Teaching and learning

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.

 

 

Studying photography: part two – what worked

St Dunstans Church, City of London

I got rather gloomy after writing the last post.  I’d forgotten how conflicted I was about studying degree level photography, how it felt so constraining, and how I constantly had the sensation of being torn in two different directions – what I wanted to do, and what I felt I had to do.  What really prompted me to write about this at all, however, was that I’ve since realised  that doing these courses also had many positive effects, some of them long-term.  What follows is a summary of the main ones.

A structure to work within – when I started studying I was doing what most people do when they’re new to photography and wildly excited about it: taking random shots of everything and anything that caught my eye without making any kind of sustained progress.  It was good to have interesting assignments that made me think harder about what I was doing and what I wanted to achieve.  I can create my own structure now, but I wouldn’t have known how to at the time or had the discipline to stick with it without some external promptings. The assignments were interesting and challenging and allowed a lot of scope for personal interpretation, and most of the courses were well-written, thoughtfully put together, and stimulating.

Encouragement to work in themes – working in series, or themes, was new to me when I started.  I came to realise quite quickly that it’s much more fulfilling to work this way and it produces a more coherent, thoughtful body of work than the one-shot wonders I’d been producing.  I still take one-off shots of things that catch my eye, and I enjoy that, but what I really love to do is to explore something thoroughly, seeing more and more of its nuances and depths.  Working on projects like this has moved my photography forward in a way that nothing else has, and has made it much more worthwhile and satisfying.  This is one of the best things I got from the experience.

Window, St Dunstans Church, City of London

Background knowledge – I learned a lot about the contemporary and historical photography world, and a little about photographic/art theory.  I don’t think I would done so much of this on my own.  It’s given me a good foundation from which to discuss photography and photographers, and it’s knowledge I take pleasure in having.  It makes viewing exhibitions much more meaningful and enjoyable, too.

A more open mind – I had to look at the work of photographers that I would have otherwise avoided.  While not particularly pleasurable, this was really good for me and made me work to understand what was behind the images and what made them notable.  Over time I came to appreciate photography that I would previously have dismissed.  I learned to spend longer looking and avoid the knee-jerk ‘like/don’t like’ reaction I might have had before.

A supportive community of other students – this was a huge advantage, which I found far more valuable than anything else.  I made a number of good friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and a few whom I meet up with face to face.  I knew that I could get considered and thoughtful feedback from peers any time I wanted it, and I received immense support and encouragement from other students, particularly during a time when it was singularly lacking from official OCA sources.

Study visits – latterly, OCA began to hold study visits to significant exhibitions.  These offered more opportunities to meet and talk to other students, and hear tutors talk about the work we were viewing, giving us additional insight into it.  I also went on a residential weekend, which was arranged by the students themselves (in conjunction with OCA), and that was an amazing  and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It included the opportunity to bring some work and have it critiqued by both a tutor and a group of students.  I was apprehensive about this to begin with, but having a variety of people contribute their thoughts resulted in a more rounded feedback that was less open to the bias one person might show.  It also increased my confidence to have another tutor say some very positive things about my work – I’d accepted by this time that I was never going to do very well within OCA, so this gave me a bit of a boost.  Of course, it could equally well have gone the other way……….

Reflection, St Dunstans Church, City of London

Greater self-awareness – one good thing about identifying what you don’t want is that it points the way to what you do want.  All the angst I went through at times had the effect of throwing some light on what it was I most wanted from photography.  It made me question myself, in a good way.

Increased self-confidence – this may seem unlikely given what I said in my previous post, but it’s a matter of  ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.  I certainly lost a lot of confidence while I was doing the courses, but ultimately I realised that if I wanted to continue doing photography I couldn’t place too much importance on what any one tutor – or anyone else for that matter – said to me about my work.  I once had the same assignment marked by two different tutors and, although the overall mark was similar, the individual feedback on each image was markedly different.  Assessing any kind of art is unavoidably subjective and I stopped taking any of it very seriously – good or bad.  Of course, I then asked myself if there was a point to doing the course at all and I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t.  By that time, I had structures in place that gave me the other things I’d gained from studying, and if all that was left was course material, assignments and tutor feedback then it wasn’t enough to justify the costs involved in carrying on (both financial and emotional).

Were I to go back to degree study again, I’m sure all the old feelings of inadequacy would resurface – I was always a square peg trying to fit myself into a round hole and that makes it very difficult to hold on to confidence in your work.  But now I’m beginning to feel I’ve found my niche and my voice, and that I’ve made a solid foundation from which to move forward.  In a strange, and often indirect way, studying brought me to this place.

