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This is a fantastic time to be getting into photography.
Even if you don’t take into account the wonderful array of options you have for equipment and the like, there is an enormous amount of information available at the click of a button to anyone who wants to learn any kind of photography. There are millions (I’m sure) of written and video tutorials that you can access at a moment’s notice with a device that you keep in your pocket. There is also a huge number of courses, books and real-life photographers offering tuition and workshops all over the world. I do feel this abundance is a great thing for photography as a whole.
However, this abundance comes with a subtle trap. When fallen into, it can hinder your progress and growth as a photographer.
It’s easy to spend time consuming content and learning new things. Some outlets, like Youtube, are designed to keep you consuming for as long as possible – and long after you watched what you intended to in the first place.
The problem is, when you go from tutorial to tutorial consuming information indiscriminately, you are only part-learning it. Sure, the theory is important, but knowing something isn’t the same thing as being able to do it.
It’s also easy to sit and think about photography and what you can do with all of the information that you have accumulated.
What isn’t so easy is the most important step. Reading about and thinking about photography is great, but neither one is actually photography. Putting all of that information to use is the difficult part. It’s the one thing I see people struggle with consistently (myself included at times). Boiled down, it’s basically the same thing as lusting after and buying that fancy, expensive lens, but then never using it.
The cycle goes like this:
Read/watch a tutorial — think about it a bit — read/watch another tutorial — think about it a bit — rinse, lather, and repeat.
When you get stuck in a loop like this, you’re only doing half the job of learning something new. Unless we’re talking about something really easy like where the shutter release is on your camera and how to use it, most things require actual practical experience to learn properly.
Take something like Rembrandt lighting.
Sure, you can read a tutorial and know that your light source should be at a 45-degree angle to the side of your subjects and 45 degrees above and pointed down. However, if you get something like that right on the first try, there’s more luck involved then anything else.
Techniques like this have a lot of nuances that are not very easy to infer without practical experience. Many factors can interfere with getting them right that you might not be able to read about, meaning you have to figure it out for yourself.
The new cycle I would propose looks a bit like this:
Read/watch a tutorial — think on it — act on it — evaluate — alter — evaluate.
Keep going like this until you feel that you have a complete understanding of whatever it is you are trying to learn.
Going back to the Rembrandt example, if you’ve read a tutorial and took some time to figure out how to implement it, you could then set up a practice session and put what you’ve learned to the test.
Once you’ve tried it, you can evaluate the results.
Let’s say that the triangular highlight that appears on the shadow side of the face with Rembrandt lighting isn’t quite right.
Here you would identify that problem and then try to figure out why it has happened that way. Then you would try the technique again and again until you’ve sorted that out, and you have images with perfect Rembrandt lighting.
You shouldn’t stop here though. Continuing with Rembrandt: now you can start to experiment and add to it.
What does the setup look like if you add a reflector?
How does it look if you add a fill light or a hair light?
What does it look like when you have your subject move into a different position?
Going through questions like these with practical, incremental experience will not only help you to learn faster but will help you to learn more thoroughly. Also, because you have intentionally tried a variety of things that probably don’t work, once those scenarios come up in the real-world application of your new skills, you will be able to identify and fix those problems immediately.
Learn it. Use it. Master it.
If you want to learn as much as possible in photography, there is no set order in which you do things. I do suggest, however, that you only do one thing at a time.
Early on, things will be easy (like learning where the basic controls of your camera are, how to focus, and using manual mode) and won’t take much time. If you focus on each of these basic skills in isolation, you’ll probably find that they all mesh together a lot easier. Then, before you know it, you will be tackling much more complicated skill-sets and techniques.
That said, the most important thing of all is that you need to do your best to get out and practice.