Running a photo workshop

If I were to break down my photographic journey, I would say that it has so far consisted of three phases:
Phase 1: I knew nothing, and was happy to admit it. I spent about a year happily asking the dumb questions as I felt this was my right as a newbie.
Phase 2: I didn’t know much, but felt obliged to hide it. I had taken some photos that people liked, had started using Lightroom and suddenly people were asking me questions about how I did things. I was still floundering with my camera, but had become quite adept at hiding that by using presets in Lightroom. But I couldn’t admit that, so I started acting like I knew a lot more than I did and as a result had to stop asking the questions that got me to where I was, and start learning via YouTube, web tutorials and podcasts.
Phase 3: Realised I did know some things, and wanted to share them with other people. I had always had the fear that if I taught somebody my tricks, and showed them my Lightroom presets, then suddenly I would become redundant. Whatever work I had would be snaffled up by the people I had just given my secrets to, and the game would be up. But I eventually came to see that there are quite literally millions of people who know a lot more about photography than me…not many of them are either willing or able to teach this to other people. I’ve spent the last couple of year’s giving workshops on how to shoot and edit videos and they have always been well received…so why not do the same with photography.
And so, I decided to run my first ever photography workshop. Here’s what I learnt.

I’m not a teacher…so I won’t pretend to be one.

There is a great episode of the Simpson’s where Homer gets a job teaching at a local Adult Education Centre and announces to his family ‘Look now that I’m a teacher…I’ve sewn patches on my elbows’ and shows his leather jacket now has tweed patches on the elbows. Marge says ‘Homer, it’s meant to be leather patches on a tweed jacket. You’ve just ruined a perfectly good jacket!’ To which Homer holds up a tweed jacket with two patches cut out of it  and says ‘Incorrect Marge. Two perfectly good jackets.’
In other words, in his desperation to become what he thought a teacher was…he was already failing.


So I was pretty determined to just be myself for the workshop. After all, it’s hard enough trying to pretend that you know everything about photography, without trying to pretend that you’re someone else at the same time.
So I basically sat the participants around our dining table and spoke to them as if I was chatting to a friend who had asked about photography.  I had a rough outline of what I wanted to cover, but if we disappeared down a rabbit hole for 10 minutes while answering someone’s question…then that was fine.

Do unto others

I’ve done a few photo workshops and my strongest memory is spending at least 70% of the time listening to people either talk about themselves or about how the camera works. I spent precious little time actually using the camera. In fact, one of the guys actually doing the workshop said that he did a half day course when he got the camera, and the only practical thing they did was turn the camera on and off. So I was determined to make my workshop as ‘hands-on’ and practical as possible. When we spoke about ISO, we would take a shot at ISO200 and then without changing anything else, shoot the same shot at ISO1,000 to see the difference. Same with shutter speed, and the same with aperture. Then we would lock one them in and use the other two to get the shot we were after.
For the last hour I roped…OK, paid…my two eldest kids into coming over the (closed on Sundays) Preston Market to act as models while the people in the group took photos.
Admittedly, this is simply the way that I like to learn…but it seemed to go really well.

Trying out a fast shutter speed.
Trying out a fast shutter speed.

‘Everything is free now…’

One of my favourite Gillian Welch songs is ‘Everything is free’, which starts out:

‘Everything is free now,
That’s what they say.
Everything I’ve ever done,
I’m gonna give it away.
Someone hit the big score.
They figured it out.
That we’re gonna do it anyway,
Even if it doesn’t pay.’

