I was talking with Leslie the other day. Leslie is a seasoned photographer and product specialist at Pictureline. He mentioned that beginning photographers always feel "in the dark" about how to go about learning to photograph. One even asked him directly: "How do I learn how to photograph? I go to seminars, some workshops, some lectures. I try to read books…" After having been an educator at several universities, I am more than intrigued by the process of learning. Some law schools and medical schools have initiated systems to make sure each student is learning in the fastest, most effective way for each student, whether that be by hands-on experience, a lecture style, reading the material, or even listening to it on audio.
Photography is like many other fields; years of experience and dedicated practice can make almost anyone a master. But are there better ways of learning how to photograph that can increase your effectiveness and use of your time? Probably. Workshops may be expensive and if the instructor has let fifty participants in the course, you may wonder why you're even there. Books seem quite cost effective, but often lack the hands-on experience of turning to an instructor and asking, "What would I do now?" Over the past two years with a dramatic increase in the number of participants in photography, the amount of resources available to beginning photographers have blossomed. Professionals have seen that workshops, although emotionally and physically draining, are excellent ways to augment their income and can be a lot of fun, assuming the instructors enjoy participant interaction. Learning on your own is definitely necessary, as this is the only way that you will prove to yourself that certain techniques work. It is also the only way to build the neuronal pathways in your brain that will be there the next time to approach a certain scene and say, "Hey, I've seen this before. This is how I can make the scene look a certain way."
A beginning photographer's first inclination may be to attend a workshop offered by a professional. This can be particularly tempting if the workshop is in some faraway, beautiful place such as Ireland or India. Workshops offer a hands-on experience with the camera, and you usually get not only some personal instruction with the professional, but also group critiques, lectures on various topics, and the local knowledge of the professional and his or her guide in the area. These can be very rewarding. The downside? There may be two. One is that workshops are often very expensive. Many professionals I know would like to reduce their prices if they could, but the expenses are very high for the photographers, and they often take on financial risk when setting them up. Therefore, to cover their expenses and to make some income, the overall price can seem very high.
The second downside may come in the group size and / or the personal attention you may receive. This varies among workshops, of course, and some photographers do a fantastic job with giving thirty individuals all the attention they need over seven days. Your best bet is to find out from previous workshop participants what their experience was like. In my opinion, a group should not be too small nor too large. Extremely large groups can obviously be detrimental to your individual understanding of photography. On the other hand, fewer than four participants sounds nice, but there may be missing a feeling of camaraderie that is sparked with a group having fun together and sharing information with each other (indeed, so many people have made new friends in workshops and have continued their photography friendships in both the profession and in daily life). In addition, a very small group may not generate the variety of images you could see in group critiques. Even though sharing your work with a group is scary, you can see very quickly why another participant's photograph work in precisely the same location in the same light and what you could do to improve.
Workshops, because of their nature of moving at a pace that can be rapid, are probably most useful to beginner or intermediate photographers once they are very comfortable with some of the basic of photography, including a sound understanding of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed and at least the very basics of an editing software program such as Lightroom or Aperture. How to then learn these areas of photography? Read on.
COMMUNITY CLASSES OR HIGH SCHOOL/COLLEGE COURSES
To get the basics down, some people opt for a classroom situation where there is still a "workshop" feel but that workshop often takes place outside of the classroom on your own with instruction once or twice a week at a local community college or continuing education program from a university. These are usually taught by very good instructors and are much cheaper than a dedicated workshop in Mozambique. A course such as this might make you feel more comfortable at first saying, "I don't know what this button does." Weekly assignments may give you the drive to learn about flash photography, for example, when you may not have done that on your own. For high school students, you have little standing in your way of taking a photography course, as it's usually free unless you are in a private school. Either way, you need to get your fine arts credits, and this is the perfect time! I learned my very first photography lessons in high school and used a darkroom for the first time. College students are in the same boat: you generally need to fill some fine arts credits, so while you do the accounting degree your mother always wanted you to do, why not take that Intro to Photography class given to non-majors?
BOOKS AND WEBINARS / DVDs
Ah, so there is always the cheapest route, and for some the most effective route: reading and watching presentations, whether that be in the form of a DVD or a Webinar. Books range on a variety of expertise (Photography for Dummies to advanced printing techniques and Photoshop) and run usually from $10 to $100. DVDs and Webinar subscriptions are priced comparably, and both are usually yours to keep and refer back to in the future, unless your webinar is a subscription-only such as www.lynda.com. The huge advantage with these resources is, of course, cost, and as Matt Damon's character says in Good Will Hunting, you can learn everything you want in a Harvard degree for "a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library." This reminds me: the public library system and even the public university library systems are open for anyone to walk in and read their books. So, for those who learn well on their own and are motivated to get in there and discipline themselves to understand photography from these resources, go for it.
OUTSIDE AND ON MY OWN
My Introduction to Architecture teacher once quoted an unknown source to an audience of 200 students in a lecture hall: "What you learn in life will mostly take place in a dark room, sitting alone on a chair." When I asked her about the quote years later, she did not remember even mentioning it. The principle is there, however. You can learn whatever you want if you are driven enough to go out and learn it. We learn from our mistakes, and fortunately (or unfortunately), we do this in photography all of our lives. We missed a sunset. We were using a broken lens. We didn't get the model release. We loaded the film incorrectly. We left at the ISO at 12,800. We left batteries in the hotel room. Our compact flash cards are in another state. The tripod is 15 miles back at the car. The mistakes drive into our heads what never to do again, and we move forward. This method has the most value. It is the cheapest and probably the most effective. It also takes the most drive.
Most of us learn from a combination of these methods. Indeed, if you are planning to move down a professional route of photography, consider assisting a professional photographer. This way you can get paid a bit while you learn some very important lessons of functioning as a professional. For those who just want to develop personally and depending on your financial resources, you will probably end up doing a combination of these methods, but much will be on your own. The workshops and the books and the DVDs may consolidate the things you've learned and you will always pick up a few gems, as well as know other ways in which to get things done.
FINDING WHAT YOU WANT TO PHOTOGRAPH
There is one final point for those wondering about the paths taken by so many accomplished art photographers, commercial photographers, war photographers, and landscape photographers. You know of them likely because they chose an area of photography that they enjoyed more than anything else and could not live without photographing that subject. Robert Capa and Don McCullin and conflict photography. Richard Avedon and fashion photography. Ansel Adams and landscape photography. Each tried different areas of photography from time to time, but the majority of their work was focused, developed, and expertly crafted. As you learn photography, it is excellent idea to try everything, to understand what photography is in a variety of areas. There may be a time, however, when your interests and expertise focus on one area. If you enjoy the area enough, it may lead to the deepest possible understanding of your chosen area. You may become an expert.