To Photo Conference or Not to Photo Conference?

One of the mainstay features of the photography profession’s landscape is photo conferences. They used to all be very similar- in a large hotel’s ballrooms, a trade show in the hall, and downtime in a typically awesome location. Now, there are infinite options for what and where a photographer can choose to learn more about their profession. What it boils down to, is what do you want to learn?

New to the industry

If you are new to the industry or just starting out in photography, a photo conference can be invaluable. It can act as a boot camp for all aspects of photography. I would highly suggest WPPI or Imaging USA for the all-encompassing experience. You’ll leave with a lot more knowledge of what industry standards and practices are, which is important if you’re going to open up a wedding photography company.

When I first wanted to start my business, I read a book about owning your own LLC. The writer right off the bat said in no uncertain terms, typically what you set out to have a business doing (such as photography), is what you end up doing the least. And boy that couldn’t be truer. I spend my days editing, writing, charging equipment, scheduling, answering emails, social media-ing, and planning wedding days with my clients. Photographing couples literally is the thing I do the least in my day-to-day operations. But, as it turns out, I actually love all of the stuff that comes with owning a business. Without those larger conferences to help me along in how to operate a company efficiently in all aspects of the game, I couldn’t imagine where I’d be right now.

I see a lot of new photographers signing up for styled shoots to improve the appearance of their portfolios. A styled shoot is basically a wedding without guests, and the bride and groom are typically models. These usually take place during nice overcast days in stunning locations. In other words, it’s pretty hard to take a bad photo when the cards are stacked for you. Why does this matter? Well, if you’re opening a wedding photography company, have an awesome dreamy portfolio filled with styled shoots, what happens when you get into a dark ugly reception hall when you’re hired by your first client. The bride and groom aren’t models, the flowers are all artificial, and the walls are all covered in dark wood paneling. You’re going to have an Oh-sh*t moment. One that could probably stop your company before it’s even started. I think going to styled shoots as a new photographer is having tunnel vision, and it’s not being honest with yourself or your clients. Going to one of the larger photography conferences very well might help give you a much-needed reality check- one that could prevent that Oh-sh*t moment down the road.

TIPS for the conference goers

  1. Don’t pretend to know it all. I attended a lot of classes where I already knew most of what they were teaching. But I had an open mind, stayed until the end, and almost always left with a little tidbit I either needed reminding of or learned something new. No, all classes aren’t created the same, so make sure to talk and network with other photographers while you’re there. See what classes they’re excited about. It’s an easy way to start a conversation and make a new friend.
  2. Bring a notebook and write, write, write. Remember, be thorough. When you’re writing, it all makes sense. A day or two later, not so much. Make sure to go back and expand on thoughts in between sessions. Use this notebook to take what you’ve learned and strategize on ways you can implement the new-found knowledge. This book can and most likely will become a launchpad for amazing ideas and inspiration.
  3. Talk, Talk, Talk. One of the biggest advantages of going to a large conference is gaining other people’s wisdom. I have learned so much from my peers just by hanging out and talking shop.
  4. Don’t be seduced by location- get your ass to class! If you’re traveling across the country, try to make the most of your experience, even when the days seem long and the pool looks amazing. You are a sponge- soak it all up!

Ok, I’ve had the big conference experience, now what?

Get nit picky- be your own worst critic! This wasn’t hard for me at all! I knew exactly where my weak points were when I wanted to take my business to the next level. It all starts with being honest with yourself. For me, I needed to work on lighting and business strategies. Because I knew these two very specific problems were something I needed to focus on, I sought out tailored programs just for them.

I consider myself very lucky because I happen to live in the same city as a master lighter, and frequent contributor to Strobist articles all over the web, Nick Fancher. He along with Chris Keels teamed up and offered an amazing two-day lighting course in 2010. I couldn’t sign up fast enough. Because it was the class’ maiden voyage, it was reasonably priced (especially considering it changed my whole practice). I loved it so much, I took it again the very next year. Even though some of the stuff I learned the second year was redundant, it was a great technical reminder, and I still learned plenty of new techniques. Having it local was another advantage regarding cost. If you can’t find a course, just reach out to a local photographer who can do what you want to learn and beg them to teach you… and this should go unsaid, but pay them. It will be worth it, I promise.

For the business part of photography, I had heard Jerry Ghionis speak at WPPI and instantly knew he was a one-in-a-million photographer and businessman who lived up to every aspect of the word success. I ended up taking a full day, all intensive class from him, and honestly, I try to hear him speak every opportunity I can get. The class changed a few fundamentally small ways I shoot….and just that alone was worth the cost of admittance. His business strategies will also leave you clinging on to every word that comes out of his mouth. Ok, I admit it- I’m a groupie. My friend and I even made Jerry t-shirts when we last saw him. *nerd alert*

meeting jerry ghionis

In 2015 I knew I was going to make the leap to quit my other full-time job and go full-time exclusively with photography. I was really worried about working from home. Mainly, the seclusion, lack of interaction (which I guess is also the definition of seclusion), and how that can toy with the mind emotionally. I have anxiety, and most of the times I feel that helps me have an edge over my competition. But would this anxiety turn into depression when I was all alone each day? Again, I was getting honest with myself. Naming what I thought I needed to work on the most, or in this case, what I was most worried about happening and tackling it head-on. My husband and I were wanting to start a family, so logistically that was the perfect year to pick a conference and travel if I was ever going to do it. I picked Field Trip, out in El Capitan Canyon, California, because I was impressed with the mix of classes that focused on the emotional and “real” aspects of business and business practices. This ended up being a reset button experience for me. It was cooler than any summer camp I attended as a kid, but everyone was pretty much talking photography, so it was perfect. The incredible views, the classes where people could break down and cry, completely exposing their shortcomings and fears, it was real and it was just what I needed. I came back and have been working as a full-time photographer for almost two years later this month (although this is my company’s 9th full year). I can honestly say there have been very few days that have felt uncomfortable, and I have a lot more interaction with the outside world than I ever expected.

PICK your future

Photo conferences are tools that will directly impact the path of your business. Be mindful in choosing them. You can take cool pictures anywhere, but what are you LEARNING? What are your shortcomings? What do you need to improve upon? Make a list of 5 things right now, and under each one, three steps you could take to work on them. Make conferences and classes a part of your plan. The rewards far outweigh the investment if you choose wisely.


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