Thoughts on Teaching Photography

My approach to teaching photography is very basic.  Make it simple and make it engaging (fun).  With photography you’re already halfway there.  Almost everyone likes taking and particularly seeing pictures.  And people like praise.  So if you can have fun taking pictures and then people praise you for your good pictures then you are halfway there as a teacher.  It’s just a matter of taking what they already know and making them better at it without getting overly complicated with too much technical stuff.  The technical stuff comes when photographers become more engaged and captivated by photography.

First thing I do when teaching a seminar or giving a lecture or presentation is tell them a bit about my story.  I’m not one that was like “Yah, photography is my thing. I’m passionate about it and this is all I want to do.”  I grew into it.  I got my first camera when I was a teenager.  Didn’t really use it much because it was a tiny 16mm Minox camera.  In high school is where photography started to take hold and be more than a passing interest.  I was the George Mason Jr and Sr High School yearbook photographer.  In my yearbook there is even a artist rendering of me taking pictures….”Mr. Snapper”.  I did alright with the school’s Pentax Honeywell camera.  But the best thing about taking photos was you were popular.  I don’t need to tell you how much people generally love to have their pictures taken and then if there is a chance that it will be published in the school’s yearbook… wow, instant friends and popularity.

Nowadays’s everybody has a camera.  Most of them use their smart phone cameras and process and post pictures from their phone.  They use artsy filters and applications that instantly make their pictures look better.   What use to take hours in the darkroom, is accomplished in seconds now.  But most of what they do is point the camera at their friends and family and click.  Then look at the phone or back of the digital camera and say, “Ok, that looks fine” or “What her eyes are closed” and then take a few more photos.

Photography in the digital age has made us all better photographers.  I rely on looking at the back of my camera often to see whether is it exposed correctly, in focus, subjects eyes are open, not blurred (or maybe blurred if that is what I am experimenting with).  Also, I play with angles and composition to see if it works because what you see looking through the viewfinder or the screen on your smartphone sometimes doesn’t translate into a still image as you saw it or imagined it.

Second thing I do, is show them pictures ….usually a series of pictures from the same story or scene.  I’ll talk a little about what makes the pictures interesting (engaging) and also what I was trying to say in the photo.  As a professional photographer (and in my case a photojournalist), my pictures are for pubic consumption and need to tell the story of what was newsworthy.  Then I ask them about some of the other pictures….”What do you like about the image?”, or “What do you not like about it?”  I get a whole variety of responses.  Many talk about  composition, colors if it happens to be in color, the action (action almost always appeals to people), movement (some think it negative, some like it).  Some ask, “Why somebody or something is cut off?  Some talk about the feeling the picture has on them.  Some about the mood of the image conveys.  The point of this exercise is to get the photographer thinking about the picture.  I want them to realize photography is multifaceted ….. there in objectivity (composition, color, exposure, content),  there is subjectivity (feeling, mood, thoughtfulness), and there is the story.

Thirdly, before starting in with the basics of photography, I send them out to take pictures or have them bring in some of their photos.  Because people can be sensitive to how others perceive their pictures (and can be hurt by criticism) and also, because some content can be personal I review their images with them privately (I don’t want them to hold back on what they will take pictures of because it might be embarrassing or others could judge them by it).  This one-on-one with photographers, I feel is very important.  Photography is a personal thing, a personal vision and a personal experience.  Sometimes it is only for yourself, or family or loved ones or friends.  Not everything you take pictures of is for general distribution for everyone to see.  The bond between photographer and photograph is crucial.  It’s why we take pictures…. for the connection it give us to …… you name it ….to our feelings, to our vision of the world around us, to the people, environment… Images are life.  Sure, sounds, smells, taste, feeling are important aspects of our sensory perception but vision is the most important.  If you could only have one of the five senses what would it be?

Fourth,  I show them famous images…. journalistic, commercial, landscape, people, historic, art.  We discuss all aspects of the these images as we discussed their pictures.  I particular emphasize the art, landscape and people photos.  These they can relate to as budding photographers.   Journalistic images are moments in time that sometimes take extraordinary courage, perseverance, effort, years of experience and skill and being at the right place at the right time.  I want to show them the power of photography, but I also do not want to discourage them.  Often, we will compare ourselves to others and to others work. This is not something I want them to do.  I want them to be inspired by great images and great image-makers.

Now that they have a good idea of what photography is about.  What great and compelling images are, I start in with the basics and start refining their skills and vision.

These lessons explore a variety of topics from the essentials of exposure, composition and the mechanics of the camera to photoshop (manipulation of images) to interacting with your subject and environment when out in the field.

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