5 insider tips on how to choose your photography class
I’ve written this blog post in response to the question most asked by my students at the end of a course. As well as giving my five top tips on how to choose a great photography course it explains why each point is important. Once you’ve read it you will know what to look for and why, so that you can find the workshop, course or photography experience that best suits you.
Although teaching photography is just one of the things I do, it is one of the most rewarding. I’ve written this list so that the course you choose is as rewarding for you.
1. Know What You Want
Do you want to learn enough to take great photos? Enough so that your holiday images will look better than they did last year? Enough to be able to take nice shots of your family as they grow up? Look for a course that does exactly what you want or teacher who is sufficiently experienced and flexible to be able to help.
How: Read the syllabus and course objectives and ask the right questions.
Some courses work on giving you a thorough grounding so that you can work everything out yourself. Others will give you just enough knowledge to take nicer pictures. Others are extremely technical and don’t teach the art behind photography until the techniques have been thoroughly mastered while yet others just have loads of practical exercises that are fun. None of these approaches are wrong, they’re just different, and a good teacher will be able to do them all. So it’s up to you to find a course that suits your particular needs.
Structured online courses, formal diploma and degree courses and specialist courses.
A good teacher will be able to provide any or all the approaches or work with you to create a combination of them that fits what you want. My normal day courses use whatever the students best respond to, and I’m sure other teachers do the same.
2. Fitting it in
You need to find a course that teaches you what you need to know and allows time to bed it in. If a course looks too good to be true because it covers so much in a small amount of time, it probably is.
Is the syllabus too busy for the time allocated to the course? How much homework is required? Does it fit your lifestyle? If any of these are true the course is not for you.
If you’re a beginner or are very rusty it’s not realistic to expect to get through more than the basics in less than 6 hours.
Introductions to street photography, travel photography documentary photography and lifestyle photography can just about be managed in a day, provided you are familiar with the basics. Getting to grips with studio lighting – even as a beginner – requires at least another full day.
Once you have that grounding you need to bed in what you’ve learned through practice, after which you need to use what you’ve learned here and in your course to decide the next best thing for you.
Why: Manual photography requires knowledge of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Getting to grips with the concepts and practicing them is likely to take you a good few hours. Add in white balance basics and basic composition and that is a demanding day. You can do it, and learn a little about cameras and lenses, but adding more will bring you diminishing returns. Similar logic applies to the philosophy, composition and techniques behind street photography, documentary photography, travel photography and lifestyle photography, and getting to grips with studio lighting – even as a beginner – requires at least another full day.
If the course is spread over weeks you will need somewhere between a quarter and a third of the time again.
Structured online courses, formal diploma and degree courses and for courses where you spend a lot of time sitting in a lecture theatre or classroom.
If you’re a fast learner these time estimates still make sense, provided your teacher is sufficiently experienced to keep you interested with additional exercises during the day.
3. Numbers matter.
If you want to learn as part of a group, you need to be sure you’ll get enough attention. If the course is a structured, full day course then 11 students per teacher is the absolute limit and 10 is better. If it covers and event that takes a few hours such as a performance, sunrise or sunset, then 4 students are better and 6 an absolute maximum. In general, longer courses (particularly when they have homework) work better with more people, while shorter specialist courses work better with fewer. One-to-one attention gives you an intense and personal learning opportunity but no-one to go on photowalks with when the lessons are done.
How: Ask the course provider!
The guidelines I’ve given will help you find the right combination of fun, socialising and learning and they’re very important. Most classes attract a wide range of abilities, and the more a class exceeds these numbers, the less likely your tutor will be able to find time to help everyone with their own particular queries. I’m not the only person who believes this, I’ve checked with colleagues and researched online and we all agree.
Exceptions: The optimal numbers are different for certain online courses, formal diploma and degree courses and for courses where you spend a lot of time sitting in a lecture theatre or classroom.
Also: If you’re still not sure, take an hour off a day course for introductions and conclusions, and divide the minutes left with the number of expected people. Take off another 10 minutes for change-overs in a studio or finding the tutor if you’re elsewhere and that is the amount of personal attention you can expect, providing the tutor is fair with their time and that nothing untoward happens.
4. Check out your teacher
What: Your teacher needs to have a good level of experience in photography and be a good teacher too.
References on their site will give you confidence about how well they can teach. If they’ve been with the same organisation for a while they’re probably pretty good too.
To find out if they are experienced photographers, just Google them. Word-search their name. If their photography comes up (not their personal website, portfolio or agency photographs and be wary of exhibitions unless someone else has reviewed them). Look for articles about them or articles that include their images, web pages where their images support of something other than promotion and other similar things.
The more experience a teacher has, the more they can pass on. There are tips and tricks of the trade that we all only learn from experience, several different ways of explaining the same technique or idea and a pragmatism that comes from having been a pro-photographer in the thick of things. I know that different people learn and think differently so I have several different ways of expressing each concept and am constantly looking for more.
In every area of life there are some people who are brilliant teachers who have had very little real-life experience of what they’re helping you learn. While it makes sense that this is true for photography I’ve not met anyone who is like this in photography.
Longer courses where you’re taught by different teachers mean that you only need to check that your teacher is good at their specialism, but it still helps to have one great all-rounder who can help fill in the gaps.
Beginners and early improvers are the hardest to teach, requiring tutors who have a huge range of experience as photographers and good teaching skills. Once you start looking for specialist courses it is more important that the teacher is really good at their specialist area than that they are experienced teachers.
Do you have any suggestions or experiences that would improve this post? If so please let me know.
5. Quality matters
Course quality comes from the teacher, the course structure and from the support given to the students afterwards. If you are just after a social event it simply needs to be fun.
How: Look at the course website. Does the course deliver what you want and does it look as if it’s a logical progression? Does the teacher have enough experience in photography and can they teach? Is the after-course support reasonable for what you’re learning and have paid? You can find some of this out yourself and ask the course provider the rest.
How the quality of a class is managed depends a lot on the size of the organisation so it’s difficult to give you guidelines. Larger course providers should be able to provide an overview of how they ensure quality themselves, and for smaller ones, find out the subjects in your class handout and make sure that the teacher has sufficient experience to give you what you need.
After-class feedback and surveys have their place, but they only measure whether the course met the delegates’ expectations and whether they were fun. Quality management which can only be done by people who know what to look for. Those on the course don’t know the subject, that’s why they’re taking the course!
It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Some people may be genuinely unhappy with a course while others may be compulsive complainers so read the feedback carefully before making up your own mind.