5 Great Ways to Learn Photography

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All images ©Gina Milicia

“Every Artist was first an Amateur”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Learn 1

If you’re just starting out as a photographer, congratulations! There’s never been a more exciting, or easier time to learn the art of photography. Today’s market is flooded with tertiary courses, books, workshops, websites, podcasts and online courses that didn’t exist as little as ten years ago.

When I began my career 25 years ago, there were only a few options. You could learn photography at a university or technical college, you could complete an apprenticeship or internship with a photographer, or you could teach yourself through trial and error and by studying the work of other photographers. I combined all three of these techniques and found a way that worked really well for me.

Today there are dozens of ways of developing your photography skills. None of them is right or wrong; just find the one that best suits your personality and learning style. This is a surefire way to fast track your development as a photographer.

Learn 2

What is your learning style?

There are three different ways you can learn a new activity. Most people are a combination of all these styles of learning, so that’s why it’s best to try several different styles to help you learn new techniques.

1. Visual

A visual person will learn best from seeing something demonstrated and looking at photos, maps and diagrams.
Watching “how to” videos and reading books and online blogs really support your learning style if you are a visual learner.

2. Auditory

Auditory style people learn through listening to lectures or audio presentations, talking things through and listening to what other people have to say. Listening to podcasts and audio books would be a great way to support your learning style.

3. Kinesthetic

Kinesthetic people like to learn by doing activities. You prefer to be hands-on and try things out and discover how they work. Attending practical workshops would really suit your learning style

So if you really want to cover all bases read, watch, listen and do.

I know for a fact that my weakness is auditory. I can’t sit still in a lecture or presentation for very long before I get fidgety, but if I listen to information while I’m doing a menial task I find I retain far more information. That’s why I love podcasts and audiobooks so much. I’m able to learn so much while I’m out walking, driving or burning, I mean cooking dinner.

Learn 9

Here are five options worth considering:

1. University/college degree or photography diploma

This is the traditional road, and the one that many people take. You’ll learn a wide variety of photographic styles, in a structured environment, from experienced teachers and industry experts. You’ll also have access to state-of-the-art studios with all the latest cameras, lighting equipment, accessories and software.

Learning in school also has the advantage of being in a group learning environment. This will help you develop networks and social skills that you’ll use in the future. Sharing the journey with your new friends will make learning more fun.

The downside is the expense. Depending on where you live, a degree or diploma can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. There’s also a significant investment of time. This can be difficult to manage for older students who may have families to support.

The school’s location will also be a factor. Many of the better photography courses are located in capital cities, so you’ll also need to consider travel or relocation expenses.

If you think you’re suited to this style of education, thoroughly research the schools in your area. Find out who the teachers are, who the past students have been, and what they’ve gone on to achieve. If it’s feasible, attend an open day and ask current students what they think. I’ve known students who’ve been miserable and have even failed classes because their personality didn’t match their schools’ cultures. After transferring to schools better suited to their learning styles, they thrived.

Learn 4

2. Assisting – apprenticeship – internship

Apprenticing is a traditional, and often overlooked, way of learning the ropes and breaking into photography. This is how many of my peers and I, worked our way up the ladder.

After graduating from art school, I started out as an unpaid intern with a celebrity and fashion photographer. At the end of my eight-week internship, I was offered a full time job. I couldn’t have landed such a sought-after position based on my portfolio and by cold-calling photographers alone. I learned more in my first month on the job than in four years at art school.

The 18 months I spent assisting taught me tons of lessons about how to light, direct, pose and talk to models. It also taught me how to work with makeup artists and stylists, and how to deal with difficult clients. But most importantly, I witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of running a business. Had I gone straight out on my own without working as an assistant, I never would’ve realized that ALL photographers experience downturns in their business, and that nobody — no matter how amazing or in-demand — is immune. That lesson was gold and saw me through many quiet times through my career.

In some cases interning with the right person can be more valuable than doing a course. But that person needs to be generous with their knowledge, and should be an encouraging teacher. The wrong kind of internship can find you stuck in a tiny office filing, answering phones, and performing menial non-photography jobs without the opportunity to ever learn anything.

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3. Workshops

Workshops are a great way to refine and advance your skills. One of the advantages of workshops is that you can select the style of photography and techniques you want to improve, and the photographers you want to learn from.

Some workshops are local, and only last a couple of hours. Others last longer and are held in exotic locations. These are great for travellers who want to shoot on location, but are reluctant to travel on their own.

Whatever course you’re thinking of attending, read up on it. Read testimonials and find out how much experience the teacher has. But most importantly, find out the class size. Larger classes are fine for software workshops such as Lightroom and Photoshop, but when it comes to learning the craft of photography, smaller groups are much better. You’ll get more one-on-one time with the instructor.

Learn 7

4. Online courses

Online course are great for learning at your own pace and in the comfort of your own home. Look for courses that are taught by professionals you respect and in a style you can relate to. The more you enjoy and relate to your teacher, the easier it’ll be for you to learn. Many of the really good courses offer money back guarantees, making them a zero-risk investment.

Learn 6

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” – Buddhist Proverb

5. Mentors

A mentor can be anyone who’s realized the goals you want to achieve. This includes both friends who can help you understand some of your camera’s settings, and professionals with five, 10, 20, or more years of experience. Their skills may vary, but anyone who’s farther down the path than you has valuable information that will save you time, money and effort in reaching your goals.

A great place to start looking for mentors is in your friendship and social media circles. It isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Look for someone whose work and working style you admire and respect. Follow them on social media and look for ways you can add value to the relationship. Retweet their posts, comment on their photos, share their work, refer clients to them, and send them links to great locations or items that may be interested in.

