Photographic Training : Do You Need It?

There is no substitute for live hands-on training

There is no substitute for live hands-on training

Regular reader Dave suggested that I missed this point in my article on Buying a New Camera.  He's correct of course, but I think that the topic is so important that I wanted to address it specifically.

Just as a musician practices scales to build dexterity, and to open the mind to possibility, the photographer needs practice to make better images.  This brings the questions of what and how to practice, and where to find the ideas, the guidance and the coaching to do so.

Secret Tip : The Camera Doesn't Matter

So many people think that by purchasing a more expensive camera, that they will get better pictures and they are uniformly disappointed when they discover that it's really not true.  Yes there are those who lie to themselves that buying a D850 to replace their D3400 makes them a better photographer, but their work shows that this is not in fact true.  If I work in cabinet making, higher quality chisels may work easier and more consistently than cheap chisels. but spending more will not make one a better cabinetmaker.  The tool matters considerably less than the mind behind it.

A valuable method to getting better is training.  Sadly, the old style of photographic training is nearly dead.  The opportunity to go into a classroom with a dedicated and committed instructor, to be with peers with different skills and perspectives, and to work individually but as a group on specific tasks is almost gone.  Schools have diminished their creative programs.  Camera makers have closed their teaching offerings.  Even large photography chains have or are terminating their imaging schools.  The perspective, is that everything is available on the Internet and for no cost and so live training is no longer viable.  This is tragic in so many ways.  It's also fundamentally wrong.

It's All There for Free on the Internet.  Isn't It?

The Internet is a big place.  How does one who does not know what he or she is actually looking for find good content?  They end up on YouTube, which will have some small number of really good pieces and a plethora of utter crapola.  There is no curation, no measurement, no validation, it's all there, lying on the floor and the onus is on the viewer to find the best pieces.  As Heinlein wrote, There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  You really do get what you pay for.

If someone buys a new camera, how does that person learn how to use this powerful, complex and often confusing tool?  Where does this person go to gain the core concepts of photography and then overlay them on the camera that he or she is using?  They will not get that on the internet.  They are not going to get that even in paid online training.  Such training is simplex, it's one way, there is no dialogue.  There's no one to show the missing step or coach the student in real time towards a specific task or goal.  

I am one of the moderators on the excellent KelbyOne Community.  I see the same questions from good folks over and over.  Sometimes it's about software, sometimes about a specific camera or tool, and very often about some core fundamentals of photography.   In my opinion, KelbyOne offers the best online training options out there, especially for folks at the beginner and intermediate levels.  There are classes for professionals as well, but that percentage is lower as is to be expected.  Some of the instructors are excellent about showing up in the Community and answering questions, but most do not.  They have businesses to run and free does not pay the bills.  Thus the work falls on the moderators, community leaders and dedicated members to answer the questions.  This works, but it takes a long time.

The missing is the live contact

Consequently, we have seen a boom in the photo workshop.  I accept that I am quite cynical most of the time, but in my own experience many of these workshops are just cash grabs, or paid travel for the instructors to a great location where they offer very often little knowledge transfer of value, or teach a few in camera or processing techniques, hardly in balance with the costs involved.  A few folks who have done many workshops are concluding that they are more social events than really training events.  Nothing wrong with a social event if that is what you want, but what if you actually want to learn something?

You also have to consider the capability of the instructor.  A great photographer is not immediately a great teacher.  Teaching and photography are too very different skillsets.  I have a fellow in my last 5 week class for a major retailer who just killed off their education unit.  He's a very nice fellow who took an intro course.  His use cases are very simple.  Learn to make photos that he likes enough to print and put on his wall.  He doesn't want to understand the minutiae of photographic process, he wants to make better pictures than he got with his point and shoot, a camera that he liked because it was so simple.  His first instructors told him to always shoot in high speed burst so he would learn shutter control and to always shoot in manual because he would learn the relationships of the criteria that go into an exposure.  Neither of these statements are untruths, but they are completely USELESS when aligned to the fellow's use cases.  He was so frustrated that he was ready to chuck it all in.  His former instructor told me that the fellow was "challenging".  What a complete pant load.  The instructor must be flexible to the needs of the student, not teach by rote the way he or she learned.  That I learned about exposure by screwing around and practicing with the sheet of paper that came with a roll of Tri-X in the old days does not mean that this is a practical methodology in this century.

joining a local camera club can sometimes be a good idea.  They will often have guest speakers come in, although most of the time, these speakers are there to get paid to talk about and show their own pictures, and there is no training involved.  Most camera clubs also run competitions, and for the newer photographer, these competitions while not officially mandatory are very denigrating to the new folks and promote cliques.  That's no help at all.  

Some people look to critique sessions as a training tool.  The challenge with most critiques is that they are not critiques but criticisms.  There is no interaction with the photographer, just some possibly qualified persons telling the person in a simplex manner what is wrong with the image.  Watching someone else's work get critiqued in this manner is not learning, it's voyeurism because the intent, desires and aspirations of the creator are not engaged at all.  They're bullshit front to back.

By now, you're going, okay, nothing that I've thought about really works, so what's the point?

We All Need Training.  It's a Journey Not a Destination

The point is that we all need training.  How we get it is going to vary by content and subject, but nothing beats live training.  Whether that comes in the form of a seminar or teaching workshop where you do actual work under the guidance of a qualified instructor, or some other method is less important than getting the training itself.  

I've been an educator for a very long time.  I always work to remember this little piece.

"Tell me, I will forget"

"Show me, I will remember"

"Help me do it and I will understand"

When I deliver mentor programs, I always ask what the student wants from the program.  Sadly most of them are interested in steps one and two and not in step three.  If I offer the third, timing and cost are consistently a "problem" for attendees.  That's broken.  It's like a piano teacher demonstrating scales and then leaving you on your own.  What if you missed a step?  What if you're struggling?  How do you get better without a live coach?  When we look at sports and music, coaching is not optional, it's required, so why is there this perception that it is not necessary in photography?  To that point, if you take a class or workshop with someone and that person is making images, you know what they are not doing?  They are not teaching you, on your gear, in your working space.  Sure you can learn things from watching, but you learn much more by doing with support.  One of the best workshops that I ever took was with Joe McNally.  You know who didn't have a camera?  Joe McNally.  

So what do you do if you want to get better?  Find a mentor.  Take a class with a live instructor.  Go on a workshop where the workshop leader is not making images.  Do I have a bias?  Of course I do.  I have been an educator for going on thirty years in a variety of disciplines.  I offer mentor programs in photography, videography and the related businesses to this day.  Am I the only one?  Hells no!  I know some great teachers, who have very different styles from mine and matching the instructor to the student is really important.  As my peer instructor James Ogilvie has said on many occasions, "a great instructor creates a personal relationship of trust with the student".  It's not just about finding the right course, it's about finding a teacher that you can actually relate to.

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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.