Arch with climbers, St Dunstan Church, City of London

At first, once I’d removed myself from the college I felt a little bit lost for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do or what I was aiming for.  Slowly I returned to the approach I had when I first started, albeit augmented by the positive things I’d taken from my period of study.  When I came across contemplative photography I realised that this is how I naturally work and suddenly I felt as if I’d come home.  College work was supposed to involve a lot of planning and research before you even got the camera out, and although I did go about things this way sometimes, it never felt right and never produced my best work.  At other times, I went back to working in a way that felt natural to me and added in the ‘planning’ and research afterwards to keep everybody happy.

And that was the real problem – when you do something with the end in mind, whether that’s a certificate, good marks, approval from peers/tutors, or whatever, there’s a real danger that you lose your way.  Some people are strong-minded enough to avoid this – I’m not always one of them.  To be truly creative you have to spend time in play, and feel free to make mistakes, and this wasn’t a culture where mistakes were well-received.  I became less and less adventurous and played it more and more safe.  And as I did, my marks got lower and lower, which in turn made me lose confidence, and the whole thing went spiralling downwards.  Looking back at some of the work I did for assignments, I can see that while it was perfectly OK, a lot of it didn’t reflect or express who I was.  I’m glad to have left it all behind, and grateful for the benefits I’ve brought with me.

Images are of St Dunstan’s Church in London and form part of an early assignment for the Landscape course.  I’ve pulled out the ones that feel most like ‘me’ – the others in the set never did.

 

 

 

Studying photography: Part 1 – why it didn’t work for me

Autumn leaf

It’s been two years now since I stopped studying with Open College of the Arts, and I miss it a lot less than I feared I might.  Anyone who’s known me for any length of time will know of my very mixed feelings towards higher level arts education, and I thought it might be timely to take a balanced look at the whole thing, now that I’ve been away from it for a while.  Here’s my attempt to explain what I feel I lost and gained from the process – I’m aware that it’s a very personal take on it.

To talk about the best and the worst of it in one go threatened to make this an unreadably long blog post, so I’ve divided it into two parts.  In this part, I want to explain why studying photography at higher education level didn’t work for me.  In part two, I want to add some balance by talking about the very real benefits that also came out of it.  First of all, the negatives:

The emphasis was too academic – despite the fact that this is a hands-on pursuit, I felt I was spending far too much time theorising about photography and discussing other photographers’ work.  Being a philosophy graduate, I enjoy a bit of theory and I like that kind of discussion, but it wasn’t what made me take up photography.  Quite the reverse – I wanted, for a change, to get out of my head and into my body.  I wanted to do something rather than talk about it.  Naively, I hadn’t understood that the act of taking photos would be turned into something quite so academic.

It was too concerned with the post-modern and the conceptual – the bias (certainly with the tutor I had for most of the time, and the course assessors) was towards post-modernist approaches to photography.  I find post-modernism empty and cynical.  My understanding of it is that it rejects everything and proposes nothing positive – its concerns are with tearing things down, without building something new up in its place.  I’m not a cynical person and I simply couldn’t fit myself into this model – and actually, I didn’t want to.  (For those of you not sure what post-modernism is exactly………..well, it’s not easy to explain and I’m not sure I’ve entirely got a handle on it myself yet. I do know enough to know that it’s not an approach that sits well with me.)

For me, much of the photography I was encouraged to look at, learn about, and aspire to, struck me as over-intellectualised and/or lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  I often felt like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, but was told (by one particular tutor) that my opinions arose out of ignorance and a closed mind.  Perhaps there’s some truth there, but I felt that there wasn’t any room for me to voice my doubts, and I couldn’t help having those doubts.

The emphasis on the conceptual meant that ideas were regarded as more important than images – for me, photography is a visual art and I want it to provide some kind of visual satisfaction.  This needn’t be pleasurable or pretty, but I believe there should be something there in the image that makes you want to look at it, that makes it interesting in itself even without knowing anything of the idea behind it.  That attitude put me out of sync with many of the people I interacted with but no amount of wishing I felt differently was ever going to change something I felt so strongly about.

There was nowhere where students could go to talk among themselves – ie, the online equivalent of the student common room.  There is a forum on Flickr which is student run, but it’s closely monitored by OCA and some tutors actively participate in it.  This has its advantages, of course, but it’s a big disadvantage when at least one of the tutors in question had a tendency to steamroller over anyone who expressed an opinion not in line with his own.  There was some discussion, around the time that I left, about whether students should be ‘allowed’ a space of their own, and this may have happened by now – I don’t know.  As it was, open exchange of views and mutual support for many students was limited to occasional face to face contact, or behind the scenes emails, unless they felt confident enough to take the rough with the smooth on the forums – I know for a fact that many didn’t.  For myself, well I did participate in the forums for a long while, but eventually I became tired of always feeling on the defensive.

