As a photographer I attend a lot of workshops from various educators. This is one way I improve myself as a photographer. As a photography group leader I also give a lot of workshops on a variety of topics and to a variety of skill levels. That is another way I learn to hone my skills. But at times these activities can become discouraging when an attendee fails to meet the requirements of the workshop.
Before I continue this train of thought let me preface this with a disclaimer; I understand that we all have a desire to learn and there is no better way to do so than with hands-on workshops. Specially if they are affordable or free. I further understand that there is a certain amount of obligation an instructor has to give to a paying student and I know that when you pay for something there is a sense of entitlement. This article is not intended to make those of you who identify negatively to what I say feel bad. It is simply to try to put into perspective the student's place among their peers and in relation to the instructor. Also to give you an insight into what an instructor has to contend with. Take it for what it is, a guideline for future reference and nothing more.
- Know your equipment: Unless the description clearly states the class is for absolute beginners you should have a working knowledge of your equipment. I went to a recent workshop on off-camera flash techniques and one woman there actually had no idea how to turn her camera on. I swear on my life this is true. My jaw dropped when I heard this. The instructor had to stop everything else, mentally backpedal and take the time to get this woman in sync with the rest of us. Not only is it unfair to the instructor, it is unfair to the rest of the students who already know the basics and are working on more advanced techniques. If you are unsure about how you fit in to a workshop, contact the instructor and ask. However, you should, at the very least, have a basic understanding of your camera's functions, like how to turn it on.
- Ask pertinent questions: In a group environment the dynamics can vary considerably. If you find the group is quiet you may need to be the one to 'break the ice' by asking the questions others may have but are unwilling to ask (even if you already know the answer). Keep your questions on topic. Nothing is worse than alienating an instructor (or pissing off the others) by having them answer questions that have nothing to do with the lesson. In the same vein, avoid asking questions on a topic that was covered three topics earlier. Wait for a more opportune time to ask that question. Often the instructor will have a final question and answer session at the end of the class. If not then simply pull the instructor aside and ask them after the class or as a fellow classmate.
- Come prepared: Read the class requirements. If there are prerequisites, such as the level of knowledge you should be at or an understanding of a specific technique, equipment or software, make sure you meet that prerequisite. Many times you will need to come prepared with very specific equipment. Not having these requirements met may degrade the workshop experience for others as well as for yourself. I've been to an off-camera flash workshops were someone came with a camera that had no hotshoe. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?
- Follow the rules: Ideally the best way to learn is in a one-to-one relation with the instructor. Unless you have the money to pay for that it is often not economical to do so. Rules and guidelines are established to maximize the learning experience while minimizing the hassles of crowd control, equipment sharing and so on. Be attentive to the rules and do your best to adhere to them. Not long ago I attended a free workshop in NYC with Bob Harrington, local pro photographer and off-camera flash instructor. We were shooting in a public space with limited walking space. The rules were simple, "do not block the walkway." You can not imagine the number of attendees who were constantly being reminded to move to the side. One attendee and I actually had a fun time watching these repeat offenders from the sidelines.
- Be a team player: Kind of going hand-in-hand with number four above, be pro active. If you see something wrong or if someone needs help, step up to the plate. Don't be the one to sit back and complain about it. Keep Murphy's Law in mind and realize that in a large group something is bound to go wrong. If equipment needs handling offer to help. The joke in this industry is that a VAL is a "voice activated light." That means that one person is handling a light modifier for the photographer. We can all use the experience as a helping hand too.