Jerry Ghionis is a genius.
I mean that in every sense of the word. Not only is Ghionis one of the world's best wedding photographers (as evidenced by his voluminous list of accolades and awards), he's an amazing salesman and a phenomenal educator as well.
Readers of this blog will know that I've been investing heavily (both in time and resources) in my photography recently. When I learned that Ghionis would be in Boston for a five-day seminar, I was enticed until I saw the price: $2,200. I debated for quite awhile whether or not the seminar would be the best way for me to spend my money at this stage in my photography career. In fact, I agonized over this expenditure. But two separate people I spoke with (Evgenia and Tim Cook) described the seminar as "life-changing." Plus, I heard that people frequently traveled here from out of the country to attend Ghionis' seminars. Could I really turn down an opportunity to learn from the master in my own backyard? The answer was no.
In early June, I pulled the trigger. I was the last person to get a spot in the 20-person seminar. What follows is a description of the structure of the seminar, some reflections on what I learned, and my general impression as to whether Ghionis' seminars are worth the cost.
Ghionis' seminar lasted five days and four nights. On Day 1, all of the photographers arrived at the Boston Radisson, fresh and eager to have their minds filled. Many had traveled across state lines to be here, and one had flew here from Puerto Rico to take the seminar. It is not a stretch to say that I was the least experienced photographer in the entire room; many of the students had wedding photography businesses that were decades old (more on this later).
Day 1 consisted almost completely of critiques of images that people brought in (each photographer was instructed to bring in 15 images that were representative of their work). Many photographers, including myself, found these critiques to be fairly brutal. Ghionis' is incredibly gracious, but it doesn't change the fact that one's work is being laid bare and objectively evaluated for all to see. It was during this critique that we learned many of Ghionis' principles and "rules" governing his photography, rules such as:
- Always shoot on the shadow side of the face
- The leg closest to the camera should be the one that is bent
- Females hands should always be relaxed and softened
It was Day 2 that my mind really started to get blown. After completing the previous day's critiques, Ghionis went more in depth into his posing and lighting techniques using real-life models. Then, everyone slung their cameras around their shoulders and we left the room to go out and shoot. First, though, Ghionis used some areas in the hotel to demonstrate some of his lighting principles. For instance, here's an area just outside of the hotel bathroom that Ghionis thought had some cool light:
Here's a resulting shot that I was able to get from this set-up:
It is pretty remarkable how Ghionis was able to take ordinary objects and situations and render them into extraordinary photographs.
As we departed the hotel and wandered around Boston, Ghionis only used one camera and one lens (a Nikon D3s with a 70-200mm, although prior to the workshop, Ghionis frequently sported the Canon 5D Mark II), but the images that he was able to obtain were amazing. Here are a few images of the class wandering around the streets of Boston, with Ghionis explaining his techniques:
As you can see, Ghionis will position himself in any way to get just the right shot, which was inspiring to witness. Here are some of the shots I was able to obtain from the day. [Please note that all of the following shots were not set up/posed by me, and thus, do not represent my work nor belong to my portfolio.]
Part of Day 2 also involved each student getting 10 minutes with two of the models. Each of us was instructed to produce a shot that demonstrated what we had learned. Here is mine (though again, the following was produced for workshop purposes only and does not belong to my portfolio):
It was a pretty nerve-racking 10 minutes, trying to remember all that Ghionis had taught us in the previous 24 hours, but I had learned so much that I found my own personal improvement to be dramatic.
One of the many revelations I had during the course of the week was the importance of getting things right "in-camera." Unlike myself and many photographers I know, Ghionis doesn't shoot very much during the course of a wedding day; rather than fixing things in Photoshop later, he opts to compose the image and get the exposure correct immediately. This is such a simple principle, but it saves so much time and forces a degree of creativity that wouldn't really be necessary otherwise. It's certainly something I now think about every single time I put a viewfinder to my face.
Day 2 began at 10 am in the morning, but did not conclude until about 11:30 pm that night (9 hours of which was spent walking around Boston). By that point, most of the members in class were tired and sweaty; our feet hurt and we wanted to go home. Not Ghionis, though, who was tireless and seemed intent on giving us our money's worth. It was an extraordinary, revelatory day and I will count it as a formative one in the development of my photographic style.
Day 3 involved critiques of the images we'd obtained from the previous day, and continued with Ghionis discussing some of his techniques for getting emotion out of his subjects to achieve those perfect, how-in-the-heck-was-he-there-at-the-right-place-and-the-right-time shots. We then went out on the town again for some more improvisation with light and more shots with models. It concluded (relatively) early at 6 pm.
