When Chris Miele left his job at a tech company to pursue his dream of a life making fine art landscape photography, he had a fairly specific idea of what it would entail. Namely, he planned to do what he wanted to do, and only what he wanted to do. He had no intention of offering services or branching out into assignment work, but he soon found, as many pros do, that building a business as a photographer often requires combining multiple services that work well together. Workshops are an ideal example of this kind of complementary service.
How leading workshops can help bridge the income gap for photographers trying to make the transition from part-timer to full-time pro.
For Miele and many others—particularly those who make their living photographing travel, landscapes and wildlife—workshops provide the perfect combination of an alternative revenue stream that also puts them in position to make the kind of photography they want to produce. For photographers trying to make the transition from part-timer to full-time pro, workshops can help bridge the income gap while working where they need to be. In short, offering photo workshops often makes a lot of sense.
“I think where it starts,” Miele says, “is that if you’re trying to make your living from shooting nature, landscapes, wildlife, or just being outside, workshops are intuitive. Because that’s probably the easiest way of saying, ‘Okay, how can I spend my time outside with a camera?’ You can teach people.”
Here’s what you need to know if you’re thinking about adding workshops to your own photographic repertoire.
You Don’t Have To Wait
When world-class National Geographic photographers and masters of the medium are offering workshops, how can you compete? Start by remembering that whatever your expertise, people are thirsty for the knowledge you’re willing to share.
“There’s definitely always a customer for everything,” Miele says. “I have a friend who’s an assistant and second camera for some celebrity photographers who also do workshops, and so my friend will shoot behind the scenes work and do little videos on these workshops. Granted, it’s portraiture to the stars so there’s a little different clout there, but at the end of the day there are people who want to learn whatever it is they don’t know.”
Smaller Scale Is OK
Many world-class workshops are 10 days to three weeks in length, with more than a dozen attendees and multiple instructors traveling to visit exotic locations in the far reaches of the globe—with commensurate costs as well. Not everyone wants to, or can afford to, spend a few weeks in the Galapagos. Plenty of people would like to have a long weekend in the Smoky Mountains, for instance, or even just a day in the city. These shorter and smaller trips are also easier to produce for new workshop leaders. The market has room to provide something for everyone with workshops of various lengths, locations and prices. Just ensure that whatever topic you’re covering or whatever location you’re visiting, you know it like the back of your hand.
“I held three smaller trial workshops for different groups, and that helped,” Miele says. “It was good to get over the hump of booking someone and determining a curriculum for a multiple-day infield workshop. People want local knowledge. If they are spending a lot of time and money to travel usually pretty far, they want to make sure you know the area well. Moving forward I’m probably only going to be doing an Eastern Sierra workshop and then a Joshua Tree/Mojave workshop to keep the areas concise. Then I can say I come here every year, I know this area really well, we’re going to go some places that aren’t common, and I know the weather of this season and that season. I think those are the things that people are looking for.”
Bear in mind, too, that for many workshop attendees there is a vacation aspect to it. That means you may benefit by choosing a location that ticks a few boxes—such as being the kind of place photographers really want to visit, and by making the experience pleasant enough to qualify as fun.
“I think workshops lend themselves a little more to those bucket list type locations,” Miele says. “I’ve had people come from the Midwest to the West, and it’s kind of like ‘we’ve been wanting to photograph here forever.’ I would wager on a whole people are looking for a little bit more of a big grand getaway, which is why many do international ones like New Zealand and Iceland. Even without the photography they’re a trip and an experience, and I think those have some weight. Many folks like to bring a friend or two and make it an event.”
Know Your Clientele
Speaking of what workshop attendees want, it pays to understand who they are. You may be young and hip and capable of scaling a sheer rock face with camera in hand, but chances are your audience is not. This can really shape not only the nature of the workshop you offer, but how you market it to potential customers as well.
“The real challenge as far as I’ve experienced it is the marketing.” Miele says, “There is a competition element in there, but what I didn’t realize at first and have since learned is who my audience is. They’re retired people with money and time. On the other end they might not be capable of incredible self-learning, meaning they might benefit more from an instructor showing them how something works rather than trying to figure out with a YouTube how-to. When you’re in your 30s, unless you’re working in healthcare, you’re probably not working with retirees. So finding a way to connect with those retirees, and then get them on board with you, has been by far the hardest challenge.”
“I did have to adapt to the age difference,” he adds, “and the physical limitations of those folks who tend to be a little bit older, tend to go a little slower. The workshop details are on my site, and it explains that you must be able to complete a one to three-mile hike, and that’s it. The cap is pretty low.”
Ace The Logistics
Photographers can get so caught up in the content of their workshops that they forget to nail down the basics. It’s the logistics of where to go, where to stay, what to eat, how to get there and what permissions are required that will often make or break a workshop attendee’s experience.
“One thing that a lot of people don’t take into consideration,” Miele says, “is the actual nuts and bolts of the workshop. It’s not just telling people what aperture and shutter speed they should be at, but also making sure that the lodging is comfortable, making sure there’s a space for us to do image reviews and things like that. You also have to have permits if you want to teach in national parks, national forests, state parks – and for the permits you need insurance, which was very challenging. You definitely need to have a plan and figure out the logistics ahead of time.”
Permits, lodging and dining accommodations are typically included in workshop packages, but there’s a reason transportation often is not. It makes the costs increase exponentially.
“Almost nobody offers transportation,” Miele says, “because if you want to drive someone around commercially the insurance process for that is a nightmare and stupid expensive. I arrange where the lodging will be and say okay I’ll be here at 5:30 and we’ll meet there. I always suggest people make carpools.”
There is a proliferation of workshops out there, which means more photographers than ever are finding ways to make them a feasible business offering. But a crowded marketplace also means you really have to deliver if you want to survive. It’s not enough to have the knowledge and fill the workshop: ultimately you have to be able to teach effectively and enjoyably. Consider investing in your own professional development to learn to become a better instructor if you’re going to seriously pursue workshops.
Bear in mind, too, that some photographers feel hesitant to share all of their hard-earned knowledge for fear that it will lessen their competitive edge. This was an early sentiment for Miele, but he threw it to the side.
“There was a brief moment where I was like, ‘But what if I give away all of my secrets?,’ admits Miele. “Then I realized there are no secrets. There are people way more skilled and talented than I’ll ever be already and they’re doing things that I either don’t know how to do or won’t do, so I’m just going to do the things I do and offer the things that I know in the way that I do. There’s no replacement for personal experience. There’s uniqueness there.”
To learn more about Chris Miele’s Adventure School, with upcoming workshops in the Eastern Sierras and the Mojave desert, visit his website at adventureguyphoto.com.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.