A question for photographers

All 3 of you who read this blog.

How did you learn to do what you do?  Assuming you’re capable of making the camera give you the results you want, how did you figure it out?

I ask because I have a friend who just bought her first SLR in ages…or maybe ever.  She knows terms like f-stop, aperture and light, but doesn’t know what they mean or how they affect her photos.  I’ve had quick conversations with her on the phone, but haven’t spent any time with her and the camera taking pictures.  No time.

So far I’ve counseled her to read her manual and keep it with her.  She didn’t and one day couldn’t figure out how to turn the auto flash off.  Sigh.  I’ve also counseled her not to try to figure it out all at once.  There’s about a million buttons, dials, menu selections etc and that will drive you nuts if you try to take it in all at once.  Especially if you have no idea about the basics of photography.

She’s enthusiastic and I don’t want to crowd that or dampen it into frustration.  It’s been forever since I learned how to manipulate settings to get what I want.  Now it’s second nature and I don’t know what the best approach would be.  The books I have are all geared toward 35mm cameras without autofocus and so they probably won’t be much help.  I haven’t bought a new photography book in 10 years and the ones I have are specific to landscape and macro, two things she probably won’t be doing.

There’s a possibility of going out with her on Friday to shoot. A mutual friend who also has a ton of experience with photography is going, too.  The question is, how valuable will we be without making her nuts or getting in the way of our own shooting.  Should we leave her alone and tell her to get a book?  Should we guide and coach her?  Should we talk her through our own shots?  A combination?

So…I’d like to hear from you if you have suggestions or stories about how you learned to take the camera off Program.

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14 thoughts on “A question for photographers

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  1. There are two main types of photographers that I have come across over the years. Picture takers and picture makers. There’s a huge difference between the two. Picture takers generally only need a point and shoot or an cell phone with a camera. They want to take pictures for memories and some fun and usually hang out at parties and such.

    The other kind, picture makers, work hard at learning how to use the tools and take the time to go out and make images to satisfy their inner artist. They are constantly struggling to improve in order to make the picture the way they want to see it made.

    Picture takers cannot be helped. They are not interested in becoming better photographers because it is not important to them. Out of focus dark images are fine as it captures the memory and is only there as a reminder or to be posted to Facebook.

    Picture makers, especially new ones, need lots of help but telling them what to do our how to do it when they are not ready to hear the advice is not particularly useful. The best solution is point to places where they can get the help they need. Tell them to feel free to ask you questions. Tell them about a book that helped you. Send them a link to a forum or a website where you learned about something. If they are truly a picture maker they will seek out this information when they are ready for it.

    1. You are right about the two kinds. At this point, I don’t know which she is and so maybe a more hands off approach is best until I find out. I love to teach stuff and I don’t want to impose my passion for helping people to the ‘ah ha’ moment on her learning style or need to understand her camera. If she wants to be a snapshot person, all that technical stuff will make her nuts.

  2. I learned a little bit in high school through a class (shooting B&W film) and a few years ago started doing more “artistic” stuff with my P&S digital camera. My mother got me a private lesson with a local pro and my experience took off from there. Now, it’s just getting out a shooting as much as possible. I read a bunch of photography-related blogs (obviously this one!) and virtually thumb through lots of images on Flickr. If I see one I like and wonder “How’d they do that?”, I’ll look at the EXIF data if available.

    Overtime, the experience builds on itself and you hopefully get better as a photographer (not a picture taker).

  3. When I started DSLR I had limited SLR experience in my mind from many moons ago but it included virtually no technical experience.

    First thing I did was set the camera to shutter priority and start shooting … a lot. And often.

    2nd thing is I read a lot of how to type mags and books. One of Rick Sammons books was particularly useful.

    3rdly I started to listen to podcasts from Marko at photography.ca and Chris at Tips from the Top Floor.

    4th … I joined ph.ca, by now confident in my abilities but still a lot to learn really. By accepting every critique as a loving, helpful hand no matter who it came from, I quickly learned from others.
    I also set up a Flickr account and added photos to the groups there for more feedback.

    I should mention that I came into this DSLR with some reasonable graphic skills on photoshop which the darkroom processing equivalent and realize that good post processing skills are very, very important also.

    I’ve helped quite a few people when they got their new DSLR’s and I can say that tutoring them yourself is good, but only in small bursts and usually needs to be combined with their own learning through books etc.

  4. I am not one for reading the manual either- not that I don’t want to learn but, for me, without a context I couldn’t retain it. I needed to go out and take pictures. lots of pictures. I am gradually figuring out what works, what doesn’t and getting better at (at least I think I am). I also go out with others when I can and I ask for advice. lots of advice.

