Tips for attending a photography conference

Being a professional photographer is like climbing a mountain that has no actual peak.  In this career you are always continually learning or you are falling behind.  Attending workshops and conferences has been key to my own personal growth in so many ways.  These events help me meet other photographers (and let’s face it, spending a lot of time at a computer with this job can get very lonely at times)!  Most conferences are tied to a particular photography organization and the reputable organizations provide designations and certifications you can work towards.  Attending conferences and seeking out other continuing education events is often a part of the program for accomplishing these milestones.  I found once I set a goal to get my Master Portrait Photographer designation through the Professional Photographer’s of America (PPA), attending every year contributed service merits I required for that as well as education that helped me in print competition to get those print merits!  I am proud to say that this year at Imaging USA in Nashville I will be receiving that designation and it is an absolute honour.

This year will be my 5th time attending Imaging USA and I have attended other photography workshops and conferences over the past 10 years or so as well.   I wanted to help some of you out who may not have attended before with my best tips for getting the most out of your experience:

  1. Bring a friend!
    Things are always much more fun with a buddy and for many conferences buddy passes are offered.  They make the passes more affordable and you can also possibly share a room which keeps your costs down as well!  If you don’t know someone well enough to ask them to go with you, then be sure to MAKE FRIENDS when you get there!  Attend the various parties and events these conferences set up and don’t be shy, it’s easy to strike up a conversation since everyone is there for the same thing so you already have your love for photography in common!This photo was taken at one of Scott Robert Lim’s International workshops.  I still talk to all of these photographers from time to time and one of them (Gurm Sohal) is local to me so we shoot together from time to time too!
  2. LEAVE your camera behind!
    Some photographers may disagree with me on this one but unless you are taking an intensive pre-con class or interactive course, you don’t want to be hauling around those extra pounds of photography gear.  At least I don’t!  I usually bring my second body and 2 lenses and most days leave them in my room (which is why this post is filled with only my instagram iphone photos haha)!  There is a LOT of walking at these conferences.  You need to walk back and forth to your room, all over the tradeshow floor, to various meet ups with friends for meals etc.  Trust me, you do NOT want to be carrying all that gear just for the odd photo here and there.  ALSO, there are often great deals at the trade shows so if you stuff your gear bag, how are you going to get it all home safely?? *wink wink*This image was one of those rare times I DID bring all my gear (the first year I attended actually) and it was only for a situation like this where we had a small group class that involved learning some off camera flash techniques that required a camera
  3. Write out your schedule before you go
    Writing out a schedule before you leave of speakers you want to see and events you want to attend will help keep you (mostly) on track once you arrive at the conference.  If you don’t do this before you leave, it can be very overwhelming since many classes run concurrently and some of your friends may be telling you to see one speaker and other friends a different speaker.  If you do your research on all the speakers in advance and know what you need for your business and your own development you won’t feel pressured to decide which to see on the spot.
  4. Allow time for rest
    These conferences are often multiple days in a row.  It’s okay to either briefly attend an event and then duck out to work out, watch Netflix, soak in a bath, read a magazine, or whatever helps you relax and rest your brain.  There is a lot of information to take in and sort through so if you don’t take some breaks from the crazy schedule you will burn out very quickly and not absorb as much the next day.  It can be VERY tempting to skip classes (particularly those early riser ones!), but it’s important to remember how much money you spent to be there and learning.  Socializing is awesome and a huge part of the benefit on the whole, just make sure you keep the balance there.  I have also seen a lot of others run ragged and returning home very sick because they didn’t do this.  I am an introvert and very much value so this one isn’t so hard for me and I’m able to get home refreshed and re-energized ready to spit out all that information I gathered into my business plan for the coming year.
  5. Hand sanitizer!
    Speaking of returning home sick…you cannot have enough hand sanitizer with you.  While I now photograph mostly pets, I still do newborns regularly and so getting sick can be catastrophic for my business when I need a lot of downtime and can’t work with babies.  So don’t forget that hand sanitizer (and probably multiple bottles of it).  You will be meeting and greeting a lot of new people if you’re doing it right and that means a lot of hand shaking and germ sharing haha!  This one may just be for the germaphobes like myself but I’m including it here anyways!
  6. Take notes!
    Taking notes is a great way to help yourself retain information.  Every year I see many people take photos of slideshows on their tablet or phone.  Maybe for some people this is effective, but for me I know that photo would get lost in the SEA of other photos I have on my camera never to be seen again.  I like to use old fashioned pencil and paper and write it all out.  I actually spend some of that R&R time I talked about above to type these notes into my iPad or laptop at the end of the day which also helps it all stick in my brain.
  7. Use those senses
    Plan your trade show route ahead of time just as you do your class schedule.  Make sure you visit all of your current vendors, introduce yourself and ask what is new with their company.  Visit vendors you have been interested in using and do the same thing with them; introduce yourself and find out what they have that is new and different.  Take this opportunity to touch, feel and see the products up close (I’d take a hard pass on the smell and taste senses in this particular case, but hey…I’ll leave that up to you haha)!
  8. Get involved
    If you are not a member of the organization putting on the conference, set aside some time to ask questions.  Find out if they offer designations, certifications and competitions to help you grow and measure your success.  Gather up as much information and talk to other members attending to find out what they feel they gain from being a member.  I find you get out of these types of organizations what you put into them so if it feels right then get yourself signed up as a member and be ready to get (and stay) involved!  I find attending is so much more fun when you’re attending the awards and degree ceremony cheering on colleagues you collaborated with through the process and watching your friends succeed.     
    The photo on the left was me at my first ever Imaging USA in 2010.  I’m the one licking my friend’s face (don’t ask hahaha)!  I remember vividly standing in front of that sign and watching all the formally dressed photographers walking in.  I was just wishing I could one day be good enough to be among them.

    The photo on the right was me and my hubby (clearly we are both very silly haha)!  We were all ready for the Award and Degree ceremony in San Antonio this year where I was receiving Silver Photographer of the Year AND was nominated for the Grand Imaging Award in the pets category (I came 4th for the record).  This shows that with some determination and continual growth, these conferences help people reach their dreams.

  9. Be a tourist
    Don’t forget to tack a day or more on to your trip so you can be a tourist in the city the conference is being held in.  Conference days are jam packed with classes and events, so it’s a good idea to add some time so you can pull out that DSLR and wander the city to enjoy the food and energy of the city you are visiting.
  10. Follow up
    Lastly, make sure you don’t cave to the exhaustion you will be facing when you get home.  Keep the momentum going by creating yourself a “to do” list of your top 5 goals you came away with and take one step towards setting the wheels in motion for the first goal right away.  Use it or lose it is very true so if you don’t put the information you gathered to use right away it will be lost information that you paid a lot for.

Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or if you have suggestions for attendees I didn’t include, feel free to add those in the comments below as well!  If you are organizing an event or want a great space to search for upcoming conferences and events check out Eventbrite’s website!

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