I’ve always thought that it was a treatise on the fact that musicians (or indeed any creative people) are now expected to simply give away what they do for free. Writers, photographers, graphic designers, singers…are all told to give their content to clients on the basis that it will garner them ‘exposure’ (and as my friend Tim Arch always says ‘People die from exposure!’) But implied in Gillian Welch’s song is also the fact that part of the fault lies with the artists, because they love what they do and are going to do it anyway. It’s a bit of sad reflection of where we are as a society. We have become so conditioned to the fact that a ‘job’ is something we do, so that we can afford to do what we really want to do. If you actually enjoy your job, then you’re kind of cheating…and as such, you have to factor this cheating into what you charge for your services. After all, if you’re enjoying it…it’s not really a job!
So deciding what to charge for the workshop was actually a real challenge. After all, I had never done this before, so I probably shouldn’t charge too much…but if it does go well, then I’ve set my precedent for charging already, if people want a follow-up workshop (as has been the case) you can’t really say ‘Yep happy to do another workshop…but now it’s 50% more expensive’.
In the end I charged $110 for a 3 hour workshop. This felt right for my first one…but given how well it went, I think I will probably bump up the price for the next one.

Photo course-2

The numbers game

One of my other memories of other photo workshops was of having large groups where vast amounts of time was wasted dealing with the litany of reasons other people’s cameras weren’t doing what they were supposed to. So I was very keen to make sure that I didn’t have more than 4 people in the workshop.
I’m willing to admit that part of the reason for saying that I wanted to keep the numbers low was also that if only one person said they wanted to do the course…then I could say ‘Well that’s great…because I wanted to keep the numbers down.’ Then I could walk to my room, close the door, and cry, and cry, and cry.
In the end I had 3, and this was pretty much perfect. I think that as I do more of them, I will be able to get this up to 5 people…but if there are any more than this, or if there is a big discrepancy in their skill levels, then I think it would be a real struggle to give everyone the attention they deserve.

Photo course-3

Traps for young players

Have you ever had that experience of someone with a different phone to you saying ‘I can’t work out how to get to my photos, can you help?’ and then spending the next 10 minutes desperately trying to navigate your way around a device you’ve never used before muttering ‘Why the hell is that there? Who designed this menu?! Oh God, what did I just delete?!!!’  Well now imagine doing this in front of three strangers who had paid for the privilege. Let me assure it’s not fun. Obviously the more of these I do, the more adept I will become at navigating around the various menus of the various camera brands without swearing or saying ‘Look I think I’ve just broken that…how about you just shoot on your phone for the rest of the workshop?’

I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be able to fill in 3 hours with the basics of photography…but I soon discovered that for every 15 minute segment I had prepared, there were at least 5 half hour long rabbit holes that I could fall down if I wasn’t careful (‘So that’s how you can get more light into your photo using ISO/exposure/Aperture. But you could also use flash [blah, blah, blah]…and if you are using flash you can use on-camera or off-camera flash [blah, blah, blah]…and then you need to think about using diffusers [blah, blah, blah]…and speaking of diffusers [blah, blah, blah]…oh sorry, our three hours is up.’)
So, know your audience, tailor the information to them and then stick to it. People who are looking to move beyond using the automatic settings on their DSLR are not interested in a 10 minute investigation of the inverse square law.

Ask for feedback after the workshop. This doesn’t mean saying ‘Did you guys like it?’ as you usher them out the door. It means actually following up with them a day or two after the workshop with a few basic questions, and making sure they feel comfortable telling you the truth (and trying to not get too hurt if they have some negative feedback). If you want to do this again, you need to know what worked and what didn’t…and then fine tune your next workshop accordingly.

The crew
The crew

So in conclusion

When I think back over the last 7 years of taking photos, there have been quite a few ‘Aha!’ moments…but they are usually interspersed with months of ‘Blah’ moments where you feel as though you’re just treading water. So doing a workshop with people who are just starting with their DSLR is kind of rewarding in that you suddenly get to realise how far you’ve come and how much you’ve learnt.
I also realised that when I was just starting to throw myself into learning about photography, I was really looking for someone who could mentor and guide me through to the next level. So it was really nice to be that person to somebody else.
But if you’re not the sort of person who likes to stand in front of complete strangers and talk to them for 3 hours…then there are probably easier ways to make your money.

