A Learning Framework For Photography – By Dan K
After a long hiatus, Dan K is back with another one of his brilliant and informative articles. In this one Dan helps us to put together a system of learning for your photography. Something I think I myself often overlook. Read on.
I have watched my own photography improve over the years. Looking back, I have taken many wrong turns, gotten stuck in a rut or two and wasted much time and money in the haphazard way in which I have developed. The objective of this essay is to help beginner and intermediate photographers to climb the learning curve faster and more efficiently than I have done.
The Wrong Way
When my son started drawing, people dismissed his work as unintelligible scribbles. They missed the point that each was a piece of live performance art going on inside his head. As he explained it, each line traced the path of a protagonist in his journey across the galaxy, encountering aliens and black holes. He could tell and retell the same story time and time again, complete with sound effects.
Next he learned the basic method of making a recognizable image and combined them into little one page graphic novels and now he’s working on telling the story in the viewer’s head using only one picture. He can’t reproduce true to life imagery like his elder sister can, but his pictures are enthralling. It is the difference between an artist and an illustrator, or a photographic artist and a skilled camera technician.
If only I had started out making art and worked on improving my execution, a lot less of my early photographic efforts wouldn’t be well executed but meaningless tat.
Source: 4CHAN /p/
I think we have all seen and laughed at the “Stages of a Photographer” learning curve and cringed in recognition at stages we have gone through. As a typical Generation-X kid, I played with my parents cameras, and then learned photography at school in our art department, where I learned how to use a Nikon FM and process the film into black and white prints in the darkroom. The main focus was on the basic process as opposed to the art. I was just told to “express myself”, or whatever that was supposed to mean.
Topics like the history of the photographic medium, artistic appreciation and the execution of genres was supposed to be taught at college and I subsequently missed out on all of that as I was diverted towards more career path that would pay the bills. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I reached a point in life where I could find the time to take photography seriously as a hobby. This coincided with the tumultuous stage of the digital revolution when digital cameras came to dominance and film gear was sold off cheaply. I became a serious gear-head, but was saved by my love of classic film cameras maturing into love of the images they produced. It was this that motivated me to take the art more seriously and improve my photography.
Almost all art involves the combination of artistic development and technical proficiency. Indeed the gear and need for technical skill drew me into photography. One of the greatest truisms is to abandon all “automatic modes” and shoot in full manual mode, with manual control over aperture, shutter speed, and focus.
For me, I had no choice, because I was using a meterless 1950’s film rangefinder that I had been gifted as a birthday present. I found it hard to work quick enough to capture the moment and hard to get usable results even from static subjects. I found the whole experience off-putting. The use of film meant I lacked instant feedback and had a hard time learning from my mistakes. The low point was trying to use expensive and tricky to expose slide film. It took me a year just to get back to the level of proficiency that I once had in my school days. In the end, I had to take a step back and buy a automatic film compact camera before making forward progress. I took back control of aperture then shutter speed and focus. Only then was I able to work up to composition, presentation and message.
In short, I had it all arse-backwards for most of my life.
An Alternative Approach
I have set out below a series of steps to bring a beginner through to advanced photographic artist. If, like me, you’ve built skills but find something lacking, go back and revisit anything you haven’t done properly, even if it means locking your Leica in a dry box and going back to step one. You can always skip the bits you’ve got figured out as you work down the list.
Step 1: Get An Eye For Photography
By embracing modern automation and technology we can start with the art and then learn the process.
If at all possible find a mentor, or a teacher. Most people will give you the well meant but flawed traditional advice that I received and you will find yourself with a German-made shelf ornament and no images worthy of the camera to hang beside it on the wall. Instead, ask your mentor to show you their best work and critique it together. If you don’t like his work, be polite, because egos are fragile.
You’ve heard the expression “Those who can do and those who can’t… teach”. That’s a half truth, at best. Sometimes a person has knowledge and the ability to pass it on without being able to do excel at it themselves. Regardless, you will have to outgrow your teacher’s ability unless you are content to be his clone. Look at photo books and images in photo collections. Find the images that speak to you and go over them with your mentor. Learn to appreciate a good image, be it a photograph or a sketch. A reasonably acute Artistic Eye should be the fundamental foundation upon which your photography should be built, rather than something you will get round to once you’ve topped out on your technical expertise.
You can do all this without a camera, but once you know what you want to do try to see what it takes to recreate the shot. I have been involved with enough beach and fashion photography to know that I don’t want to work with complex lighting, wardrobe, make up, location hassles and logistics. Regardless of your ambition, initially pick a genre that can be done with basic skills and focus not on the equipment, execution or look, but on making the image engage the viewer as intended. Focus, sharpness, depth of field, lighting, colour, all that kind of thing is embellishment. Even composition is subordinate to the engagement, to the message and to the reaction that you hope to elicit from the reader.
