On learning photography

Sunset over NewarkWinter sunset over Newark

A couple of weeks ago I met up with a friend in Lincoln.  We became friends many years ago when she was a student in one of my classes, and she was saying that she felt she’d learned a lot while doing the class, but hasn’t retained that learning because she hasn’t kept practicing.  That got us on to talking about the whole business of practice, and I had a few thoughts that I felt might be worth sharing, especially for anyone just starting out.

It seems to me that learning photography involves two things – learning to use the camera, and learning to see – and that these two things are not immediately compatible.  Learning about f-stops and white balance and so forth is very much a ‘left-brain’ activity, requiring rational thought and extensive use of language and even a little bit of maths.  Learning to see, on the other hand, is very much a ‘right-brain’ activity, requiring that you switch off rational thinking as much as possible and feel and sense your way into the image.  (Incidentally, I use ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’ as handy labels for a certain kind of thinking – I’m aware that the way the brain functions can’t be neatly divided into hemispheric activity as this suggests.)

As beginner students we often try to do both at once.  We don’t start thinking about the technical aspects until we have something in front of us that inspires us to take a picture, and then find it impossible to have to switch back and forth between the two thinking modes.  At this point it’s all too easy to get demotivated and turn the mode dial back to Auto.

The secret – I believe – to learning photography is to separate each process out until you can synthesise them into one.  If you practice using the camera controls often enough until they become second nature and you don’t have to think about it, then the technical element is no longer something your ‘left brain’ has to cope with and becomes automatic.  That then leaves your ‘right-brain’ thinking free to get on with things.

What this means in reality is that it’s best to practice camera use on subjects that don’t get you all excited.  When your primary purpose is to learn to use the camera, it really doesn’t matter a bit what your subject matter is, and it’s actually better if you find it quite dull because then you won’t get distracted from the matter in hand, or frustrated because your images aren’t coming out quite the way you’d like.

Where beginners often lose their way is when they don’t practice using the camera until there’s a subject in front of them that interests them.  Compare it to learning to play a musical instrument – you have to practice your scales and learn your fingerwork before you can expect to launch confidently – and expressively – into that glorious melody which is what fired you up to learn to play in the first place.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun taking photographs until you can use your camera confidently.  The other half of photography lies in learning to see, and you can do that on Auto (you can even do that without a camera!).  Yes, you will end up in situations where you can’t get the result you want because you don’t have the necessary camera knowledge, but this is a great motivator to go home and do your photographic scales.

It will also help throw into relief what you most want to know.   For instance, if what you wished you’d been able to do was get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, then that’s what you go home and practice.  If you wish you’d been able to softly blur the background, then that’s what you go home and practice.  You’ll be far more motivated to learn the things you actually want to know than things you don’t have a use for.  You can learn those later.

And just concentrate on one thing at a time – you don’t have to learn everything at once.  Practice one control at a time until you’ve got it, and then move to another one.  Leave every control, other than the one you’re practising, on Auto (or whatever its default setting is), leaving you free to concentrate on that one thing.  It’s enough to grapple with Aperture priority without wondering what to do with White Balance – oh, and should you be changing the ISO and if so, what to?

So here’s my recipe – gained from hard experience – for learning photography:

  • it’s best to start with some kind of overview, perhaps gained from a workshop or a book, that will give you the big picture (no pun intended!)
  • regard the technical aspects and the ‘seeing’ as two separate things and learn them independently of each other, at least to begin with
  • practise using your camera every day, even if only for two minutes, and don’t try to take ‘good’ photos – the photos aren’t the point, the practice is
  • learn one thing at a time until you’ve got it, then move on to another
  • the first thing to learn is how to focus on your subject and hold the camera steady, because nothing else will matter if you don’t get these right – after that, it’s up to you where you want to take it.