Last but not least, if your wife is willing to bake a cake, and the participants are a really great group of people, and you have access to a coffee machine, and the weather Gods shine on you, and you do a lot of preparation, and you have kids who are willing to model for you, and a local bingo hall has recently been covered in art-work…it really helps!

And of course…if you are interested in taking the first step away from the ‘auto’ settings on your camera…let me know.



Shooting your first wedding

Last year a mate of mine (the inimitable Tim Arch) asked if I would be interested in shooting a wedding. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to work with someone who knows what they’re doing and to learn a few tricks of the trade, so I said ‘Sure.’ But a few days later I re-read his message and suddenly realised that he hadn’t actually said that I would be assisting him, and after a flurry of DMs on Twitter I came to realise that in fact Tim would be attending the wedding…and I would be shooting it by myself. So I explained that while I felt happy with the way my photography was progressing…I didn’t really feel comfortable being the ‘be-all and end-all’ for someone’s wedding day. So Tim said he would explain this to the Bride and Groom, and a few days later he let me know that they were still happy to have me shoot their wedding. So it was time to HTFU and shoot my first wedding!
Was it terrifying? Yes. Were there things I could have done better? Yes. Did I learn more in about 4 hours than I had in the previous year? Yes. Will I ever shoot another wedding? I don’t know…but at least it’s not a definite ‘No!’.
So I’m no expert on wedding photography…but here’s what I learnt.


Admittedly this is not going to come as a massive surprise…but the more prep you do, the easier the day will be. I had a few meetings with the groom before hand and a meeting with the bride and groom about a week out from the wedding. This was invaluable for making sure we were all on the same page in terms of what I was going to shoot.
I also headed over to the venue the day before at about the same time as the wedding was going to be to make sure I had a few good ideas for where I could shoot the group shots. While I was there I also roped a friend into walking towards me so that I could work out what shutter speed I would need to get shots of the bride walking towards me.
You may not use any of the the info that you glean from this preparation  (Lord knows I certainly did!), but you will be able to carry yourself with the confidence that comes with being prepared.

I discovered this location on a walk a few months earlier and thought it would make for a great shot.
I discovered this location on a walk a few months earlier and thought it would make for a great shot.


Preparation is great…right up until that moment you when the spot you had in mind for the group shots suddenly isn’t available and you have to come up with another option. Or when the bridal party is crossing the road to get from one location to another and you see a chance to shoot them with an iconic Melbourne tram in the background (admittedly this shot didn’t work…but at least I got it!) So keep your eyes open for opportunities, and don’t freak out if you have make a last minute change.

Make sure you get a few shots that 'tell the story' of the day. This one serves as a good introduction.
Make sure you get a few shots that ‘tell the story’ of the day. This one serves as a good introduction.

Carry a shot list and ideas for shots

I’m sure that once you’ve done a couple of weddings you will know what shots you need and how to get them. But for me, having a list on my phone of the shots I needed to get and a few ideas for setups was invaluable. If you’re shooting the wedding by yourself you’re going to be flat out trying to keep people happy for the camera, taking the shots and making sure that they are working. You won’t have a whole lot of time to think about where you should be shooting next, or what would be a good set up. So if you’ve got a list, you can just refer to that and know that at the end of the day you’ve got what you needed to get.

I hadn't intended to take a shot here, but the light was great and the grey background really made the bride and groom pop...also the bride suggested the photo and I'm too smart to refuse.
I hadn’t intended to take a shot here, but the light was great and the grey background really made the bride and groom pop…also the bride suggested the photo and I’m too smart to refuse.


Go with what you know

I spend a lot of time taking photos of my kids, so I know the importance of waiting for a shot to happen, rather than trying to manufacture it. I’m also more comfortable shooting people with available light than with a flash. So there were moments like these where I knew I had nice light and I knew I could get a good shot if I waited for the right moment

Future bride and groom
Future bride and groom

And there was a moment where the bridal party wanted a photo in front of the fountain with late afternoon sun behind them. I thought that with about half an hour of mucking around with the flash I could get a good shot…but I also knew that I didn’t have that sort of time, so I had to just say ‘I’ll take the shot, but I think the sun is going to be too bright behind you.’ They were happy that I took the shot, and in the end the shot was too blown out…but I’m glad I didn’t waste precious time trying to make a shot that my skill level was unlikely to achieve. Because two minutes later I got these shots that I wouldn’t have got otherwise.

