MasterClass Review (Annie Leibovitz & Jimmy Chin)
Check out this review of the MasterClass series of online videos. Is it worth the money for photographers, or individuals looking to learn a new craft?
By Mark Condon
I put together this Masterclass review for photographers and anyone interested to learn from world-famous instructors.
Masterclass is certainly a unique concept and one that attracted over 30,000 students within a few months of its release, back in 2015.
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Since then it’s grown into a popular if somewhat misunderstood, portal for education and entertainment that’s accessible on your tv or mobile device.
In this review, I want to uncover whether the MasterClass lessons are entertaining and useful for photographers like us.
What is MasterClass?
MasterClass is an online education platform, where students can pay to access tutorials and interviews by experts and renowned personalities in various fields.
Learning cooking from Gordon Ramsey, creativity from Anna Wintour, writing from Malcolm Gladwell, acting from Samuel L. Jackson, comedy from Steve Martin, tennis from Serena Williams… there’s certainly an impressive list of ‘teachers’on MasterClass!
Each expert speaks directly to you the student in a video lesson and includes exercises, workbooks, communities and interview sessions.
A typical MasterClass has between 10~25 video lessons that total 2~5 hours in total, and can be watched on any device with access to the Internet.
Classes can also be downloaded for offline use, which is particularly good if you’ll be on a flight without access to WiFi.
Since the release of the Apple TV 4 and Google Chromecast, you can also access the lessons via a dedicated app on an Internet-enabled tv.
What does MasterClass offer Photographers?
Throughout the course of the year, several new MasterClasses are added to the existing catalog.
At the time of writing here in January 2023, there are only two lessons on offer that focus specifically on photography.
Considering the subscription cost of the All-Access Masterclass Pass (more on that later), this may not seem like a lot of content to consume for a photographer.
However, at a closer glance, there are actually several other lessons that can be useful for photographers, especially professionals or those wanting to improve their skills with clients.
I particularly enjoyed the MasterClass on Negotiation with acclaimed US hostage negotiator Chris Voss, which included several immediately actionable (and surprisingly simple) tips on how to ‘get your way’ in negotiations, without making your adversary feel like they’ve lost.
This lesson would be particularly valuable to any photographer who’s ever had to negotiate with a client, or tried in-person sales.
Then there are the MasterClass lessons which focus on creativity, such as ones by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, two ad-agency owners I’d never heard of, and filmmaker David Lynch.
A lesson on self-made entrepreneurship by the founder of Spanx sounds a little ridiculous, but maybe useful to someone starting a photography business, or any business for that matter.
Neil Gaiman on storytelling, Martin Scorsese on film making… even Ron Howard on directing – there’s actually a surprising amount that photographers can benefit from generic MasterClass lessons that aren’t labelled ‘photography’.
Then, of course, are all the hobbies other than photography that you may have. You may want to learn wine-tasting, tennis, basketball, ballet, makeup… there’s a celebrity MasterClass instructor ready to help out – see them all here.
If any of these titles interest to you, I recommend you grab the All-Access MasterClass since it’s much better value than purchasing the classes individually.
Let’s take a closer look at the two photography MasterClass lessons.
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
Annie Leibovitz is a highly-acclaimed portrait photographer, best known for her engaging portraits of celebrities.
While there are several books by Leibovitz (I own and recommend ‘At Work’), this is the first time a video course has ever been released.
Following the flurry of adverts across social media at the launch of Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography, the camera-loving community was abuzz with comments on this particular MasterClass creation.
Reviews ranged from excellent to terrible, with the latter being more prevalent on the popular photography websites. Negative reviews are always disproportionately published, which I always find unfortunate.
However, I waited over a year to take a proper look, so here’s my short review of the Annie Leibovitz MasterClass.
It’s important that you don’t go into it expecting a Dummies Guide to Celebrity Portrait Photography, or tons of actionable advice.
Indeed, I found the second lesson rather slow and boring, in which Leibovitz addressed students in a classroom setting. It was also slightly odd to go from a one-on-one to a multi-student setting.
Thankfully, each lesson is split into sub-chapters, and I was able to skip through to the ‘meat’ of the MasterClass – advice on how the photographer shoots, and how she interacts with clients.
Leibovitz is outspoken for being a ‘non-technical’ photographer, but if you listen carefully, there are still plenty of nuggets of information that photographers of all levels can put to immediate use.
The chapter on post-processing in the Annie Leibovitz MasterClass was especially interesting, to watch how Leibovitz doesn’t even touch the computer, but rather instructs her editor to make every slight edit to her photos. It was mesmerising to watch an image go from straight-out-of-camera to ready-for-print.
There are downloadable lesson recaps and assignments too – I particularly liked the one on natural light, recommending you to shoot a subject at 3 times of the day and analyse the differences.
The Annie Leibovitz MasterClass gives an interesting peek into the mind of a world-famous conceptual photographer. It’s something a book cannot easily convey.
The only thing I thought it was missing was a behind-the-scenes look at an actual Annie Leibovitz photo shoot – being able to watch as she directs subjects and works with her various lighting techniques would have been valuable and insightful.
