Volunteering at Shutterfest: The Complete Guide

Photo by Craig Warnhoff

Shutterfest is a massive hands-on photography conference that celebrated it's 4th year last week popping up inside the Union Station Hotel for a three day marathon of shooting, learning, and networking.  Hosted by Shutter Magazine and Salvatore Cincotta Studios, the conference ranks as the third largest photography conference in the United States with 2200 attendees--not including staff, models, volunteers, etc. Registration is $149 for unlimited access to hands-on classes, demonstrations, photo walks, lectures, nightly networking events, lighting bays, and much more. Representatives from the biggest players in the industry flood the show floor to showcase their latest and greatest, usually available at a discount for attendees.  

For a conference of this magnitude, the registration fee is shockingly affordable ($149), however, as a frugal gal in her late twenties it made far more sense to volunteer. Are you considering volunteering next year? Or perhaps you're more curious about the conference in general. Read on for the inside scoop on volunteering at Shutterfest, complete with pro-tips to make your experience as pain free as possible!

The Perks

Full Access. When not performing assigned duties, Shutterfest volunteers are granted full access to the conference.  This includes all show areas and events, including show floor, classes and workshops, Profoto Lighting Experience, Rent-a-Human, networking mixers, sponsored photo walks, and more. In general, when you're not performing assigned duties, you'll have full access to the conference!

PRO-TIP. Don't forget about the show floor! As a volunteer and attendee it can be easy to forget about the show floor since you've got a packed schedule. However, don't overlook the freebies and discounts offered by the vendors. This year, one vendor even offered a free print of your choice!

PRO-TIP. Do you shoot with a Canon? This year, Canon offered free camera cleanings to its patrons. Apparently there was a significant wait, and with a typical cleaning cost averaging $100, I can see why. I shoot Sony, so unfortunately wasn't able to take advantage of this perk. Be on the look out for Canon's booth next year for your free cleaning!

Canon Theatre, largest conference meeting room

Canon Theatre, largest conference meeting room

Swag Bags & Lunch Vouchers. Volunteers are given special t-shirts to help attendees identify crew members, as well as the full conference swag bag containing freebies, coupons, and a thumb drive of all speaker presentations. The swag bag is usually only offered to guests of either the host hotels, the Hilton Ballpark and Union Station, but as a volunteer you get one too! Two lunch vouchers valued at $10 each (1 per day) are also given to volunteers the day before the conference, to be used at the visiting food trucks during lunch hour. Don't lose these vouchers, however, you won't be able to replace them if you lose them!

Griffin and the Gargoyles performing at 90s Party Networking Mixer, Day 2

Classes. As a volunteer at Shutterfest, you're granted automatic admission into classes, demonstrations, and lectures-- even if they're full. Classes are first come, first serve at Shutterfest, and you can bet they fill up quickly. As a regular attendee, registration for any given class closes once it fills...unless you're a volunteer. Class attendance/check-in is handled by the volunteers as well, so you'll never have any problems getting into a class!

PRO-TIP - Shutterfest has an app! I've downloaded useless event apps before. Let me assure you, this is not one. Surprisingly helpful, the app has a handy class schedule, interactive show map, speaker bios, photowalk schedules, and more. You can even register for classes and direct message other attendees! Do yourself a favor and make it easy on yourself. Download the app next year if you're attending Shutterfest 2018!

Profoto Lighting Experience. Another perk offered to volunteers is the ability to rent and play with Profoto lighting gear when you aren't performing other assignments. Profoto has team members onsite to assist you in connecting your camera and to answer any questions you may have about studio lighting, equipment, and more. Check out a couple of my shots from the lighting bays below!

Rent-a-Human. When you aren't assigned other duties, volunteers are encouraged to take advantage of Shutterfest's "Rent-a-Human" program. Yes, you read correctly. Rent-a-Human is Shutterfest's modeling program. Models from across the country are invited to work with attendees on the basis of portfolio trade, enabling attendees to find and rent models that fit within a particular photography niche (ie. HS seniors, bridal, glamour, fashion, boudoir, etc.).  Photographers are allowed transport the model off grounds, but must return within the 90 minutes allotted.  

The only requirement? As the models are working on the basis of portfolio trade, you must pass along the photos you edit to them! Many of them are not locals and paid significant travel costs to be there. Models have information cards that photographers are able to photograph with their name and email address to help attendees contact their models after the conference. Check out the sign up sheet below!

PRO-TIP - Looking to do more out-of-the-box shoots? Shutterfest has a private Facebook group for the models and photographers attending Shutterfest to communicate prior/during the conference. Here is where the really special shoots can be arranged and planned in advance of the event. I didn't catch onto this until halfway through the conference, and was so jealous of the amount of themed shoots I saw going on: everything from pole vaulting to cosplay!

