5 Tips to Getting the Most out of a Photography Conference

One of the best ways to rapidly improve your photography skills and broaden your photographic community is to attend a photography conference. But, if you’ve never been to a conference before, just the idea of going can be intimidating. The rewards are great though, so read on for five tips that will help you select the right photography conference for your needs plus get the absolute most out of it once you get there.

Tip #1: Know your goals

Before you plunk down your deposit, evaluate your own specific goals for attending the photography conference. First, think about what you want to learn when you are at the conference. Obviously, if you’re a wildlife photographer and the conference focuses solely on street photography, it’s probably not right for you. But, if the conference offers many different learning options, you’ll need to do some investigating before you decide whether or not to attend.

Photography Conference Tips - northern Nevada landscape

I’m primarily a wildlife and nature photographer so when I evaluate a conference, I look for courses that will support my goals. I want to become a better landscape photographer too so I look for classes that will help me do that as well. Canon 7D Mark II, 24-105 II @ 70mm, f/11, 1/400th, ISO 100, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

The instructors

Start by checking out the bios and websites of the instructors. Ask yourself if they are making images that inspire you. Do their images look like the images that you aspire to make yourself? Read their blogs and watch their videos too to get a good idea of whether their teaching style suits your learning style. If you find a few instructors that are simpatico, check out their courses at the conference.

Photography Conference Tips Instructors

I signed up for a Photoshop course at AdobeMax with Glyn Dewis but, since I didn’t know much about him, I looked up his website and read his About page first. Turns out he was an excellent instructor.

The course offerings

Now, review the course offerings. Is there content that you need to learn? Most photographers want to improve their existing skill set, whether that’s learning how to make better-exposed images or how to mask in Photoshop.

Does the conference offer courses at the right skill level for you? If you’re not sure, reach out to either the instructors or the conference organizers.

Photography Conference Tips - Course description

I use Lightroom and Photoshop in my work often so discovering how two different photographers use these tools felt like a course that would teach me a great deal. Plus, Julieanne Kost is my photography hero!

Learning new things

Learning new things is important too so look at courses that are completely out of the box for you.

If you’re a wildlife life photographer and you invest your time in a 90-minute course on street photography, you might be surprised at how that affects your work the next time you head out on an African safari. It can help you get “unstuck” if you’re mired in a creative rut.

After the class, you might even be inspired to continue learning street photography.

Photography Conference Tips - Schedule

When I attend a photography conference, my goal is to improve skills I already have but also to learn new things. At AdobeMax I did a bit of both, with courses on public speaking and Photoshop.

Tip #2: Networking

A huge reason to go to a photography conference is to expand your photography community. One thing I really love is that I can connect with people I’ve only ever met online. Meeting “live” at a conference is almost like a reunion. Of course, you can make new friends too, plus you can meet expert instructors in person.

Big conferences versus small ones

When you’re evaluating a conference, if networking is a big part of why you’re attending, definitely reach out to past conference attendees to gauge their experiences. At a 12,000-person conference like AdobeMax, it’s not as easy to hob knob and make new friends.

At a smaller, 400-person conference like Out of Chicago, making new friends is a snap. You’ll be in the same courses with the same people over and over. You’ll probably be best friends and be planning a photography trip together before the weekend even ends.

Photography Conference Tips - OOC community

The Out of Chicago Community page has over 1000 members. That makes it easy to reach out to people to ask if the conference would be a good fit for you. Most photography conferences have similar social media community pages.

Instructor accessibility

Likewise, at a huge conference, the instructors might not be so accessible for you to chat with, except at special times. And at those special times, since 12,000 people are waiting to speak with them, it will be a mob scene rather than a cozy tête-à-tête.

At a smaller conference, your instructors will probably be eating lunch right next to you. Bigger conferences draw bigger names though. So while you might not make as many personal one-on-one connections, it might be worth it if you’re going to learn from someone you hold in extremely high esteem.

Tip #3: Take advantage of every opportunity

In addition to seminars and hands-on courses, most photography conferences offer opening and closing keynote speeches. Big-name photographers or well-known industry experts usually give these talks. You might think of these things as “free” – just regular stuff included in your conference that everyone gets – but don’t  think that way.

Often the keynote speeches are the best parts of the conference. The opening keynote sets the stage for the week and lays out all of your opportunities for learning. The closing keynote caps the week with a review of what you did learn, and a reminder to go out and practice it.

