Are photo conventions still valid?
My cell phone alarm rings at 4am. For a few dim seconds, I thought. this is not correct…but it hit me: I have a plane to catch. Not only me, but my wife, four kids, and mother-in-law packed everything into a minivan, and by 4:45 a.m. I have to leave. We are heading to St. Louis for Shutterfest, the last photography conference of the year.
Flashback to 2009: My wife Julie and I were laid off from our full-time jobs the same week and decided to try out a new side business in photography. I accepted, registered with ImagingUSA, and booked the cheapest flight to Nashville for the event. It will be the first of many meetings for us.
the rise and fall of meetings
If we weren’t in the photography industry at the time, 2009 was the peak of photography conference madness: WPPI, ImagingUSA, PhotoPlus, and others were all at their peak of popularity. In the early days of social media, attending live events was the best and only way to get a photography education.
Coincidentally, 2009 was a big year for Imaging USA. Despite the global financial crisis, The Gaylord Opryland attracted his 10,000 professional photographers and enthusiasts to learn, party and struggle at his one of the world’s largest photography expos. I spent my hard earned money on the latest equipment.
I still remember how it felt like a giant magic show. We have to remember we were new. So new, in fact, that we didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We stepped into our first wedding photography class taught by Jerry Gionis. If you’ve seen Jerry, you know you can’t do better when it comes to first class, and her next three days flew by. We were exhausted, elated, and left with hope that we might succeed as professional photographers. we found our people.
In the years that followed, great things happened. I could write a book about how the rise of YouTube and social media, advances in digital technology, the proliferation of new photographers, and more have combined to revolutionize professional photography. The most important thing about this article is that the way people learn has changed a lot in the last 14 years.
Most of what you want to know can be found online. How to replace the headlights on his 1996 Honda Civic or the best tripod for landscape photographers is just a few key presses 24 hours a day. Attend lighting and posing webinars, purchase photography business masterclasses, or sit in your favorite chair and be mentored by a renowned photographer. So, as I sit on this cramped flight to St. Louis, en route to her fourth and final conference of the year, I ask myself. what is the value? What is the point of photography competitions in the modern age?
Full disclosure, I am a speaker at nearly every conference I attend. That’s right, I get paid to go. Not only that, I usually sell something and make money off of it. You might say that’s what inspired me to write an article about how great meetings are, right? I make 10x more money from webinars and online classes than I could from my studio sitting at my desk.
Teaching at photo conferences is the worst return on investment in my business. When another photographer brings you the same numbers based solely on financial prospects, tell her to stop the meeting and focus on her business online. Yes, I make money at conferences, but no, that’s not all. So, putting it out there, I would like to make an argument both against and for photography competitions.
Reasons for not going to photo conferences
Let’s start with the reasons for not attending the meeting.
1. expensiveNo matter how much the registration fee is, or how many convention tricks you know to save money, going to a photography conference costs a lot of money. Not only are there all the obvious travel expenses, but being away from your own business for days at a time can cost a lot more than attending. I stayed at a travel lodge miles away from the convention center and fetched food from the convention center to save money (which I always shared). It’s easy to imagine that transportation costs can limit convention access to those who need it most.
2. Online education is great nowFrom Facebook support groups to YouTube tutorials, the amount of photography education available online is staggering. There is a lot of half-baked and bad information online, but hard-working students can eventually find good content published by quality educators. Content to help you navigate everything from gear to buy to how to retouch your portrait. Having on-demand access to just about anything you want to know is faster and more affordable than flying across the country, navigating meetings with thousands of photographers, and waiting in long lines for an expensive cup of coffee. It is reasonably priced and is desirable.
3. scaryEven moderately introverted people can have nightmares at large, crowded convention centers and hotels. 100,000 square feet of walking and talking meat bags all smiling, cuddling and breathing. Not ideal. Cruising YouTube from under a weighted blanket is so nice.
