Learning photography. What really matters

Someone has sent me a link to an article recommending interesting blogs about photography. I liked the beginning:

There are numerous ways to improve one’s skills – from free online lessons to real courses at photo schools. Books, video guides, workshops – but what really matters? Do sessions that promise to refine your skills pay off or are you just lining the pockets of clever people with more experience than yourself? Should you spend time reading free articles by various gurus or is that just another self-promotion trick? Today we are going to talk about what you can learn for free.

Argh. What a great opener – and right away winds down to a list of free blogs, articles and books (mine is also recommended). In my opinion, that’s not nearly enough. Materials like that are good and valuable accessories, but they don’t lay down the foundation. You may ask, what is the most important thing then? How should one go about learning photography? Because it’s mostly newbies who ask those questions, I would answer as follows on their level – that is, keeping things simple:

1. Self-education

First of all I want to say that photography, like any other art, does not require specialized training. The most precious thing we have is our desire for self-expression and creative intuition, so that is what you should develop. People richly gifted in those do perfectly well self-taught (self-education is necessary for everyone else, too). But such people are exceptional, so even renowned photographers were not ashamed in the early days to ask for help from more experienced brethren.

2. Choosing a direction

It’s very important to be clear what you prefer to shoot. There are many, many directions you can take in photography, even more teachers, courses and publications. Don’t waste time on things you don’t care for and will never use. For example, if you like doing studio portraits, it doesn’t make sense to study as, say, a photo journalist, read up on appropriate literature etc. Don’t overextend yourself. From the wide variety of courses/books/articles select only those that really interest you. The ability to filter the flow of information and consciously abstain from unimportant things is a crucial skill – not only for a photography student but for any artist.

3. Studying the old masters

Once you have figured out which direction is interesting for you to develop in and experiment, begin to study famous masters of that genre. Visual erudition is extremely important to a photographer. To take a good picture you first need to learn to discern a good picture. And because photography has inherited conventions of painting, you should really begin by studying painted art.

4. Minimum equipment

Many students of photography begin by delving into specifics of photographic equipment, mixing and matching cameras and lenses. That is one of the two most wrong-headed approaches you can take (the second coming just below). Remember – it’s not the camera that takes a picture, it’s the person behind it. Sure, a good camera helps – but only those who already know what they are looking to shoot and the kind of equipment they need. If you are just finding your way, trust me, the camera of a regular mobile phone will quite suffice.

5. Minimum processing

The second wrong-headed and incredibly common approach with beginning photographers is to throw themselves into the minutae of image processing. I’ve been through that myself, so believe me when I say: various treatments are not only of secondary importance, they lead you astray from the core nature of photography. If you are starting from processing, you have a particularly winding road ahead of you, if it leads anywhere at all. Of course, processing matters, and you should study it. But it is only a tool, a means of expression, so get something to express first. If you have something worth delivering, you can do it with a very slight knowledge of processing tools, or even without them.

6. Practice, practice, practice

Practice makes perfect – more than anything. So if you are choosing between photography courses, it makes sense to pick those with strong emphasis on practical work – in class, as homework, assignment reviews, discussion of pictures etc. If this is a course on image processing, try to find one where you get to sit in front of a computer – that will be so much more useful. And so on. Listening through 10-15 lectures on the photographic art or an online course is not without benefits, of course. But exercising a skill in front of a teacher fixes it much better than scribbling down instructions, watching a video tutorial, reading an article or a how-to etc.

Even if you shoot a good deal, however, sooner or later you will be faced with the perfectly normal and legitimate question of what other people think about your creations.

7. Taking online comments cool

Understand that the more experienced the photographer you might want to ask the opinion and suggestions of, the less likely he is to oblige you for free – if only because he is probably busy. What’s more, you should not trust the opinions of those who “evaluate” your pictures on photo sites, boards and in social networks. The people with the most time for hanging out online dispensing free advice have the least real understanding to contribute. Sometimes there are exceptions, and an experienced photographer may stumble across your pictures, but chances of that are slim.

8. Trusting your authorities

Trust the opinion of people you consider authorities, whose photos, books, articles you like, whose thoughts and experiments are close to your heart. And remember that you get to choose your authorities, and the more difficult they are to attract the attention of, the more correct, usually, is your choice.

9. Working with an expert photographer

One of the most effective ways to learn to think photographically, which includes almost all of the above, is working with expert photographers. This can take the form of tutoring, field sessions, workshops etc., anything where you in real conditions do real work under the guidance of an artisan whom you consider an authority – or even collaborate on a creative project.


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