Natural light

Group shot

The Gear

Going into this, I think I was more concerned about the gear side of things than actually taking the shots! Will I need two cameras? Will I need a full-frame camera? How will I go shooting on a different camera when the pressure’s on? What lenses should I pack? Should I take a prime or zoom? How do I carry it all? AAAGGHHHH!!!!!
In the end I was very lucky and got to borrow a Canon 7D and a 70-200mm f4 lens. I also took my 550D with a 17-55mm f2.8 lens and a 50mm f1.4 lens. I had one camera on a sling and the other camera just on a strap and so carried them everywhere. I also had a tripod, flash and reflector.
So, did I need two camera bodies? Yep. There’s no way I could have changed lenses quick enough to get both this shot on the 70-200mm lens and then this one on the 17-55mm.

Bride and Father of the bride

Perfect...apart from that creepy photographer in the background.
Perfect…apart from that creepy photographer in the background.

Did I need a full-frame camera? No, I’m happy with the shots I got on the 550D and 7D. How did I go shooting on a different camera when the pressure was on? Fortunately the navigation on the 550D and 7D are pretty similar, so I didn’t have any issues. But had I been shooting on a 5Dmk3 or different brand of camera, I think it would have ended in tears.
Should I take a prime or zoom? Given that so much of this was just running and gunning I definitely could have left the 50mm prime at home. I toyed with the idea of borrowing an 85mm for the portrait shots, but I’m glad I didn’t as I don’t think I would have had the time to change lenses and it would have just been another thing to carry.

One of the few shots on the 50mm
One of the few shots on the 50mm

How did I carry it all? Well…I just carried it all. It was freaking hard work. My shoulders were cactus by the end of the day, and there was one awesome situation where I had a camera set up on a tripod in preparation for the group shot, and then was asked to take some photos 100m away in another part of the park. So I was left getting people to pose for some photos, while desperately checking over my shoulder to make sure no one was running off with the camera and tripod I’d left set up. This was not in any way, shape or form relaxing, and if I was doing it again I would definitely rope someone in to assist me.

Eating and drinking

If you’re someone who likes to eat (and I am) then you should definitely try to get some food into your system before the ceremony begins, as there will be very little chance for you to eat anything other than snacks for the next couple of hours. Fortunately I was pretty much running on adrenaline for 4 hours straight, and it wasn’t until I stopped that I realised just how hungry and tired I was.

I would also recommend taking a water bottle with you if you can. I was shooting in the late afternoon of a warm Summer’s day (about 30 degrees) and knew I would get pretty dehydrated if I didn’t drink a fair bit of water before the ceremony. So I drank plenty of water in the lead up to the ceremony and carried a water bottle with me. While I certainly didn’t get dehydrated, spending the next 2 hours with a full bladder and standing next to a fountain was not ideal.


What I don’t know about photography could fill a library…but fortunately what I do know about myself could fill a small self-help pamphlet. I know that I achieve the most when I push myself out of my comfort zone. So while I was terrified about taking on the job of photographing someone’s wedding, I just told myself that it was like any other photography gig and went for it…although admittedly it is ‘like any other photography gig’ except for the fact that it’s one of the biggest days in most people’s lives…and you only really get one shot at getting the photos…and people are almost definitely going to print the photos and look back at them over the years…in hindsight, I should never have done this.

But I was also really lucky to have a really lovely couple to work with. They said from the outset that they were going to be relaxed and easy going…and they were. I think that if they had been a high-maintenance couple then this would probably have been my last wedding…but as it stands…if the right couple came along…I reckon I’d do it all again.

