A Lesson About Lessons in Photography

Golf, as a sport and the popular obsession with it have long mystified me. Even in the wake of the recent crash and burn of Tiger Woods, I normally would not follow it much. However, a friend who is as much a golfer as he is a photographer has pressed me to write something about golf and photography and I did so back in October of 2009. I would have left it there but I recently stumbled on a great article in the New York Times titled, “A Lesson About Lessons,” by Bill Pennington. As I read it, I thought that much of what he wrote applies to photography as much as to golf.

I encourage you to read the full article first in the New York Times. Go to:
http://onpar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/a-lesson-about-lessons/ Then go through this blog post. I hope you note how I applied Pennington’s ideas to photography. See if you come up with any other lessons that should be applied to both practices.

So to riff on “A Lesson About Lessons, by Bill Pennington,”

This is the time of year when people think about their photography and about the taking a workshop, joining a critique group, getting a private lesson or making a gear purchase. Or at least they should. An awful lot of things get out of whack over the winter. For starters, you’ve probably spent more time over the winter wielding a snow shovel and than gripping your camera.

Just as you would take your car for a spring tuneup, now is a good time to take your photography for some kind of tune-up (and I am not necessarily talking about your gear.) But does the average photographer know how to get tuned up? Here are some tips about learning (or re-learning,) your photography, from a photography/teaching pro:

Be on time. Better yet, be early.

This may sound overly simple, but if you don’t start photographing early enough to warm up, relax and clear your head, you probably won’t photograph as well as you aspire to do. As spring arrives, people come back to photography goal obsessed, out of practice and in a rush. Photography is a process and a creative pursuit which should be fun. Take the time to re-familiarize yourself with your camera. Practice changing the various settings, zooming your lenses and taking pictures, even if photographing “nothing,” to loosen up and calm down.

Warming up also allows you to get back to photographing as you usually do. You know that when you are at your best photographing, you are almost using your camera intuitively, so you need to get warmed up to get back into that “zone.”

Don’t obsess about what’s wrong with your gear set up.

This is common to many photographers, when they start photographing after a winter hiatus. They complain “I need a faster lens” or “my camera doesn’t do some esoteric technique.”

These are often things that photographer read about in the photography magazines and on-line. Unless your work is so cutting edge that it appears in those same magazines, you probably can just as easily make the kinds of photographs you want with the gear you have.

Only after you are back in the rhythm of photographing, is it a good time to look at how you are photographing and what areas of your process can be improved by new gear, further education or simple practice.

Which leads to this:

Do try to understand what you need to improve in your photography (and what works so well you do not need to worry about it that much.)

There is a big difference between lusting after a new lens and actually analyzing what it is you are doing well (or badly) while photographing. It may be helpful to break down the specific parts of the process of photographing where your problems recur. It can be useful to be able to narrate and describe your typical shoot. Try to take note of and later be able to describe what’s wrong with what you do, much like you would do in a doctor’s office. Being able to articulate a problem can get you half way to solving it.

Listen to your inner voice when you look at your photographs.

People are used to quietly telling themselves (rationalizing) how a given photo tells the story they want it to tell. Subconsciously, they know the photo does not work the way they want, but they try to ignore that inner voice. Photographs are good teachers, but you have to hear their message, understand the problem and embrace the solution, which can only be applied next time you are out photographing.

Be open to new ideas.

Do not get defensive in breaking down the problems you are having. The way to become a better photographer is to practice old skills and try new ones. If you do decide to try something new, try it for a few shoots, not just one, so you can see if it really works and eventually to understand why it helps you.

Be honest with your self about your photography.

How much time do you have to practice your photography? The closer the answer is to none, the more you may want assign yourself some drills you can do at home or during a break at work. These may be breathing exercises to calm yourself for long hand-held exposures or they may be exercises in seeing to sharpen your vision. Those latter kinds of exercises can help you find the extraordinary among what appears to be the utterly mundane that you look at every day.

Do your homework before starting to work on improving your photography.

If you had a serious illness, you would do research on what to do for treatment, but people often approach improving their photography with much less of a clear head. Workshops are one way to improve, but an ongoing critique group might be more useful, as might private lessons. The simple discipline of setting aside one day a week as sacrosanct to photograph and then actually doing that may be as good a learning strategy as a class, but much cheaper.

Sometimes the first step is making a new friend or getting a new peer group of photographers.

You do need a connection with other photographers to evaluate your work and grow, but you also need not be a slave to that same group. If you have a peer group that is helping you grow, then stick with them. If not, look for a new one. If you are in a camera club, it might be worth stepping back from that feedback system if it is not nurturing your growth. If you are not a member of a camera club, those can be excellent sources of feedback, up to a point.

Finally, set reachable goals, because one workshop, critique group or lesson isn’t going to overhaul your photographing process.

People often expect miracles from one workshop or one new piece of gear. We learn in small pieces that add up a lot. Improving your photography is a process to be experienced, not a goal to be reached. If you ever reach such a goal, you are most likely deluding yourself. Once you perfect a skill, for example metering and setting your exposure, it should become intuitive. All your photography after that will be better, having perfected that one part of the your process (and eliminated that distraction.)

“One thing at a time.”

The first thing you should do is to realize that your photography is different from the next person’s. What you need to do is to evaluate which kind of photography you love doing AND which kind you do best. That kind of honest self-evaluation is the key to becoming a better photographer.

With a little forethought, you might make that workshop, critique group, lesson or gear purchase worth even more.

I do a great deal of private teaching, which resembles being a golf-pro. In both cases, we give lessons to people aiming to improve their process. Because there is only one P.G.A. (Professional Golfer’s Association) to anoint and define such pros, it appears much easier in golf to find someone to take lessons from.

While no central registry of “photo pros” exists, you know a good one when you encounter one, be that at a workshop, through a presentation or by word of mouth. And like working with a golf pro, once you figure out how to improve your skills as a photographer, it becomes an on gong process that is best renewed each and every spring.

3 responses to “A Lesson About Lessons in Photography”

  1. David, Your metaphor is spot on.

    I’ve played golf (or something that could be laughingly recognized, maybe, as golf). Your post was a great reminder of how one becomes skilled at an endeavor that is a mix of personal skill and equipment.

    Average golfers are always trying to find the equipment that is going to improve their game or looking for the “magic” that will dial it all in. The latest new driver (with the sweet spot the size of a tennis racket) or the putter with triple balanced titanium/carbon fiber/vanadium/whateverum computer machined gyroscopic head or the golf balls with the special aerodynamic surface that will force the ball to fly straight no matter how badly the shot is sliced.

    In truth, in golf, as in photography, the only way to mastery and consistency of mastered skills is “practice, practice, practice” with a healthy dose of study. There are no silver bullets.

    In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell discusses “The 10,000 hour rule,” in which he cites examples that highlight that a significant key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

    Thankfully while I may never be a master photographer, I have far more chance of being skilled in that endeavor than I ever have at not looking like I’m playing miniature golf (badly at that) during 18 holes of regulation golf.

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