How to Win at Shutterfest

2018 was my second year at Shutterfest, which is a large photography convention held yearly at Union Station here in St. Louis.

Last year I was really concerned with doing Shutterfest “right.” I wanted to extract maximum value, do everything perfectly, and make the absolute best use of my two days on site with access to models, professional instructors and vendors offering great discounts on photo gear.  (you can read about my first year here.)

This year I had a better idea of what to expect and I was a lot more relaxed about the process. My advice for newbies who are as anxious as I was about doing it “right” is to know what you want to walk away with before you start, and organize your activities to meet those goals.

At Shutterfest you can do a variety of things—you can take classes on the creative side of photography (posing, lighting, retouching) etc. Or you can take classes on the business of photography (marketing, sales, website optimization, etc.)  So figure out ahead of time if you’re trying to learn more about photography as a craft, if you are trying to build a portfolio of images that can help you attract new clients, or if are you trying to learn more about running a photography business. That will determine which types of classes you take, and the subjects of those classes.

Classes at Shutterfest

Shutterfest classes offered are:

  • Lecture: You sit and listen and take notes
  • Demo: You watch someone else work
  • Hands-on: You listen to the instructor and then have a chance to shoot

You can also participate in after-hours shoots both onsite and off (these are usually scheduled via the FB group, which is only accessible to people registered for the conference.) You can work with models via their “Rent a Human” program (more on that later) and you can network with models and other photographers to hopefully build productive relationships that last beyond the conference.

Last year I learned very quickly that hands-on classes were not for me. You’re in a group of 75 or so other photographers, jockeying for position/time with the models, and the chance of getting a workable image from those sessions is very slight. You’re usually not controlling the lighting, the styling (wardrobe/hair/makeup) or the location, so for one thing how is that an image you can lay claim to? Additionally, there are 74 people behind you in line that are going to come away with the exact same image, so why would you want that in your portfolio. This year I determined to take zero hands-on classes.

I was also not super concerned with portfolio building overall. A lot of the people at Shutterfest shoot weddings, families and seniors, so the models, classes and styling reflect that. I don’t shoot those things, so an image or ten of a woman in a ballgown draped over a piano has no place in my portfolio anyway. I really wanted more classes on marketing, SEO, and other business/advertising information.

My Classes

Generally I was really pleased with my classes this year. (Yes, I did make a spreadsheet ahead of registration day with 1st, 2nd and 3rd place choices for each time slot. Registration is cutthroat and I wanted to win at it.) My one misstep was a class I thought I’d love on shooting dancers. The reason I took that class rather than my second choice (on using Lightroom as a sales tool) was that the instructor said he’d make the models available after the class for us to shoot. But once I got to the class I realized that it was in the Terminal Atrium. DON’T TAKE A CLASS IN THE TERMINAL ATRIUM. DON’T DO IT. The Terminal Atrium is a gorgeous place to shoot. Three stories of marble walls and columns, wrought iron and a lit glass-block floor. Shoot there by all means! But you want to know what makes for terrible acoustics? Three open stories of marble.

There were about 75 people in this class and I could not hear a single word the instructor was saying, nor could I (5’4″) see anything either. I thought I would tough it out so that I could shoot the dancers afterward, then I DID hear the instructor say that for the after-class shoot he was going to set up all the lighting. Bah. I know how to light and have my own style. This meant that it would be (yet again) a line of people taking the exact same photo. Useless to me. I walked out of that class, and I have read many other people’s comments in the FB group saying they walked out of their classes for similar reasons. I was really kicking myself for wasting a class period. Never again!

My view in the stylized dancer class. I could hear nothing the instructor said, and I could see even less.

I took Pete Rezac’s live demo class on black and white children’s portraiture, and really enjoyed watching his process and interaction with the child models.

behind the scenes image of photographer pete rezac interacting with child model at shutterfest
BTS with Pete Rezac in his class on BW children’s portraiture
Pete Rezac’s final image from his class on stylized BW Children’s Portraiture at Shutterfest. ©Pete Rezac













I had another class that was scheduled to be Live Demo and then somehow got changed to Hands On after I had registered for it (grrrr.) That was Nicole Begley’s excellent class on pet photography. Nicole turned it into a hybrid hands-on/demo class, so that those who wanted to go shoot animals on their own could do so, and those who wanted to watch her work could do that.

I followed her around like a puppy (GETIT?) because I was most interested in seeing how she interacted with her subjects. Really a great class, though very chilly in the unseasonably cold weather (sorry, girl in my class with no jacket and flip flops.)  Here are a few BTS snaps of the doggos from that class.

