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

What you get IS NOT what you see

A friend of mine was in a terrible road accident about three months ago and has scarring on her face. She showed me a recent photograph of herself taken on her mobile phone.

‘Do I really look like that?’ she asked.

The answer was ‘no’ and the reason why reminded me that, even though photography is going through a golden age of accessibility thanks to mobile phones, people still don’t understand that things in the camera don’t look the same way they do through your eyes. Yet, such is our touching faith in technology, we imagine the photo represents the truth more than what we see in the mirror or even with our own eyes.

Well, it ain’t so and here’s why.

It’s primarily down to the type of lens used and the processing that goes on in the background.

By the way, whenever I say ‘camera’ in this piece, I mean either the camera in a phone or a top-range dslr and anything inbetween.

DIGITAL CAMERA PROCESSING

Let’s start by disproving a commonly held belief:

The camera records what I see accurately.

It doesn’t. There’s no end of image tweaking that goes on in modern cameras (or phones) BY DEFAULT.

The default is Vibrant

My new phone is a Motorola G6 Play. In the initial setup for the phone, one of the questions was ‘Do you want to keep the display settings at their default, Vivid? Or do you want to set them to Standard? Meaning less ‘poppy’ but more natural. The first thing I do when buying a modern camera is to turn off all the automatic processing that manufacturers build into it. I don’t want the shadows lightened, for example: I frame with shadow, as in this example:

Dark Waterfall from the Out and About collection

The default settings on any modern camera, whether a top-end DSLR or your humble camera phone, are devised to give you an image which makes everything visible, especially areas in deep shadow or very bright light.

Manufacturers used to have lots of differing names for it but the principal is the same: lighten shadows to expose more detail, tone down overbright areas to do the same. This results in an even exposure across all areas, light and dark.

For the majority of people, this is a desirable thing and is why you rarely see a ‘bad’ photo these days. Under or over-exposed shots are a rarity thanks to this kind of processing. Even blurring is less common thanks to impressive camera shake reduction technology.


DON’T YOU MEAN HDR?
Now, you may be thinking ‘he’s talking about HDR’ – and if you don’t know what HDR is, you can find an excellent description of what it is here.
I’m not talking about HDR, however. I’m talking about the default processing that goes on in your camera or – especially – your phone processor, before you even engage the HDR setting.


The truth is, however, that these default settings don’t convey an image accurately. Along with lightening shadows and toning down bright areas to expose more detail, they:

  1. Increase contrast (minimising mid-tones to increase the clarity between light and dark areas, disastrous when applied to delicate shifts in skin tone);
  2. Increase saturation (pumping up colour) and;
  3. Increase sharpness (increasing the definition of the entire shot in an aim to add detail, changing the consistency of smooth areas to that of a gravel driveway. All that moisturising for nothing!).

For a landscape, or a group photo of people, these default effects are fine but for a selfie or portrait shot, such processing tends to ‘harden’ people’s faces and make them look spray-tanned brown or lobster red. The thing is, with mobiles, you mostly cannot turn these settings off. This is why phone manufacturers were quick to add a variety of filters to compensate.

Ever taken a selfie that makes your eyes bigger, smooths your skin and adds floral headbands and hearts flying around your head? Judging by my Facebook and Instagram feeds most of you have. Well stop it. You’re a person, not an elf or an anime character. Although that specific filter is at the extreme end of the spectrum, with the ‘rise of the selfie’ (the working title for the next Star Wars film) phone manufacturers have added dozens of ‘portrait’ filters to compensate for the unflattering effect of their default sensor settings.

So let’s return to my friends question: ‘Do I really look like that?’

Clearly the answer would be, ‘no’ but there’s another, more compelling reason, why portraits and selfies taken on a mobile are inaccurate: the lens.

HOW A LENS CHANGES EVERYTHING

What does the lens do? Without wishing to state the bleedin’ obvious, more than anything else on a camera, the lens affects what you see. Different types of lenses capture the image in different ways and are best suited to different types of photography.


Sports photography requires a zoom/telephoto lens to enable you to get close to the subject from far away while close-up nature photography would require a macro lens, enabling you to be millimetres away from your subject while still being able to focus.

Skier by Johannes Waibel on Unsplash Leaf by gil on Unsplash

You can take a photo with any lens but some are better suited to certain tasks than others.
Let’s avoid getting too technical on this because with photography it’s all too easy to do so, so bear in mind I’m;

  1. talking about smartphone lenses vs camera lenses and;
  2. Talking about what lens gives you the most flattering portrait shot.

WHAT DIFFERENT LENSES DO

To understand what I mean let’s take a look at a range of photographs of a landscape below. For these photographs, the camera would have been mounted on a tripod and pointed towards a fixed view. The position of the camera and the direction it is pointing remain unchanged.

Nine different lenses were used to take each photograph, each lens being a different focal length, from an 18mm lens up to a 300mm lens. In the image, you can see the difference changing the lens has on the photo you get.

Comparison photo from the Campbell Cameras website

Now let’s look at what those different lenses do when pointed at a face.  Here’s a good example of how different focal lengths change the shape of a face from a lighting tutorial on the Pro Video Coalition website.

Image from Pro Video Coalition

As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to portrait photography, most photographers would choose a lens in the 85mm-300mm range as it makes the face look closer to how it does in real life.
Anything below 50mm begins to distort an object close to the camera.

SMARTPHONE LENSES

An article on the Techspot website about smartphone camera hardware makes this statement:

’All smartphones fall into the wide-angle lens bracket, typically somewhere around 24-30mm.’

And that, in a nutshell, is why they are not good for portraiture.

However, rules are made to be broken. Look at this example by photographer Zulmaury Saavedra. It’s an interesting portrait that uses the distortion caused by the wide angle lens for creative effect but it is certainly not a realistic interpretation of what the model looks like.

Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

It’s really hard to find an example of a bad portrait caused by using the wrong lens because no photographer wants to put bad portrait photos online!

I hope you are closer to understanding that a camera on a phone produces poorer portrait shots because the lens is not the ideal type as it distorts features. Also, the default processing in the camera is unflattering for portraiture.

As with many things, it’s a question of the right tool for the right job.

If you found this article interesting, here are links to some other websites that you might like, too.

How to Choose the Perfect Portrait Lens
5 of the Best Smartphone Camera Lenses Money Can Buy