It’s time for a new plan.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, photographers1 who wanted to connect and learn had a couple broad options on their plate. One option was in-person events with activities such as informal meetup groups or more formal, professional organization affiliates such as PPA or ASMP chapters at the state or local level. The other option was participation with online education and activities. This could be YouTube, CreativeLive, KelbyOne, Facebook groups, or similar sources.
Some folks preferred to learn and network in face-to-face situations. Others were able to find a lot of value online and chose that as their default. Many folks, myself included, had a photography sphere with a mixture of the two. I was both active in leadership roles with organizations that held meatspace events, but also spent a lot of time in the online space whether that was with photography-centric social media, learning from online video, or participation in written ventures.
Over the last two years with the COVID pandemic situation, most groups which previously focused on in-person activities have adapted their programming somewhat to be able to continue in an online fashion. Some of those groups did the bare minimum to have some clunky online programs, while others put a bit more effort into the quality of their online efforts and helped their members find success with a new format. We’re now at a point where some of those groups have returned to face-to-face gatherings, others are planning to do so but haven’t yet made the switch, and some are trying to figure out what sort of hybrid solutions might work for them.
While each group will make their own choices, I want to explore this a bit as someone who was a longtime board member and two-time past President of the Oregon Professional Photographers Association, a group who previously would use the fact they had face to face gatherings and education with local photographers as a selling point to distinguish ourselves from some online ventures. What should a previously-offline group, where the fact they were “live and in person” was a key feature of that group, do?
Online vs. In-Person Events for Photographers
Anyone who tries to tell you that online vs. offline is a clearcut better-vs-worse situation isn’t looking at the full picture.
Face to face events have the benefit of attendees being able to make direct personal connections. We have the full ability to see body language and other cues that aren’t always reflected with internet communication. Hands-on opportunities exist for photographers, and there are some topics (such as posing, or the nuances of slight lighting changes) that lend themselves well to an offline experience. Although one can add a social component to online events, it’s pretty hard to replicate the interactions that occur when a group of folks sit around a table for a shared meal, or converse while enjoying a beverage at an after-hours gathering.
Online events and education have the primary advantage of being location-independent. Organizers don’t need to book a physical venue, nobody has to worry about traffic or parking logistics, and the event is equally available to someone in the organizer’s city, state, country, or even around the world. In addition to attendees being able to be location-agnostic, virtual events also have an advantage in being able to more easily attract speakers from outside their local area. In 2020 I presented at events in Connecticut, Texas, Louisiana, and four “locations” in California… all without leaving my office. The organizers of those events didn’t need to cover travel expenses to have me speak, lowering the potential cost for the attendees.
The Future of Photography Events
The world has changed, and the experiences of the last few years have left an impact on everyone’s view of various event scenarios.
While some may wish that we could simply just hit a “reset” button and go back to doing things exactly as we did in late 2019, this won’t be a formula for success, even for groups that were mostly or exclusively in-person prior to COVID. Folks have had a taste of the advantages of online events, and while I certainly am not suggesting that everything should be online, I would suggest that every group ought to likely have some programming offered in an online fashion. That could be online-only events, or it could be in-person events with a hybrid or streaming component. Maybe some events would be in-person due to the nature of the material, while others might be online for the same reasons.
I can easily teach the business of event photography online (and have done so recently). I can’t easily teach hands-on event photography examples through Zoom.
The duration of an event, workshop, or competition can be another factor. For activities less than a couple hours, I don’t know that there’s a significant difference in attendee or speaker experiences. As we look at longer programs (I routinely conduct half-day or full-day workshops), a face-to-face environment seems to make it easier both for attendees to remain engaged with the presenter, and for presenters to get a better read on the audience and be able to adapt or respond to nonverbal feedback.
I have several upcoming speaking engagements planned for this year; some are in-person and some are virtual.
It’s a time for geographically-focused groups who previously focused on in-person events to rethink what that means and realize that everyone (from businesses to consumers to photographers) has collectively realized that a lot more is possible in an online or remote format than was previously happening. At the same time, other events are best experienced in-person, but that shouldn’t be the go-to plan for everything.
- While this article is in the context of photographers and photography-focused groups, it also applies to any number of other organizations whether they be hobby, professional, religious, or any number of other affiliations. ↩