Photo Walks – A Guide to Plan, Execute, and Attend
If there’s one thing that I miss running and attending, it is photo walks. But with things starting to look a little better, the future of starting these events up again is much nearer than it was this time last year. Before I get into things more, back in 2013, I happened across a post on the Toronto regional section’s old APUG forum. There was a post stating that there were not enough Toronto film photography centred photo walks. I took a bit to think about what I could do for the community. I had run a Toronto film event for the Film Photography Project/APUG in 2011 in the Distillery District (for those not from Ontario, Canada, the Distillery District is the former Gooderham & Worts Distillery that was restored as art, studios, and retail area). The event was well attended, could I do something like that again? I dedicated myself to run four events in a year, one each season, summer, fall, winter, and spring. Getting that first event off the ground proved a lot of pain and effort to get the group to settle on a date, time, and location. But in July 2013, I was at the Don Valley Brick Works (Another restored former industrial location in Toronto), and people showed up, a lot of people showed up. I think I hit on something. Slowly the Toronto Film Shooters Meetup, as the group came to be known, grew. The last meetup before the pandemic disrupted our lives; we had the largest group turnout ever. I mean, we filled the bar that ended the walk. Despite not having met in person in over a year, the group continues to share work and have even done two virtual meetups. Throughout this post, I will walk you through some points on how to plan a photo walk of your own and to attend these walks both as a host and as an attendee.
Planning the Walk
The first thing that needs to be done is to plan the walk proper. At the very start, you need to decide on the day and the time of the event. When I first started running these events, I would often reach out to the community to develop a day and time that worked best for everyone. This is an impossible task. You ask five people for a day and time that works; you’ll get twenty responses. Making it all but impossible to settle on a workable day and time, and someone will always be annoyed. I quickly found out that the only person you need to worry about actually making out for the event is you, so pick a day and time that works best for you. While you may think that you can alienate the participants, most will latch onto a sense of leadership and can, after a time, make their schedules work to attend the events.
With a day and time chosen, the next step is to pick a location. When it comes to location, the easiest thing to do is to go with what you know. Your own adventures and travels are the best place to start in picking a location. This reason is twofold. The first is that you will know the area best and won’t get lost, and you can show off the location to all those in attendance. The downside is that what you like to photograph isn’t what everyone else likes to photograph. In that case, try and choose a spot that offers up multiple subject matters. It would help if you also made sure the location has access to parking, transit, and, importantly, refreshment. The rule of thumb within the Toronto Film Shooters is to start with Coffee end with Beer. This means for the person planning a meetup to find a good local coffee shop, usually something independent, but we have used a Starbucks a couple of times. And end with a spot with a pub environment and a good beer list. When it comes to a route, you can go one of two ways. The first is to have a walking route, either something that goes from starting point to an endpoint or a circular route that loops back to where you started. Do your best to know the route yourself, walk it before the event if possible, and even publish the route on the event page. The best bet is to aim for at least an hour out in the field but build in some time to allow people to wander. If your location allows it, the second option is to give people the freedom to move in a group around a single spot. The plotted route often works well when you are in a larger urban environment; moving from a start point to an endpoint offers up a chance to get a good view of a neighbourhood or a series of neighbourhoods, but often requires a lot of pre-planning, same with a circular route, for smaller urban areas giving those in attendance a chance to explore on their own in small groups.
Promoting the Walk
It’s all well and good to plan a cracking photo walk, but if there’s no one to attend the walk because they don’t know about it, what was the point of all your hard work? Thankfully these days, you don’t have to worry about phone trees, mailing lists, or advertising in newspapers. But you can take some of these ideas and apply them to the modern world flush with tones of promotional options. Despite having a lot of issues, Social Media is your friend and your enemy. While the Toronto Film Shooters Meetup initially started in the old APUG forum, I quickly transitioned to Facebook, mainly because of creating public events. Now, not all events have to be public; I usually make a point to keep the main seasonal events public. But then there are other events that I keep private specifically for the group itself. Having a group on Facebook for your photo walk group is probably the best choice I ever made. But make sure to cross-promote the event to other groups related to your main group. Make sure that such promotion is allowed under the rules (ask privately to a group admin before posting). It’s also important to spread the word through other platforms. Twitter is an okay option, but not always the best. I have found that Instagram yields excellent results, which came as a surprise. And I truly feel that because I threw the event up on Instagram back in February 2020, we ended up with such a good showing. And finally, there is a website that is dedicated to promoting photo walks at photowalk.me.
But probably the best way to promote your photo walks is to talk about them after the fact. That means post about it several times on Instagram, even pick a hashtag to associate with the group and encourage and inform those in attendance to share under that tag. And most importantly, follow that tag and favourite and reshare the work of others. And also encourage participants to join the group on Facebook or even a group on Flickr, then share their work there. The idea is that while a photo walk is a single event, you can start to build a community of like-minded photographers.
