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“Every Artist was first an Amateur”- Ralph Waldo Emerson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” – Buddhist Proverb
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.
“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.