Give the relationship time to develop before you ask them to mentor you. That will increase the chance that they say yes, because they will have had a chance to get to know you. A mentor is far more likely to want to give up valuable time to work with you if they can see you show initiative, and are respectful of their time.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with several mentors in my career and I know their knowledge and guidance has saved me years of extra work and opened many doors I may never have walked through had I have stumbled along on my own.

Learn 5

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Finally, there is plenty of great information out there, and lots of amazing teachers, but in the end it’s up to you to take the first step.

What have been the most successful ways for you to learn photography? Do you have any other suggestions I may have missed? I’d love to hear from you, please leave a comment below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

  • cde

    There is no evidence that “learning styles” exist.

    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/learning-styles-debunked-there-is-no-evidence-supporting-auditory-and-visual-learning-psychologists-say.html

    If you have any learning/cognitive disorder, then working to accommodate that is real. Anything else is just personal preference – likely based on how one may prefer working alone, in company, having immediate rewards and so on. But these are not learning styles in the way people use the term.

    Any of the advice in this article applies to anyone…

  • Might I also suggest joining the military as a photographer and attending the Defense Information School. The military is a hard road to follow, can be dangerous at times, but well worth it for the quality of the photographic education. I joined as a Navy Photographer in 1980 and ended up spending 20 years in service. Not only did I get a fantastic education in still and motion media, but I ended up being an instructor for six years.

  • Great advice Biil, and great shot! Thanks for contributing.

  • This was great! I’m looking forward to getting into your podcast to develop my photography 🙂

  • Vinicius Mimão

    Fantastic suggestions! Great post Gina!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks
    Vinicius Mimão

    I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Gina Milicia

    That’s great Kristyn, thanks so much. I hope you enjoy the show!

  • David

    My AUD0.02
    Self taught over last 3-4 years as a hobby. Found fantastic online resources like DPS’ daily emails and active user of Flickr. Attended 5 workshops – a few hours for each one. Viewed very few online videos/youtube. No mentor but found a bunch of some photographers whose work I really enjoy. Joined some like-minded people organising dawn shoots. http://focusphotographers.org/

    => I think that I am technically proficient now but haven’t really developed a “style” yet that perhaps an arts degree would support. Requiring a thesis would probably be part of that development but I couldn’t justify the time/cost. Making money out of photography is very tricky now.
    David.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidmarriottsydney/

  • Gina Milicia

    That must have been an incredible experience Wes. I have the utmost respect for anyone who has served in the military and I’m sure the training would be first class. Would love to see some of your images.

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi CDE, interesting article, thanks for sharing.

  • afigueira

    It’s amazing how many ways there are to learn things. I deal with these issues every day as a middle and high-school film/photography teacher. I’m self taught – mentored by my dad – and have been wrestling with the issue of how best to teach photography in a classroom environment, where I have not only multiple learning styles to take into account, but multiple age/maturity/experience levels (I frequently have 7th graders and seniors in the same class). I think I’ve come up with an original approach, and am seeking the means to make it happen. I’d love some feedback on it, and I’d welcome any support anyone here could lend, even if it’s just spreading the word. Thanks for the great article!

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/3444921/camera-obscura-alternate-reality-for-the-classroom

  • Gina Milicia

    Looks great afigueira ! Good luck with your kick starter project. I hope you reach your goal!

  • afigueira

    Thanks, Gina, I hope so too. DPS has been invaluable to me and my students. It’s Adam, by the way.

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks David, I think style is something that evolves naturally over time. I don’t think a university degree is necessary. 3-4 years is still early days. Keep doing exactly what you are doing and try and shoot as much as possible and you will start to see your own style begin to develop. Keep up the great work!

  • Gina Milicia

    Thank you Adam. Keep in touch and let me know how you go!

  • afigueira

    Will do.

  • Personally, I found that I could learn a lot by reading articles and trying them out, but in the end I learn better when I’m in a group, with teachers who can give me their honest opinion on my work instead of having trolls completely and randomly bashing my photos or having followers who only keep praising everything I do without criticizing it in the least. So I went the school way (15 000$, ouch) and I’ll be graduating in December. So far, I absolutely love what we’re learning, even if it was a bit long at first (since I had already taught myself the basics).

    So, here’s a tip for those who want to go the school way: be prepared to find the first weeks (or months) very long and boring if you’ve already taught yourself the basics of photography through any other mean. Half of my group had never touched a DSLR before entering the program, so the teachers couldn’t speed things up and often had to slow down; at least 15 out of 25 had never used LightRoom or Photoshop (whereas I have been playing around with PS ever since I was 12), so that can be tough too.

  • Gina Milicia

    I guess the hardest part of learning in a classroom situation is having to cover stuff you already know or not being able to move as quickly as you like but getting honest feedback from teachers you respect is definitely a plus! Great advice Amaryllis and congratulations!

  • Anthony Firmin

    The University/College route.
    For purely learning the photographic skills, the college route in the UK is a good one but going to University to study photography is quite different. Only about 1/3 of the time is spent learning the “skills” as there is a greater emphasis on contextual studies (essay writing), research and reflection, as well as other areas.

  • Misti Delaney

    Sadly, not all teachers give feedback. Beyond “is it sharp? Well exposed? well composed?” my instructor had few opinions.

  • I’m not talking about a private instructor; the course I followed was government-recognized and the teachers all told us real, actual feedback according to what they could see was more of one’s style. For example, I tend to specialize in macro, decorative photography, and so my portfolio ended up being only of those shots because the teachers could see that this is what makes me happy (instead of portraits, for example).

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