How to improve your photography: your own twelve step program

Joined
Mar 22, 2007
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Lewis Lorton
After a couple of horrendous experiences with workshops, I wrote a long post about the best way(s) to learn to be a better photographer, that received about 390 reads online in another forum (even with a different misleading title) and over 450 on my own blog site.

That was a sign that it resonated with some people and so I have reposted the first part here with a link to the prettier version.

I originally thought of titling this post 'why short courses and workshops are terrible, tutorials and books slightly better but practice and introspection the best' but that would give away my innermost thoughts too easily, so here it is and you'll have to dig for meaning..

The first part:

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The digital age has erased many of the barriers that kept people from getting serious about photography –no more focusing, no more exposure meters, zoom lenses, no more darkroom, …..... only to erect higher barriers further down the road.
Photography, at least modern photography with digital cameras, is a pretty unique challenge. The incredible brains and magnificent sensors built into modern cameras means that anyone who can press a button can turn out photos that approach in quality the work of competent film photographers.

With film cameras, many crucial decisions had to be made either early on or fairly late in the photography process – the film choice, developer, etc.- and these decisions were relatively simple and uncomplicated, especially compared to the myriad complexities of digital cameras and post-processing software. With film photography,anyone with aspirations to do serious photography could learn the physical procedures of using a film single lens reflex in a day with another day for black and white film processing and printing. The vast proportion of film photographers sent color film to a lab to be developed thus absolving themselves of any part in the complexities of developing and printing. The relatively crude tools, the long lag before feedback and the hours in a darkroom weeded out most people who weren't serious.

Digital cameras have changed all that. Yes, modern digital cameras are complex machines, even the simplest point and shoot models are much more complex than film cameras but the least of them is quite 'smart' and can be used simply as a 'point and shoot' to produce spectacular results – sometimes, if conditions are right.

As a recorder of time and place, the modern cameras are without equal, and produce excellent snapshots with minimal effort from the photographer. But excellent snapshots are usually not compelling viewing for those outside the immediate circle of the photographer, and certainly fail to evoke the emotion that good art usually aroused in the viewer. So the act of taking a snapshot is missing something – and that something is the decision-making that allows a photographer to create arresting imagery. Taking back that control, and learning to make the appropriate decisions, is the challenge facing the modern photographer.

So, how do people learn to be a good photographer? How do people master not only the complexities of the technology but also the art of seeing and creating an image. Is there an easy way? Is there a best way?

Well there is an easy answer. No, there is no easy way to learn photography.

Often beginners, used to thinking of schools as the best traditional method to study complex structures will look towards classes or expensive 'workshops' taught by practicing photographers. Unless you are a total newbie, without any skills or knowledge I think that expensive workshops are not cost-effective ways to learn and here is why.

Before you run out and register, you need to understand the learning environment and must understand a bit about the business of photography, This perfect storm of new technology, digital cameras, Internet education and tens of millions of new photographers has changed the business of photography. Out of the millions of new camera users there are tens of thousand of new 'professionals' out there trying to make a living or even just to make money with their expensive hobby.


At the same time, the growth of cheap stock photography websites has cut the need for custom commercial photography work. What's a medium level professional photographer to do with his/her talent and investment now that his markets are shrinking and the competition is growing?

The answer is, he/she will teach.

Good, well-known professionals are finding it easier to make money by giving courses or workshops than actually producing photographs and finding someone to buy them. The huge numbers of cameras sold, the incredible lure of being an 'artist' and the steep learning curve of digital photography means an essentially never-ending supply of people who think that getting skilled in photography can be done by working with or listening to someone with the knowledge – a transfer of a desired characteristic like the laying on of hands.

But, except for real beginners who know nothing and who would profit from any kind of knowledge, that doesn't work. Typical courses have a relatively wide latitude of students attending them, from those who haven't any experience in the subject matter to those who want to top off their mental tank with the expert's words. The teacher tries to satisfy everyone and so, in general covers a typically wide subject going from the very beginning to the very end, necessarily skipping too many details because of time constraints.

Most courses teach the easy stuff – which features are present and how they are activated. What few courses teach is which features are relevant in specific situations, and WHY they are important in that context. They also do not usually address the end result – why some images evoke strong emotions, and how they achieve this miracle.

