I spent Tuesday of this week at a Scott Kelby seminar in Sacramento. For $99, I was one of some 500 photographers who spent the day elbow-to-elbow in a large conference room, watching a presentation on Lightroom 4 by Matt Kloskowski.
There is no doubt about it: the presentation was excellent. And well it should be - Kloskowski has given the seminar dozens of times. He is a terrific and entertaining presenter, fine photographer and fully knowledgeable about Lightroom. And yet, something about the day made me uneasy.
Let's put it like this: while Scott Kelby's books were among the first I bought when I got serious about photography, and I've watched many of his online tutorials, the seminar was the first time it dawned on me that the affable Mr. Kelby is more than a helpful photographer. He is the head of an immensely successful enterprise which offers books, DVDs, seminars, conferences, services, the works. His surrogates offer highly-attended seminars on a variety of photographic topics all around the nation.
At this seminar, along with the instruction on Lightroom, there was an ongoing undercurrent of sell - for $99, join his organization, NAPP, for ongoing access to seminars, tutorials and insider info. Buy the latest books and DVDs. Become, in short, a member of the Kelby universe and stay on top of everything you need to know to be a fine photographer.
I do not mean this as a criticism of Kelby. I am a capitalist! He is the most successful in this realm, but he is not alone. Photographers have become a lucrative target for a mega industry of seminars, software, equipment and travel.
Today's top professional photographers have recognized there is real revenue to be made from - and let's not mince words here - people like me who are, at least for now, photographer wannabes.
I've been a part of this for a couple of years now, but something about this seminar, perhaps its scale and slickness, stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly realized I was there in two capacities. As a student, and as meat for the machine.
There is no question that excellence in photography requires on-going learning. We need to understand the artistic elements, such as composition and subject, and technical subjects, including the operation of complex cameras, editing software and printing. There's a lot to know, and there is ongoing change.
But what has struck me is that there is a mega industry out there with the hidden agenda of convincing us all that the learning never ends, that there is a depth of knowledge we can never achieve. And so we must go on photographer-led trips, buy new software, take classes to learn how to use it, and seek feedback on further improvement. Not to do so is to risk failure.
All of this is true to a degree, but each of us must step back and ask to what degree it is true for us as unique individuals.
Take the software. There's Photomatix, Topaz, Nik and many more, all offering amazing enhancement opportunities. There is an implication that any good photographer is capable in all of these, but I am growing less certain about that. Ultra-enhanced images appear in marketing presentations, online "wow-me" galleries, and photography club competitions. Where else? I am not sure. But I'm suddenly aware that this is an important question.
I certainly have a lot of learning ahead of me. I do it best in smaller seminars offered by groups like Sacramento's Viewpoint Gallery or through photographers like Terry Nathan whose work and teaching style I admire. I am thinking more carefully about my own goals. Is it to be part of a group? To share images with friends or online? To do fine art? Editorial work? Stock?
My own clear understanding of these questions will help me interact effectively with the big machine out there whose business is to foster a society of photographers who yearn to learn. That machine can definitely offer value, but for those who wish to become something more than photographic acolytes, it must be managed with care.
I left the seminar to take rainy night photos of one of the area's most-holiday-decorated homes. Back behind the lens of my camera, I felt more at ease than I had all day.