While that in itself is a pretty compelling reason not to attend a photography conference, it’s a false dichotomy to think you have to choose between online and face-to-face education. You don’t actually have to choose, do you? Different types of education serve in unique ways at different stages of development. If you’re a veteran like me, you may be learning the old-fashioned way, but you can still take advantage of the new and grow. You can learn and grow in new ways by attending live events with us.
why go to a photo conference
That said, if you have questions about the legitimacy of attending a live event, let me explain those reasons by telling you why I think they’re still important.
1. There are some things you can’t or can’t learn onlineBeing in the same room as a professional is very different from seeing them on screen. Yes, it’s a pretty obvious statement, but let me explain it. Online education is edited, curated and not always honest. It’s still kind of a magic show to see an instructor who has the chops to pull off a live tutorial while answering questions. Instead of leaving a comment and expecting someone to reply to you, the instructor can be in the room and speak to you on the spot. is not. Choosing the right event and instructor can change the game.
2. Business education is almost non-existent onlineHave you looked around the online photo education space and noticed something missing? There are some good reasons for that. Educators don’t really make that much money or aren’t open to sharing business secrets without getting paid.
How do I know? I’ll do it myself
Yes, if you want to know how I make money and what I do to keep making money, you have to pay. It makes no sense for me or anyone else in this field to openly share their money making secrets. Exceptions are: It’s a conference.
That is correct! Conferences like ImagingUSA, WPPI, Shutterfest, SWPP, Portrait Masters all have many classes dedicated to the photography business and how to become a better entrepreneur. Instructors like me often save their business education for paid coaching and face-to-face classes. Want someone to open a book and teach you how to make a living? Whether it’s an expensive online course or an expensive trip to a conference, you usually have to pay. I don’t think it’s wrong.
3. Instructors aren’t even the best educated at conferencesThis is the big one. He’s been attending most of the big conferences for 15 years, and I can safely say that he’s learned more at the bar than anywhere else. I’m talking about what in the corporate world is called a “hallway conversation.” Sitting for an hour over coffee with someone who works at Canon or sharing a mug of sangria with a 20-year veteran from the other side of the country is transformative. Just talking about the photographer and the shop gives me the most important kind of information for my daily life.
Ironically, that unwritten knowledge is also the type of information that no one dares to make a video about. Right down to discovering secrets, there are lots of small pieces of information that you collect when meeting people. Get candid reviews of the software and album companies he’s been using for 10 years in business. Find the most comfortable socks for your wedding day. The type of tape someone uses to make the collar of a dress stand up properly. It’s honestly shocking to learn from a real photographer who’s actually taking pictures just by sitting down and sharing. I don’t have this.
4. Photography can be a lonely business. Most of us work alone. Most “regular” job people have colleagues who share hallway conversations and exchange that unwritten knowledge. Facebook groups are great, Reddit has a lot of interesting ideas, and TikTok has tons of tips and tricks to learn in 10 second bursts, but it doesn’t help me as I don’t need people. My need for support from others who understand what I am going through at work is not met. There is a special way of relating to people who work in the same field.
It’s impossible to overstate the number of kind and generous photographers who shared their experiences with Julie and I and helped us out. Some of our dear friends in the industry are scattered across the country (and other countries). No matter what you’re working on, whatever you need, at any time of the day, you’ll have a colleague just on a Zoom call. When my father had a heart attack about eight years ago and the family was rushed to the hospital, we got married the next day. One phone call and she had her PPA affiliate photographer in the state covered. I met him at a conference.
There are other reasons as well. Get hands-on with the latest gear, trade show discounts, crazy style shoots, and big parties to make each one worthwhile. During his year there has been a healthy recovery in attendance figures for important photo conferences such as IUSA and WPPI. I think it was partly due to the lingering demand from the pandemic. People felt ready to go out and be with others after three years of keeping their distance. My hope is that this trend continues and we see another golden age of photographic conventions Because they’re expensive, they’re crazy, they’re a little gross, but without them I’m sure I wouldn’t have had a career or friends.
About the author: Gary Hughes is a commercial photographer based in Florida. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see more of his work on his website.