Photography Conference Tips - Photowalk

AdobeMax didn’t offer any photo walks while I was there. So instead, I photographed the expo hall one morning while the light was amazing. Canon 5DIV, 24-105 II @ 31mm. 1/100, f/14, ISO 640, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

Photo Walks

Another great add-on is photo walks. They help combine learning and networking into one fun outing. As you can imagine though, these are more prevalent in smaller conferences than large ones. Herding 12,000 attendees with cameras around the Vegas Strip doesn’t typically make for very good picture-taking.

On the other hand, 400 attendees walking through the Chicago Loop is a drop in the bucket. If photo walks are important to you, check into smaller, regional conferences. Either way, don’t skip these if they’re offered at the conference you’re attending.

Vendors

Every conference has a vendor or exhibition area where you can check out the latest and greatest gear and technology. Make sure you plan time into your schedule to visit this area. I usually grab a quick lunch on the go and use the 90-minute lunch period checking out all the different booths.

Photography Conference Tips - Interactive

Just outside the AdobeMax vendor area, there were lots of interactive activities for creatives, like this “chalkboard.” Canon 5DIV, 24-105 II @ 24mm, f/6.3, 1/100th, ISO 640, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

At small conferences, you’re more likely to be able to rent a piece of gear for the day and test it out on a photo walk. Sometimes vendors offer discounts and even have product on hand that you can buy and take home with you.

At a large conference, you probably won’t be able to do more than review the gear at the vendor booth and talk to the rep. However, at a large conference, the vendor area often has a carnival-like feel to it, with interactive creative and technology exhibits set up to draw you in.

Tip #4: Conference bonuses

There will almost always be a party and often that party will include free food, drinks, and entertainment so go! It’s a bonus. Don’t skip it. Remember, if you’re goal is to network, the party is where you’ll meet fellow photographers and instructors.

Bring your camera

Photography Conference - Party

While night-time concert photography isn’t even remotely one of my fortes, I had a blast photographing this band at the AdobeMax Bash. Canon 5DIV, 24-105 II @ 105mm, f/5, 1/320th, ISO 8000, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

That party – and probably a good bit of the conference – will be a blast to photograph so bring your camera. A lot of people won’t. Some people will bring them, but will never take them out of their camera bags. You, on the other hand, should keep your camera in hand and happily shoot away.

Even if you’re a wildlife photographer, and the images won’t go into your portfolio, making images of the conference will help you solidify everything you’ve learned over the course of the weekend.

Photograpjy Conference Tips - dragon's breath

Serving up dragon’s breath dessert at the Adobe Max Bash. Canon 5DIV, 24-105 II @ 24mm, f/4.5, 1/320th, ISO 10,000, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

Swag

Hopefully, it doesn’t surprise you that you will get swag (free stuff!) at a photography conference. There might be a raffle or contest where you can win big door prizes – like lenses, tablets, and cameras. There will surely be a bag of goodies handed to you when you check in.

Most often you’ll get a reusable bag containing a sample pack of printer paper, a tee shirt, stickers, magnets, lens cleaning cloths, candy, water bottles, and lots of flyers. Now I know it’s tempting to just pitch most of it but before you do, review it all. There will be coupons and promo codes and it’s possible that there might be one for 20% off the business cards you always order or a BOGO (buy one get one) for your favorite ink or fine art paper.

Photography Conference Tips - Swag

A notebook and pen, courtesy of Adobe, in my AdobeMax swag bag.

Tip #5: Maximizing your trip

This is pretty much my favorite part of going to a photography conference. Most of them are only three or four days but there’s no rule that you can’t play hooky from work a bit longer. I recommend that you pick a conference near a cool destination. After the conference ends, stay in the area a few more days and put everything you learned to practice.

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

Photography Conference Tips - wild horses

Wild mare and foal in the Onaqui Mountains in Utah. Canon 5DIV, 100-400 II @ 400mm, f/10, 1/60th, ISO 200, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

After the AdobeMax conference in Vegas this past October, I headed off on a week-long wild horse photography road trip. I drove through Nevada, all the way to Utah, meeting half a dozen friends along the way, and flew home from Salt Lake City.

No surprise that for me that maximizing the conference was about heading off to photograph wild horses! For you, it might be photographing the Vegas Strip at night, or creating panoramas of the nearby Grand Canyon.

Which photography conferences are your favorites?

While AdobeMax was pretty amazing, my favorite is still the Out of Chicago Summer Conference. Of course, I’m biased since the conference is run by some of my good friends.

Photography Conference Tips - Chicago

Chicago has so much beautiful architecture, it’s perfect for magical photo walks. Canon 5DIII with 24-105 @ 24mm, f/8, 1/125th, ISO 250, handheld, stylized in Lightroom.

Which photography conferences are your favorites? Please take a minute and list the conference name in the comment section, and why you recommend it so that other photographers can benefit from your experience.

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