On Day 4, we put the cameras away and after a morning critique of the previous day's images, we discussed album design, pricing, and branding. Ghionis is old school; he believes in the emotional power of a physical album. After you hear him describe it, you will believe too. One of Ghionis' principles is to shoot the wedding with the intention of making the photographs tell a story through the album. A great beauty and a great economy of images is achieved in this fashion.
For many individuals, if their house were on fire, the first thing they would save is their wedding album. How, then, should we think of its value to clients? How valuable should it be to us as wedding photographers? Ghionis instilled this sense of value in all the students on the room. He does not believe "upselling" is a dirty word, and there's good reason for it; spoiling people, or allowing them to spoil themselves shouldn't be thought of in a negative fashion.
The evening concluded with in-depth critiques of students' existing branding materials. This session was even more brutal than the initial critiques of people's images, as Ghionis emphasized how important it was to make a good impression on people. Does your branding/logo scream elegance and luxury? Or does it reek of desperation and amateurishness? The difference between the former and the latter is thousands of dollars worth of sales. Many students made decisions this evening that would change the course of their businesses, and possibly their lives.
Finally, on Day 5, we discussed marketing ideas. Ghionis knows how to market the hell out of himself and his tips were extremely useful. Whatever Ghionis was selling, I was buying (literally! I walked out of the seminar having spent an additional $400 on his materials).
At the end of the day, Ghionis asked us to go around the room and discuss what we had learned that week. The breadth of people's shared knowledge was staggering, but what surprised and impressed me were the emotional epiphanies that people had. People left the seminar feeling empowered to be the best photographers and businesspeople that they could be. Ultimately, that seemed to be worth more than any photography tips Ghionis could muster from his formidable background.
If you've seen any of Ghionis' videos, you may already know that his personality is magnetic. He has loads of charisma, he's incredibly knowledgeable, and he has a great (and sometimes crude, but hilariously so) sense of humor. He also has enormous amounts of patience, which helps when one is dealing with endless questions from a bunch of less experienced photographers.
The only shortcomings of the seminar didn't actually come from Ghionis, but from some of the other photographers. Let me get this out of the way: the overwhelmingly vast majority of people in the seminar were totally awesome and great, and I feel like I have formed some lasting friendships with several of them. All that being said, I had a strong distaste for students' who used the seminar as their own private therapy session, repeatedly going into detail (unprompted) about struggles with their own businesses. Equally vexing were those students who seemed to believe that they were also supposed to be teaching the seminar. When I'm taking a night class at a community college, this type of behavior is totally fine, but when I'm forking over $2200 for an intensive 5-day workshop, this takes away time from the master photographer I actually spent money and time to hear.
A lesser teacher would have gotten flustered and possibly allowed these people to derail the conversation. But Ghionis proved himself a master in more ways than one, always keeping things on track and never rebuking students, even when it was clear that others in the class wanted to do so. The man has endless depths of patience, and earned my respect many times over.
[I also must note that Ghionis' wife, Melissa, helps him run his business/seminar, and she is possibly one of the nicest people I have ever met. She made me feel welcome and addressed many of my questions with warmth and grace. The two make for an unstoppable partnership.]
The ultimate goal of Ghionis' seminar is to get people to the point where they can charge whatever they want to shoot weddings. And while he offers practical tips to get to this point, his seminar is just as much about self-empowerment as it is about wedding photography. There was something incredibly refreshing and animating about that. Ghionis provides struggling and aspiring entrepreneurs the tools with which to take control of their destiny. And as a result, I have nothing but admiration for the man.
So is the Jerry Ghionis seminar worth it?
In one week, Ghionis forever changed the way I look at lighting...and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that he changed the way I look at life itself. I don't agree with all aspects of Ghionis' style but he's given me the tools to create stunning photographs; now all I need to do is practice them. He also made me re-evaluate my values, and how I might position myself as a wedding photographer. He made me think about the incredible service that wedding photographers provide to couples, and taught us how to be proud of the work we do.
In other words, not only was the seminar worth every penny, I can't wait to go to another one!
The day after the seminar was over, I asked my colleague Rachell if she would allow me to photograph her using the new techniques I had learned. I decided to challenge myself by shooting in direct sunlight, a lighting situation I absolutely hate. Here are the photos that resulted:
There are still a lot of things I would fix about these photos, but I think they represent a marked improvement over my photography prior to this point. I look forward to continuing my photographic journey and was grateful that Mr. Ghionis was a part of it.