Photowalks, meetups - what and how
A photowalk or a photo meetup is a social event where a bunch of photographers agree on joining forces and shoot a certain subject, a certain location or a certain theme together.
Typical photowalks bring people together to walk a certain route or neighborhood. You walk along and shoot, trying to avoid getting too many other photographers in your pictures.
At a meetup you usually agree on meeting and staying in one place and shooting with a planned technique or shoot particular subjects. Strobist meetups are becoming particularly popular these days.
Meet, move or don't
As the name photowalk implies, the usual way of doing this is walking around as a group and shooting what comes up. You could also meet up and hike to a certain area in nature or walk a zoo, a museum, a park, a neighborhood or somewhere else interesting.
Meetups on the other hand often take place indoors or at least at a fixed location and focus on technique and method rather than location. The meetups I have attended have had a large amount of gear involved and the beautiful thing is that you get to share gear as well as knowledge. Strobist meetups where the idea is to shoot off-camera flashes are becoming more and more popular.
My favorite example of the sharing spirit at these meets was a strobist event. A person done shooting a model in a lighting setup with umbrellas, softboxes, reflectors and the whole sherbang, pulling the wireless trigger off his camera and offering it to whomever wanted to take over: "1/60th f8... please go ahead!"
There you have it: model, light, triggers and everything you need to get going - and good advice to follow if you want it. A very good place to start learning about lighting with flash.
The group can vary in size, but somewhere between 4-6 and 10-12 seems a good size. Too small and you miss the social aspect of meeting new people. Too large and it will be hard getting a picture without 10 other photographers shooting the same picture - and getting the same 3-4 other photographers in the frame. At gatherings including strobes, any trigger or flash can potentially set off someone else's setup in the other end of the location.
Another good reason to keep the group limited is that in particular photowalks inevitably attract some attention. A dozen photographers toting tripods, bags, flashes, large cameras and long lenses, shooting left and right do not move around unnoticed.
The group can be a firmly knit and closed group, but some of the best groups are fluctuating in size and very open to new members. People just sign up and join. There are no expenses or fees and no reason to formalize the process too much.
If you have a large location you can shoot, the size of the group can be larger. I have seen reports from meetups with a hundred people or more that seemed to work quite well. It takes some organizing and a leader or two, but can work. A couple of the meetups I have done have had an upper limit for active participants set by the initiator, but when you start counting assistants, models, make up artists, non-photographing hangabouts and dogs you have had quite a lot of life on the scene anyway. And it gives a lot of dynamics: MUA's have modeled, models have assisted and hangabouts have done everything. The dogs just wagged their tails... and modeled, actually.
Same scene, different views
One of the fun things about these gatherings is of course to see what other photographers get from the same basic subject, location or idea and how they go about shooting. In many cases the participants think along the same paths and you wind up with several almost identical images. But oftentimes you see someone breaking out and really raising the bar or just applying a different perspective or technique. A lot of ideas are exchanged and experienced photographers leak a ton of tricks to beginners who have a chance of prying into the brains of some of the more seasoned participants.
There is typically a lot of chimping going on, and sharing the result with others is almost the best part. Sometimes the more prolific photographers may have a laptop set up, and will quickly run through their images for the benefit of everybody. Most groups create online galleries or groups and share images through online channels after the shoot, and often one or more participants will shoot and mix a video, nicely illustrating the buzz and activity that takes place on most gatherings.
You also get to fondle some a lot of gear and see what other people use. If fellow Nikonians meet, there's a lot of Nikon-stuff around, and you will see other brands of gear, tripods, wireless triggers, light stands and a lot of other equipment and the NAS or GAS (Nikon/Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is bound to gallop before you leave.
Pooling gear can be another interesting aspect og meeting. You can get access to more SB800-flashes than you can shake a stick at, or get the chance to try some exotic lens or a piece of equipment you have been contemplating on buying.
The venues are mostly planned online in forums or on special sites. Whether they are a regularly occurring event or just arranged on a whiff after having seen a particularly nice weather forecast or found an intriguing location is a question of temper. Some planning can be a good idea, because a few interesting places require preparation and maybe even applying for admission or a permission to shoot. Many locations will not allow access or limit the use of flashes or tripods without a written permission, and there are places, which won't even allow hand held photography without prior consent of authorities, owners or other users.
Places like harbors, train stations, airports and other large infrastructure points such as bridges and major roads can be banned because of the fear of terror. Apply for permission in advance, either on the phone, through email to owners or authorities or by asking guards on the premises. Inquiries like that are often met positively, illustrated by one group that I participate in, who actually managed to get a large hotel in central Copenhagen to turn on their Christmas ornament lights for a winter evening's shoot an hour early by simply calling and asking.
It makes very good sense to have someone responsible for the arrangement, taking the initiative, making decisions, registering people, calling the shots and keeping the overview. This role can easily shift from person to person.
Have something to drink eat on the scene - in particular if you work with models, extras and assistants. You may also want tables and chairs if you have make up artists and models.
This is usually unpaid for-fun activities and the least the group can do is make sure the ones helping and participating will enjoy it. Make sure you offer to share images in good resolution with the models for their portfolios, and remember to sign model releases if the images are to be used commercially.
Be cautious and polite when shooting in public places. More and more people will feel bothered and intimidated by even a single photographer and a whole bunch of photographers shooting children on the local playground can set off a whole lot of flak from parents. So ask first and shoot later. Also remember that some people are sensitive when it comes to publishing pictures, and it's likely that some of the unknown people in your pictures want to remain exactly that - unknown.
On the other hand there might be some great options for a group of enthusiasts. Collectively shooting a ballgame on a local school, shooting buildings or construction sites in the neighborhood or offering photo services to one or other event in the community might even be met with gratitude, even money, and offered places to publish the images, online, in local papers or in local libraries or even the town hall.
Where to turn?
An obvious place to turn for Nikonians is the forum Travel & getting together - Nikonians travel and meet. In this forum Nikonians will announce trips and meetups, and even though many are in the US, there are also arrangements in other parts of the world.
Photowalking.org is a site dedicated to photowalks. Some of these are regular meetups with no walking - often referred to as indoor photowalks. This site is quite US centric, but occasionally there will be European venues.
The site Photoshop User has announced a World Wide Photowalk, which is truly world wide including meets in South America, Europe, Asia and even Africa. The event will take place on August 23rd and you can join for free - which more than 5000 people have done already.
Many meetups and photowalks are arranged through flickr. Search for photowalk, meetup or even strobist (for flash centric meetups) in the flickr-groups, and you will most likely find tonnes of groups that meet in real life too.
Photowalks and meetups are great because you get to tap on other photographer's knowledge and ideas and the option to share your own. There's a lot of inspiration to be found and lots of help to get assessing images, holding lights, arranging things, carrying, modeling, driving etc. Get out there and participate - or arrange one yourself.