Teaching an Online Photography Workshop

Image courtesy: Photowrap

When the Photographer’s Gallery in London closed its doors for refurbishment in September 2010, it opened a new kind of gallery online. Teaming up with Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, authors of Street Photography Now, a collection of documentary images, the museum is now encouraging the book’s contributors to set enthusiasts weekly photographic challenges, and placing the results in a series of Flickr groups. It’s a year-long strategy that’s allowing for broad participation among the gallery’s supporters, extending the influence of the book and making good use of Flickr. One contributor though, has taken the approach a little further.

Documentary photographer Mimi Mollica followed up his challenge with some personal interaction, commenting on the images directly and guiding the photographers who took part in the exercise. Impressed by the enthusiasm shown by the project’s participants, he was inspired to create a new way of teaching photographic skills to people who want to improve their photography, wherever they may be.

“I felt there was a niche gap where I could teach photography to [people] who cannot afford to travel to exotic places to attend expensive four-day workshops in Cuba or India, and that I could teach photography to anyone even if they would need to carry on with their daily life,” he told us. “I realised that I could increase my income and have fun by running an online photography workshop, with dedication and love and still allow myself and the students to keep our daily routine untouched.”

The first workshop ran for three weeks in March with twelve students who represented a mixture of experience, ability, age and nationality. The course, which costs £500, is made up of three steps. For the first five days, students discuss the assignment together on Flickr and through Skype with Mimi, a rare opportunity for them to interact personally with a professional photographer as they come to understand the sorts of images they should be looking to shoot.

The next nine days or so are dedicated to taking pictures, using a members-only Flickr group as a workspace and individual Skype-based coaching as guidance. Three industry experts are also on-hand to offer their opinions and answer questions. (For the next workshop, due to run in June with the theme “Edges of the City,” Mimi is hoping to recruit  architectural photographer, Helene Binet, Kate Edwards, picture editor of The Guardian Weekend Magazine, and Johanna Neurath, commissioning editor of publishers Thames & Hudson.)

Finally, participants work on selecting their best images and improve their editing and presentation skills. The finished images are displayed on the workshop’s website, Photowrap.org, where the results of the last workshop are already visible.

Lots of Cameras, Few Photographers

The aims of the workshop include learning “how to observe,” “how to ‘read’ a photograph,” “how to work ethically and be faithful to your vision,” and “how to edit your work and present it to agencies and possible clients,” as well as the importance of basic concepts like light, exposure and composition. It also solves a couple of other problems though and makes use of a growing opportunity.

While camera technology has become both cheaper and smarter, putting an 8 megapixel lens on an Android smartphone or the latest consumer DSLR within financial reach, the same isn’t true of the public’s photographic eye. Camera owners often have little idea how to operate their state-of-the-art equipment or how to shoot impressive pictures. There’s a growing gap between ability and accessibility. The average level of the students who took Mimi’s workshop was, he said, “reasonably low” — at least when they started.

“Everyone has a camera now, but not a lot of people know what photography is about,” says Mimi. “Nowadays there are millions of self-defined photographers, but few of them realise the true potential of the medium.”

That leaves benefits available to knowledgeable photographers willing to help camera  owners realize that potential. The benefits aren’t new. Former Baltimore Sun photographer David Hobby has managed to create a second career out of teaching enthusiasts about lighting on his Strobist blog, even as the newspaper industry cuts staff positions. And professionals have long met hobbyists in exotic locations to teach them how to photograph mountains, lions and volcanoes.

But those real-life, location-based workshops are themselves problematic, argues Mimi, who has turned down several offers to teach in person. They allow photographers to enjoy a vacation but do little to improve photographic skills or help a photographer find their place in the environment and shoot images that are meaningful to them, he says. What he calls “zoo-safari workshops” in which photographers meet in one place and are expected to take pictures of real life

“are useless and damaging for the local reality that they are photographing in that there would be an implicit exploitation of a given surrounding, whether that’s an African village, or a London street market.”

Photowrap gives students the freedom to roam sites where they feel comfortable and removes the sense of competition that comes from having multiple photographers in one location, he says.

Online Workshops Are Good for Students and Teachers

An online workshop then might have real advantages over the usual lessons in which students arrive en masse to see who can shoot the best picture of the same scene. It allows students with day jobs, children and inflexible hours the freedom to improve their photographic eye without changing their schedule. It lets them learn from professional photographers wherever those photographers might be and wherever they might be.

But the biggest advantage is what an online workshop can do for a knowledgeable photographer. Mimi might have an ideological opposition to location-based workshops — even though the participants may well enjoy them, if mostly as vacations — but while they can be enjoyable for the photographer too, a long trip can also be an inconvenience. Giving tuition through a website, Skype and Flickr can be a lot easier, bring in a broader mixture of students and still generating a useful additional revenue stream to supplement sales and commissions.

2 comments for this post.

  1. Calvin Pennick JR Said:

    Excellent post. Online workshops have really helped me learn at lot about photography in a relatively short amount of time. Digital photography has really made it easier and faster to learn photography but most people interested in photography don't take advantage of the many ways to become educated.

  2. Julia Barnickle Said:

    Great post, Dean. As you say, it's a win-win situation, with amateur photographers being able to learn more about the craft of photography, and professional photographers being able to share their knowledge, and love of photography - as well as being able to add a useful stream of income to their business.

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