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Ethics Committee

STUDENTS COME FIRST
By Brenda Tharp

"You know, when I was at that workshop last year, the instructor was more interested in making his own photographs than helping me. I was really disappointed about that." When I hear comments like this, I cringe. In part because I know the power of word of mouth, and when the word is about an instructor who doesn't help students, the instructor's business and ultimately mine and others can suffer. The most important reason for teaching is to serve as a guide to students, helping them improve their knowledge and skills.

There are many types of workshops. The feedback I have received from students attending my classes is that some photographers seem to offer workshops as a way to get their trips paid to great locations, and they offer minimal teaching. Other experiences include workshops that were more tours than teaching. Thankfully, I also hear about workshops that were just that - an opportunity to work and learn from an instructor while in a photogenic location.

The leader's role is very clear in a workshop: to teach, to assist students in getting their photographs, and to provide feedback on the work. A photo tour is a little different. Tour leaders are responsible for getting everyone to the right place at the best time of day. They are not required to teach, although some (to their credit) do. Too many workshop instructors act more like photo tour leaders and set up alongside their students to get the great shot. As a veteran instructor, I think this is not appropriate. A teacher must be selflessly willing to help students get the moment on film, even if it means that the teacher misses the moment.

I'll be the first one to admit that when the light is great, and the subject matter wonderful, I'm tempted to pretend I don't know anyone else who's standing there and work on getting my own photographs! But I am not there to increase my portfolio of images, but to help workshop participants with theirs. There are few instructors who are capable of being totally available to students in the field and still make a great photograph. Let's face it, we all know how much concentration is needed to make our perfect photograph, so in the process of working on that image, a teacher is effectively shutting out the students who may need help.

This is not to say that it's totally wrong to make pictures during a workshop. I think there are times when setting up my camera and tripod alongside the students is appropriate. I often set up to demonstrate equipment, show compositional ideas or special techniques. If everyone is photographing the same subject, the teacher's images can be shared with all the students' work in a follow-up critique as a form of comparison. However, demonstrations cause students to stand around and watch and not explore to make their own pictures. Demonstrations can be useful, but the most important part of the fieldwork is having students do their own image making.

There have been some very well-known photographers who, in leading workshops, have done their own photographs while in the field, expecting students to come to them. I think that a good instructor doesn't wait, but instead seeks out the students and offers help where needed. That's the fundamental difference between good photographers who are also good teachers and good photographers who simply aren't good teachers.

I have been teaching workshops since 1985, running my own workshop business and, more recently, teaching through Maine and Santa Fe photo workshops, and others. With each of them, the instructors' manual states that the teacher will not make personal photographs during the workshop. There's a good reason for that common guideline. An important item on the evaluations is the experience the student has with the instructor - whether there is any one-on-one assistance at any time. This makes perfect sense to me. People pay to attend a workshop because: 1) they like the photographer's work, 2) they want to learn how to make images as strong as the photographer's, and 3) they want the collective feedback on their work from a group of like-minded photographers and the instructor. If they don't make a personal connection with the instructor, they may feel invisible or neglected. And, that could translate into disappointment or, ultimately, bad word of mouth.

While good word of mouth is important to keep drawing clients, the truth is a teacher should be committed to making certain all students feel encouraged for their efforts and satisfied that they have learned something that will help them grow visually. It's the main role of any type of teacher. If the workshop is a field class, or has group field trips, the instructor should be totally available to the students during that time.

I know that some instructors feel that they are still teaching while making their own images if they are calling out f-stops and aperture settings, or reminding people of filters, light issues, etc. This is indeed helpful to a student, but if the instructor never looks through the student's camera, then the student may end up making a technically good image that has poor composition. Input from the teacher in the field before a student makes the picture improves the odds he or she will come away with a stronger photograph and a more positive experience. While this obviously doesn't work for photographing wildlife, birds, or action sports, it works very well for general nature and landscape/scenic photography workshops.

Students often need more one-on-one when just beginning to master their skills, or when they are at an intermediate level where the aesthetic needs some improvement. Once participants are well on the way to creating technically good and artistically pleasing images, I push them out of the nest and into the field to work on their own.

Brenda Tharp specializes in nature and travel photography, with publication credits that include Chronicle, National Geographic, Michelin, Outdoor Photographer, Sierra, and Travel-Holiday. She has conducted hundreds of workshops and photo tours internationally. Her book Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography was recently published by Amphoto Books. Tel: 415-382-6604; email: btharp@brendatharp.com; website: www.brendatharp.com.

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