No Substitute for Training

I’ve been putting together more photography training courses over the last few days and it’s made me appreciate how we learn ‘stuff’.

Everything we know we have either picked up through experience or by formal education in one one form or another.

From the time we take our first breath we start to store up nuggets of information; from something as simple as learning that fires are hot and not to put our hand in the flames to more complicated life skills we take for granted, like filling in our tax return. There are no books or training courses to teach us these things, we either learn from making mistakes, trial and error or the guidance of a parent/sibling.friend etc.

Sometimes we acquire new skills almost without realising it or without meaning to, doing something repeatedly has that effect. We may be doing it wrong or ‘not by the book’ but if it suits our purpose then we’re happy. There are times when we want to get better at something – a hobby or interest, sport or pastime. We can read books, join a club, find some help on YouTube, and over time we’ll get better and no doubt enjoy it more as our skill improves. Or, we may get frustrated at our lack of progress, lose interest and give up.

However; when we really want to learn – either we have decided to take something seriously, or it’s too complicated (or dangerous) to simply pick up, or we need to be qualified/certified,  or we haven’t got time to wait until we become good at it, then the formal route is the only way.

Our education process is geared up to giving us certain life skills, but in the main it’s designed to teach us the basics and stick labels on us depending on how far up the system we’ve progressed. We learn because we’re told to/have to and not because it floats our boat.

With photography, it’s one of those things that you can do without any training at all. You can pick a new camera out of the box and within minutes be clicking away. Digital makes it even easier as the results are instantaneous. How many, honestly, ever read the instruction manuals? Judging by those who’ve been on my ‘Introduction to Photography’ course – not many. Even those who have tried have admitted to giving up.

Teaching photography, at all levels, has made me realise how much more you get from being trained, attending a course and having someone take the time to explain things and let you try things out under supervision. I’ve had students come along with a modern, expensive DSLR and admit to still shooting on ‘auto’ because they’re frightened of changing anything in case they break the camera. All they need to know is in the manual but they just want someone to hold their hand through the process and be on hand when things don’t work out the way they wanted.

Part of the issue about learning any new skill – especially photography – is having the time to learn. So often if you are out and about with your camera and want to capture a great scene or record a ‘kodak moment’ it’s the lack of time to check the settings or the lack of knowledge about how to get the best shot that means you miss the chance.

Taking a day out of your schedule, with the sole intention of getting to grips with a skill that has thus far eluded you, is time well spent. Every training day I’ve run, whether one-to-one or a small group has been hugely satisfying. I never tire of seeing students beaming with delight as they take shots in ‘M’, knowing about metering and focusing, shutter speed and aperture, composition and perspective.

Feedback is almost universally positive with comments along the lines of “I’ve learned more in one day than I have in the last three years”. It all goes to prove; if you want to improve – get some training.

No Substitute for Training

Creativity – can it be taught?

Discussing creativity
The author and his three identical tutors discussing creativity before our next course.

Photography training courses can teach you many things and give you the opportunity to experiment and explore your creative streak but can you be taught to be creative?

The technical side of photography is in many ways the easy bit – learning what the camera controls do and the effects of different settings is a factual thing. If you open the aperture you’ll get a narrow depth of field, if you use a slow shutter speed you’ll blur the action – that sort of thing is basic. Even learning how to measure and control light just requires a little practice.

There are ‘rules’ about composition, perspective, framing, exposure and even subject matter and you need to know them, you need to know what is expected and normal and be able to produce an image that conforms to those rules before you can step outside, after all, rules are made to be broken.

It’s interesting that many camera manufacturers refer to the operating modes like Tv, Av or M as ‘creative modes’ i.e. anything that takes the setting away from the auto settings and puts the photographer in control. Modern cameras are ingenious in their ability to capture images in almost all conditions, it’s possible to point and shoot and get an acceptable picture without really engaging your grey matter at all.

A bit like learning to drive – you take lessons and pass a test (eventually), you’re given a licence and you’re free to head out on the open road. It doesn’t mean you’re a good driver, it just means you’ve learned the basics. Becoming a good driver takes time and experience and perhaps making a few painful mistakes along the way. Things that you struggled with at first become almost second nature over time.

