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So, You Want to Take a Photography Course

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Scrub Jay (Image captured on the 2012 Instructional Photo Tour, SW Florida, with Art Morris)

Scrub Jay (Image captured on the 2012 Instructional Photo Tour, SW Florida, with Art Morris)

You have a lifetime to learn technique.  But I can teach you what is more important than technique, how to see; learn that and all you have to do afterwards is press the shutter.

Gary Winogrand

As I surf the web, read a photography magazine or receive those course calendars for continuing education, sometimes referred to as Adult Education, I have noticed that there are all kinds of offerings that would fall under the heading of photography courses.  Some promise to make me an expert in the latest image editing software and others promise to teach me the nuts and bolts of photography while on a journey to some exotic location.  Some require attendance at formal class room sessions and others simply promise me access to the latest and greatest videos on the web.  With this great mass of offerings, what is a person do?  How do you sort out the good from the bad and ugly.  As one who has been involved in a number of different offerings, let me tell you that it is not an easy task, but first, let’s take a look at the various types of offerings and the other things to think about.  I have broken the considerations to consider into six areas:

  • Type of course:  What is it all about?
  • Location:  Where is it being held?
  • Cost:  Is it free or do you have to put money into their pocket?
  • Duration:  Does it last a few hours versus a few, or many, days?  This will determine part of the commitment you have to make.
  • Subject:  What is it all about?
  • Instructor:  Who is teaching this course?  Do they know what they are talking about?  What is their experience with the subject matter?

Type of course

There are probably about three general types of courses:  those that involve learning about your camera or your flash or some other piece of equipment, those that say they will teach you about a specific photography subject, e.g., birds, landscapes, portraiture, etc., and those that will teach you about some aspect of photographic software such as Lightroom or Photoshop.  These courses are often presented at different levels:  introductory, intermediate and/or advanced.  You should note that there are no standard criteria that establish what constitutes the level of a course, so it is often buyer beware in this situation.  What might be an intermediate course for you, might be an advanced course for someone else.  My advice is to check it out and see if there are any assumptions about what you are expected to know or not, before the course begins.

Location

The next thing that you probably want to know is where the course is being held.  Is it local, or do you have to travel any significant distance to attend.  If it is local, then you can probably drive to the location and you do not have to leave your home base.  If it is not local then can you still drive to it or do you have to travel to the location of instruction.  If travel is required, how far is it and how do you get there and better still – where do you stay when you get there.  The other consideration is whether or not this is a web-based course because then there is no travel involved and you can work at it on your own schedule.

For me, a local course is not a problem.  It costs me gas money, but that
is about all.  Of course, if it is web-based then I have no travel costs at all.  If I have to travel, then I really have to look at where the course is being given and some other aspects as well.  Can I combine it with a holiday?  For example, this year I went to Florida to attend a bird photography workshop, two actually, but I managed to combine them with an extra week’s vacation as well, so from my perspective, it was a worthwhile venture and the workshops were good as well.

Cost

This is probably the biggest factor.  How much does the course cost and what do I get for the investment of my money?  Ideally, when it is finished, you do want to feel that have you received value for your investment.  Let me say this, sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t.  As well, make sure that you understand what is included in the costs.  Will there be any hard copy material?  Any access to course-only web sites?  If this course is at a local college then you may have to register as a student.  You will also need to know if you require specific texts for this course, etc.  There are a number of different questions to be asked.

When looking at the costs of a course or workshop, there are really two aspects to this, maybe three.  Consider whether or not this course is being given at a local college.  Is this a stand-alone course, or is it one that is normally part of a Certificate or Diploma program.  For example, local colleges will often give courses such as An Introduction to Photoshop.  These types of introductory course are often given on weekends, or one night a week for four weeks.  Compare these to the courses that are available over the web which are, of course, web based and often learn at your own pace with little or no feedback on how you are doing.  Also, there may not be an instructor who can answer your questions.  This may or may not, be a problem as often you can get questions answered on one or more web sites that are devoted to Photoshop or whatever the course is about.  If you learn well on your own, then web-based course may be quite suitable; however, if you do not learn well on your own and like to have access to an instructor, then a short course at the local college may be more to your liking.

I will differentiate between what I will call classroom based course and those that are field based and more of a workshop than a classroom style offering.  Very often, one of the criteria for workshops is the daily rate and what it includes.  I am not sure if there is a standard for these call daily rates, but if you are going on a field-based workshop, divide the cost by the number of days to get the per diem.  Depending on who is giving the instruction and where it is, daily rates may be as high as $400 or more.  You have to decide if it is worth this amount to you, considering also that for a lot of workshops you probably have travel, accommodation and meal expenses as well.

Duration

How long is the course or workshop?  Is it measured in hours, days or weeks?  Very often courses at your local college are measured in hours, whereas workshops are measured in days.  Web-based courses can be measured in hours or even days, with the time commitment, like your local college courses, often taking place over a few weeks or even a few months.  Workshops or field-based photo tours are usually well-defined and take place over a few days or a week at most and then are complete.

Subject

What is the course or workshop all about?  Make sure you understand what will be covered and what will not be covered.  If it is an introductory college course on Photoshop, then there should be a list of the topics being covered,  If, for example, it is a field workshop on bird photography or landscapes, then what areas are being cover, from a geographic perspective, and what are not.  For example, a well-known, established bird photographer puts on a workshop every year in south-west Florida.  Given this information, you pretty well know that he is not going to take you to some of the nice bird photography spots on the east coast. – yup…not going to happen, so if you were interested in bird photography in eastern Florida, this is one workshop you probably would not want to attend.  On the other hand, if you didn’t care where it was and only was interested in learning about bird photography, then this is one you might want to consider.

Instructor

This is probably the most important aspect of any college course, web course or field workshop.  Who is the main instructor, what are his qualifications, including experience, and has he ever taught this course before.  If so, how often has he given it.   Local college course are often given by instructors from the college, who are taking on the extra-curricular classes for the money, or they are given by an external instructor, maybe someone from a local photography business who is simply looking to supplement his or her income.

Field-based workshops are usually given by professionals in the field.  If you flip through the back pages of any relevant photography magazine, you will find dozens of these workshops being offered by photographers whose career has been in the area of the subject matter they are covering in their  workshop.  You should be aware though, that this not necessarily the case.  There are some, who because they are making a living at professional photography feel that any reasonable or related area may be fair game for an offering.  You should make sure that, if you are going to participate for example, in a workshop in landscape photography, the person offering this workshop has, in fact, extensive experience in landscape photography and may have offered this workshop on more than one occasion.  The same is true of any workshop in any area of photography.  Very often, the individual offering the workshop has written books on the subject, maybe more than one, or is an active contributor to magazine articles.

Regardless of what you decide, the what, who, when and where, the key phrase is always caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – like so many other things, you get what you pay for and, like going to a movie, if you don’t like the show, there are no refunds.

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