On teaching photography

Impressionist trees

There’s not much information out there on how to teach photography.  Lots of us are doing it, but there seems to be little awareness that teaching well is a skill that has to be learned, and a lot of teaching is done by those who’re skilled at photography but perhaps not so skilled at helping other people learn it.

When I began to learn photography, I floundered for a long time.  I bought every magazine on the market, I read loads of books, and I thought each time I read something that I had it, that I now understood what I was doing.  And then I’d go out, there’d be something I saw to photograph, and my mind would go completely blank.  It seemed so complicated, somehow, and while I could understand each piece of the puzzle individually, I couldn’t understand how to put them together or how I’d ever remember it all at once.

What I realise now is that no-one was teaching it in a way that worked for me.  I’m fortunate enough to have been academically bright so I don’t tend to blame myself when I don’t get something – as many people do – because I know I’m capable of grasping most things when they’re presented to me in a way that makes sense to me.  I knew that there had to be a method of delivering this information that would suddenly make it come clear to me, and I was right.

When I was younger and living in Scotland with a ski-mad husband, we went ski-ing most winter weekends.  I struggled with it.  Everyone wanted to tell me what to do – move your hips this way, lean that way, place your sticks here, move your balance there.  When you’re sliding along a lot faster than you want to be, terrified you won’t be able to stop, and with multiple instructions running through your panicking brain, things are unlikely to go well.

After several years of enduring the slopes and getting down them in any way I could, a book with accompanying TV series was published.  I can’t remember the title or the author now, but he taught ski-ing in a completely different way.  Take traversing across a slope (ski-ing across the mountain rather than down it).  Instead of the usual talk of hips here, shoulders there, what he said was this: imagine you’re standing side-on to the hill and someone downhill from you has got hold of the end of your ski-pole and is trying use it to pull you towards them; if you imagine resisting and pulling back on it, you’ll automatically go into the right position for traverse ski-ing.  Brilliant!  So easy! This made total sense to me and next time we went to the ski-slopes I tried it, and it worked, as did his advice on all the other maneouvres – things I’d been trying to learn for years without much success.  After that, ski-ing became pleasurable and while I was never likely to be much good at it, I could get down a slope quite adequately.

Something very similar happened with photography.  This time round it’s Bryan Peterson I have to thank for it and I now include his way of explaining the relationship between aperture and shutter speed when I’m teaching.  I also added a little extra bit to it that explains how ISO fits in. (I’ll put a quick lesson on aperture/shutter speed relationships at the end of the post, just to demonstrate the difference in approach.)  What both the above examples have in common is that they use a more intuitive and metaphorical way of getting the message across.

I’m going to veer onto shaky ground now, because I’m going to talk about male and female approaches to learning photography.  There’s a lot of generalisation here because quite a few men respond better to the ‘female’ approach and some women are perfectly happy with the ‘male’ approach.  It’s just a shorthand way of describing learning styles and I could equally well refer to it as the left-brain and right-brain approaches, but that has its problems too.

My experience over many years of teaching both photography and IT is this – most men like a lot of facts and figures and they like it delivered in a linear, cut-and-dried fashion.  They’re also quite happy using jargon, and even seem to enjoy it.  The majority of books and magazines on photography expect you to learn like this.  Women, on the other hand, often prefer the information presented through metaphor and intuition, and like the jargon to be minimised.  Factual information for the sake of it doesn’t interest them much, and they mainly want to know whatever it is they need to know at that moment in order to do whatever it is they want to do.

Both approaches are perfectly valid in themselves, but you won’t do well if you’re only given the one that doesn’t work for you.  I’ve been sneered at (by a fellow tutor – male) for teaching photography the way I do, but I’ve seen the glazed eyes in his classes when people just aren’t getting it.  And I’ve successfully taught quite a few women (and men), who were previously struggling to understand f-stops and shutter speeds.  I don’t say this to boast – just to point out that it’s crucial that the teacher finds the right approach for the student, whatever that is.

There’s a tendency for students to blame themselves if they find it difficult to learn something, rather than conclude that the teacher simply hasn’t found a way of getting it across that works for them.  There’s also a tendency among some teachers to blame the student, rather than look more closely at their own part in the learning process.

Photography – particularly amateur photography – is a male-dominated sport.  There are just as many women photographers around, but the magazines, the gear, the clothing, everything, assumes that the consumer is male, and if you look in WH Smith’s, you’ll even find the photography magazines under Men’s Interests.  I think this has led to a situation where many women are trying to learn the craft in a way that’s been designed for a more male brain.  There are well-researched physiological differences in the ways that male and female brains function – neither is better, they’re just different.

Now and then I toy with the idea of a class just for women, but I’m reluctant to go down that road.  I prefer to include rather than separate, and in any case I use both styles of teaching in every class to make sure I cover all bases.  What I would like, though, is for students who’ve given it their best shot with limited success to ponder on whether it might just be the form of instruction that’s at fault, and not some failing on their part.  Teaching is a two-way deal – as students we have a responsibility to put the effort in; as teachers we have a responsibility to adapt to our students and make learning as easy as possible for them.


A little lesson on aperture and shutter speed

The sensor inside your digital camera gathers light and creates the photograph. The light gets in through the aperture, which you can open wide or make small, and the shutter speed is the length of time you allow the light to come in.

Now let’s imagine that instead of filling the sensor with light, you’re filling a bucket with water.  (Bear with me on this.) You’ve got a hose that you’re going to use to fill your bucket with and this particular hose is very thin, with a small circumference.  You won’t be able to get a huge amount of water running through your hose at any one time, so it will take quite a while to fill up your bucket.

Now imagine that the hose is like your aperture and the bucket is your sensor – a thin hose equals a small aperture and just as the hose needs a long time to fill the bucket, your aperture needs a long time – ie, a long shutter speed – to fill the sensor with light.

It’s the same the other way round.  This time you have a big fat hose.  Lots of water pours through it, so you only need to let the water run for a short time.  So, if you have a wide open aperture, the light comes through quickly and you only need a short shutter speed.

Bucket and hose metaphorThis explanation might work for you, it might not.  I include it here just to show that there are other ways of explaining things than the usual ones.