Avoid this important mistake and become a much better photographer faster.
One of the great things about writing a blog about any subject is that we get the chance to pass on the tips that we wish we’d known when we were first starting out. Whether anyone listens or takes note is another matter!
So as a teenager, I asked myself ‘should I go to college?‘. My choice was to do that or get a job working for a guy in my town. In the end I made the choice to go to college to study photography. Whether that was the right choice or not I don’t know. I often think it would have been better to study a subject that would have guaranteed me a better standard of living and kept photography as a spare-time hobby. Maybe I’ll write about that another day.
The Mistake I Made Studying Photography at College
So I graduated with a college diploma of photography. I made it – but did I gain everything I could have from my years of study? No. I made a mistake and it cost me. Sure I learned how to photograph just about anything a client could ask me. Using the skills my professors passed on I knew how to take a well exposed, well composed photo in a whole variety of situations. But did I leave college as a great photographer?
Sure, I knew plenty of tips for portrait photography. I could set up a lighting rig so that I kept detail on the subject’s shadow side while ensuring the highlights never burnt out. I knew how to take a photo that I could charge for and pay my bills.
But there’s something I didn’t learn at college. And that was how to compose great photographs.
You see while I spend my days and evenings studying technical books my college friends were getting out and taking photographs for real. They were snapping everything that interested them. Many of the took photographs of things that didn’t interest them – just to gain that extra bit of experience.
What I Should Have Done
There is a lot of technical stuff in photography. Without even scratching the surface, you have ISOs, apertures, reciprocity law, the inverse square law and a whole bunch of equations. As an academic teenager I thought it was vital to understand all this stuff before I could be a great photographer.
For six months or more after starting college I was gaining top marks in every theory test. I was the class ‘expert’ and people would come to me when they needed something technical explaining or couldn’t quite work out how to do something. I felt great – people rated me.
It took a while longer to notice that all the kids who were coming to me for help were turning out much better photographs than me. Their marks were climbing while mine were falling. I got disheartened and distracted myself with other activities.
My Best Tip for Learning Photography
Get up and take photographs.
Get up and take photographs whenever you can; wherever you can; of whomever or whatever you can.
The more photographs you take the more practical your learning. You’ll notice when you chose the wrong aperture. You’ll see the Inverse Square Law failing. You’ll see that a composition failed or an effect you were aiming for didn’t quite work. The wealth of information that you’ll collect will be more valuable than anything you’ll read in a book.
Sure you should definitely read the books, magazines and forums. Find every tip for taking better photographs that you can. Learn what apertures do and how your choice affects your photographs. That stuff is important. But there comes a point where practical experience is far more important to you than understanding why the diffraction of light beams across the edges of an aperture leaf will cause your images to become less sharp at high f/stops.
It’s Pareto’s Principle (or the 80:20 rule). You don’t need to know 100% of the technical aspects of photography to become a great photographer. You need to know the top 20% of stuff to get 80% of the way there in terms of technical mastery of your art. From there, practical experience is the key.
Learn the basics then get out there. Learn how to photograph things by doing it. Learn how to take a photo by taking photos!