Learning Is An Important Part Of Photography

When I was studying photojournalism in undergrad, I just knew I was the best photographer in the class. I was so good, that I didn’t need to follow any of the rules or do the assignments correctly. I was too “creative” for all that stuff. Needless to say, mid-way through the semester, my professor pulled me aside and warned me that I was dangerously close to flunking the course. I wised up. No, I didn’t love following the “rule of thirds” and I certainly didn’t care about F-stop and aperture. I just wanted to float around with my camera and snap pictures of the world. Now I realize how arrogant that 20 year old was and how right my professor was to demand that I play by his rules. He wanted me to gain something invaluable: knowledge. Knowing HOW to create a beautiful photograph isn’t sexy. Or fun or creative. It’s hard. Learning how a camera functions is boring. I still struggle to grasp lighting, even with a light meter and digital camera. But knowing this is what sets amazing photographers apart from everyone else in a world where cameras abound and real knowledge is lacking.

Right after college I moved and started interning with a photographer. I learned pretty quickly how sub-par I was. I was still mostly shooting in auto mode and would on occasion switch to “P” mode. She would have none of it. I needed to shoot in manual. Also, being an assistant is not sexy or creative. It’s hard (imagine that)! I had to carry around equipment, and learn how set up lights and hold reflectors along with the subjects’ stuff. And I lived in the south, so I was baking in the heat. But again came that knowledge. Learning poses that are flattering. Learning how to use Photoshop. I learned how to showcase just a few of my best pictures and throw away the crap ones. (Yes, there are always going to be crap shots, just delete them. No one will be any wiser). Seeing more of the technical aspects that go into creating something beautiful. Eventually I was able to shoot – and I messed up a LOT! I am still learning. But a year ago I went to India, as a photojournalist and I got to see the fruits of my labor. These photographs are something I am proud of, but it took over 7 years of training to produce them.

Here’s my encouragement to all of you who want to be photographers. STUDY! Take a class. Intern with a professional. Be willing to do the unglamorous. Accept criticism graciously and know that you will probably take some really crappy pictures. It’s okay. It’s part of learning. But please don’t parade around your “professional” services and for the love of Pete, do not charge people while you’re learning. It makes all of us look bad. Keep at it. You’ll know how much you love photography if you’re willing to do the hard stuff in order to grow.

By the way, I did end up making an “A” in that class. If I can do it, so can you.

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  1. Funny, I had almost exactly the opposite experience in photography class in college.

    I also knew I was the best photographer in class. I knew every single setting on the camera, knew how light worked and would NEVER use auto mode. I understood the subtle differences between a wide open aperture or a slightly slower shutter-speed. I had my own darkroom in the closet and had even worked as a stringer at the local newspaper.

    Yet when class time came around, my photographs were almost always the worst. I didn’t have the creativity that others displayed. I spent so much time following the rules and making my photographs technically perfect, I didn’t realize that the subject matter was boring as dirt.

    I was in love with the technical aspects of photography and darkroom (this was pre-photoshop) work. Learning to be creative is very difficult, and it means letting go of some of the technical aspects that are out of your control, especially as a photojournalist. I took pride in my ability to always capture an accurate photograph of a situation without a technical failure, but great creative photographs came with a lot of difficulty.

    I’m sure my internship at a studio was much easier for me than you, since that was my wheelhouse. But the lack of creative drive and ability is what eventually ended my dreams of being a photojournalist. The few years I actually got to try were great. And with what ended up happening in the industry, I guess I was lucky to escape when I did.

  2. Learning is a lifelong task. I’m sometimes interviewed by students studying photography and am shocked at how little ‘art schools’ are teaching students about the real world of commercial photography. Learn the rules of the craft, follow them and when you have experience break those rules, but not until you’ve become familiar with ‘why’ they exist. Assist, keep your mouth closed and ears open, watch and listen. Find a mentor who will tell you when your work is crap or great and why. Study light, learn to engage talent in an authentic way. Expressions are a direct result of your own interaction with talent.

    And learn the business of photography since it makes up a large part of your time as a pro.

    • Columbia College in Chicago is great for that. The teachers there are part time instructors who are working professionals, save the department heads (who are still working professionals, but full time) for the most part. They had a LOT of insight into how the business works (or doesn’t work).

  3. Very well said! Thank you for sharing your learning experience! Hopefully some blossoming photographers will take it to heart and put the work in to become a real professional photographer!

  4. Wow, I am the exact opposite. I am a tech geek, I knew all about f-stop, shutter speed, manual flash intensity and ‘RAW vs JPEG’ concerns one month after getting my first DSLR and without classes, however I miss some creative and artistic flair.

  5. This is something people in all kinds of industries don’t realize. They don’t wanna learn, they wanna be perfect straight away and can’t take criticism.

  6. I always think, If you haven’t flogged yourself after looking back at your own work and marvel at the tenacity of poor choices, you haven’t learned a thing.

  7. You know, I liked this site better when you weren’t spouting off about how great you are. People can go to real photography websites if they want to learn anything. I don’t care what you think about yourself or your learning process or anything serious about your opinions on photography, but keep the hilariously awful fauxtos coming.

    Otherwise you just look like a huge asshole.

    • You do realize these are guest posts, correct? And that the moderator is allowing photographers to post articles in order to help those who want to learn?

    • And yet you still come to this site and feel the need to comment. Obviously, you do care. 😉

  8. I agree with most of what you have stated except don’t take payments while you’re learning. It doesn’t matter your skill set you’re always learning. Even a professional, highly skilled photographer when he/she is 30 will look back on their work when they are 60 and say what was I thinking on at least a few pieces. You never stop learning, growing, developing AND making mistakes along the way. Also there is no length of time for learning the skill. There are 14 year old self-portrait artists taking incredibly technical and creative photographs, while there are “professionals” in their 30’s that can’t take a high quality photograph to save their life who’s been doing it for 10 years.

  9. Hi there. I have just stumbled on this blog and have subscribed. I have just started out in the world of enthusiast photography and am loving it. Initially, I fell into the trap of thinking “if I buy a better camera, I’ll take better photos”, which is obviously so far from the truth. Since then I have started reading books, studying technical theory and concentrating more on trying to understand the “art” and the compositional techniques to improve my shots as opposed to getting weak at the knees every time a new camera comes out. I’m striving to create meaningful and considered images, rather than just high quality “snaps”. I think I’ve set my expectations quite high though so I’m in a state of frustration currently! Anyway, onwards…

    • Well said! I fell in the same trap about 4 years ago. Buy a new camera, buy a new lens. What? Why don’t my pictures look as good as that guy’s? I’ve got the same camera! What a numb-nuts I was, LOL!

      So I kept shooting and shooting hoping to get it right until one day I went out and just by chance I manage to bag a few really good shots and I wanted to know why. I don’t like fluke or chance, if something stops working or gets better, then something has changed in the system and I want to know what it is. Just like yourself I started studying more art and photographic theory to find out what it really is that sets a dull image apart from a good one, apart from a truly stunning image.

      It takes time and it is damn hard, as a person with a day-job in IT I find the artistic theory and creative side of photography so damn hard at times. However it simply comes down to practice and shoot with a purpose, never, ever, ever think it will just happen on it’s own as you will be seriously disappointed. You have to have a purpose to go out and shoot, then you will have focus for your knowledge and you will bring home the goods.

  10. your images are blurry and not that interesting….

  11. remove1background

    Hi it was great Article and very knowledgeable post. thanks for share about your story. Actually this type of talent is come in our heart this is not possible to grow with money it is possible totally by heart .

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