Gorgeous photographs…the latest and greatest equipment…becoming an expert on lighting, posing and creating art. Yes Yes I have it all but it didn’t come easy 🙂 lol I kid but actually it’s true. I feel like I didn’t actually become a better photographer until I started honing my craft. Even if you are born naturally talented in photography or if you have spent hours upon hours on youtube watching tutorials or reading reviews of new gear, you can only be one dimensional and you will be hard pressed changing and improving your skill and style. As photographers at the top of our game, we better ourselves and our clients by attending conferences specifically for professional photographers. Since 2011, I have attended WPPI, the Wedding & Portrait Photographers International Conference in Las Vegas which changed my life and business. This year for the first time I decided to attend UNITED, another photography conference in Santa Barbara which also changed my life and business in a completely different way. I know a lot of photographers trying to justify the sometimes immense cost of attending these conferences and trying to figure out how each conference will benefit them and their business. Depending on what you need in your life and business right now, one may be better than the other. It’s not easy, but I urge every professional to go to each at least once and here are the reasons why:
First the breakdown:
Location: WPPI is in Las Vegas, NV and UNITED is in Santa Barbara, CA (now). Beach vs. Desert ….I think both are distinctly beautiful and tons to do/see.
Timeframe: WPPI is normally a week long in February or March and UNITED is about 3-4 days in February.
Background: WPPI is at this point a well oiled machine. The association was created in the 1970’s and the trade show started from meager roots in 1980 and since then has completed it’s 34th conference with more than 15,000 people from ALL AROUND THE WORLD. UNITED is still in its adolescence as I believe this conference is it’s 5th or 6th and the first couple years it was in Las Vegas during WPPI and now is on it’s own to be held in its headquarters of Santa Barbara. This year the conference had more than 350 attendees and every year grows more and more. Things are still changing with the itinerary but I’m sure it’s for the good.
Price: WPPI has several levels. There is the trade show only level which I think is about $99. There is the full conference level (giving you access to the Platform classes, trade show, and other things like the print competition) which is $199. I always at least do the full conference (btw, it comes with a free guest pass!). Then there are other optional classes and functions you can do. I’ll break them down a little later but the Master classes are generally $50-60 each and then the PLUS classes which are I think now $795, however, they used to be much more affordable $395 when I first went to WPPI. Then you also have to be a WPPI member which is about $125.
United if you register early is $299. Now this year, there were additional shoots that were extraordinary beautiful that were free that you could participate in. I heard last year, these were an additional minor cost of about $60 but I’m not sure if they intend on keeping them free. More on this later. However, they do provide lunch during the conference.
Regardless of either there will most likely be cost of roundtrip flight, hotels, rental cars, meals (um In-N-Out is all you need lol), parking, tips, souvenirs for the family who will hold down the fort while you are gone. 😉
Classes/Photoshoots: If you have ever been to college, the structures of each conference are similar to lecture halls and discussion groups and labs. At WPPI, a Platform class (included in your full conference pass) is like a lecture hall of 500 people. Great topics with amazing professional photographers. Some topics at WPPI I took were “Pricing 101” with Beth Forester, “Lighting on the Run” with Michael Greenberg and “Posing” with Roberto Valenzuela. Wonderful instructors and tips for a variety of needs for my business. If you have questions though in these classes, well they probably won’t be answered. Master Classes you have to pay more for (about $50-60 each) but they are more like discussion groups where there are about 30 people in the class and you can ask questions. I had 2 fabulous master classes, one by Kenny Kim about becoming a Destination Photographer and one from Rob Greer about SEO. The down side is that they are only 2 hours. Plus classes are the “mac daddy” of classes in that they are about 30 people with a remarkable teacher (class instructors I have taken are Bambi Cantrell, Jim Garner and Cliff Mautner) where for 2 days you get to interact, ask questions and even shoot with models and such on a specific trouble spot for you such as posing, OCF lighting or more. With two days, I grew immensely in skill and knowledge and even connections with other photographers in the class. It’s very unlikely that you will make long lasting connections at the Platform classes. You’ll might make 1 or 2 but the Plus classes is where you learn with other photographers struggling with the same issues as you. And the Plus classes now usually go on a field trip to a ghost town or around Vegas. However, these aren’t really portfolio building workshops. You are there to learn and overcome so that you can do on your own. That is the point. And normally these instructors have their own workshops that they put on but for far more money like $1500 plus airfare, hotel etc so if you do the math, you are still getting a great deal.