BTS from pet photography class at Shutterfest
BTS from pet photography class at Shutterfest


Vendors at Shutterfest

One of the things that makes a convention possible are the vendors, who pay booth fees to be able to show/sell their products to attendees. Many times there are discounts on offer and this year I took advantage of a few. I got a Velvet 56 ($50 off) from the charming Lensbaby ladies, and some MagMod gear (about $5 off per piece) from those folks. One of the MagMod pieces I wanted was sold out, so they offered to give me the discounted convention price AND ship it to me free. That’s excellent service, and I appreciated it. Not so much the vendor from Chicago who was sold out of Westcott eyelighters, but wouldn’t extend the 20% discount unless I paid shipping. (Creve Couer Camera had them in, but only at a 10% discount, and our lovely 9% city sales tax effectively cancels that out.)

Image of female subject shot at Shutterfest with the lensbaby velvet 56
Shot on the sales floor with the Lensbaby Velvet 56, which I ended up purchasing.


Image of female subject shot at Shutterfest with the lensbaby sweet 50
Shot with the Lensbaby Sweet 50, which I really have a hankering for now.

The bad thing about the vendors being there is that in the non-class hours the Rent-a-Human is closed down, I think to ensure that we all go browse/buy/interact with the vendors. This means that unless you skip some classes, you really won’t be able to use RAH at all, since its hours pretty closely align with class periods. I get that we’re supposed to go buy stuff, but I had planned in advance what I was going to buy, and already bought it, so I had a 2-hour period on Wednesday with zilch to do except take cell phone photos and crab to a friend via text how bored I was. At least I had a new lens to play with. Here is a garbage cell phone video I sent to my friend to show him where I was. It will give you an idea of the sales floor.


Random Shutterfest Sightings

I GOT TO MEET UNMESH DINDA! This was really my favorite part of the con, running into him on the sales floor and being able to tell him how much I love his YouTube channel and tutorials. I just adore him, and I was so glad to have a chance to tell him how much he’s helped me. Insert squee, fangirling noises, etc. I hope he comes back next year.

I also got to take a marketing class with Jeff Rojas, which was amazing. His book Photographing Men inspired one of my favorite images from 2017.

Canon CPS at Shutterfest

Canon has a large presence at the conference, and since I shoot Canon, this year I took advantage of their free clean and check services. They checked over my camera, cleaned the sensor, updated the firmware and cleaned the macro 60mm lens I had attached to it. FOR FREE, did I mention, this is normally at least a $50 service fee, and you lose use of your camera for multiple days.

Also, while my camera was being cleaned I was able to check out a 5D Mark IV and a 70-200 lens from them, which they allowed me to keep overnight. Seriously, about $4k worth of gear they just let me borrow and test with. That was amazing, so if you shoot Canon I would recommend you do that next year. Get there early on the first day, because they can’t guarantee that you will get your camera body back the same day, and any equipment loan is first come first served. I checked my camera in around 9 a.m. and it was ready by 3 p.m. that same day. Big props to the Canon folks, they were super helpful.

(Only bad thing was that I didn’t check the settings on the 5D Mark IV and someone (who? why?) had the camera shooting jpg instead of raw, so everything I shot with it was basically useless to me. But it was still nice to work with even though I couldn’t play with the RAW files.)

Overview for Shutterfest

OK, so here’s my recommendation for how to win at Shutterfest

Figure out what you want to walk away with (New gear? Portfolio shots? New contacts? Specialized knowledge?) and plan your experience around it

  • If you want portfolio stuff, take hands-on classes (shudder) sign up for after-hours shoots and photo walks, maybe skip classes and use the RAH program
  • If you want business knowledge, take those classes. Don’t worry about carting around a ton of camera gear, don’t plan on shooting much and just soak up knowledge from the great instructors
  • If you want to network, plan to go to the parties and after-hours events, hang out at the bar, introduce yourself to all kinds of people (everyone I spoke to was really friendly.) Bring a lot of business cards.
  • If you’re mostly interested in gear and learning about products, spend a lot of time on the vendor floor, and carefully peruse the offers to see what makes sense for you. (There are discounts on gear and on printing services and products.)
  • If you are a super-newbie, and have no idea what you need to know, then just take classes that sound interesting, you will learn something nice and meet good people, and you will start to learn what you need to learn
  • Don’t take a class that’s in the Terminal Atrium. Just don’t do it.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk out on a class that you realize is wasting your time. Don’t stand there aggravated, go learn something.
  • If you stay in the con hotel you will be able to take advantage of a lot more late night shooting/networking opportunities. I live ten minutes from the hotel, so I can’t justify the expense, but I really missed out on one 11 p.m.-1 a.m. shoot I wanted to go to, and an impromptu class with Jeff Rojas that I’d have loved to attend.

Those are all my tips and tricks for Shutterfest! I am excited for next year’s conference, because I feel every year I get more of the knowledge and skills I want from the experience. If you have more tips and tricks, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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