Photo Notes A place to talk about making images.

May 11, 2010

Learning Photography?

Filed under: Photographic Education — John Siskin @ 12:51 am

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Done with a u-shaped curve.

I have discussed the idea that photography is a language in the past, back at the beginning of my blog. I have also written about the difference between taking and making pictures. Making pictures is about control and taking pictures is about finding images. Both are important skills. I did a couple of blog entries about basic skills for a photographer. This week I wanted to talk about learning to make pictures. I’m adding a few shots, just to keep it interesting.

I have been a photo teacher for a long time, something like twenty years. Before I discuss what others are doing , I have to say a few things about how I learned photography and what I hope to do. My education has been self-guided and guided by the jobs I’ve had. I was very fortunate to work for a commercial photographer, Steve Berman,when I was sixteen. I was particularly fortunate that he was an instructor at Art Center College. I was also fortunate to work at Russ’ Camera in Santa Barbara when I went to university. Of course both these jobs were back in the ‘70ies, so they aren’t on my resume anymore. You can see a current copy of my resume here, this includes a list of publications and shows. I’ve included this link because it is my goal to do more teaching, so I want to display my experience. If you need to consult an experienced photographer, or you would like to have a photographer teach or guide a workshop please contact me. Of course you can take my classes at
An Introduction to Photographic Lighting
Portrait Lighting on Location and in the Studio
Getting Started in Commercial Photography

Self-Guided Learning: This is how I’ve learned photography. I don’t call it self-taught because, with the exception of William Henry Fox Talbot,  no one started from scratch and invented everything. You learn from sources that you find or seek out. The biggest problem with learning this way is that you never know what you still need to learn. There is no graduation. I am still learning new things, in part that is because of the technical changes in photography, but is also because I’m still fascinated by photography. You clearly learn things you don’t need, and you learn a lot of things the hard way, by making mistakes. If you’re going to learn this way it helps to be a good reader.


Photo College: I have met some very accomplished photographers who went to photo college. The good news is that somebody packages the information into a several year long course of study. One hopes that the graduates are expert craftspeople as well as creative individuals. I think that anyone who wants to evaluate a school should be evaluating the instructors first. If the staff members that teach commercial photography aren’t doing commercial photography, what can they know? If the people teaching fine art don’t exhibit regularly how would you know if you want to study with them? This is an expensive way to learn, but if the teachers are good, it might be a good value.
On-Line Classes: I teach on line, so I might have a bias. I also work very hard to do good classes. I send out a lot of e-mail in addition to the lessons. I try to respond to my students very quickly. I also call as many students as I can each session. An on line class can be personal. Still you have to be willing to do a lot of reading. But you can ask questions and get good feedback on your work. Classes are reasonably priced, you don’t need to travel, and they fit into any schedule. Check out

Lecture: Some guy stands there and talks. This might be good for learning about calculus, not so good for photography.
Illustrated Lecture: Slides or other images added to a lecture. Depending on the image and the speaker this can be really good. I have been to illustrated lectures that really improved my photography. I have also taken some naps.

Lecture/Demonstration: This is my favorite thing to go to, might be my favorite way to teach. Instructor comes in with gear and shows you how to set-up and how to do the project. He/she explains what is happening and why. The student should be able to examine the results and look at the gear. A good demonstration should take the mystery out of the subject under discussion.

Workshop: Lets get this straight: a workshop is where the participant actually makes images or other projects in the workshop. Not the instructor, the participant. So, when I teach a cyanotype workshop, the students coat paper, expose paper and process paper. I’ve seen workshops offered where the student sat in a chair and watched. This is not enough. In a landscape photography workshop landscape should be photographed, with the instructor there to help.

I alluded to this above, but you should check out an instructor. There are a lot of ways to evaluate an instructor, but I would suggest look at what they’ve published. Of course you should see a lot of good images, especially of the type you want to make. You should also look for articles and books. If a photographer can create good articles it means that they might be organized enough to do be a good teacher. It will also enable you to decide if you’re interested in the subjects that the instructor is expert in. Here’s a link to some of my articles, and my first book is coming out in November. Know anybody who needs a workshop?
Thanks, John


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  3. I have really enjoyied reading your well written article. It looks like you spend a lot of effort and time on your blog. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Gaylord Bapties — June 25, 2011 @ 6:11 am

  4. I have really enjoyied reading your well written article. It looks like you spend a lot of effort and time on your blog. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Claire — June 25, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

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