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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Learning Photography

Learning Photography

Table of Contents


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1 Painting by the Numbers

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Encroaching Storm
Sahara Desert
(Morocco)
africa, black and white, camels, desert, dunes, horizontal, morocco, sahara, sand, photograph
I am asked the following question far too often:

    "What were your camera settings when you took that picture? It would really help me to know that, because I'm a beginner."

This reminds me of the story where Ansel Adams was teaching a photo workshop in Yosemite National Park, and a student raised his hand. "What was the aperture setting and shutter speed on that photo?", asked the student as he pointed to a classic black and white print of Half Dome. Ansel replied without batting an eyelash, "f64 at 2 seconds." This prompted another student to do the same, "And what about that photo?" Again, he quickly replied, "f32 at 1 second." This goes on and on, while the students scribble in their notebooks the technical information they were told, as if the magician were giving away secrets. Finally, someone
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Doing what You're Told
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, men, people, salute, south america, vertical, photograph
asked, "How do you remember all that information?" This time, the answer was more direct, "I don't. I'm making it up." The pencils stopped. He continued, "beginners always wonder about this information, but it's meaningless. When we get to learning how to shoot, it won't even occur to you to ask such questions."

A lot of beginners mistakenly believe that knowing what the camera settings were for any given picture will help them learn something, or give them some guidelines or insights on how the photographic process works. The problem is photography is not a paint-by-numbers game, where you memorize aperture/exposure values, and apply them under what appear to be similar conditions. Amateurs all too often feel they will get a "sense" for how pictures are taken, which may sink in over time, and there are plenty of pro photographers that write books to give these people such quick and easy answers to these questions. But one cannot possibly learn anything using this method. In fact, it does more harm than good by perpetuating the illusion of knowledge, thereby delaying when the real learning process begins.

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Star Trails at 16,000 ft.
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, kilimanjaro, mountains, nite, star trails, stars, tanzania, vertical, photograph
I had two experiences with this that helped me figure out what's wrong with how-to photo books. The first helped me see the problems with such books (and from learning from most pros), and the second experience taught me why (and how) I can help myself learn, which is really when I finally started getting good technically.

To begin, I found a book called, Techniques of Natural Light Photography, by Jim Zuckerman. It's a great looking book with great images, and I was particularly excited to see that all the technical information for each photo was given in detail: he had a great picture of an elephant silhouette underneath a sunset sky in Africa, and his camera settings were f5.6, a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, and was using Fuji Velvia film. You can imagine how emboldened I felt when I went out to shoot a beautiful sunset where I live, feeling like I was going to capture an amazing postcard photo. But when I got there, it dawned on me: I still had no idea what I was doing. Just because Jim Zuckerman took a shot at f5.6 at 1/125 of a second, doesn't mean the same settings will work for my shot. I was lost. It occurred to me that I've been asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking what his camera settings were for any given shot, what I really wanted to know was: How did he know to set them that way?! That's the stuff I needed to learn, and this book hardly approaches that subject.

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General Store
f8, 90 minute exposure
(Bodie, California, USA)
antiques, artifacts, bodie, california, exteriors, gen, ghost town, horizontal, landmarks, nite, north america, old west, panoramic, state park, stores, united states, west coast, western usa, photograph
At that point, I knew that I couldn't learn from knowing by being told specific data about shots where I can't control the conditions, like the outside. But, inside, under controlled lighting conditions, I could actually learn something. To put this new approach to use, I applied it to learning how to shoot with "studio lights." That is, the special photography lights you use to shoot portraits, furniture, products, and general interior scenes.

I rented a basic studio lighting output (worth about $1000), and bought a book on how to photograph using studio lighting. It was great: it had all sorts of pictures and diagrams and technical settings on light values and camera settings, all showing exactly how each and every spectacular photograph was shot. Inspired, I went home and set up a scene, and then tried to look for a similar setup in the book so I could try it as well. But, then the epiphany hit me again: I had no similar scenes in my house that I could copy as a test. All of his examples involved quite a bit more stuff, not to mention location access, than what most people have access to. I'd have to go to the Plaza Hotel in New York City during dinner hour, bring $20,000 worth of lighting equipment with me, bribe the Maitre D' to let me bother the guests, and then pay everyone in the room a modelling fee so I could photograph them. A little unrealistic, to say the least.

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Test Shot 1
(Greenbrae, California, USA)
clocks, homes, personal, vertical, photograph
Again, the point dawned on me: I can't be given specific information; I need to learn how to determine camera and lighting settings. But this time, I was already too far down the road: I already had all my equipment, photo lights, and plenty of time. I was ready to go. So, I went into trial-and-error mode and chose an arbtirary subject in my living room (a grandfather clock) and started shooting from nothing. I didn't know what to set the light's power settings to, so I started at the lowest setting and moved them up, writing down each value for each shot. I used an incident light meter to determined what the stated aperture/speed settings were for each given power setting, and when I got the film back, I saw a direct correlation between lighting ratios between artificial and natural light, and how dramatically shadows appear or disappear as brightness values increase on the sides.