With photography, after time, the operation of the controls becomes second nature as well. You know what to do to create the sort of picture you want. You switch to manual focus, you deliberately over exposure for effect, you look for different angles, you become more aware of the light, you see the picture in your mind.

However to go to the next level – to create images that stand out for their originality and artistic merit takes a creativity that I believe is impossible to teach. Some people have it, they’re born with it, some work hard at it, and others just struggle. It’s the same in all field of artistic endeavour and those with the creative genius inside them always rise to the top.

So where does creativity come from? We are inspired by pictures we see, films we watch, books we read, sights we come across in our lives and to a greater or lesser extent they have an impact on us. We make connections, we see shapes, textures, colours, patterns, light and shade, we may even be inspired by a dream or unexpected flash of brilliance. Everybody has an imagination, it’s just that some have more imagination than others.

Sometimes great shots are as a result of being in the right place at the right time – almost a matter of luck but as the golfer Gary Player** said “The more I practice the luckier I get” you still need to know what you’re doing.

When you look at most great works of art or memorable photographs, you take the technical expertise as a given – it’s the creative genius that leaves its mark.

Photography courses can give you technical expertise – you’ll have to work harder to discover your imagination and creativity.

** This quote is often attributed to Gary Player, although there is some doubt and various others claim ownership. see

Creativity – can it be taught?

Shrovetide – Royal Shrovetide

Not a lot to do with photography but an amazing sight all the same. The whole town of Ashbourne comes together for a two day ‘football’ game that has very little to do with football and a lot to do with British eccentricity.

At 2.00 pm the ball is thrown into the air above a crowd of hundreds; some are players, most are spectators and general mayhem ensues and the opposing teams do their best to grab the ball and ‘goal it’ – the goals are three miles apart!

ShrovetideIt’s pretty much impossible to see what’s happening or take any pictures that do it justice but I grabbed this as the ball pinged clear of the players. They’ll still be playing until 10.00 tonight then part two starts again at 2.00 tomorrow.

I’m just guessing but I imagine there’ll be a few sore heads in the morning.

Shrovetide – Royal Shrovetide

Moving Pictures

The difference between still pictures and moving pictures was thrown into sharp focus recently when shooting a video tutorial for a colleague.

While the technical challenge was relatively easy to manage using a DSLR, it was the actual production process that presented the problem. A still image is straightforward, you capture a moment in time or several moments. There is no audio input and there is no need to create a script or storyboard.

The moment you start shooting a story, the need to rehearse become paramount. You may think you know what you’re going to say when the camera starts to rolling but the effect of that lens staring at you can lead to getting tongue tied or forgetting simple facts that you’ve known for years.

Of course with digital cameras, it’s easy to delete and go again, and again and again. But….it all costs time, both shooting time and post production time, as well as the sheer frustration of having to re-write anything prepared on a flip-chart or white board.

After three hours, we’d amassed a good 25 minutes of ‘footage’, which, after another few hours of editing, shrunk down to a useful training video of about 5 minutes. This may be normal in the world of moving pictures but for something that should be a simple as a short tutorial it wasn’t acceptable and we learned several important lessons:

1. Write down the key points and the way you want to put them over

2. Write a basic script – and don’t allow too much ‘ad-libbing’ as it’s easy to go off message and difficult to get back to the script.

3. Select any props you may need and get them in place.

4. Prepare any written work in advance to save time writing on film – unless it’s going to add anything significant, it’s more than likely just boring footage.

5. Likewise with any graphs, charts or other visual aids – if it’s really necessary to write on camera, then make notes or marks in pencil on a flip chart that you can trace over with a coloured pen so you are less likely to run out of space.

6. Make sure the presenter stays on their mark. Auto focus is not really an option with video if you are using a DSLR and the depth of field is fairly narrow unless you have high-end studio lighting.

