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How did you learn?

What got me thinking was hearing a photographer described as ‘self taught’. That has surely got to be the majority of us, don’t you think? Even when I started taking pictures, I knew there were college courses that included photography. But I was on the science track. Schools then streamed pupils in subject groups, and I was better at science than art.

I could probably have done an arts or photography course after secondary school, but I was always going to be a better technologist than artist. Besides, teaching myself photography was part of the fun. I read every book on photography in the library. With my pal, who had a camera and knew how to use it, we read every magazine we could find (or afford) and critiqued every Photography Year Book. We also took pictures of anything and everything.

This was back in the days of Real Cameras which used film. It meant that the feedback cycle of comparing the results with the subject and one’s intentions was quite long. Digital photography has made the cycle much shorter – you can shoot, chimp and adjust immediately. This has got to be a better way of learning. Using film also introduces more variables. I might have got perfect focus, but then I messed up the development or printing. It was the reason why I would habitually take two shots of a subject in case I broke one of them. But film and chemicals seemed to be cheap and were certainly easy to obtain: Boots sold an own-brand mono film and every half-decent camera shop had bottles of Aculux. So we followed the percussive learning route – running into every wall until we found the way.

We were young in those days. Bless.

I was lucky in many ways that I was technical. I could develop my own film, I knew how things like dilution and temperature worked, and I (eventually) understood the camera’s settings. So gradually, over several years, my outcomes came closer to my intentions.

I will confess though, that my pal and I were rather taken with the legends of our revered photojournalists. We watched a documentary about Don McCullin in which he made a throw-away remark about changing film while lying in cover. So we practiced loading our cameras without looking or in the dark. One of the magazines told us we should be able to change the camera settings without looking, so we practiced. It was a harmless bit of fan-boy homage, but we did actually learn to handle our cameras with more confidence and less fear.

We were messing about when I noticed the shape of his shadow. It took a fair bit of processing to get the result I wanted from the picture I took.

Do I still think this kind of apprenticeship is necessary? No. The purpose of photography is the results, not the methods. I chose to learn the methods because I wanted to get more control over my results. My digital cameras now allow me to get the results directly within the camera and allow me to check immediately that I’m getting what I wanted. Do you still need to understand the exposure triangle? Totally. But getting immediate feedback makes it easier. It’s also changed in that ISO is now something you can vary with every shot, rather than being fixed for the length of the film you are using.

Would my photography have benefited from an input of art history or informed criticism? Absolutely, but I found my way into these later. So what’s my point? I am entirely self taught. I claim no merit from it: it’s just the way it worked out. For me the journey has been part of the pleasure. I guess that is the technologist in me: I want to understand how things work so that I can use them better. When I started taking pictures I did have to know how my camera and film worked in order to get the results I wanted. If I was starting now I would have a lot more automation and a much quicker learning cycle, so I would probably let the camera handle the settings while I concentrated on the results.

I also have a bad feeling about what a photography course could contain. I know what a proper college syllabus covers, as I’ve looked at them to see if I should do some proper study in photography. These courses are good. My reservations are for the shorter informal sessions given by amateurs. My fear is that these are more about how to control and use a camera than how to see things in a way that makes good pictures. If this is the way you might learn photography you would be better off looking at good photographs and paintings and thinking about why they are good.

So I followed the self-taught route, driven by a desire to make pictures and learning what I could in a haphazard fashion. The alternative route of formal learning teaches you more, better and quicker and leaves no gaps in your understanding. Self taught needn’t be less skilled, just as formally trained needn’t be more artistic. I think the route to avoid though is learning how to use a camera in the hope it will improve your pictures. Nobody cares what shutter speed you used, but using the right one can get the result you wanted. And the right shutter speed comes from your intention, not from the manual.

But to get back to the original point, I wonder how many photographers didn’t take an arts course or learn photography through formal education? Or perhaps it’s more strongly streamed than I realise. Perhaps people who want to take photographs usually follow the artistic education route and do learn by formal methods, while people like me fall into photography because they like it and learn by any method they can? But I’m a sample of one. How did you learn photography?


Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

5 thoughts on “How did you learn?”

  1. As someone who grew up with film, did digital in the aughts to teens, then came back to film, I feel that digital helped me learn composition. But I didn’t learn about exposure, as the cameras I was using either had no choice (smartphone) or it would be cumbersome (digital compacts.) Using film has really taught me about the exposure triangle.

    1. I’d much rather teach it on a modern digi-cam though, as the time between action and result is so much shorter. But, like you, I started when we chiseled pictures into rock.

      1. Oh, definitely. It’s easier to teach with digital because of instant results. But I didn’t learn the exposure triangle until I was forced to, because with mechanical film cameras you have to. With digital you never have to unless you want to.
        Earlier this year I found an older Lumix bridge camera in my house. I fooled around with it a bit. I mostly left it on program, but a few times I played around with exposure settings. Doing so was quite inconvenient.

  2. I’ve learned I think by occasionally seeing a photograph I like that I want to emulate, and reading the occasional tip or technique. But I often feel like I’ve just kind of figured stuff out along the way.

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