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Test Shot 2
(Greenbrae, California, USA)
clocks, homes, personal, vertical, photograph
In those days, when all I had was film, this was very difficult and time-consuming. Today, I could to the same thing instantly with a digital camera and be done with it.

My own experimentation eventually allowed me to figure out everything I needed to know. And better yet, I learned how to do it on my own, which is pivotal here: because what you learn on your own you never forget. I can now look at a photo and determine, from experience, where the lighting was positioned, where it was deficient, where it's too strong, and even estimates on aperture settings based on the visible depth of field. Ironically, all these books had to do was explain how to go about figuring it out. But, instructing and teaching are two different things, and most "instructors" don't see the difference. They just instruct, which is not going to impart concepts that help you learn.

And therein lies a weird moral of the story: introductory how-to photo books are a dime a dozen, and it's really hard to find the gems from the coal. Use them for basic technical facts, but realize that experience through trial and error (despite your best attempts at copying what the book tells you to do) will be your best teacher. As Woody Allen said,

"If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."


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Pt. Bonita Lighthouse
(Point Bonita Lighthouse, California, USA)
bonita, california, coastline, horizontal, lighthouses, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, pacific ocean, point bonita, san francisco bay area, scenics, sunsets, water, west coast, western usa, photograph
While experimentation is good, you can't just go off wildly experimenting without a sense of direction. This is where the process of "learning" comes in (as opposed to simply being told what to do). Learning photography is like learning to drive. It's pointless to have discussions about automechanics or to explain how all the parts work together. You have to get behind the wheel and drive to get the sense of what you're doing.

The process of learning good technique requires three steps, each of which is equally important, similar to that of a three-legged stool: all legs are necessary for the stool to stand, for without any one of them, it will fall.

  • Understand Basic Technical Principles

  • Experiment

  • Critique

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Flowing Fog
Marin County, California
(California, USA)
california, fog, headlands, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, rolling, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
"Understanding Technical Principles" is just a matter of collecting as much information as you can about technology (characteristics of film, how cameras meter, what depth-of-field is and how it varies with distance, etc.). There's no magic here, and you don't need to flood your brain with every single fact there is to know. Believe it or not, you pick up what you need to know slowly, as you go, more than you'll think. Don't rush down this path thinking it's critical before you can move on.

While experimentation is key to improvement, it's critique that enables this improvement to take hold. It also takes the longest to develop and fine-tune. I've known many people who are excellent technicians and shoot a lot, but their pictures aren't that inspiring because they just don't have a vision for what they want to shoot. This vision is necessary in order to know how to critique your work: it's knowing what to look for.

Now, don't confuse "vision" and "critique" with taste. They have nothing to do with one another. There is no right or wrong in taste; it is what differentiates us from each other. What appeals to you and why is what makes you you. If you like minimalist, out-of-focus black and white abstracts of globs of light on paper, that's perfectly fine. It still takes time to develop that into something that has consistency and other aspects that appeal to the human eye. Not everyone may share your taste or style, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that you're "good, but people just don't understand you." We're all influenced by others' works, and we mimic it to some degree or another. Another famous quote:

    "Creativity is learning to hide your sources."
      --Albert Einstein

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Studying the Koran
Timbuktu, Mali
(Timbuktu, Mali)
africa, horizontal, mali, subsahara, timbuktu, photograph
The way people begin to develop their photographic eye is by embracing the camera in the form of shooting constantly. This often happens on vacation, where people tour a foreign city, look up, and say "wow!", as they quickly pull out the camera and snap away. When I got started, this is exactly what I did. When I returned from a trip, I enthusiastically emailed a photographer for his opinion about my pictures from the Yucatan Peninsula. He reamed me. I didn't see it. I sent him pictures from my trip to Niagara Falls, and he didn't reply anymore. I then sent him pictures of my first trip to New Zealand. His lawyer sent me a cease and desist letter.

I got the point.

In short, all my pictures gave that same sense: I looked around and just took pictures of stuff I saw. This is what I later called "inventory shots." That is, I took an inventory of everything I saw so I can show them to people and say, "see this beautiful church I saw in England!" And they can respond with, "Wow! And look at the interesting detail!" And you can say, "Why don't we build those things here!?" And you can go on and on, but you're not really looking at—or appreciating—photography. You're looking at pictures. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but if you want to get entrenched in taking better pictures, you need to develop an awareness for other aspects beyond just the record of what you saw. Here are some ways to get started:

checkbox.gif Follow the compositional rules for photography (and other mediums).

