I used to follow quite a few New York City-based photographers on Instagram.
It’s New York! Look at all the city scenes!
Except then it all started to look like…New York. Same Brooklyn Bridge, same skyline, same ol’ urban scenes.
What’s more fun for me is to follow photographers from somewhere else. There’s a million little towns and cities and hidden gems in this country (and continent, and elsewhere). Show me rural Iowa, or downtown Detroit, or Manitoba, or the people of southeast Michigan. It’s not that New York isn’t cool, or infinitely inspirational, but I’m a road trip guy. I want to feel like I’m seeing all of America, not just the most populous/popular part.
Show me America through your eyes, with your photographic voice, and I’ll be right there with you.
A recent essay in Harper’s has me thinking about the importance of play in children’s lives, versus the demands that modern school systems are placing on them. Public education is so concerned with test scores and achievement, argues Malcolm Harris, that there’s little time to let kids be kids.
Now, take that into art and photography. What’s the balance between cramming your brain with technical information and learning by accident?
Photography education is fine. It feels like you need to learn all you can, especially at the start, to be a “good” photographer. But I would warn that too much of that leads you into birds and blooms – tricks instead of a voice and a viewpoint.
I think the balance should be like 10/90, formal technique education versus experimentation. Learn a little, but play a lot. Pick up a book, grab your camera, and try to recreate what you like. Be a photography kid.
The school system my kids are coming in to kind of terrifies me. With lower funding for music and art class, and more rote memorization and “teaching to the test,” there’s little room for kids to enjoy their time in the classroom. Summertime at school? Yuck. Adults don’t like that much pressure – why would children?
So it goes when you pick up a camera. Don’t be so burdened with learning all the technical stuff that you don’t stumble on a new (or “you”) way of doing things.
All my best techniques were picked up by accident – me just playing around, shooting for fun.
I’ve taken maybe a handful of online photography courses, mostly in speedlight training because it was so new to me. Over time, I learned most online photography courses are like online Photoshop courses: one trick ponies to only use when you really need it. And for most of those, as CJ says, there’s free videos on YouTube to learn techniques.
No, my “education” comes from the How To See end of the photography spectrum. Specifically, it’s learning how the great photographers of history have seen the world and translated it through their pictures. When I learned how Callahan and Metzker saw the world, my photography voice and vision (not techniques!) improved.
The best photography lessons come from photo books and projects, not one-off online classes. Find a photographer you like, go grab their book from a library, and spend some time with it. If you really like the book, buy it, and you’ll be able to keep it forever. You can share it with friends. You can revisit it over time and rediscover the lessons.
Libraries provide books to anyone, just about anywhere, for free. Through interlibrary loans, if they don’t have a book, they can get it for you. That’s a librarian’s job! They can’t wait to help you find a book. I’m lucky enough to work at a university where I can go online, pick a book, and it shows up at my office a few days later (one of the many reasons I love working in higher ed).
Now, if a photographer doesn’t have a book, visit the Projects section of their website and spend some time with it. Look at those images full size. Read the text. Find out the why. Hell, send them an email and start a conversation. Don’t be shy.
If you’re a professional photographer who needs to solve a difficult problem, maybe something like CreativeLive will work for you. Maybe it’s worth the money.
But for us hobbyists, a book is a better investment in time and treasure.
“Tools are easy to learn. Training your eye takes time.” – Jeff Sheldon
It’s fun to laugh at a graphic designer when they use Comic Sans. “What are they thinking?” the cry goes. “Don’t they know.”
Often, they don’t. Often, the “graphic designer” is a secretary at a church making a community dinner flyer. She doesn’t know any better.
So it goes with any art form. The inappropriate HDR, the selective color, the breaking of any “rules” of photography – it’s often a new photographer who is mimicking what he or she sees elsewhere, ignorant of the kitsch they’re putting on display. They haven’t developed good taste.
(Tangent: Go look at Flickr’s Explore page and you’ll see lots of birds, landscapes, flowers, and light painting. I wonder – because that’s what’s being put forward as popular work on Flickr, is that why so many people make photos of wildlife and macro blossoms?)
After absorbing tons of good photography (and shooting a ton), you can acquire self awareness and taste. It’s like this with any craft. The more good work that you devour, and the more you practice, the more you can season your own projects with a unique viewpoint.
My goal is always to look back at my old work and cringe. That’s how I know I’m developing my taste.