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Photography shows are going online, some for free. But can it replace in-person?

Photography shows typically pack people and cameras into a convention hall for what many call invaluable education, critique, and networking — but in the era of COVID-19, small regional events to major productions are canceling or morphing into a virtual experience. The change is a welcome adaptation in some ways, starting with the heavily discounted or in some cases free tickets. But do all of the perks of a photography show translate into an online experience?

Virtually there

From The Portrait Masters to Adobe Max, moving online-only is the popular move in the industry; even the Consumer Electronics Show 2021 is going entirely virtual. Some, like Photokina, were outright canceled, while others, like Photoplus, are holding out hope and waiting to see what fall brings (though PhotoPlus told Digital Trends that it is developing a virtual component to go along with the show, which will be officially announced soon). Sony’s usual Kando Trip morphed into KandoEverywhere, an online event August 15-16.

Peter Hurley works on behind-the-scenes content for The Portrait Masters online event. The Portrait Masters

Large events aren’t simply moving to a streamed webcam experience, however, with many spending weeks recording content for the event. “We were fortunate that online education was our business. We know production and how to create amazing content better than most,” said George Varanakis, the co-founder of The Portrait Masters conference and Sue Bryce Education. “When the opportunity presented itself to go online this year, we jumped at the chance. We’ve created a unique experience for all the attendees and vendors alike. I do believe we’ll do more of these types of events in 2021 and beyond because they can also complement your in-person event as well. It gives people that have never been to any of your events a feel for what you can do in-person.”

While speeches and presentations are easily adapted to an online experience, the events are often valued for the ability to form relationships with other photographers, either commiserating with shooters at the same skill level or finding mentorship from a veteran. With online events, there is little potential for ad hoc meet-ups with other attendees or end-of-day social gatherings. 

Organizers are getting creative — and relying on technology — to sprinkle some of that networking back into the event. Varanakis says that the 2020 virtual event, slated for September 21-23, offers several different ways to network with other virtual attendees, including real-time chat pods with the speakers, Zoom meet-ups, and a virtual costume party.

This year’s Adobe Max will be both completely virtual and free, October 21 to 22, with a list of speakers from Annie Leibowitz to Keanu Reeves. Registration is now open online.

“One of the primary benefits of attending a physical event is the networking opportunities provided by coffee and lunch breaks, socializing, and, frankly, meeting someone serendipitously. It’s much harder to replicate those conditions virtually through technology,” said Julie Martin, Adobe’s senior director for trade shows and events. “This challenge presents us with opportunities to use new technologies to build relationships without physical contact. Many of these new technologies are nascent, and event producers are having to get creative by combining platforms and technologies such as chat/networking, video streaming, polling, and gamification to enable engaging experiences.”

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen adresses the crowd at the 2019 Adobe MAX. This year’s event will be entirely online. Adobe

While some experiences may be impossible to simulate with a virtual event, organizers of several shows are planning on more content than if the event were in person, reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. The Portrait Masters typically has nine speakers; this year’s online event has more than 30 and includes more topics, including business topics and sessions addressing the challenges of working as a photographer in the middle of a pandemic. And Adobe Max is planing a list of sessions that cater to a wider variety of skill levels, organizers say.

The online format also opens up sessions to more than speeches. The Portrait Masters will have Sponsored Shootouts, where viewers can go behind-the-scenes of photo shoots. Adobe Max will welcome worldwide talent for presenters and expecting a worldwide audience to tune in.

“Virtual presentations allow us to tap into creative, musical, and celebrity talent that may not have been available for the physical event,” Martin said. “In the same vein, we can engage with creatives from around the world through collaborative art projects and challenges — these activities wouldn’t have been possible for an international audience if we weren’t online.”

Besides the longer list of speakers and virtual networking, the move to online events has one more major perk: cost. Adobe Max will be free this year, a big change from last year’s $1,495 early-bird tickets. The Portrait Masters typically costs $1,800 to $2,500 to attend, not including travel expenses, but this year’s event will be $149 for 30-day access to all the online content or $299 to download and keep the conference videos.

A Catch-22

While chat rooms and video learning will help, online events won’t be able to 100 percent replace the networking or hands-on elements of in-person photography conferences. Experienced photographers looking for a mentor to take that next step will have to work harder to connect via chat rather than social experiences that may have previously unfolded naturally in hallways, auditoriums, or dining tables. But by going online and dropping prices, more photographers will have the chance to attend, bringing the workshop materials to new photographers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a ticket.

It will be interesting to watch how the perennially social photography crowd responds to all-online learning. If successful, it will call into question the need for the expense associated with in-person learning, and these organizations will have their work cut out for them if they choose to increase their prices when in-person events resume. If unsuccessful, these events and associated organizations might not be able to last another year with mounting costs and reduced income.

It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. At this point, most are probably just trying to make it through this period and will attempt to figure out what to do next after. They’ll photograph that bridge when they come to it.

Updated on Aug. 17 to include Adobe’s latest announcements and registration for Max 2020.

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