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I know—I’m not a guest. But I looked at my calendar yesterday afternoon to see who I had scheduled as my guest for “Special Guest Blog Wednesday” and it was completely blank. I’m really not that surprised, because as my wife will attest; I have the memory retention of a hamster, and I guess I just completely forgot to get line up a guest blogger for today. So, you’re stuck with me today as your guest blogger, but next week I’ll have an actual special guest, so at least it won’t happen two weeks in a row.

An Odd Admission From A Book Author
This may sound kind of weird coming from a guy who makes his living writing books, but I don’t think there’s any method of learning that compares with being a part of a live seminar or workshop. As good as a book or a video is, it’s a one-way experience; there’s no interaction with the instructor; no opportunity to get that one question answered that’s been driving you crazy, and as passionate as an author might be, you just don’t get that excitement—that buzz—that energy you get from a great live seminar or workshop.

That’s why I love teaching workshops so much, and it’s also exactly why each year I try to attend as many of other people’s workshops as I can, as a student (I’ve recently taken workshops on everything from shooting food, to shooting home interiors).

I think for a teacher like me, it’s particularly important to learn new things, new techniques, and new ways of looking at things, so you don’t get in a rut—you need to feed that side of you that made you want to be a teacher in the first place, and for me, learning new stuff just feeds my passion (well, that and buying new camera gear, but that’s a whole different problem. Or story. Depending on how you look at it).

The Art of Being a Good Student
Now, up to this point, I’ve been talking as “Scott the instructor” or “Scott the Photoshop Insider Guy,” but what I really want to talk to you about today is something I’ve learned as “Scott the student,” so from this point on, I’m giving you my perspective as just another student in the workshop, so please keep that in mind from this point out (but I’ll check in again as regular Scott toward the end of this article). I want to talk about ‘Being a Good Student,’ and making the most from the live learning experiences you’ll come across.

There’s One in Every Crowd
When I go to a workshop; I’m there for one reason—to learn from an absolute expert on a topic. But in a couple of the workshops I’ve attended lately, one of the students literally “Hijacked” the class, which had a really negative effect on:

  • The other students
  • The instructor
  • The “bad student” himself

I’ll give you an example of how one student somewhat hijacked a recent class I was in. It was Architectual/Interiors shooting workshop Matt and I attended out in California. The instructor would tell the class, “Here’s how I would set-up and compose a shot of a room like this,” and as soon as those words were out of his mouth, “Bad Student,” would step in and say, “Well, that’s not the way I would shoot it, and he would proceed to show the instructor how “He” does it (which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what the instructor just showed us). The problem is; he’s not just showing the instructor off to the side. He’s now showing the entire class. He’s directing his comments to the instructor, but we’re all now standing there watching another student showing the instructor his methods, during our class time.

Now, this guy might be a phenomenal interior photographer. In fact, he might even be much better than the instructor (we, as a class have no way of knowing; we all just met 30 minutes earlier). Or, he might be a total hack. We just don’t know. But we do know this; we paid to hear the techniques from the instructor—not this student—but there we are—all standing around listening to the student.

Now the instructor has to spend time justifying to the “Bad student” why he uses the technique he originally demonstrated (while we all stand around), and then he continues his lesson to us. About two minutes later, after showing how he sets up a flash, the “Bad Student’ interupts and asks the instructor, “Well, wouldn’t this technique also work?” and he proceeds to move the flash over to a different location and he shows how he’d light the room. The instructor is frustrated. The students are frustrated. This guy is “hi-jacking the class.”

The instructor once again has to show why he uses the technique he does, and then we finally move to another room. The instructor starts his lesson, and the Bad Student kicks in again. Thankfully, another student who’s already got steam coming out of her ears, finally steps in and says directly to the Bad Student, “Your technique might work, but I paid good money to learn how to do this stuff from him [she points to the instructor]—not you.” All the other students chime in immediately with a “Yeah, we paid to hear from him!” and he backed off for about 10-minutes, and then he was right back at it.

Now, you might be thinking, “It’s the instructor’s fault; he shouldn’t have let things get out of hand!” I can tell you from personal experience, it’s very tricky dealing with a hi-jacker, especially in a small group like we were. I thought the instructor did a good job of trying to give this guy a visual que (through his facial expressions), that he was holding up the class, and by trying to cut his interruptions short as possible without being rude, but with this guy, it wasn’t easy. Even a sharp, direct comment from another student didn’t slow him down.