Executing the Walk
The day of the walk is what all your hard work has to lead up to, actually executing the walk in the real world. It can be rather scary that first walk, and there are plenty of things that can go wrong, but even more that can go right. Running a photo walk is different from attending one. As the host, people expect some level of leadership from you, direction, and help. You can help yourself by making sure you know the route, and as I mentioned earlier, try and walk it beforehand. It would be horrible to get yourself lost on your own walk. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it won’t happen to me.
On the day of the event, you should show up early; it will give you a chance to collect your thoughts and make sure that you get there before any of the attendees show up. There’s nothing worse than getting to an event and having the person or persons running the whole thing be late or worse, a no-show. Keep yourself visible in the meeting spot, usually keeping a camera out. And be friendly, speak to everyone you can. Make sure your communications are on key and understood. Do your best to pay attention to any messages coming through on your social media entries and help the folks who are running late getting to the spot before leaving. But don’t let a few latecomers hold up the group. But make sure those running late know where the group is going to be.
Another important part of running the event is deciding what to do with inclement weather. I chose the second event in the Fall of 2013 to go in almost any weather condition. Because Canadian weather is hard to predict, the group has gone out in almost any condition. And I mean any condition, from a summer with enough humidity that resulted in a summer thunderstorm. A deep freeze resulted in the event lasting a whole fifteen minutes. And yes, even a snowstorm had a surprisingly good turn out and some of my favourite photos of the city in the winter. But the choice is up to you, and if you don’t want to brave the elements, it’s important to have a backup plan. That can be a shorter walk or sticking around at the starting point and chatting for some time. Make sure that any changes are communicated, clearing and as early as possible.
The final part of executing the event is actually leading the group around. While not as important as ones where people have the freedom of the area when actually taking the group from start to end, it’s important to let the group know what time folks should be at the endpoint, especially if you’ve made any reservations. I found quickly that trying to keep a large group together is next to impossible; letting people wander at their own pace is important. But also important is making sure everyone knows where they’re going. As the leader best to keep moving between groups. It might reduce the number of images you shoot, but you can socialize with all those in attendance and help build that sense of community. And more importantly, make sure that people know where to go! That can even mean staying on a corner and waiting, but if it helps the group, it’s all worth it in the end.
Attending a Photo Walk
While I find running photo walks a fulfilling experience, and I’ve only gotten better over the eight years running the Toronto Film Shooters group, there is also something for actually attending the event. Not only does it give you a chance to relax, but you can focus on image creation and socializing with the members. Plus, it gives another member of the group a chance to run an event. Which can only help build that sense of community within the group! Within the Toronto Film Shooters community, members like Bill, John, James, and Tony have hosted amazing photo walks.
I have overpacked for trips, and I have overpacked for photo walks and regretted that in both cases. One of the worst things you can do to yourself is, on a walking event, pack five cameras, two lenses each, and constantly be lugging them around and falling out behind the group. And trust me, you will be worse for wear at the end of it all. Even when running an event, I do my best to bring no more than two cameras, and if I’m doing a lot of walking, I’ll make sure they don’t add too much weight. It’s more important to bring more film than cameras. Also, you probably will be shooting less than you expect to! Ensure that you get to the event on time and do your best to stay with the group. And be social, talk to people, both old friends and new attendees, especially if you’ve been to events in the past. Make sure to take photos of the participants to have that memory and help make them feel part of the community. And finally, make sure to share your photos, use any social media tags that the group has or the event has. And then share them on any social media groups that the group is associated with. If you have a blog, write about the event. Anything you do, no matter how small, can help promote that group’s next event.
One of the best things you can do is be consistent with your photo walks; while a one-off photo walk is good, committing to hosting a series of walks is better. Also, be consistent in attending photo walks. The idea behind all of this is to build community among fellow photographers, so a social aspect should always be a part of the walk. Some of the worst photo walks I’ve attended have had zero social interactions, nothing but a group of photographers shooting in silence. Yeah, that wasn’t fun. Plus, once you have a core community, let the leadership reins go a little bit, allow others to start planning walks. Trust me, it will make your life much easier and encourages that sense of community because those who set up and start planning to offer a fresh look, a fresh area, and potentially a new favourite spot for coffees or beers. And that is one thing that I do mention to anyone who wants to plan a walk for the Toronto Group is start with coffee and end with beer. And honestly, I’ve attended some awesome walks planned by members of the Toronto Film Shooter group that have been amazing, and I got a pile of awesome photos at these events. As a host, the thing you cannot do is get discouraged. Thankfully I have only had one Toronto Film Shooters event where not a single person showed up. That was mainly because of my own stupidity for changing things at the last minute; I have been cautious since then. Also, I did not let that one event stop me from planning other ones and here we are today.
While we cannot hold large events in the usual style, we have been holding virtual events that usually involve the group heading out solo and joining in a virtual pub after the fact! It helps keep that community together. And that is the final consideration; especially these days, it is to make sure that any gathering or photo walk meets local public health guidelines. And hopefully, by the end of the year, we start having amazing photo walks! I hope that this article has kicked off a spark in you to start up a similar group in your area, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of those events.