What to Expect When You’re Shutterfesting

Last week I went to a yearly photography conference that’s here in St. Louis, Shutterfest. Billing itself as “The Premiere Photography Conference on the Planet” this event takes place over 2-7 days each spring at Union Station hotel. The official conference is 2 days, then there’s an “Extreme” add-on session for an additional fee on the third day, and some conference attendees arrive in town a few days before the actual event and/or stay on after to hold shoots they’ve planned themselves.

This was my first year attending, and I had a ton of questions before I went. There was a lot about the conference that I had a hard time understanding without actually experiencing it, so my hope is that this information will help you get the very most out of your experience if you do choose to go. Understand that I am personally not a joiner, I don’t enjoy group-think, and summer camp was my idea of a protracted nightmare. My explanation of the conference is through my personal lens (see what I did there) and if you love people, crowds and shouting phrases of ebullient, rhapsodical agreement to hyped-up speakers on a stage, your mileage will definitely vary.

What Shutterfest Is

Shutterfest is comprised of official conference events like training classes, image competitions, seminars, model shoots (under the “Rent a Human” moniker) and vendor booths. There are also many unofficial activities in which to take part, like after-hours shoots, photo walks, impromptu shoots and trainings that spring up in the venue hallways and communal gathering spaces. There are also after hours parties and opportunities to socialize.

Photographers at the event will have open and free access to models. The models are there to build their portfolios and network, so they will model in exchange for access to the images you shoot. You can “check out” models at the Rent a Human booths, or arrange shoots with models before the event. Many of the models wandering around in full costume and/or hair and makeup will be amenable to giving you a quick shot, if they have time and you ask nicely.

Online Components of Shutterfest

There are also several places online to find out more about Shutterfest, both before and after the event. Obviously their website is the starting place to register and get basic information. They have a section called “The Lowdown” that offers some good info. The conference has a very active (attendees only) Facebook group, another Facebook group for the models, private Facebook events for unofficial planned shoots, and a really robust and helpful smartphone app. Seriously, use the heck out of the app, it will help you before and after the conference, and it’s the only way to register for classes.

What’s the point of Shutterfest?

This really depends on where you are in your career, what you want/need to learn. I saw a lot of people talking about portfolio building before the event, so there will be an opportunity to take photos that you may choose to use in your portfolio (more on that later.) You can certainly learn, both from the formal classes that you have to register for, and from just wandering around and watching other people work. You can network, make friends, bask in the commonality, whatever you like.

  • If you’re a photography beginner: you can learn technical skills, you can learn good business practices and marketing,  you can use the vendor booths to learn about printing and gear and get discounts. You can learn about how to price your services, and just get more comfortable with the idea of being a photographer who makes money.
  • If you’re mid-career: you can advance your skills, learn new things or more advanced techniques. You can network with models, hair and makeup artists (HMUAs) and other photographers. You can get the discounted gear you missed out on last year, and see what’s new and exciting at the vendor booths, take part in the image competitions.
  • If you’re a seasoned pro: I think you’re probably there to teach a class. That’s not me, so I am not sure. Networking, relaxing with old friends, sharing your talent and enjoying the camaraderie of people who speak your language is what it looked like to me.

What kind of classes should I take?

I thought I had this one all figured out, and I screwed up big time, so this is a topic that needs some advance prep. You need to think about your personal learning style and which particular skills you are most interested in picking up before you decide on classes.

There are three types of classes offered at Shutterfest, lecture classes, demonstration classes and hands-on classes.

  • Lecture classes: What it sounds like. Someone gives a talk on a topic, there are slides, you take notes and possibly ask questions. You’re there to absorb information. I took a fantastic lecture class from local attorney Pete Salsich III about copyright and contracts. Did I even touch my camera during the class? No. But it was really informative and I needed the information.
  • Demo classes: a pro photographer talks about the topic at hand and then they shoot, and you can observe them working. I did a demo class with Moshe Zussman on headshot photography, he shot tethered and it was really interesting to see him work and watch the photos come up onscreen to see what he was capturing. Brian DeMint did a really enjoyable demo class in which he talked about his philosophy about photography, then did a shoot with a model. I couldn’t see the shots he was taking, but I could see the model, his lighting technique and I got a good idea of what was going on. I took another (unfortunately extremely overcrowded) demo class in which the photographer was not shooting tethered, and I couldn’t see her, couldn’t see the model and couldn’t see the shots she was taking, so that was of limited value to me.
  • Hands-on classes: ostensibly this is a class in which the instructor discusses some techniques, then sets up some scenes with models where you can try out the techniques. The hands-on classes were most disappointing for me. They were really crowded (75 or so people) and the instructors were hard to hear/understand. There were setups to shoot and models on hand, but in the classes I took the instructor did the setup, left part of the class to shoot it, then walked away to start another setup. So there wasn’t much of a chance to ask questions while shooting, and it ended up as a line of people all queuing to use the same settings to shoot the same model with the same lighting. I couldn’t really understand the point.  After my first two hands-on classes I logged into the ever-so-helpful app and ditched the remaining hands-on classes in favor of demo and lecture classes. I spoke to other people who also thought the hands-on classes were a wash, but I saw a lot of people online raving about how much they got out of their hands-on classes. So your mileage will vary depending on the size/location of the class, how the instructor sets it up, and how you like to learn. I don’t really like to shoot with an edgy crowd of 20+ other people waiting impatiently behind me, so this was not the right learning style for me.

