5 Ways to a Better Photography Education with Leonardo Volturo
Congratulations: If you’re reading this, you’re on the right track. Photography is more than just taking pictures and investing in the never-ending flow of gear. If you want success, the most important thing to invest your time and eventually money into is education. As Ben Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”—and this month, I want to drop some knowledge on you and give you some insight and tips for maximizing your photography educational opportunities.
Before we dive in, here’s some of my history, which will show you how I got to where I am today.
I actually got my start in the wedding industry almost 20 years ago, around the age of 12 or 13. It began with an interest in music and a family friend who had a DJ company in Brooklyn. I worked my first wedding at 13. Over the years, I worked hundreds of events and learned the ins and outs of the industry, along with regular nightclub gigs and some radio work. In 2002, I relocated to South Florida and spent a couple of years getting involved in the industry down there before launching my first company in 2004, when I was 21. We started off offering DJ, production services and videography, having partnered with other local professionals. Not too far down the line, we started offering photography and brought on several shooters to become a full-service event company. I was deejaying and handling sales and service. It wasn’t until years later, in 2012, when I first picked up a camera.
If you ask my wife, the story goes like this: “One day, he picked my camera up off the bed and said, ‘How do you use this thing?’ I showed him a couple of things, and the next day, he was teaching me stuff.”
My wife, Melissa, had been shooting for years when we got together at the end of 2011. Up until that point, I had only been selling. My interest was piqued. I love everything tech and I love learning, especially learning things that are difficult. When I get into something, I devour it. So after that day of simply picking up a camera, my journey began.
Here are a few tips for finding your own way in photo education.
There are endless education opportunities online, from free YouTube tutorials to subscription-based sites, live courses and on-demand education covering all facets of photography. My first stop was to Lynda.com, a subscription site with on-demand courses. I started with their Foundations of Photography courses, covering exposure, composition and the different types of lenses. I also found some Lightroom and Photoshop classes to start understanding processing and workflow.
The next site we discovered was CreativeLive, where the first course I ever saw was Sal’s High School Senior Photography, in the summer of 2012. Seeing that class brought us into Sal’s world and led us to his workshops—and to where we are today. CreativeLive is a strong resource with live and on-demand courses featuring some of the top educators in the industry. It’s definitely worth staying on top of their schedule for the free live courses, which you can purchase for anytime viewing.
If you’re reading this, then you obviously know about BehindTheShutter.com and Shutter Mag, the leading educational magazine in the industry. Stick with us, and you’ll have a great resource featuring top educators across all styles of photography.
Lastly, don’t forget about Facebook groups. Some are a nightmare-filled, with trolls and complainers, but there are some solid groups out there where you can get some quick tips and inspiration. They include In Person Sales for the Professional Photographer, which is great for learning about IPS, and The Shredder, which is good if you’re not afraid of getting your images critiqued. And of course the ShutterFest community is incredibly knowledgeable and giving.
These are all great options for the burgeoning photographer that provide a minimal or free barrier of entry.
Finding a great workshop is an art in itself. There are so many out there for varying levels of experience. Workshop costs range from very inexpensive into the thousands of dollars, and from local to exotic destinations around the world. The main thing you need to do here is evaluate your needs. You won’t find many one-size-fits-all workshops. Don’t just sign up because of the name associated with them. Dig into everything being offered in the class. Does it make sense for your business and style? Read reviews from previous attendees. Just because Lebron James puts on a basketball camp doesn’t mean it’s a great one.
These can be significant investments. When you walk away implementing new ideas and processes, you want to have confidence that you’re going to see a return on your investment.
The biggest mistakes I see from workshop and conference attendees is:
- They’re not even paying attention to the teacher, and end up standing around talking. This can happen in a large group or if the teacher doesn’t have solid command and direction.
- Students go home and don’t practice or implement what they’ve learned, essentially throwing away the entire experience and money they’ve spent.
- They showcase the images they shot in class in their portfolio without being able to reproduce that level of work on their own.