PRO-TIP - Don't have the time to wait in line for a model? You'll be surprised how many you'll see walking around the hotel, often in between shoots. Flag one down and ask if they'd like to model for you! This is particularly helpful for volunteers who may have limited shooting time in between duties. I had the most success by hanging around the Profoto Lighting Bays, as the Rent-a-Human booth is located right next to it!

Curious what it's like from a modeling perspective? Click here to read to what Aquisha LA Gross, veteran model and blogger, said about her first experience as a model at Shutterfest!

Shutterfest Extreme. Shutterfest volunteers are granted free access to Shutterfest Extreme, the third day of the conference, which focuses entirely on the business aspect of photography. Usually costing an additional $170 for the average attendee, this all-day, lecture-style seminar covers pricing & packaging, client consultations, marketing for photographers, social media strategies, and more. Volunteer duties end the day prior, which makes this the perfect opportunity to soak in even more of the experience without a competing schedule. The coordinators even ordered pizza for the volunteers during the lunch break as a thank you for all of our hard work!  

The Job

Photo by Craig Warnhoff

To volunteer for Shutterfest, coordinators require a $99 deposit to secure your spot. Your $99 is refunded at the conclusion of the conference after tear down and completion of your volunteer duties. I considered this their anti-flaking guarantee and I don't blame them.

Day 1: Set-Up. Volunteers are responsible for setting up the show floor and internal stations the day before the conference. Unfortunately, this day fell on Easter Sunday. Womp womp. Not ideal, but I celebrated in the morning and considered it a trade off for a three day marathon of all things photography. 

PRO-TIP: Thanks to Christy Wilson Woods for pointing out that Easter Sunday will fall adjacent to Shutterfest next year as well! Please take note if an Easter commitment is a deal breaker for you.

We met at 2pm for a tour of the hotel and show area, followed by the ceremonial unloading of the trucks. Sal Cincotta, CEO of Shutter Magazine and Chief Creative of Salvatore Cincotta Studios, was honorably present and even helped alongside volunteers to unload 2 U-Haul trucks filled to capacity with everything you can imagine you'd need for one of the largest photography conferences in America. Fleets of TVs for enormous tower displays, prints in all shapes and sizes, Profoto lighting gear, signage, freebies, t-shirts, and much more.  Boxes were coded by area and two teams worked at once to both unload the truck and distribute the boxes to their destination on the show floor and beyond. Like ants we tossed packages from one hand to another's.

It wasn't hard work, per se, but I took as a personal challenge and lifted as many boxes as I could. Might as well make use of the time that I've got, right? We stopped for a short break. They had snacks and water which always help to lift morale, followed by a goodbye from Sal as we moved into the assembling of booths. Thankfully we made quick work of it, and the process was relatively painless. Although we were scheduled until 8pm, we finished around 5pm and were free to go afterwards!

PRO-TIP. Set-up and tear-down are the only two times you'll be together as a complete volunteer group. Take advantage of this first day and network with your fellow volunteers! Pass out business cards and exchange social media information. You never know you might be volunteering with. Plus, the friendships you make this first day often are the strongest you'll make throughout the conference!

PRO-TIP. Prior months of Shutter Magazine are given out during the conference, and part of your volunteer duties will be helping set up the show floor, which includes the Shutter Magazine booth. This means volunteers get first dibs on the magazines, usually costing $49/year for a subscription. Monthly editions focus on one niche of the industry (ie. travel, HS seniors, family, fashion, etc) and contain helpful educational articles, interviews with the top photographers in the business, image competitions, and more. Trust me, these get snatched up quickly. Grab and extra box and nab yours first!

Days 2 & 3: Team Assignments. As a Shutterfest volunteer, there are several different teams you may be asked to work on: Registration, Rent-a-Human, Speaker Volunteer, etc. Your specific duties (and hours) are dependent upon what team you're placed on. For example, Registration volunteers will work the Check-in Table, where attendees can get their badges and pick-up a show floor map, Swag Table volunteers will hand out Swag Bags to attendees, and so on.

I was placed on the Speaker Volunteer team for the duration of the conference. My main duties included picking up class rosters, checking-in folks who registered for classes ahead of time, assisting the speakers with any issues before/during class, and keeping a handle on room capacity. Most speakers allow volunteers to shoot and/or learn along with the other attendees, so this role is perfect if you're wanting to learn as much as you can during the conference.

Communication between the volunteers was housed though another surprisingly helpful app called 'Slack.' Here, coordinators were able to communicate with groups of volunteers, and volunteers were able to direct message each other. Any announcements from coordinators concerning meetings, needed extra volunteers, etc. were routed through the Slack app, and pushed through as notifications on our cell phones.

