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Photography conferences provide a great common ground for both novices and professionals alike. From tips and tricks to the latest gear, there’s always something more to learn regardless of what stage you’re at in this industry – and a conference can be a great learning environment. Here’s a few ways to take full advantage of what the experience has to offer:
Which conference is right for you?
First and foremost, you have to decide why you want to go to a conference and what you hope to get out of it. Figure out what your objectives for going are – this will ultimately help you shape not only your initial selection, but your overall experience. Do you want to attend a conference simply to meet new people and network? Are you more interested in seeing the latest gadgets and product demos? Or, do you prefer gaining technical knowledge through interactive workshops? The answers to these questions will help you narrow your search for your perfect conference.
If you aren’t quite sure what your objectives are, or where to begin your search in the first place, it might be worthwhile to check out some of the biggest annual conventions in North America:
- Imaging USA Expo + Tradeshow
- Photoshop World Conference + Expo
- PDN PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo
- The WPPI Expo + Tradeshow
However, bigger isn’t always better. There are a number of well-respected smaller conferences that can provide a more intimate peer-oriented environment in which to learn and grow your skills as a photographer – PHOOT Camp is a great example of this.
How to connect in advance
Nowadays, keeping up with the latest industry news is as easy as searching for which hashtag is currently trending – so use this accessible technology to your advantage. Twitter is a great resource not only for seeking out the latest buzz, but also for breaking the ice: it can be really beneficial to reach out to both conference attendees as well as speakers before the conference officially gets underway. Not only does this help you decide what conference you actually want to attend (by gaining some insight as to who the speakers/workshop leaders are and what they have to offer), but it also helps you reach out to fellow photographers. It can be intimidating to attend a conference alone, especially if you never have before, so initiating conversation ahead of time can help you meet up with some likeminded individuals during your conference stay.
The key to making the most of any conference is to plan ahead. Most conferences/conventions take place over the span of several days, and with so much available to see and do every day, it’s important to schedule your time accordingly – but even more important is the ability to allow yourself to break away from that schedule if you need or want to. All of your time is valuable, so spend it doing only things that you find value in. Allow yourself to explore and experiment as the opportunity arises – for instance, if you decide that grabbing coffee with another photographer to continue your chat about an earlier lecture is more important than attending a workshop, don’t feel guilty going with the flow.
A great insider tip for planning your conference itinerary is to always plan two events for every time slot. That way, if a lecture ends up being cancelled, or a workshop is filled, you haven’t wasted your time and efforts – you can simply move on to your next option without having to think twice. Here are some other pro tips to keep in mind:
- Bring something that you’ll be comfortable taking notes with – this could be a notebook, a tablet, or even your smartphone. Remember that you’ll have a full day ahead of you from the time it starts, so consider an option that is both easy to use as well as transport.
- Don’t be afraid to hand out your business cards – you’ll inevitably trade information with a lot of people over the course of a few days, so save your time and theirs by avoiding having to routinely spell out your email.
- Pack only a basic body and lens if you must bring something beyond a point and shoot – unless you were hired to cover the conference, or a workshop specifically requests otherwise, there won’t be much that you’ll need to be personally photographing (and you’ll have to carry it around all day).
At the conference
You’re spending both time and money to attend this conference, so try to get the most from it that you can. Consider stepping outside your comfort zones to try something new in an environment that you aren’t often in – one that facilitates experimentation with industry professionals.
Remember that this can become an opportunity to invest in your future and learn something long-term, whether that’s as a professional photographer or as a passionate hobbyist. Now is the time to try attending sessions by speakers beyond your field or realm of expertise – feel free explore these resources while they’re available at your disposal. Often, the overwhelming decision may be to attend talks about topics you already know and love – but, keep it mind, most large conferences attract photographers from every experience level – if you stick solely to what you are already familiar with, you may encounter a form of information regurgitation and overlap.
It’s also key to engage with the information being presented to you – either actively through dialogue and discussion (either one-on-one with others or within the small panel forum), or simply by writing it down and reflecting about how you can use it to your advantage. At the end of each talk, your notebook (or wherever you’ve been recording your thoughts) will probably be covered in various notes and quotes. Sift through these notes to what the point of the talk was actually about, and how you can apply it to your own work – not everything you write down will be a worthwhile takeaway. It might have been really important that the talk you attended was about proper studio lighting for photographing pets, but you’re really only interested in learning how to grow your business, the former info might not be pertinent at all.
As one of the biggest draws of a conference is the potential to network, so get involved as much as you can. Panel talks and small group workshops, and even just meals with peers, are often just as beneficial (if not more so) than simply attending and listening to guest lectures. Everyone you come into contact with, and engage with, is a source of insight and a wealth of knowledge – after all, they’re the individuals who make up the industry of which you are a part.
The business behind business cards
Because exchange of personal/professional information is inevitable (and highly encouraged), make this exchange as quick and painless as possible by making full use of your business cards and others’. Here’s a few pro tips on how to make these business cards work even harder for you:
In addition to their name and how they can be reached, use their business card for keeping track of more personal (and useful) details through quick jotnotes – like what conference you met at, what you spoke about, and what you intend to do with this contact.
Apps like Evernote or CardMunch are another really useful way to organize your received cards – simply take a photo within the app, then attach relevant tags and comments for easy searching at a later date.
That being said, don’t feel obligated to follow up with everyone you meet. Not everyone you meet will want to follow up with you either – but for those you do wish to stay in touch with, make sure you have a real reason to do so. Ask about an upcoming project, or plan to meet up to discuss X topic further – anything beyond simply stating “Hi, let’s stay in touch!” that can be mutually beneficial.
It’s helpful to physically sort your business cards at the end of the conference. In one pile, place all your immediate professional prospects – or rather, people you should contact sooner rather than later. In another pile, place all the cards that you might not have immediate use for, and use your best judgement in deciding whether or not they will ever be of value to you. Next, actually follow up with them, in a manner that makes the most sense – this could be via Twitter, adding them to LinkedIn, or email. Do whatever you need to do to keep the dialogue open in order to achieve the goal you had in mind for contacting them in the first place.
The takeaway – and how to make it work
Although the conference may end with the closing speaker on the very last day, the experience itself does not. You are now required to actually do something with all of the information you’ve learned and contacts you’ve accrued – how can you make these work for you personally and professionally?
The wealth of knowledge, insight, and inevitable killer freebies makes any photo conference an unprecedented experience – so make the most of it that you can. Take the time to ask questions, make mistakes, and utilize every resource available to you. Most importantly, remember to have fun and keep an open mind. Take this as an opportunity to broaden your horizons about something you truly love.