Open the Gates!!! A mass of photographers await the opening of PhotoPlus Expo last year.

Open the Gates!!! A mass of photographers await the opening of PhotoPlus Expo last year.

Every year, there are hundreds of photography conferences one could attend, from small regional conferences to humongous national and international conventions, and a plethora of variations in-between. Nearly all include a bevy of seminars, an expo of the latest camera gear, workshops and even portfolio reviews. The choices of things to see or attend can range from tens to thousands. For first time attendees, the challenge of deciding what to see and do can be daunting, but I’ve come up with some strategies that not only make the decision process easy, but ensure I get the most out of a conference.

Select the Conferences that Best Suits Your Style of Photography: Photography is diverse, and so are photography conferences. There’s literally a niche conference for every style, be it weddings and portraits, landscapes and nature, architecture and even decisive moment. Some of the larger conferences cater to everyone, with seminars leaving no stone unturned on topics of photography. The conference you choose to attend should reflect the direction your images take. If you primarily shoot landscapes and nature, you probably won’t get much out of a convention catering to wedding or portrait shooters.

Rank and File: Once you’ve selected the conference you want to attend, you’ll want to look over the plethora of things to see and do, and put that into a manageable schedule. Instead of flipping pages online, I prefer to print out the schedule of conference seminars; workshops, keynote speakers, portfolio reviewers and exhibitors, then lay out the pages out on the dining room table.

Starting with the conference, I highlight the classes I’m interested in, using different colored highlighters to denote three distinct categories: The home run — seminars that directly relate to, and will improve my business or the way I capture/process images; Secondary sessions that offer information about techniques, that are indirectly related to improving my technique or digital workflow. These might be sessions about travel photography that I’m sure I can pull some “nuggets of information” from them. Then there’s the, “Dang that’s cool” category of seminars – It could be a title that piques my interest, or a presentation by a photographer I’ve admired, or some wild and wacky technique that I just deem, well… cool.

I apply the same criteria to the rest of the conference (even to exhibitors booths that I want to visit), then grab a daily calendar to start the process of compiling my days. Some conferences, like PDN’s PhotoPlus Expo in New York, even have planners built into their web sites, which easily allow registered attendees to schedule their days (there’s even a handy phone app to keep tabs on what class is next, and even shows you where you are in the Javits’ Center).

Timing is Everything: So with the whole lot you’ve highlighted, how do you fit it all in? First, start with items that are the most important to you. If you’ve signed up for portfolio reviews, those times need to be entered first, followed by one-off seminars (some popular topics are repeated to accommodate conflicting schedules). If your timing allows for secondary or cool topics, put those in. If seminars don’t fit into the schedule, then that’s the time to hit the exhibit show floor.

Speaking of the Exhibit Hall: One of the highlights of a photo conference is visiting the exhibits. It’s always fun to watch first timers when they enter the exhibit hall for the first time – mouths agape and heads spinning in all directions. Attacking the exhibit hall requires a plan, because it’s easy to spend an entire day roaming the aisles and collecting schwag. I like to look over the map of exhibitors and mark those I really want to visit to check out new gear. I’ll spend more time at the “home run” vendors, prying out technical questions, and a lot less time stopping at the booths ranking in the secondary or just cool column. After I’ve passed through my selected vendors, I then head to a far corner, and methodically walk the entire show floor, aisle by aisle, just in case there’s some extraordinary to see.

Dealin’ the Deals: Photo conferences are one of the best places to get great deals on new gear. Many manufacturers (or dealers) offer their wares at a “show discount,” which normally range from 10-20% for new items, with deeper discounts for discontinued items. Sometimes, late on the last day, larger markdowns may be had for a very simple reason: Less merchandise sent back to the office translates to a lower shipping bill. I’ve found that the words, “Do you really want to ship this all the way back to California?” can get the equipment you want, and keep some change in your back pocket.

Prepare to Have Fun: Now that you have your days planed out, don’t forget to have a blast. Conferences and expos are a ton of fun, and can literally be addicting. With so much to see and do, don’t worry if you can’t see every seminar you’d like, or get your portfolio in front of a particular reviewer. Take all that you can in, apply what you’ve learned and meet a ton of people who are as fanatical about photography as you are. Your next conference is right around the corner.