You probably own a camera, but you are probably better off starting out by practicing with a phone camera app in basic mode. This eliminates thoughts of process and gives instant feedback. Go through the whole classical learning cycle with each photo, each session, each project:
1. Take the photo.
2. Decide what you like or don’t like about it.
3. Consider what you could have done better.
4. How does what you learned apply to other photos you took or have seen?
5. Apply this to your next photo and repeat the cycle.
This feedback cycle can be individual, but it is more effective when done with a mentor who already understands the makings of a compelling image.
Feedback and learning is what separates an improving photographer from someone that sprays-and-prays but never improves. Remember that the learning process never finishes.
When you reach a plateau in the learning curve, don’t let your photography stagnate or photographer’s block will set in and you will lose passion. Instead, sit back and take stock. Consolidate your knowledge. Write notes if needed. Prepare a project of your learning journey. Then consider what other fresh avenues you can pursue to improve your work. This can be a technical proficiency or a new genre. You need a record of how your photography has evolved. At the very least, constantly post selected images to an image sharing site or dump them (time stamped) into a folder.
At the end of this step you should have a fair understanding of what an interesting and compelling image looks like and how to make one, even if the execution is rudimentary.
Step 2: Grasp the Basics
Set yourself a series of exploratory projects to develop your technical skills. Stress one particular aspect at a time. For example, when learning to hover a helicopter, you learn the pedals first, then collective, then cyclic, not all at once; it’s too much to handle in one go. In photography, I’d teach perspective (position and focal length) first, then focus (distance, aperture and depth of field), then shutter speed and exposure, then all aspects of colour. Each project can be both a learning experience and you can make a presentation out of it if you wish.
Learn that there is more than one way to get a look. For example, you can get the same depth of field as a 50mm lens with an 85mm that is about a stop slower and the difference in perspective is not as great as you’d imagine. I once had a room full of photography experts swear an image made by my Nikkor 85 f/1.4 was shot with a Noctilux. The difference in perspective is even less between two lenses of longer focal length.
This is the time to get a camera, preferably a digital camera that lets you take over each control. Resist the urge to buy extreme gear.
You need to grasp the basics well enough that you won’t forget the lesson, but there is no need to absolutely master them at this stage.
At the end of this step, you will have a good grasp of technical skills so that you can control the way the picture turns out. At this point, you should go back to step one and see how this can be applied to what you have previously learned about making images people would want to look at.
Step 3: Be Reductive
One of the most useful techniques in art is reduction. Take away all but that which you wish to draw attention to. Learn to drive the flow of the viewer’s attention using techniques like selective focus and lighting. Also learn to work within restrictions, such as one focal length, black and white, one ISO. Learn how far you can bend the rules and where the edge of the performance and aesthetic envelope lies. I find switching to film helped me to do this as the restriction of having one film in the camera took considerations of sensitivity and post-processed style out of the picture.
This is a good time to think about what camera is best suited to making the kind of images you enjoy and more importantly, what focal length and film works best for you. When you get to the point where you want to put together a photo book or show, having shot everything at one focal length, emulsion and topic will help the collection to stand together. Sir David Attenborough always wore the same shirt and pants over a TV series to avoid distracting the audience with thoughts about the significance of his change of wardrobe. For the same reason, I won’t slip a photo on colour film in with a bunch of black and whites.
At the end of this step, you will start to think about working within limitations. You will see that limitations. This is also the point where you start to develop a signature style. As always, go back to the beginning and see how your new knowledge applies to what you’ve learned before.
Step 4: Once You Can TAKE A Picture, Learn How To MAKE A Picture
Once you can take a decent image, and it doesn’t matter if you handled every detail or left it to the camera’s programming, you need to learn how to make a decent image. This is the stage where you learn creativity rather than observation. Learn how to arrange things for best composition rather than position yourself. Learn how to find and use natural light, or how to mimic it with flash. Learn how much control you can exert over the subject, context and equipment without losing the dynamic of the moment, the freshness and spontaneity. The goal is to be able to pro-actively get the shot that you wanted rather than being a passive observer.
The vast majority of people are more drawn to images with people than to images without people. Dealing with people is something that technical types like myself often have trouble with, but unless you can content yourself with landscapes, macro photography, still life, animals and candid photos, it is something you need to work on. A photographer needs interpersonal skills, and the ability to work with a subject overtly or subtly to get the desired group arrangement, pose, expression or vibe. For street photographers, confidence and disposition is the key skill.
