How to Learn Photography

This is a different kind of article on how to go about learning photography. It is about where to begin. It presents a strategy for learning photography that may seem counter-intuitive. There are what seems a million tutorials on different types of photography including what to learn, choosing gear, and opinions on best techniques, but I can’t say I as often see posts on how to proceed. It’s the kind of subject that can leave you feeling overwhelmed easily – especially in the beginning when everything is new and when the more you learn the more you realize you know nothing. Although this is also true for other subjects, it seems especially true for photography, since the latter encompasses not only what happens behind and in front of the camera before you press a button, but what happens after – what you do with the image you just created. Heck, Photoshop alone can be overwhelming.

Many people will assume learning photography is subjective. Although this is true, the fact is most people will become bored or frustrated long before they become knowledgable about shooting different types of photography. Most people need something to propel them forward and encourage them while they learn. They need to accomplish something.

New StrategY for Learning Photography

In my experience, some pros advise budding students to read books on the Masters, in order to gain an appreciation of great technique. Others say spend a lot of time learning your gear and recommend learning dials and buttons so well that you can use them blindfolded. Other pros say you have to shoot every day. And still others advise starting a photography blog that you make yourself keep up all year long – the no-pain-no-gain workout approach. My advice? Start with the best. Aim high. Find your favorite photo in the world and learn how to create it. Place that lofty goal right in front of you. Along the way you will master your camera, gear, philosophies of shooting, and unique approaches to different techniques. You will also gain confidence in your abilities and accomplish something while you learn. In short, jump in and master one technique at a time, even if you don’t know aperture from an ISO or a shutter speed, and you don’t know which buttons to use or what they mean. Let me break this down into smaller steps:

1. Look at photos you like taken by photographers you admire. It doesn’t have to be obvious or deliberate. Just open your eyes. Images are everywhere today. Find something you really like in a magazine, on a billboard, in a book or on the Internet – find something you like so much you wish you knew how to photograph it.

2. Categorize (in your mind) the great photos you want to learn to create. Note whether they are black and white, fine art, portraits, landscapes, products, food, jewelry, fashion, beauty, sports, architectural photography, real estate photography, an aerial shot, pet photography, wildlife, journalism/news photography, abstracts, wedding photography, etc. Then begin to narrow the selection. Find one category – one type of image – you want to learn to create.

3. Narrow this selection. Pick one technique (or look) in that category and learn to master it. Maybe the lighting is so beautiful and captivating. Jump in and start with one very specific detail at a time. The more specific the better. Granted, this last one – pick one and learn to master it – is a bit of a chunk. But that is where the most benefit comes in.

If you pick one – for example, black and white fine art – look for what it is about the photos you like. Are they blurry? Are there semi-invisible people that make the image look haunting? Does the photo shift in a direction? Notice these things, even if you have no clue what the technique used to create it is. Find out who the photographer is and what his or her specialty is. Then read about the photographer. Read about that technique. If that is not possible, read up on the technique from other photographers.

Look at your camera along the way as you read and study. One by one become familiar with the gear and settings used in that technique. (In general, settings don’t matter as much once you know your camera, but when you are initially trying to master a technique, they provide a starting point.) Do you see what I am saying? Learn to master your gear with a specific end goal in mind. It is easier that way, much easier than trying to memorize concepts and principles in the abstract.

The other thing some novices may not realize about photography is that most of the specialties use different workflows, procedures, considerations, setups, and even different equipment. They certainly use different techniques to process images. That is one reason why most photographers specialize. Novices erroneously think of great photography one of two ways – as something that happens when you push a button or something that happens in post. That is, if you just use great equipment and know enough what you are doing, lovely images will always appear or that lovely images are created in Photoshop, as though Adobe Photoshop CC can fix anything, as though you don’t need to start with a strong, well composed image. Pros, on the other hand, spend much time and effort trying to educate the public this is far from the case. (PPA has a campaign called “See the Difference” designed to help educate the public.)

My advice for learning photography is to focus your efforts, put blinders on, and narrow what you take on as you learn. Learn in context. Learn and practice one technique at a time, one type of photography at a time, one path at a time, and one workflow – including through the post processing phase – at a time. If you read a paragraph in which you don’t understand what is being said, look it up and master one term at a time. But do this with the goal of learning to create a specific type of image. Knowing specifically what you want to accomplish will help propel you. Along the way, you will practice and learn to use your camera. You will learn to see. You will learn to appreciate. And over time you will gain a new skill.

I do have a recommendation on great resources to use with this pragmatic approach. I am a fan of Kelby Training, now KelbyOne.com. They have wonderful videos by pros in practically every facet of photography. They have videos for beginners and videos requiring more advanced skills. They may even have a workshop near you in the future. If you don’t have the funds to join, search for their free videos and tutorials posted on the Internet. They also produce free podcasts such as The Grid. Find one you like and start learning today. (Scott Kelby has a training video for members called “Crush the Composition” I recommend for all new photographers. It’s a great place to start and gives you a great jump start on the basics. And as your Photoshop skills advance, phlearn.com also provides great free tutorials.) Challenge yourself to learn something new, one specific skill or tiny bit of knowledge, each day.

If you like long exposure black and white fine art, identify photographers who inspire you. There are many great contemporary photographers around today. One photographer had a photo that inspired me years ago. When I saw it, I was compelled to learn how it was created. It was so different from anything I’d seen. Initially I knew little more than it was a black and white. Later I learned it was a long exposure. Next I learned about filters, bulb settings, printing techniques, lighting, and more. Bit by bit over several years of study, I learned and practiced one technique at a time. Gradually I expanded into the different types of photography. Learning specific techniques this way is much faster and more enjoyable than reading book after book on random topics until you are overwhelmed and not much farther in your photographic abilities.

Yes, look at lots of great photos by pros. The Internet makes this part very easy to do. The more you see, the more your mind is exposed to what you need to learn and master. But set tiny goals for yourself. Even if you only tell yourself to learn something new each day about photography, you will be able to look back a year from now and feel good about what you’ve accomplished.

The second piece of advice I give is to only post your best work. I can’t take credit for this one. I heard it from Scott Kelby in one of his training classes. But if you are able, create a collection on the web of what you feel is your best work. Set a limit of, oh, six to twelve images, no more. Then when you have a new image to post, make a rule that you must remove your weakest image before you can post the new one. In time, you will be able to watch your portfolio improve. I remember the first collection I put on the web. I was so proud of the images. Now I just cringe at them. (They were removed long ago.) You will be able to watch your own progress over time. I believe this is much more a motivator than posting a year’s worth of bad images, just to be able to post an image a day. Don’t worry about posting an image a day or a week or even a month. Just focus on producing the best work you are capable of and on growing a new skill – or learning something new – each day. Your portfolio will improve over time.

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