United also has classes in a similar format (although not with different names). And all the classes and photoshoots were “included” in the registration of the conference. Also speaking at these conferences are wonderful, successful instructors. I listened to “Making your work worth more” by Mary Marantz, “Market like its hot” by Matt Kennedy and “Overcoming bad light” by Justin Morantz. Funny enough I also heard Kenny Kim at United as well! The WPPI and UNITED registrations were 24 hours apart and unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the connection but regardless I still learned more from him at each presentation. Now again, it’s hard to ask questions during these presentations but the instructors are a bit more accessible than at WPPI. Now the photoshoots at UNITED are TO DIE FOR. This year had a Yacht, Gatsby inspired Trolley and Vineyard shoots. Those were just a few. I attended a sunrise bride shoot, a continuous movement engagement shoot (in front of a carousel), a newborn/maternity/family shoot, a senior styled shoot, an African bride shoot and my personal favorite, 10 yards of Fabric with model brides (I HAVE TO SHOW THESE IMAGES). Now, some of these shoots I learned a bit which is great but for the most part, these were what I would classify as portfolio building photoshoots. Which again are great, but can you replicate this for a client which will pay you? They are amazingly fun and inspiring though nonetheless.
Other Resources: These next items on, here is where I see a distinct difference between the conferences, but does it matter to you? Is this something that you need in your business? WPPI has a tradeshow with 2 of the biggest ballrooms full of every print company (Bay Photo, WHCC, Miller’s, etc), equipment provider and manufacturer (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Manfrotto, Westcott, B&H, Adorama, etc), album manufacturer (Finao, Cypress, Albums Unlimited, KISS, etc), and tons of other vendors that can help you with photoshop software, newborn baby props, gear bags and just so so so much more. United doesn’t really have something like this. There are definitely recommendations and some vendors there to help, but not anywhere near the level of WPPI.
Print competition: Again, WPPI has an AMAZING print competition. You can even sit in and hear the judges duke it out over why something “should hang” in the gallery and what the photographer could do better or different to go farther and push harder. There are several different categories and there are so many different factors to judge on including the print quality, paper and mounting choices, the title in addition to the actual photograph. I truly enjoy it. I have never entered though because you’ll be blown away by what is entered. I’m just not confident enough yet to enter. There is silver (80 or above), Gold (90 or above) and Platinum in the competition and anything in silver and above hangs in the gallery for all of the conference to view. Winners are published in the Rangefinder magazine. To win, well is one of my goals and would be an amazing achievement. Now UNITED has a competition but not the same. I’d consider it more of a contest. You are judged by other photographers that are a part of the community which is great and the photographs that win are still amazing, but it’s not the same kind of judging as at WPPI. I compare the print competition at WPPI to the Olympics where as UNITED is more like competing in a state or national competition. This year the winners were published in the Shoot & Share magazine which is pretty new and still amazing for the recognition and a big win in my opinion.
Experience/Atmosphere: Now another distinct difference is atmosphere. WPPI is very overwhelming the first year because there is SOOOO much to absorb and try to take advantage of. UNITED has the same, non-stop action and activities which is overwhelming, however, it is very welcoming and nurturing. Some might say, “touchy feely” I guess. It doesn’t just help you grow as a business but as an individual. They pride themselves on hugging which to me at first was well…..weird. LOL I’m not a hugger to strangers. I usually need a few drinks before I start just hugging strangers 🙂 And to be honest, when I asked about what UNITED was all about, that is all I kept hearing about. And no offense but people can’t run a business and fly half way around country to attend a conference where the biggest attraction is hugging and building community bonds. Fortunately, that isn’t all it offers and even the community bonding is beneficial to your business and life. I constantly refer business to photographers in these communities because I know their work and I can’t photograph every wedding and they refer to me. We help each other through crises (like corrupted files) or ask if advertising on certain sites work, etc. They also encourage passion projects and building up each other.
I hope this helps some of you understand the conferences and what they entail. Of course this is a blog that is more for my colleagues and other photographers that need some guidance in this industry. I’d love to hear what you all think and if you agree or disagree or have more points to add that you think need to be mentioned.