This is a watershed in many a photographer’s career, when they become dependable shot makers rather than opportunistic photographers. Do not consider taking on any semi-commercial work until you can reliably deliver a consistent work product, come what may.
Step 5: Learn to Edit
We all need to be better editors of our own work. It’s not just about fixing things in post; I’m talking choosing about which images to show and which to throw.
Most photographers are known for only a few images in their career, but they often cringe at work they wished they hadn’t shown. A portfolio is often let down by a bad image. Unfortunately, if you haven’t worked through from step one, you might not be able to tell the difference between a mediocre image and a good one.
Step 6: Find Yourself
We eventually get to a point where we are comfortable with a certain look, a certain subject, or genre. Our work becomes recognizably ours. Sometimes this is done intentionally, sometimes we become well known for a subset of our work and everyone wants more of it. I know lots of singers; many can cover almost any artist or style, but one day they find their own voice.
For me, the work I enjoy showing most are of proud, courageous people in the vein of Depression era Farm Security Administration imagery, shot in the visual style of Vietnam War era Time/Life photography. A few of my recent images are included in this article. For this subject, I generally travel to working class parts of Southeast Asia. I mostly use Tri-X with a 58mm Noct-Nikkor at medium apertures on a Nikon F2AS, but I could just as well photograph different people with a DSLR and zoom lens as long as the intent and style of subject engagement is the same. The only fundamental is the images’ message: that happiness is to be found in all walks of life and that it is not dependent on wealth and it’s trappings but the spirit of individuals and their community.
Once you have your signature style and something to say, individual images take on singular meaning, rather than being about the gear and the mark it left on the image. You can’t buy this in a camera store and you can’t pay someone to teach it to you.
Step 7: Reinvent Yourself
Once well known many artists, especially commercial painters, get stuck reproducing essentially the same picture again and again with subtle variations. I admire those that can break out of this and find a second and a third style. This reinvigorates your photography. It stirs the creative juices and taps new markets. For example, my friend Mike G. Jackson was known for his commercially successful large format abstract prints of the Poppit Sands and abruptly started producing one-off luminograms. He won’t stop selling his Poppit Sands work, but the luminograms are selling to different customers.
By this stage, you no longer reference other people’s work; they reference yours. May we all reach this point!
Revisiting the Chart
Let’s take another look at that chart.
I have normalized the chart to where most people will fit relative to the general population of people who have some interest in taking pictures. I presume a modicum of natural ability, so theoretically “there is no level zero”.
Learning should be a continuous, life long process. Each stage represents a learning curve and every time you feel yourself reaching a plateau, it is time to move on to the next stage of your development. Initially you learn from the greats, then you learn from your peers, then you learn from your own body of experience, but the key is to persist and break out to the next level.
By starting out right, with an understanding of what a good photo looks like, confidence may take a beating at first but you’ll be on the right path with less time wasted with follies into unnecessary gear or special effects.
Refer back to the works of the acknowledged greats, to photographers you admire and to your peers and you will maintain an objective appraisal of your quality of work. Having a mentor who can see what you cannot will help until you have a solid foundation. I personally find that social media feedback, art competitions and exhibitions give a skewed appraisal that can overinflate one’s ego, or smash it for no reason. Always seek qualified and constructive advice.
Along the way it is common to reach a crisis of confidence in your work. This is especially true for professionals that rise too quickly, but is probably inevitable as you see too much of your own work and bore of it. Here, you must push on and consider a new inspiration, possibly a new genre.
In the end, we may not all reach the top percentile of photographers. Much depends on natural talent, luck, time and persistence, but we all have potential to be good and for our work to be recognized and admired by a wide audience.
In this article have charted out a lifetime’s worth of learning based around my philosophy of making art and telling a story, rather than executing photography. I have explained why I consider the art and meaning to be more important than both gear and technique and how it all fits together. Good photography is not simply a goal to be reached, it is an ongoing journey of development and the idea is to make images worth looking at from the beginning to the end.
Links to related articles:
The limited role of equipment and technique in photography
Photography as part of the broader visual arts
Your first 10,000 photographs may include some of your best
How do you relieve photographer’s creative block
What Do You Have To Say and How Would You Say It?
About the Author
Dan K is a life-long enthusiast photographer, unabashed gear-head and reluctant artist. Follow him on twitter for a humorous look at photography techniques and technology from all eras. Follow him on Tumblr for his images, journey of photographic discovery and a generous helping of gear-porn.
Text and images © Dan K, except Stages of a Photographer (Original), which is from 4CHAN. All rights reserved.
Thanks to Dan for another fascinating and educational article. It is an honour to have this on the site.