The not-so-secret secrets to running an effective photo workshop

The not-so-secret secrets to running an effective photo workshop

Having attended and run a number of photography workshops, I’m now more than aware of the gamut of styles of workshop presentation and organisation out there.

Some of them work. Some of them work spectacularly. Others don’t. And yet others fail dismally, leaving participants uninspired and, worse, bored!

What gives some photo workshops that extra zing and pizzaz, and why do others just make you want to push that “sleep” button and catch an extra couple of hours nap time?

I believe that it boils down to four main things:

  1. Outcomes
  2. Structure
  3. Content
  4. Engagement

Before I was a photographer, I taught in a high school for a number of years. Any teacher will tell you that if you’re not able to engage a class of 13 – 17 year olds within the first 5 minutes of a lesson, you’ve lost them. Thankfully, adult learners are more forgiving, and they have a longer attention span (15-20 minutes being the “average” attention span of an adult).

I define a successful workshop as one where participants have gained a new set of skills or understandings from having attended it. If a participant completes a workshop without having learned anything new, then all you’ve done is presented a shooting opportunity. If a participant leaves a workshop stimulated, perhaps a little frustrated (always good for learning) and inspired to try out the set of new skills they have picked up, then you’re conducted a successful workshop.

When designing a workshop, the above four principles are critical to ensuring that your workshop runs smoothly, is enjoyable for participants, and is a success.

In this article, we’ll cover the the related areas of Outcomes and Structure: the framework of a photo workshop (or any workshop for that matter). In the next, we’ll look at Content and Engagement, the guts of a workshop.


In any learning endeavour, you need a set of learning outcomes. What is it that, upon completion of the workshop, participants SHOULD be able to do. To what degree of success should they be able to do it? These are questions you need to ask prior to designing structure and content of the workshop. For a workshop on basic use of a DSLR, these outcomes can be as simple as the use of various settings and functions on the DSLR in order to create photographs.

Connected to this then is how can participants know that they are achieving these outcomes? The simple answer: build in opportunities for participants to use the skills they have learned, to review the results and receive some feedback from you and/or their peers. In some of my workshops, for example, I build in a photo-challenge where the reins are handed to participants who need to take pictures according to fairly simple photographic briefs. There is then opportunity for me to review the work (even if informally) and to provide some feedback or remediation if required.


Structure is important if learning is to take place. Any workshop needs to have a formal beginning and a formal end. How you structure the bits in between can often determine if your workshop is an active and engaging experience, or a snoozefest.

Most of us are used to the traditional didactic approach to providing instruction. Put your hand up if you’ve ever attended a lecture at college, university or a seminar you have attended. You’d probably remember 30-45 minutes of the instructor talking (or worse, reading from a set of notes) on a particular topic, after which you either attended some kind of tutorial, round table discussion or demonstration. The problem with this approach is that we’re all so used to it that we think it is okay to replicate it for photography workshops. However, we forget how bored we were during those sessions, and how bored workshop participants can get if all we do is talk about the content for an extended period of time.

Remember the 15-20 minute long adult attention span? That’s pretty much how long you’ve got when speaking to workshop participants. Then, you need to move on to something a bit more hands on.

Structure your workshops around this principle. Sure, it’s important to have a formal beginning, and to cover key concepts at the start. But don’t try and cover everything at once in the same talk-fest. Spread the provision of instruction and content across the workshop. If you’re covering one key concept, then give participants the chance to try it out and use the opportunity to provide further instruction and demonstration.

Look at the duration of your workshop, and see how you can break it up into micro-sessions that alternate between instruction and activity/exploration. If you’re running a 3 hour workshop, perhaps structure this around 6 x 30 minute blocks. Include times for breaks – to allow participants to socialise and network with each other and, more importantly, for them to process what they have learned.

Where you might be tempted to initially structure your workshop along more traditional lines as follows:

  1. Welcome and introductions (10 minutes)
  2. Presentation (50 minutes)
  3. Break (15 minutes)
  4. Demonstration (30 minutes)
  5. Activity (45 minutes)
  6. Discussion (20 minutes)
  7. Close (10 minutes)

You may find that participants get itchy fingers and itchy backsides during #2 the 50 minute presentation!

If you have a lot to cover in that 50 minutes, try splitting it up across several micro sessions. A revised structure for a more engaging and accessible workshop might be as follows:

  1. Welcome and introduction (10 minutes)
  2. Ice-breaker activity (10 minutes)
  3. Topic 1 presentation (15 minutes)
  4. Topic 1 activity and shoot (20 minutes)
  5. Topic 2 presentation (20 minutes)
  6. Topic 2 activity and shoot (30 minutes)
  7. Break (10 minutes)
  8. Topic 3 demonstration (15 minutes)
  9. Topic 3 activity and shoot (20 minutes)

… and so on.

This structure allows participants to put what they have learned per topic into immediate use, and have the opportunity to ask you questions and receive feedback during each activity. It increases participant engagement with content, and encourages processing and uptake of new content/concepts you’re presenting.

The beginning of a workshop is important. Use it to inform participants of the structure of the workshop, the content to be covered, and the outcomes to be achieved. Kick-start the first key concept as part of the beginning and then move on to an activity. Your 15-20 minutes would be up just about this time.

Equally as important is how you end a workshop. It’s an opportunity to wrap up what participants have learned within the context of the content and activities covered during the workshop. Outline the key topics and outcomes, and link these back to the activities undertaken in the workshop. Leave some time for a Q&A (questions and answers) session for participants, and for you to conduct any final housekeeping required eg. distribution of evaluation forms.

In the next article, we’ll look at what constitutes the guts of an effective photo workshop: its content and activities.

  • Renee Moore

    20/02/2012 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for a great read, I have now ran four beginners workshops in my studio and am always on the lookout for improvements. You really opened my eyes to a few changes that I need to make at my next one 🙂 Thanks again.

  • J Singleton

    09/07/2012 at 10:05 pm

    I am very glad I found your post on running a workshop. I am about to run my first workshop and was a bit nervous on how it was going to be conducted. I really appreciate the concise way you have formatted your workshop work flow so I will structure mine based upon the one you have as the micro-session workshop.
    Thank you! 🙂

  • sengmah

    11/07/2012 at 2:41 pm

    Glad you found this article helpful. Workshops are all about constructing learning opportunities and providing scaffolded activities so that learners can build their understanding and make their connections.

  • Mark Chamberlain

    03/01/2013 at 7:49 pm

    This is great and just what I was looking for, can’t find the next article however???



  • aftonia

    03/01/2013 at 11:37 pm

    Thank you so much for such a useful post. I seem not able to find the article about what constitutes the guts of an effective photo workshop: its content and activities. would that be possible to email it to me. Many thanks/aftonia

  • Bruce

    06/01/2014 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for the information on running a good photography workshop. I had to chuckle a bit with your valid point about only having 5 minutes to engage your average high school student before you lose them.

    I coach 3, 4 and 5 year olds in soccer and we can’t have more than 30 seconds to engage and re-engage them repeated or they won’t be paying attention.

    Having several quick breaks is definitely a good idea too.
    I would never run a workshop with a critique session of photographs taken around the lesson.


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