How to deal with pesky onlookers telling you how to do photography.
How to deal with pesky onlookers telling you how to do photography.

Shooting portraits

My favourite photography to look at and to take is portrait photography. I love the idea of trying to tell a story, or capture an emotion in a single frame. I recently took a whole lot of portrait shots at a family get together, and I was really happy with some of them. So ‘I’m No Expert, But’ here are my tips for shooting portraits.

1. Light
If you have a studio and lights then you are probably reading this post on an ironic level…so I’ll just provide advice for the rest of us.
Use whatever natural light you have available. So if there is a window in the room, make sure the subject is facing towards it (and obviously avoid placing the person in front of the window, as all the backlight will make their face comparatively dark).

2. Shallow depth of field
A shallow depth of field basically means that one part of your shot is very clear, while the rest is blurred. To me this allows you to make the persons face the focus of the shot…everything else is just background. The lower the f-stop you use, the smaller the area that is in focus. My lens can go to 2.8 so that is what I use. Some lenses can get down to 1.4, some can’t get lower than 3.5.
The challenge with using a shallow depth of field is that while it means that you have one area beautifully in focus…you need to make sure that it is the area that you want. I have a dazzling array of photos where the person’s hair is in focus…or their ear. When in fact what you want to capture is…

3. The eyes
This is where the connection is for me. The mouth can be smiling…but the eyes will always tell the real story…so make them the focal point of the shot.
If you can, try to get some ‘light in the eyes’. If people are looking towards the light you will see a reflection of this light in their eyes, which adds an incredible sincerity to the shot.
Steve McCurry is a great exponent of this.

4. Camera settings
If you have the time and ability, then by all means set your f-stop, aperture and everything else manually.
Personally, I use the ‘CA’ (Creative Auto) setting on my Canon. Then use the following:
Flash: Turned off
Background: Blurred as possible (this is the shallow depth of field I was talking about)
Exposure: Leave as is unless it is really dark or sunny…and even then, just move somewhere else
Picture setting: Monochrome (I really like my portraits in black and white). But only do this if you can work with RAW files on your computer.
File type: RAW+L This will give you a RAW file (in full colour) and a JPG in black and white (if you’re in the monochrome setting). A lot of people will tell you to shoot full colour and then desaturate the image to make it black and white. But I personally like to see the image in black and white as I shoot it…and if I suddenly need a colour version, then I can just save the RAW file as a colour jpg.
Shooting: Continuous (people’s expressions change in the blink of an eye…so it’s worth shooting a whole lot of shots, to get that one moment where you have captured something special).

5. Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you are sitting in front of a camera, unless you are an extreme extrovert, you are going to be feeling a bit nervous…the photographer takes the photo, then says ‘No, that didn’t work’ or ‘We’re going to have to do that again’. How do you feel? I’m going to guess ‘not so great’. As the photographer you may have meant ‘I didn’t quite get that right’, or ‘I’ve got to change my settings’…but the damage has been done. You are now very unlikely to get a great shot of this person because that are going to be feeling awkward or self-conscious.
So always put yourself in the shoes of the person you are taking the photo of…if you wouldn’t like someone doing something to you, chances are they won’t like you doing it to them. And from a purely selfish perspective, you are going to get a much better photo of someone who is happy to be there and having fun.

I also think it’s worth making sure you get at least one photo that the person having their photo taken will actually want. Yes that photo of them in the middle of yawn ‘totally captured their inner child’ and yes that photo where pretty much everything is out of focus except for their left nostril is a fitting tribute to ‘the look you were going for there’. But you’re going to run out of people who are happy to let you take their photo pretty quickly if nobody likes how you’ve made them look.
So find some work that inspires you (I love cycling so Kristof Ramon , Veeral Patel, and Wade Wallace are a few of my faves) and get out there and try to capture some magic…then upload that magic to the internet…then wait for people to tell you that ‘you’re doing it wrong’.