    Everyone has their own learning style and it’s a question of adapting it to to what they need to know. I use my manual more now that I know more but I needed to experience first.

    Time will tell how your friend does but I do know that you cannot make anyone learn who is not ready. Let her figure it out.

  5. I truly believe there is just too much information for one to learn that way. I would suggest maybe giving her a theme a week where she explores it and learns it.

    Actually, I still do that..and I still go over what i thought I knew to realize I’ve slacked of or forgotten something.

  6. excellent post, I’ve been pondering over this for the last few days.

    I think everyone learning style is different, personally I am very much a figure it by doing it type person, which normally results in a whole bunch of questions that I then research and try and improve my self.

    perhaps the best form of help you could give is an honest critique on your friends work, and that will probably lead onto everyone getting something out of it.

  7. It’s like anything else: play with it until you got it figured out for yourself. Good thing is that there is no cost to the media, no film. So have her go wild! Maybe give her a few pointers on the difference between aperture priority and shutter priority. That will lead to manual. Besides, you can’t really go all that wrong if you shoot in RAW. Photoshop is your friend, and can help with a lot. Main thing is focus, then.

    Personally, I just shoot and delete what I don’t like. Many times I have a double look at an image .. and then say: naaaaa, don’t need that one that badly.

    Not sure if this helps …

  8. Although I have owned slr cameras for many years, and understood the basics of the “Holy Trinity” I never really went the extra step, to take my photography to the next level. Until, I bought my first Dslr. That was a major revelation for me. Not only was film expensive, developing it was as well. Plus, since I did not do my own developing, you were at the mercy of the tech and the machines. If you had something you really liked, you could take it in to have it individualistically printed at great cost. But I digress.

    What I did was enroll in NYIP. About that same time I joined photography.ca. The NYIP course takes you step by step through the basics with quizzes and assignments to complete. But, their course material is very dated and the course is expensive. But a course along thar line is very helpful, whether they take it online or at college or whatever. As far as feedback goes and really getting a grip on what will improve your photography, photography.ca can not be beat. Digital Photography School is also good and free.
    Also Kelby Training is awesome. I learned lots of little tricks from them including Photoshop Elements. Also attending workshops is very helpful. Here, The Camera Store puts them on regularly. I just attended a Joe McNally course and it was awesome and inspiring!

    Basically, though, she has to go at her own pace and decide what she wants out of photography and what she would like to achieve.

    My best advice, is take a cue from Scott Kelby. When he teaches his courses, he says, I am not going to try to tell you to use certain gear. I am going to tell you what I use and why and how. Just like if we were two buddies shooting.

    Two buddies shooting. Maybe your enthusiasm will wear off on her and maybe she will bring something new idea to the shoot that will light a fire for you.

  9. I really learned most of what I learned about photography from reading books and looking at other people’s work. As a beginner, two of the most important books that I read had to do with what exposure is. I learned a lot from Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure” and Jeff Wingall’s “Exposure Photo Workshop.” From there I have read a number of books about composition and other topics, but the stuff about exposure was the biggest help.

    As the other Jason said, I also learned a lot from other photographers on Flickr and looking at the EXIF data. From looking at other people’s work, I have also learned a lot about composition and what I like in a photo.

  10. Having a digital camera gives our friend a huge advantage over how some of us learned. Starting out with film made the process a lot more involved. Trying different settings, keeping notes, waiting a week for the prints and going through them recalling what was happening was the only way to do it. Lots of practice. The time and expense also made you pay closer attention to what you did, measuring the results you achieved and remembering them. You now have instant results on a screen with the EXIF data right there and that’s huge.

    If your friend wants to get beyond using the auto or program modes she is going to need to fully understand the relationships of of the camera adjustments. That means a bunch of reading and even more practice. You need to know the tools. Do lots of shots adjusting one factor at a time until the results of an action is understood. Shots of a fence or busy highway making aperture changes only so the effects can be seen and controlled. Shutter speed changes of a static object in the back yard until exposure basics are understood. She needs to be aware of the theory and the manual but only at a pace she is comfortable with. Did I mention practice? Pushing to fast means confusion and will only bring on frustration. Once she comprehends the individual pieces which should only take a couple of hours then you can start putting them together. Without a concerted effort to learn all the intracacies she won’t be able to address the challenges and enjoy the results of her efforts. Did I mention practice? A closing word of advice is for now to stay away from anything but auto when it comes to the flash. It’s a tricky concept that many photographers still have problems with.

    Take it slow, stick to manual shooting to make sure the basics are understood and as she sees that she is able to control her results her confidence will grow. And that’s an important part of the process. Did I mention practice? I’ve been taking photographs with an SLR for 45 years and I’m still learning. (and having fun) Good luck.

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