of these—that will help you overcome technical and inspirational hurdles.
Traditional classes provide a convenient way to improve your technical proficiency and experience with your camera, lenses, lighting and software at your own pace. There are a lot of classes available, from beginner to advanced, in almost any subject you could ask for. While some may prefer in-person classroom settings, more and more online courses are available, making it easy to learn at home.
New York Institute of Photography (NYIP.edu) was founded in 1910 as a residential school in Manhattan, but has since transitioned to web-based learn-ing exclusively, offering The Complete Course in Pro Photography, Photoshop for Photographers, The Complete Course in Video Making and Storytelling, Marketing for Photographers and Fundamentals of Digital Photography.
While a shift to a virtual classroom may appear to lack the one-on-one attention you’d receive in person, Zach Heller of NYIP allays that concern. "One of the things that really sets us apart from some of the other online photography options is that you have one-on-one access to a mentor. Students can call or email their mentor anytime that they have a question or trouble with the course or they really just want a little more information," explains Heller. In addition, "Students submit photographs that are then evaluated by their mentor, and they get personalized feedback about how they’re doing, how they accomplished the goal set out for them and things they can do to improve moving forward. And that mentor sticks with them through the entire course."
NYIP classes assume that you have no prior experience, so they teach from the ground up.
"The online course format really benefits those people for whom this is the best way to fit something into their schedule. They may have a couple of hours on one day to really go through a bulk of the material and then not get back to it for a couple of weeks. And at the same time, if there’s something they already know or find relatively easy, they can kind of fly through it at their own pace, too," says Heller of the learning style.
CreativeLive (creativelive.com) approaches the online classroom in a different way, but with an equal emphasis on interaction. CreativeLive provides free classes that are broadcast live online. "The reason we do it live is that it’s very interactive. The hosts are talking with each other and taking questions from our students, but also taking questions from our chat rooms, from Twitter, from Facebook. So it is a live, interactive class," explains CreativeLive’s George Varanakis.
CreativeLive offers over 400 classes on photography alone, spanning subjects such as portraiture, lighting, posing, weddings and nature. "We’ve basically covered every topic possible in photography. You can just go into our catalog and learn a ton. But I still believe that a hands-on workshop can work for our audience, too. And kind of the cool thing about it, if you ever want to come and be in the audience in CreativeLive, it’s actually free to be in the audience—you just have to get here on your own," says Varanakis. CreativeLive has studios in Seattle and San Francisco for those interested in being a part of the studio audience.
Generally, a workshop is a multi-day program with professional demos, hands-on experience and photo critiques. Class sizes are generally small, around eight to 16, allowing for maximum personal experience with your instructor and group members.
"When I ask what surprised you most, people will say, ‘I knew I was going to learn from this very well-known photographer. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would learn from my fellow participants.’ It is extremely rare for us to have a group that doesn’t immediately gel," says Carrie McCarthy of Santa Fe Workshops (santafeworkshops.com). "There’s some magic that happens over and over and over again, where this group of 10 or 12 or 14 people immediately become a very tightly knit group, and they are in the process together, and supporting one another and bouncing ideas off one another."
Santa Fe Workshops is dedicated to small group sizes and experiential education with a highly structured, full-immersive workshop model.
"The first day is getting to know one another, and then that afternoon, immediately go out photographing. Then mornings after the first day are—and this is crucial I think to our process—an image review, where it’s a class, and everyone shares the images they created the day before. The instructor provides feedback, instruction and our instructors are very engaged," explains McCarthy.
At the heart of Digital Photo contributor Rick Sammon‘s workshops (ricksammon.com) is a mission to inspire creative spirit. "I try to instill with the workshop participants how much I care about them getting good photographs and why they should make good photographs. It’s, ‘What’s your creative vision?’ and, ‘Why is that important?’" says Sammon.
Sammon’s workshops take place all over the U.S. and internationally. They’re location specific, but Sammon spends time with the group processing images each day, going over Lightroom and Photoshop techniques, and leads a group photo critique, which Sammon notes, "Is really actually probably the most beneficial part of the workshop."
Sammon reiterates McCarthy’s description of workshop group camaraderie. "It becomes like a family at the end. Oftentimes I say on the first day, the hardest part of this workshop is going to be saying goodbye to the people at the end, because you become really good friends and you miss people, so everyone stays in touch. It’s quite magical."
Sammon also gives several tips for making the most of your workshop experience. "I tell people that I think I’m a good photographer, I’m a good instructor, but I’m really bad at one thing: mind reading. It’s important to know that you have to speak up so I can help you get the shot. And just like with everything in life, the more you put in, the more you get out."
Another option for exercising your technical and creative skills is to venture on a photographic tour. Depending on the intensity of your wanderlust, you can find tours that explore areas of the U.S. or internationally. While many tours do skew toward landscape and wildlife photography, you can also find tours specifically targeting architecture, portraiture and other genres.
Tours vary in size from intimate eight- or 12-participant sizes to a much larger 50-participant size. While many tours provide professional photographer leaders who can answer questions, the leader is primarily focused on getting the group to photographically significant locations during the best lighting.
"Workshops talk about technique and tips," explains Rick Vanselow of Joseph Van
Os Photo Safaris (www.photosafaris.com). "We’re more about the safety of traveling in a group, the camaraderie of traveling in a group, getting to the places where there’s great photography. And that’s our expertise—really finding those opportunities out there."
With 40 different tours worldwide each year, Photo Safaris offers a variety of trips to choose from. "We recently added the hummingbird trip in Ecuador. It was something Joe Van Os found while he was going to our Galápagos trip this year. He just has an amazing ability to sniff out places to go for photography," says Vanselow. Other tours include Jaguars and Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal, the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the Carnival at Venice.
Co-founder and nature photographer Ian Plant formed Epic Destinations (epicphotodestinations.com) with fellow photographer Richard Bernabe and business partner Daniel Portal in an effort to mesh the style of workshop and tour for a fully hands-on learning experience. "We’re leading our clients to exotic, interesting places around the world, but we’re also giving them instruction. We structure informal classroom sessions where people can come to us with images they’ve taken on the trip and ask for advice as to how to process those images or get informal critique. And when we’re in the field, we try to be actively involved, pointing out to them things that we think are creatively interesting, talking about the light, talking about composition. We just try to make ourselves as available as possible to our clients," explains Plant.
The company tries to keep each group to no more than 12 participants with two instructors, so that everyone can receive personal attention. Some tours are around one week long, while others last up to two weeks.
Plant’s personal learning style is learning by doing. "We prefer to offer a hands-on experience. Kind of roll up our sleeves, and get out in the field and respond to real conditions. We find that getting out there and engaging in the creative process is ultimately the best way to learn. And when we’re working with people looking to hone their creative vision, our interactive style approach can be really helpful for them."