You may not take many notes on how to shoot a portrait photo, but the whole experience of watching Annie explain her philosophy and experiences shooting various celebrities is worth the cost of the MasterClass several times over.
After all, would you pay $100 to hear Annie Leibovitz speak for over 3 hours? I certainly would, and this format makes it all the more convenient.
I recommend you watch the Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography with the mindset of being entertained, rather than being educated.
Although you do learn some valuable tips, the value is really an insight into the mind of a creative genius, rather than a ‘how-to-photograph’ tutorial.
Educational Content: 7/10 | Production Quality: 9/10 | Value for Money: 9/10
Jimmy Chin teaches Adventure Photography
You’ve probably come across the name Jimmy Chin if you watch the various rock climbing documentaries on Netflix – Jimmy has documented many famous climbers over his years as a photographer.
This MasterClass moves at a different pace to the Annie Leibovitz one. Instead of a slow lead-in, we’re thrown straight into a shoot with Jimmy hanging off a cliff face with his camera and the ‘talent’ dangling precariously in front of him.
There’s a fair bit of gear talk too which will please many of us, with Jimmy explaining his various equipment choices to remain agile in potentially dangerous situations, while still having the versatility to capture his shot.
I’m not afraid to say that I wasn’t blown away by Jimmy Chin’s photography. I believe that any talented photographer could produce a similar quality of image, if not ones that are better.
Jimmy’s success appears to have come from niching down on a very specific form of photography – one which requires as much expertise in the particular sport as it does in photography, as well as forging strong relationships with his subjects, and clients.
Being able to position yourself on a cliff face in just the right position to capture the subject requires years of experience, and this particular MasterClass gives a great insight into Jimmy’s expert process.
For photographers wishing to break into commercial photography, the lesson in Jimmy Chin’s MasterClass on pitching and working with clients is especially interesting, and a topic not often broached by successful photographers.
The behind the scenes look at Jimmy Chin’s editing process with landscapes and portrait photography was also interesting, as was an in-depth explanation into Jimmy’s creative vision and narrative.
There’s a healthy balance in this MasterClass on technical advice (gear choices, camera modes, composition, post-production), financial success as a photographer (pitching and dealing with clients), and creativity (narrative, story-telling, etc.)
If you’re fortunate enough to own an Apple TV with the MasterClass app, you’ll be treated to some incredible visuals of the great outdoors – an added bonus of the locations used by Jimmy to illustrate his process.
All in all, I found this MasterClass lesson to be more informative and enjoyable than the Annie Leibovitz class reviewed above.
There’s a lot of actionable advice for a wide range of photographer levels, and several of the lessons deserve repeat watching.
It’s an alluring glimpse into a world of photography many of us will never have the fortune to experience.
Educational Content: 9/10 | Production Quality: 10/10 | Value for Money: 10/10
Who is MasterClass for?
While I’m writing this MasterClass review for photographers, it’s clear that with its catalogue of over 50 world-class athletes, chefs, actors, designers, and every other profession under the sun, MasterClass is for pretty much anyone!
For the purposes of this review, I’ve dipped into 7 of the MasterClass lessons, on a wide range of topics.
No matter the topic, each class is an interesting and entertaining insight into the minds of various well-known and talented individuals at the top of their game, with a side-serving of advice you can take away and actually put into action.
I think the various MasterClass lessons are entertaining, interesting and excellent value for money.
In addition, the free smartphone/tablet app with offline viewing options makes it all particularly convenient to consume, and those with an Apple TV or Chromecast can be treated to the high-quality visuals on a bigger screen.
How much does MasterClass Cost?
A MasterClass All-Access Pass which allows you access to every lesson costs $180/year.
You can also purchase any class individually for $90.
Although you may have read this MasterClass review as a photographer, and thought that you’re only interested in either the Annie Leibovitz or the Jimmy Chin lessons, I recommend you opt for the All-Access Pass.
If you have other hobbies which are included in the existing lesson catalogue, then buying an All-Access Pass is a no-brainer.
If you’re like me and are interested to hear from world-class athletes, actors, designers etc just for fun, then the All-Access Pass is great value for money.
It’s great being able to watch classes on my phone or tablet while travelling (you can even download lessons for offline viewing), and having the Apple TV app makes viewing while at home comfortable and simple.
While I don’t imagine you’d watch the same lessons over and over again, there are some tidbits that you’d want to reference in each one, and thankfully there’s an ‘add to my list’ bookmarking function so you can save individual lessons from the classes.
MasterClass offers a unique peek into a world that many of us will never experience first-hand. Having access to such talented and successful individuals at this price is very alluring.
You can also purchase an All-Access Pass for someone else, which would make a great gift for a photographer who has everything.
MasterClass is arguably a luxury that none of us actually need, but one that is truly interesting and entertaining.
For about the price of Netflix, you have access to a world-class assortment of instructors and can learn tricks of the trade which you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Even if you can only see one lesson that matches your current interests, I recommend you delve deeper into the rest of the catalogue.
No matter the discipline, anyone performing a craft at this level has wisdom to share that we can all benefit from.
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