What kind of gear should I bring?

This was confusing for me. I saw people on Facebook who were posting images of vans and trucks absolutely crammed with gear and props, and I had no idea what the context was for them needing that much gear. The official answer to this question on the Shutterfest “Lowdown” page is belligerently unhelpful “Bring whatever you plan to shoot with— camera bodies, lenses, flashes, tripods, etc. It’s a shooting conference and you are a photographer, do we really need to explain this to you?”

The answer to this is that it depends on what you plan to do at the conference, and what, if any, images you want to take home with you.

  • If you’re coming to the conference just to take lecture and demo classes and network then you honestly don’t even have to bring a camera with you. Watch, learn, absorb. You’re fine.
  • If you’re taking hands-on classes and you plan to shoot in them, then you need to bring a camera with you. You DON’T have to bring your own lighting or modifiers. The instructor will have whatever is necessary, including flash triggers. Don’t stress that at all. You can bring what makes sense to you. ex: If it’s a portrait class and you have a lens that you love for portraits, then you should have that with you. But as far as light stands and strobes and softboxes, no, the instructor brings that stuff.
  • If you’re planning on joining in on planned after-hours shoots, then the person planning them will almost certainly be bringing the lighting/modifiers/props and costumes necessary. You might want to bring a tripod, or lenses you want for that shoot. Definitely check with the organizer to get the details of what gear, if any, will be accessible.
  • If you’re planning your own shoot, THIS is when you need to worry about having a vanload of gear, potentially. If you plan to get a model from the Rent a Human program, and shoot her in a way that requires lighting, modifiers, etc, then yes you need to bring every single piece of that with you in most cases. If you envision a post-apocalyptic ballerina shoot, then you had better bring a post-apocalyptic ballerina outfit, make arrangements with a MUA, scout the location and bring the gear.

The first day I came I brought a backpack full of gear, off camera flash, triggers, multiple lenses, etc. The second day I downgraded to just an over the shoulder DSLR bag with two extra lenses. That’s because I was there primarily to watch and learn. Next year if I plan to join in some shoots or plan my own, I will bring whatever I need to accomplish that. But if you’re mostly going to be in classes, don’t kill yourself dragging around three metric tons of stuff you won’t need. There’s no random quiz or gear check. No one will ask you to produce your Pocket Wizard before you are allowed to pass GO.

I didn’t shoot much video at the conference, I was too busy gaping at everything, and I didn’t want to miss what was in front of me because I was stuck behind my viewfinder. Here are a few snippets of models milling around, one of my classes with Scott Detweiler, vendors and shots happening on site. 

Can I Build My Portfolio at Shutterfest?

This was another thing I really couldn’t grasp without seeing it in action. All of these people were talking about the amazing portfolio building they planned to do at the event, and I didn’t get it. How are you going to get portfolio quality images in that frenetic atmosphere? So here’s the thing. If you plan your own shoots or take part in the Rent a Human program and have a strong concept in mind or type of shot you want to get then yes, absolutely. In the shoots that other people plan, or in your hands-on classes… maybe? To my way of thinking, taking a shot/concept that someone else planned, costumed, lit and maybe posed and saying that’s your work is somewhat dubious. Yes, your finger clicked the shutter, but someone else’s mind conceived the work. So again… maybe? I would be a bit concerned that if I stood in line to create an image styled and lit by someone else, an almost identical image created in that circumstance would show up in someone else’s portfolio. That would be hard to explain. If you really have no access to models in your day to day life and you have no pro portfolio at all, then yes you will get images to use. I am still very …maybe? about this whole thing, unless you really did plan the shot.

Is Shutterfest Worth It?

Mark Billingsly Maggard shooting free headshots for hours on end in the hallway at Shutterfest 17. See the line to the left? Those are all people waiting to be shot.

Yes. If you’re not staying at the hotel it’s $99. Even if you’re a non-joiner, crowd hater, etc, it’s worth $99. Even if your classes end up sucking, or you can’t even get into the classes, you can wander around and absorb all kinds of cool information. I love watching other photographers interacting with their clients, and the hour I spent watching Marc Billingsley Maggard doing free headshots in the hallway was at least (if not more) helpful than any of the classes I took.  I was sitting in the lobby and Sherry Hagerman came by and set up an amazing Beauty and the Beast themed shot with fully costumed models. I got to see that shoot, AND I got to see her have problems with the flashes not firing, and how she handled it. (Hey! It’s not just me who has bonkers, inexplicable lighting fails on shoots! That alone was worth $25.)

I watched, I networked and gathered the cards and contact information from models and HMUAs at the event. I saw people produce amazing images with methods and locations I wouldn’t have thought of. Every single person I talked to was friendly, open and spoke my language.  Everywhere I turned there was a shoot going on, or something else to look at and learn from.

Next year I plan to take part in more planned and after-hours shoots, and maybe go with some concepts in mind that I would like to shoot. I will know to choose classes that are more demo than hands on, because that’s a better fit for my learning style.

Perhaps most importantly I now know where to park and where to go to avoid pointless wandering around Union Station! I hope this was helpful, and of course there’s a ton that I didn’t cover. If you have a specific question leave it in the comments, I will answer it if I can. Also, if you’re someone who had a different experience of the conference than I did, or takes exception to my description of the event, remember that these are my experiences, as related by me. Be polite.

Also, pro tip: At the conference, turn off Wi-Fi AND Bluetooth on your phone. I left Bluetooth on the first day, and paid the price.

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