- Attendees are wallflowers who don’t make the most out of the workshop.
Get in there, get involved, don’t be afraid to mess up—and, when you get home, keep up with everything you just learned.
Conferences & Organizations
ShutterFest, WPPI, Imaging USA, PhotoPlus, PPA—there are quite a few photography conferences, trade shows and organizations providing high-quality education and support services, and they all have their own unique and appealing features. It’s hard to choose between them. Conferences last up to a week and feature a host of classes covering all aspects of shooting and the business of photography. At trade shows, you can check out new gear and products. There’s a wealth of information available at these events, and, with the right game plan, you can walk away with some great skills, friends and connections.
ShutterFest is the new kid on the block. It’s heading into its third event at the end of March. Sal made a lot of waves when he launched his conference. It was more intimate, very hands on and free. ShutterFest has grown immensely in a short time. It includes a full trade show and the brilliantly named Rent-a-Human program, which gives attendees free access to models, wardrobe, and hair and makeup. There are shooting bays for working with the latest in Profoto gear, nightly parties and instructors who are always available and who put in extra time with attendees outside of their scheduled classes.
WPPI is another great experience. Head out to Las Vegas for a huge trade show, a week of classes, parties and around 15,000 of your photography friends.
I always made it a point in classes to be up front and involved. Aside from getting the most out of the class, it also helps for networking and making connections with the instructors. I’ve built several great relationships by doing just that. It helped greatly in finding a couple of mentors. That is the best advice I can give you.
If you’re attending any of these conferences, I recommend spending some time in the image competition judging rooms. There you’ll see work from your peers and some of the greats dissected and scored. You’ll learn what makes a technically great image. I also suggest you enter some of your own images to get that feedback and maybe even an award or two.
Finding a Mentor
Finding a mentor has been the most crucial and best part of my journey in photography. I have been very fortunate in the last few years to learn from and work side by side with some of the most talented artists and businesspeople in the industry.
Two people who have been very influential and supportive in my career are Sal Cincotta and Michael Corsentino. Like I said earlier, I first saw Sal on CreativeLive in 2012. What spoke to me immediately was his teaching style and no-nonsense Brooklyn-Italian attitude (yes, that is a thing). Being from the same neighborhood with the same background, I was easily able to relate, and I knew this was someone I wanted to learn more from.
Sal was also on tour that year, and was coming to my area soon after I saw that course. My wife and I (we weren’t married yet) purchased tickets to the two-day course. I told Melissa I was going to walk right in there, sit in the front row and be in his face the whole time, getting as much out of the classes as I could. We learned so much in just those two days. We started implementing what we learned immediately, and continued to follow Sal and his teaching.
Melissa and I were able to build a relationship with Sal and Co. over time—emailing, going to workshops, one-on-one coaching. We became friends, and Sal’s team even shot our wedding. Ultimately, in an incredible turn of events, we relocated to work with them. This is not a template for working for Sal (so don’t go sending emails), but more about me seeing someone I could connect with to better myself, and that person offering his knowledge and support for the betterment of not just me but the community.
I was able to connect with Sal and Michael in the exact way I said you guys need to attend workshops and conferences: by putting yourself out there, interacting, networking.
At the first ShutterFest, I took one of Corsentino’s classes and got myself front and center to be involved with as much as I could. I ended up being called on to assist for the rest of the class. After class, I found that he was from Brooklyn but living closer to me, in Florida. We chatted awhile, and eventually met up back home and began working on projects together. Corsentino has been a great asset in helping me cultivate and grow my lighting skills, and someone I reached out to about writing after I was asked to write for this magazine.
Having forged relationships with two great educators, I was able to grow my business and skillset in every direction. Going through all this has also better equipped me as a writer, speaker and future mentor to others.
The information is out there. There are so many great avenues for education, and I’ve touched on just a few. I hope you’ll take this information and make the most out of your opportunities. Remember, education is not just about photography and learning how to make great images. For my fifth tip, check out the video.