PRO-TIP. Be a Speaker Volunteer. I'm going to be completely honest with you guys: this is the team you want to be on. I've spoken with other volunteers who were assigned to other groups, and I've largely gathered that your schedule is far less taxing as a Speaker Volunteer. Because classes occur in just 4 time slots per day (8:30am, 10:30am, 2:30pm, & 4:30pm), you're typically only asked to work within these 90 minute time frames. Thinking about volunteering next year? I recommend you sign up for this team first!

Enjoying a glass of wine at the end of the day! Photo by Craig Warnhoff

Day 3: Tear Down. The tear-down is the final portion of your volunteer duties and takes place Wednesday evening after the show floor closes. Shutterfest volunteers are required to assist in breaking down the conference floor and repacking the 2 U-Haul trucks that started us on this adventure. The trucks were considerably less packed this go around--much of the freebies taken and food for vendors eaten by ravenous volunteers.

Perhaps it was the glass of wine I had before we started, but the process seemed (again) to be relatively pain-free, and we were free to join the party in the Grand Hall before long. Before we were dismissed, our refund checks were handed out and I bid a fond farewell to my volunteer comrades. Although many of us would stay for Shutterfest Extreme the following day, others prepared to make the journey home.

Day 4: Shutterfest Extreme. This all day lecture-style seminar focused exclusively on the business aspect of photography. Four speakers presented on topics including talking about pricing and packaging, money and client consultations, marketing and generating new sales apart from referrals, and more. As a new photographer, I found this portion of the conference hugely beneficial. A good photographer does not always a good business owner make. I was surprised by how much of the information was practical, focusing on real-world strategies that I can implement immediately to increase sales generation. Relying on referrals solely is a feast or famine business, and I was largely unaware of the many things that photographers can do to prospect new clients.

I admit I was guilty of overlooking this added bonus, and it may be easy for you to do the same. You figure, I've been in photography classes over the past couple days. Surely, there can't be that much information that I'm unaware of? I was so wrong, guys. There is a wealth of knowledge I didn't have about how photographers become successful business owners. Within the first 10 minutes, I'd learned more about the business of photography than in the entirety of the conference. If you're struggling with consistent sales generation or wondering how you make that jump into independent business owner, this is the perfect seminar for you. And what's more- as a volunteer, you get free access! Check out the class lineup and speakers for Shutterfest Extreme below! 

PRO-TIP: Didn't get a chance to attend Shutterfest Extreme but want to know more about the business side of photography? Check out ShutterNetwork, Shutter Magazine's free YouTube show hosted by Salvatore Cincotta that elaborates on business and marketing strategies for photographers. Click here for more information!

Photo by Craig Warnhoff

The final word. Personally, I had a blast volunteering for Shutterfest. The coordinators were always positive and helpful, even in high-stress situations. I was thanked several times by both speakers and attendees; I never got the sense that my time was wasted or unappreciated. Outside of my assigned duties, I still had time to attend two classes, use the Rent-a-Human program twice, and play with Profoto lighting equipment. Plus, Shutterfest Extreme gave me the opportunity to focus more intently on learning without a competing schedule.

I will share that some of the other volunteers- assigned to other teams- were not as happy with their experience. Although my assignment of Speaker Volunteer allowed me to sit in classes and feel as much a part of the conference as a regular attendee, it seemed others' assignments did not allow for the same. Although my experience was overwhelmingly positive, I'm not quite sure I would've walked away with the same impression had I been assigned to another team (Registration, Swag Booth, Rent-a-Human, etc). I heard horror stories about folks that were scheduled from 6am to 8pm with only a single 2 hour break to fit in conference activities. Many of them expressed frustration, and from all the information I've gathered, I don't blame them. Most Shutterfest volunteers are not from Saint Louis and pay considerable travel costs to be there. Unless the conference experience is somewhat available to volunteers, the job quickly loses appeal. From what I understand, this year's conference was much more organized than prior years'. I can only assume that they will follow this trend, and continue to improve the volunteer process in 2018.

But you want to know: would I do it again? Absolutely, yes. However, for reasons we've already covered, I'll be sure to request placement on the Speaker Volunteer team if I volunteer again. If you are wanting to be apart of the action without forking over the cash it's a perfect way to check out the conference.  As a Shutterfest newbie, it gave me the opportunity to learn the "ropes" of the conference so that if I decide to attend as a regular attendee next year, I know how to get the best out of the conference as a whole. I also had the opportunity to meet the Shutterfest coordinators as well, so next year I'll already have friends in high places!

Shutterfest exceeded my expectations and more. The energy inside the Union Station Hotel was palpable for those three days, as photographers of all disciplines milled between classes, the show floor, and other conference programs. It didn't matter what time of day it was, there were shoots going on at all hours with models of all shapes and sizes.  The sheer amount of photographers and the number of niches represented was incredible. It's an understatement to say that I'll be back next year!

Click here for more information about Shutterfest 2018!