A fantastic resource is http://www.photozone.de/Technique. I should write up a similar list of rules, but this page is so good, I don't need to bother.

checkbox.gif Explore Your Subject

After seeing something that interests you and you finished with your initial inventory shots (I still do it—we all do), explore the subject further and start taking different perspectives. You should probably shoot about 5-10x more picures than you usually would... or more than a tourist would. Edit away those similar-but-not-identical pictures to find the best ones.

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Looking up
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, looking, sammy, vertical, photograph
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Brown Eye
(San Francisco, California, USA)
animals, black and white, browns, canine, colors, dogs, eyes, vertical, photograph
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Sammy Yawn
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, sammy, vertical, yawn, photograph

checkbox.gif Find different and unique perspectives and angles.

Get really low (shoot from the floor if you can). Horizontal, or looking up, etc... Similarly, find a higher place (a mezzanine if possible, a second floor, the top of a building, etc.). Sometimes, just holding your camera as high as you can and pointing down yields fun results. Experiment.

checkbox.gif Change lenses!

Shoot the entire subject with one lens, then do it again with another. Use the wide angles. (My favorite fun lens is the fisheye.) Also, zoom in close and get the intimate details. If you don't have a range of lenses, use the extremes in your point-n-shoot's zoom lens to try the same thing.

At the end of the day, you really need to develop an eye for the kinds of things that appeal to you, and then turn up the intent to "11." Push your own limits. You know you're improving when other people no longer want to travel with you because you spend too much time shooting.

For more discussion like this, see Photographing Native Peoples in Foreign Countries.

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Warner Brother's Store
New York City
(New York City, New York, USA)
america, avenue, horizontal, motion blur, new york, new york city, north america, stores, united states, warner, photograph
I don't have any suggestions or recommendations for photo schools. However, I do have a lot to say about whether it's wise to choose photography as a "first" career in your life, especially when it's your main (or only) skillset. But that's beyond the topic of this article. For a more complete set of discussions on the business of photography, see Photography Business Topics.

If you're looking to improve your photography skills in a more regimented, disciplined and focused environment, taking classes or photo workshops are tons of fun, and quite valuable to anyone, including pros. I even like going to workshops now and then, although I'm now teaching more of them than I am attending them. Workshops are fun, you're around other photographers, your time and attention are focused on the task and the subject. You don't wander. This is the best environment for learning. Photo workshops are a dime a dozen. Choose one based on the location or subject matter. I've never chosen a workshop because of the teacher, because while someone may be a good photographer, they may be an awful teacher. One doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the other.

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Bad Schoolgirl
Havana, Cuba
(Havana, Cuba)
black and white, caribbean, childrens, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, people, schoolgirls, south america, vertical, photograph
A final story: I once had a teacher that I thought was an excellent photographer, and I took several workshops from him. I learned an incredible amount of technical information from him, including lighting, film types, use of filters, and even basic composition rules. Over time, as I got better and discovered new techniques and facts about photography, I realized that he was wrong about several things, including, oddly enough, basic technical facts. But, even this type of misinformation didn't really have a long-term negative impact on my skills or the quality of my photos, because you can only learn so much in the beginning. When you're ready to move on, you can discern the "right from wrong" in the past.

I finally realized I'd outgrown my teacher when it dawned on me that he was shooting the same thing he always shoots, which also was identical to his entire portfolio. Sure, his photos are great looking, but he could do nothing else. Someone had undoubtedly taught him the mechanics of shooting certain pictures (where to stand, what film to use, how to set the camera settings) and he's been doing it ever since. He never evolved, which also explains why some of his technical information is incorrect. He never really understood it himself; he never questioned it, and just parrots it to the next student in the line.

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Counter-Example to Learning
(Burkina Faso)
africa, burkina faso, humor, masks, people, vertical, photograph
All that said, I still learned a lot from him in the beginning, and while I now regard him as mediocre, not to mention a rather annoying individual (thus, I'm not mentioning his name), I still attribute my time with him as being the most formative in my photographic growth. I now look back at most of my photography teachers and other influences, and realize that they all had "something" to contribute, but no one was on a pedestal for me; everyone had limitations of one sort or another that I only discovered over time. Of course, I have mine as well too— your job is to improve so you can see them.

    "When you can grab the pebbles from my hand, Grasshopper, you may leave."

There's still something to be learned from anyone. Like many people in life, you don't learn from only positive influences; some people can be perfectly good role models when used as counter-examples to how you don't want to be. Whether those are your enemies, teachers, parents, or school friends, you learn through all sorts of experiences. My goal is to help people understand at least my approach, so you can say to someone one day: "Yeah, I learned photography from this guy on the web. Talks a lot. Now I realize he's an idiot, but that's how I got started!"

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