The result is that very naïve, beginning students are often overwhelmed, get a few tidbits but forget or can't yet use most of the content and go away glazed in wonder at the knowledge of the teacher. Medium and advanced students are generally bored by the basic stuff covered and frustrated by the necessary lack of detail.

Another more systemic problem is that many or even most 'teachers' are not scholars but working photographers and so they are most familiar with what they do that works for them and may not have any conceptual idea of how what they do fits in the realm of what can be done.

This was reinforced for me during a class I took just a few weeks ago. I knew the instructor was a great studio photographer and a master printer. His prints were as beautiful as I'd ever seen and so I drove 80 minutes and paid money to sit in a classroom for six hours to hear how he worked. A good part of the morning was spent with each other student telling where they were in photography and then he went on to describe some different basic methods – all text-book stuff. I was waiting for what was scheduled after lunch. He went through a selection of his prints and described how he converted from the color images to black and white images.

He gave us the 'recipe' for the settings he used in one specific step of the process with Photoshop. Now, I thought, we were at the spot where I would learn so I asked why he used those settings, what was technical rationale? His answer was that he had always used those numbers, that he didn't know how other conditions would affect them. This was akin to asking a great hitter in baseball for some batting hints and having him respond that the best result is when the pitcher throws the ball right where you can hit it hard.

Frustrated by my disappointment with this and other workshops I've taken, I queried my friends and they reported similar experiences. So I've come up with a set of advice on how to become a better photographer – assuming that you are serious about this effort - my own 12 step program.
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The second part, formatted much more attractively is at my own blog.

http://lewlortonphoto.com/blog/2013/4/how-to-improve-your-photography-your-own-twelve-step-program
 
Joined
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Thanks Lew,

I enjoyed the read and while being reasonably inexperienced, I relate very strongly to what you are saying.

I have not taken any classes for exactly the reasons you mention - I have found myself in similar situations with other topics.

I have definitely learned a lot by focusing on steps 1, 4, 6 and 7 of your linked posting.

I definitely still have a lot to learn, but am loving every minute of it...:wink:
 
Joined
Mar 22, 2007
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Manhattan, NY
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Lewis Lorton
Thanks, Mark. (I have two sons named Mark - but that's another topic)

I am learning a lesson this morning myself.
In step #11, I wrote " Learning and acquiring mastery is all about cycles – start out with an idea, then do it, then evaluate the result, then determine what needs to be better the next time. "

I was working with a new camera (Olympus OMD) and I knew the DOF would be much greater than I was used to with my FF Nikon. But I didn't check the DOF tables, so I shot the image below at 5.6 when I should have shot it at 2.8 to throw the background OOF.

Always, always, always having to learn.

Thanks again for reading and, even more, taking the time to comment.

Lew

p1846100914-5.jpg
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Spot on! (...but #8 is blasphemy to Nikon, Canon, etc....:biggrin:)

The one workshop that I attended in the field was exactly as you described.
 
Joined
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Lewis Lorton
Spot on! (...but #8 is blasphemy to Nikon, Canon, etc....:biggrin:)

The one workshop that I attended in the field was exactly as you described.

Thanks.

I have taught workshops on street photography and, except for some very simple things that people could learn on their own, would be faced with learning, they were as far as I am concerned, relatively useless. Street photography is all about mind's eye and composition and I think one has it or one doesn't and the way to develop the eye is not in a group trailing after the teacher.

I have two clients/friends and I teach them in a 'different' way. They do an assignment, send me the images. We look at them together over Skype, I show them how I would edit them, then return the edited files to them. This seems to be a successful method as they keep on returning.
 
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I have two clients/friends and I teach them in a 'different' way. They do an assignment, send me the images. We look at them together over Skype, I show them how I would edit them, then return the edited files to them. This seems to be a successful method as they keep on returning.
I believe that is a good approach. I am a creature of habit, and learn the most by doing.....it's the personal involvement that makes it click (no pun) for me.
 
Joined
Mar 31, 2007
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Thornhill, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto
Lew,
You've done an excellent job of thinking out and expressing some really sound advice for aspiring Digital photographers.
My only suggestion would be for you to amend step 12 to read:
Repeat #4 and #6 forever. They're good for you.
 
Joined
Mar 22, 2007
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Manhattan, NY
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Lewis Lorton
Thank you for your comments.
I did make the edit that rbsinto suggested.

Let me reiterate that I have added both email and rss feeds for my blog.
 

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