Your Complete Photo Conference Guide, Tips for First Timers
If you stick with photography, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself at a photography conference. They provide valuable industry experience, and generally act as a common ground for novice and professionals alike. No matter what stage you are in your career, there’s always something more to learn.
Choosing Your Conference
To decide what conference you want to invest your time and money into, you need to know what you want to get out of the experience. Make clear goals of what you hope to achieve. For example:
- Meet new professionals in your field (networking)
- Acquire industry-related insights + business tips
- Grow your brand
- Scout for new talent
While each conference is similar — each will typically feature guest speakers/lecturers in addition to small group sessions and live demos, every conference has a different purpose and theme. An easy place to start is with the biggest annual conferences. Here’s a few to keep on your radar:
- The WPPI Expo + Tradeshow: A premier conference and tradeshow for wedding and portrait photographers, which features seminars, networking events, and product + business solutions from major distributors.
- Imaging USA Expo + Tradeshow: One of the largest photography exhibits in North America which showcases product demos, key note speakers, and technical workshops.
- PDN PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo: The largest photography + imaging show in North America, with over 220 exhibits, conference seminars, keynote speakers, and thousands of new products from major manufacturers.
- Photoshop World Conference + Expo: A technical-based conference that focuses on Photoshop-, photography-, and lighting-training to help improve your work.
If big events with thousands of people aren’t your thing, no need to worry. More and more blended retreat/conferences are springing up to deliver smaller, more interactive and meaningful experiences. Here’s a couple that have been making headlines lately:
- What If Conference: A photographer + “artist-preneur” conference that brings together speakers and attendees from a variety of fields to inspire and innovate within a group dynamic.
- Adventure Always: A 2.5 day creative retreat for artists from all disciplines to explore and create more meaningful work in an environment of like-minded individuals.
- Field Trip: A 4 day and 3 night photo “field trip” of crazy fun and hands-on-learning created for those who want to grow their business, expand their unique voice, connect with the community, and explore the new frontier of photography and image creation.
Making A Plan (Ahead of Time)
Once you determine what your objective is and what conference you’d like to attend, consider reaching out to fellow attendees before hand through various social networks. Twitter is a great platform for initiating casual no-pressure conversations with both conference goers and speakers. Not only will you be able to scope out potential networking connections, but if you’re attending the conference solo, reaching out to others ahead of time is a good way to break the ice if you’re tentative about doing so in person. Nowadays, finding out the buzz about a conference is as easy as searching for a hashtag, so make plans to meet up either by attending the same sessions/talks together, or afterwards during your downtime. While lectures are undoubtedly informative, nothing promotes innovation like creating a dialogue between a group of likeminded individuals.
Planning how to spend your time at the conference is key, but don’t feel obligated to schedule every single moment of your day — make a schedule, but don’t miss out on any other opportunities by only sticking to your schedule. Your time is valuable; what you determine to be a worthwhile way to spend your time is entirely up to you. Conference organizers usually provide you with a downloadable/printable agenda, and as of more late, a free conference-specific event-planner app. When planning out your day(s), try to pick at least two events/options for any given time slot. If one event gets cancelled, or simply doesn’t captivate your interest, you’ll have another option to fall back on.
Last but not least, when packing for the conference, be sure to include the essentials:
- your camera (obviously), but one that you’ll be comfortable carrying all day
- a notebook or tablet, or in a pinch, your phone – something that you feel confident in using to jot down notes with
- business cards – allow yourself to get over the fear of seeming too pushy by offering up a business card, because it’s a great way to save both parties’ time by not having to write down the same information repeatedly.
During The Conference
Remember what you get out of the experience will be determined largely by what you put into it. For the talks themselves, consider stepping out of your comfort zone. If you go to a session where the speaker is an expert in your area of speciality, you may end up getting bored by the regurgitation of information that you’re also familiar with. Instead, choose sessions that are either above your current skill level, or within a different realm completely. Go for the long term investment instead of settling for short term hype.
At the end of each talk, your notebook will probably be covered in various notes, quotes, and observations — but are they all useful? Boil each talk or session down to one key point. If you can’t figure out what this key point is, you either didn’t pay enough attention or it’s not that important to you — these notes can be omitted from your final conference takeaway. This “sorting” method is particularly useful for targeting the useful information in an anecdotal case study. The details of what the photographer did on his or her latest trip probably won’t be one hundred percent relevant to you, so look for the bigger picture amidst the highly specific.
Because networking opportunities are one of the driving forces of a conference, make sure to get involved as much as possible. In addition to sessions/talks, conferences also typically host panel discussions, workshops, and tutorials – feel free to participate and interact, and ask questions. But don’t feel limited to just asking the “experts” – everyone around you is also a valuable source of industry information and insight. After all, they are who make up the industry. That being said, remember that everyone in attendance is in the same position as yourself, and they too all want to meet new people, so don’t feel too intimidated to initiate conversation.
The exchange of personal/professional information will occur at some point in every conversation during the span of the conference, which is where your business cards will come in handy. It’s important, however, to actually do something with the business cards you’ve acquired – or else you’ll have a stack of business cards without much to show from it.
- One tip that conference-regulars swear by is making quick jot notes on the back of a business card at the end of the conversation, or for the more technologically-inclined, simply take a photo of the business card and attach notes to it in the organizational-app or word-processor of your choice (such as Evernote), and add relevant tags and comments.
- Include key points such as how you met the person, what you talked about, and what you intend to do with this person’s contact information. This action could be as small as “follow up to see how their project is going”, or something that could directly affect your company/brand, like “meet with them to go over business strategies for 2014”.
- Don’t feel obligated to follow up with everyone you meet, but for those that you wish to contact at a later time, make sure you have an actual reason to do so.
Lastly, one of the more important things to keep in mind at any conference is to have fun and to keep an open mind. Take this opportunity to get to know some new people, maybe check out a new city, and make the most of this opportunity to learn and experience new things. Try to set up some dinner plans early in the day. One tried-and-true tip (especially if you’re attending with people you know) is to tell everyone you invite to invite an additional person – by the end, you’ll have a large group of new faces and new thoughts. When getting to know new people in professional environments, it’s good to remember to withhold making judgements about others. Conversations might reveal you do not share each other’s opinions or thoughts or beliefs. It’s easy for those areas of disagreement to color our entire interactions together. But it doesn’t have to. If such a situation arises, consider it an opportunity to broaden your horizon instead of an opportunity to get into a heated argument.
The Take Away
The conference experience doesn’t end with the last speaker on the last day. Coming back to reality means doing something with the information and contacts you’ve accrued. Go through your notes and sort your main points, with the intent to act upon them. How can you use it to your benefit and to your business?
Next, take the time to sort your business cards. Put the people you plan to contact immediately in one pile, and in another, the cards for which you have no purpose (yet). Next, actually follow up — tweet at them, email them, add them on LinkedIn. Do whatever you need to do to keep the dialogue open and flowing in order to achieve the goal you have in mind with contacting them in the first place.
In addition to the inevitable freebies you’ll gain by attending a photo conference, you’ll also gain a wealth of knowledge and insight. As I said before, remember that conferences are interactive entities: what you get out of it is directly correlated to what you put into it. So don’t be afraid to make the most of it!