What is the best way to learn photography in the 21st Century?

When I taught myself photography 30 years ago, it was honestly easier to learn. Cameras were largely mechanical devices and the darkroom was an actual room. There was the camera, film and a physical print. Simple.

Now, I’m sure I don’t really need to spend ages convincing you that photography is more complex now. Look at camera film as an example.

While you could buy different types of film, it was always film you put into your camera to record the image. Now that we no longer use film, one of the considerations you have when buying a camera is what kind of sensor does it have?

The sensor replaces film for capturing the image but whereas the majority of cameras in the past used the same size film – 35mm – modern cameras use different sizes and types of sensor. Full frame? APS H? APS C? Four-thirds? Micro four-thirds?

The physical size of the sensor you record your image on is no longer a constant, like 35mm film was. So how do you choose?

And then there’s the other old chestnut – megapixels. 12-16-24-36-42-50-more? Does a lower pixel count really mean less detail? Does a higher count mean more noise on the image? Which is best? Is there a definitive best at all?

And how many points of focus do you need? 50-100-200-400-693? Do you really need more than 1?

And that’s all before you even start using your camera…

What’s changed in photography is the technology but unlike many technological advances, it would be true to say that the changes to cameras haven’t been so well designed.

Find your way to a modern camera menu and there are between 24 and 36 different screens to wade through, each with 10-12 settings on them (that’s a potential 432 individual settings).

It’s unsurprising then that the thing I hear most from new camera users is that not only are the concepts of creative photography difficult to understand and often poorly explained but the bewildering array of technical terms and features are, too.

It is a simple statement of fact that a modern camera is more complicated than an older one. Like everything else, photography kit has become computerised. As in, ‘that’s not a phone in your pocket, that’s more technology than landed man on the moon’.

But whereas when you set up your pc or phone for the first time there’s a gentle walkthrough to get you up and running and built-in explanations of its features and abilities, with your camera there is not. Even worse, we’re all familiar with computers and the terms and concepts that go with them. Whereas when you look at your camera, its screens and dials are full of unfamiliar terminology:

  • AF Illuminator;
  • AF/MF select;
  • exposure comp;
  • metering mode;
  • DRO/Auto HDR;
  • 12 White balance modes;
  • M/AV/TV/SV/P.

All of which sit on your camera without explanation. No wonder you’re confused. Who wouldn’t be?

So, what's the best way to learn, Bill?

Now, you could argue that I’m talking about this only because I’m launching my range of photography courses and will advocate those as the best way to learn.

Well, duh. 😉

In truth, however, it’s while I’ve been preparing my lessons that I’ve been considering what is the  best way to teach my subject.

The internet is a fabulous resource and the first place most of us go for any information. So how about the internet?

Certain long form tutorials are perfectly suited to online tuition. Indeed, I use it extensively for this purpose. I’ve worked my way through many a software tutorial (from Powerpoint to Photoshop) and am currently working my way through Daz Studio 3D tutorials to use as part of my photography lessons. For learning software, the internet is perfect.

Daz Studio is 3D modelling animation software but I’m using it as an aid to teach photography concepts because it replicates camera lenses and lighting effects perfectly. Now don’t misunderstand me, it makes up less than 5% of my teaching set but computers offer new tools with which to teach and explain concepts which it is difficult to otherwise set up or visualise.

So, I  the internet.

The web is also excellent and, one might argue, best suited to the short form question and answer session. You know, ‘show me Korean restaurants nearby’, ‘who directed Harold and Maude?’, ‘where can I find the cheapest flights to Barcelona over a whole month?’*

So, is the internet now the best place to learn photography? No.
Why not? Because you don’t take photographs sitting at a desk.

Photography is an activity

Photography is a balance of theory and practice studied and then practiced in a real-world situation.

You have to get out of the classroom to take photos.

Classroom tuition on its own is not enough.

The ideal scenario is to have someone experienced with you not only to teach you the subject but to be with you when you put those lessons into practice, too, in the outside world.

The advantage of having an experienced tutor on hand to advise you is immeasurable.

You need someone with you to explain why what you thought would work didn’t - and then how to remedy it. You need someone to show you a stunning view and then use your eye and knowledge of your equipment to turn that into a stunning photograph.

One of the things that makes my courses different is that a third of them are taught outside, where you’ll actually take photos. I consider this an absolute necessity. Learning how to do something when sitting in a warm classroom with the tutor is a lot different to doing it half way up a windswept hill with no desk, or tutor, to lean on.

It’s the equivalent of learning to drive a car without ever getting into one. You can learn the techniques and rules but practice is entirely different.

And remember all those tools? The ones with a potential 432 individual settings?

Here’s a fact:

Cameras are loaded with myriad features and tools. Like most professional photographers, I turn the majority of them off. Why? Because in an attempt to do everything for me, they rob me of control of my image - and that is what photography is.

Remember:

The list of what you do not need to use on a camera is infinitely longer than the list of things you do need.

And there is the nub of it. A camera used to be a fairly rudimentary mechanical device. These days it’s more like a computer. This is brilliant in many ways but even for accomplished photographers, the amount of options on a modern camera can be bewildering.

Knowing what those options are, having the functions explained to you, understanding why you don’t need them all every time, de-mystifying the unfamiliar technical terms and concepts means that you can ignore the technology and focus on shaping your image, instead.

Having a tutor in the field when you practise in a real-world scenario makes a massive difference. You can be told in a classroom what to look for, how to shape an image, where to create focus and interest but when you’re on a busy street, halfway up a mountain, standing on a beach, having someone guiding you to find those things , to extract something interesting from the commonplace around you, is invaluable. And it cannot be found online.

So, of course I hope you’ll join me for my courses but I don’t expect you to sign up without trying-before-you-buy. A 9-week course is a sizeable investment of time and money, which is why I offer a 90-minute taster session so that you can see if this kind of tuition is for you.

Take a look here for details and to book your place. I hope to see you and answer any questions you may have soon.


* Where I live, Kogi and Oshio, both excellent – Hal Ashby - Skyscanner