This same thing happened to me when I was a student in another workshop earlier this year, and while I won’t go into the whole story here, the woman wanted to let the class know she was a big time pro—more of a peer of the instructor than a student (however, this could not be further from the truth, as was evidenced by a display of her work before the class started). Sadly, she proceeded to hi-jack the class big time between challenging the instructor’s techinques, and monopolizing his time.

Here’s the thing; both ‘bad students’ paid to attend these workshops. I would like to believe that they signed up because they wanted to learn about the topic from the instructor they paid to learn it from (that’s why I signed up), but then they get to the class, and they spend the day trying to become the focus of the entire class. I just don’t get it.

Thankfully, this didn’t happen in the class I took last weekend from Mary DuPrie, but there’s generally “One in every class.” Don’t be that “One.” If you pay to go to a workshop to learn something new, shut up and learn. There are other students in that class who paid, too—and they paid to learn from that instructor—not one of the students. Be a good student; stand back and just take it all in. That’s why you’re there.

Outsmarting The Class
Here’s a tip for getting the most of on-location photo workshops. I’ve been a student at many of these, and I’ll use the “Digital Landscape Workshop Series” workshops as an example. We’ll get up at the crack of dawn, drive out to our shooting location, and then Moose Peterson (world famous photographer and head of DLWS), gives us some tips for shooting that location, and then we set-up for our shoot. So far, so good. But there’s “Always One” student who thinks they’re going to “outsmart the class and the instructors” and they break away from the group—away from the instructors, and go off by themselves to get that “one shot nobody else will get.”

This is another form of “bad student.” Here you have the incredible Moose Peterson, and co-instructors Joe McNally (Yes, that Joe McNally) and amazing landscape photographer and total gear-head Laurie Excell (who runs NAPP’s own photo gear desk) right there—at your disposal. They’re there, on location, to teach you how to shoot landscapes. They’ll show you composition ideas; talk about which lenses you might use, where to set-up, what to capture, and basically share one-on-one knowledge you can’t get any other way. What an incredible opportunity for the class. Except for the One student who headed off by themselves so they could “get that one shot nobody else got.”

So, what did this student learn from their morning with Moose, Joe, and Laurie? Not a darn thing. If you’re going to wander off, totally ignore the instructors, and do you own thing; why pay for the workshop in the first place? Just fly to a nice location, wander around by yourself, and save the money. The reason people go to these workshops is not just to shoot in beautiful places—-you can do that on your own—it’s to learn from world class instructors. Be a good student, and not only will you come home a better photographer, you’ll have invested your workshop money wisely.

Why I care
There are two reasons:

  1. I’m a student, too. And just like you, I really want to absorb as much as that instructor has to share. I spent my time and money to attend the workshop, and I really want to hear what that instructor has to share.
  2. I’m an instructor, too. When I do a workshop, I really genuinely want it to be a fantastic learning experience for my students, who spent their hard-earned money for their travel, their time, and for their workshop registration fee.

I take my workshops very seriously, and I have everything planned out, and a written outline for every hour, of every day, of the entire workshop (even if it’s a full week long). Sadly, I’ve had students hi-jack my own workshops, and in those cases; nobody wins. Not the students, not the bad student, and certainly not me, because it takes my class outline and tosses it in the trash. It derails my plan for the class, it totally makes me lose my focus, and it hurts the entire workshop for everybody.

The Moral of the Story

Be a good student. Go without any expectations. Go without any preconceived notions about what you should or shouldn’t learn, and just allow yourself to soak it all in. Respect your fellow classmates and the instructor’s time. Ask questions when its appropriate, but make sure you remember it’s not a private workshop, and leave time for others to have their questions answered.

Workshops and seminars are really what you make of them. If you go in with an open mind, it will come out full. If you go in already knowing everything, there’s not much room for anything new to find its way in. Go in with the idea that you’re going to learn a ton, and you’ll get double your money’s worth, you’ll make new friends, and you’ll be a better, more-informed, well-rounded person for sharing in the experience.