I rarely felt that I understood what was wanted – the course assessors seemed to be looking for something that eluded me.  It was made clear that I wasn’t producing the goods, but I was lost in terms of understanding what those might be and no-one seemed able to tell me.  It pressed a lot of buttons for me – growing up, my mother would make it obvious that I’d seriously displeased her, but she’d make me play guessing games to try and figure out what I’d done, refusing to tell me.  It took me right back to those frustrated, helpless, angry feelings of trying to please, and failing, that I had as a child.

I understand that some things can be intangible and hard to identify, and that it’s easier to know that something isn’t right than it is to identify whatever positive thing it’s lacking.  I accept that, and maybe it just wasn’t possible to make this easier for me.  However, what it encouraged in me was my need to please others at the expense of pleasing my self, and that’s a part of me that can get out of hand all too quickly.  When I found myself worrying about other people’s reactions even as I was pressing the shutter, and when I stopped doing the kind of photography I enjoyed because it didn’t seem ‘acceptable’, then I knew I had to think seriously about whether this was right for me.

It badly damaged my confidence – I had a tutor who was known for his ascerbic dismissal of students work and opinions.  He was active on the main forums where students interacted with each other, and although he was very knowledgeable and in many ways helpful, his attitude was – and these are his words – ‘me tutor, you student, I tell you’.  I had had run-ins with him – as had many students – during discussions on the forums, but he had always seemed happy with my work and came across as much more amiable in private than he did in public.

That was, until I produced some work that he really didn’t like at all.  I’m not disagreeing here with his criticisms of it – I’m aware that it wasn’t very good – but his sudden tearing apart of everything I’d done without giving me anything positive to hold onto was a tremendous shock.  I quote here the words with which he concluded his feedback: “Well, reading all that back, it is a pretty good hatchet job on your assignment”.  At the time, it felt like a hatchet job on my heart and soul.  I didn’t pick up a camera for several months after that, and it took years before I regained any real confidence in my own work.  I changed tutors, of course, and the next tutor was helpful and encouraging, but I lost something the day I read that feedback and it took a long, long time to get it back again.  I almost didn’t.

Autumn leaf with baby leaf

The conclusion I came to, in the end, was that the College and I were simply a bad fit.  Colleges are obliged to teach what’s current and to position themselves within the zeitgeist, and most of all to keep the funding bodies happy, and the fact that that didn’t happen to align with my own values and attitudes isn’t their fault.  I was in the wrong place.  I wish, though, that what talent I had could have been nurtured and encouraged, and that I could have been helped to find a path that suited me rather than feeling I had to walk down theirs.  This is what I want from education, and it’s what I had hoped for.

I was also very unfortunate to find myself in the firing line of an unusually arrogant and opinionated tutor.  I would like to point out that he did have many redeeming qualities – he worked hard, gave much more extensive feedback than many other tutors did, he was very knowledgeable about photography and art, and he did his best to be helpful and truly believed that he was.  Again, however, we were a very bad fit – I tend towards being over-sensitive and he had all the sensitivity of a brick. I don’t feel I gained anything worthwhile from the contact I had with him over several years, and for a time I was very damaged by it.  I’ve since met some great tutors with whom I feel I might have done much better.

I was never bothered about gaining a degree from my studies, as many of the other students were.  I already have that, and what I wanted was something that would stretch me and motivate me and help me grow in a natural direction for me.  It turned out that a degree course wasn’t the thing to do that.  The problem with  photography education – as I see it – is that it’s either focussed entirely on technical issues and compositional rules, or it’s heavily academic.  At the time, I couldn’t find any alternatives.  A better pathway for me, more in line with my beliefs and attitudes, might have been a contemplative photography course, but I wasn’t aware these existed till relatively recently.

Despite all of the above, I’m honestly not sorry to have done these courses, although I’m very pleased I’m not doing them any more – a sense of lightness and freedom has come back into my photography practice that I lost while I was involved with studying. However, it wasn’t all bad – in part two I’ll redress the balance and explain what I did get from the experience and how it continues to benefit me.

The two leaf images are from a lighting assignment completed in my early days studying with OCA.

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200+ Women Landscape Photographers – a weekly selection from Sarah Merino’s list

This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes.  Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft.  I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out.  I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it.  On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time.  Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.

Linda Bembridge – Bembridge covers a wide range of styles, from the more traditional to the experimental, and although I’ve just said above that I’m not keen on wildlife photography, I do really like her Falkland penguins!  There’s a lot of abstract work here, as well as more representational images.

 Susan Brown – again, quite a mixture here ranging from representational to long exposure images.  Brown has done a whole series on salt water pools, which I liked a lot, and in the Landscape gallery there are some images of beech trees in the fog that I found breathtakingly delicate and lovely.  Her Other gallery contains quite a bit of street photography – I particularly enjoyed the skateboarders.
Kathleen Clemons – Kathleen is known primarily as a flower photographer, although her range is not limited to that.  She’s also a Lensbaby aficionado, which makes her a little unusual.  Her flower images are exquisite.

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.

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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.