7. Audio quality is vital and the mic on the camera is capable of picking up anything that the presenter is saying, it will also pick up directions or remarks from the cameraman and any other ‘noises off’ in or around the room. A lapel or lavalier mic, preferably a radio mic, is a much better option. It is possible to record the sound onto a separate device to save space on the memory card but that can create a pile of extra work in syncing sound and vision in the editing stage.

8. Most important of all – rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Unless you want the video to look deliberately amateur, time spent practising will reap huge rewards.

The process took me back many years to making movies in the ’70s and ’80s with a super8 cine camera, only this time the results are instantaneous and we are no longer limited to 3 minutes of film.

The experience has been enough for me to want in invest in the production of videos. As a way to sell services or drive traffic to a website there’s nothing better. Watch this space or see the website for more details.

Moving Pictures

Mine’s bigger than yours

Sometimes situations arise that restore your faith in human nature and confirm the inexorable progress of technology all at the same time.

Following a feature on local BBC radio a couple of days ago about the photography training courses I run, one of their listeners called the station to ask if I would be interested in having their collection of cameras a lenses. Not the sort of offer you get every day!

I duly called and spoke to lively 89 year old who proceeded to tell me the story of his photography passion stretching back 70 years and the mass of equipment he had acquired. He wasn’t able to get around anymore and just wanted all his gear to go a good home. When he heard the piece on the radio, he though I might be able to use it.

PentaxWhen I turned up at his house a few hours later, he opened a cupboard and started to pull out one camera bag after another, all in ‘as new’ condition. A Pentax ME Super and SFX bodies, three flash guns, more than a dozen lenses, box loads of filters, instruction manuals, remote cables, even a JVC VHS camcorder and a bunch of other stuff that I have yet to unpack.

Of course, none of it is compatible with anything I use (Canon) but it struck me just how much cameras have grown since the advent of the Digital SLR. I confess my knowledge of Pentax cameras is sketchy at best – practically non existent to be honest – but a quick google gave me a few pointers. The two bodies need servicing according to their owner and as far as I can tell the lenses will only fit a Pentax camera.

I’m sure the lens quality is fine but they look so tiny in comparison to modern stuff. It makes me wonder just why new lenses are so much bigger. When technology over the years has been so brilliant at getting more and more features into smaller and smaller spaces, why do pro spec cameras especially get bigger and heavier with each new model? Just look at the comparison picture between a Canon 7D and the Pentax.

Does it all come down to “Mine’s bigger than yours”.

The kind and very generous old gentleman was most anxious that all the equipment went to a good home – he thought I could use it in my training courses! – or if I sold it, any money would go to charity. So, if anyone out there is a Pentax fan, please get in touch

Mine’s bigger than yours

Don’t believe the Hype

We’re all guilty – not just photographers but anyone who uses a ‘tool’ in their work. We are easily convinced that the latest, flashest, whizziest product on the market is essential. How can we possibly continue in business without the newest model?

Photographers must be worse than most – how else can you explain the regular upgrading of cameras, the introduction of new models with more megapixels, faster processors, more focus points, higher ISO capabilities and an even longer list of features that any self-respecting photographer should (according the blurb) be ashamed not to have.

If we believe the marketing hype, our rubbish old camera bodies that must be getting on for 2 or 3 years old, should be consigned to antique shops. How could we possibly hold our heads up in the company of our peers if we’re using an outdated model? How on earth did we manage to take any sort of picture with that old thing.

How quickly they forget the fanfare that greeted the arrival of our now outmoded kit. Somehow we fell for it then and have struggled on with a mere 20Mb and a processor that is positively pedestrian compared to the shiny new one. Somehow, we’ve managed to produce high quality images despite these terrible handicaps.

I’m writing this after digesting the news of the new Canon 5Ds – all 50.6 million pixels of it. Of course I want one, wouldn’t we all – OK so Nikon users may disagree but it won’t be long before the yellow label brings out something equally tempting.

But do I need one?

Will it improve the quality of my pictures?

Will it win me more business?

Sadly the answers are; no, no and no. I’d like one but I could spend the money more effectively elsewhere and I know it won’t be long before they are available to hire for those occasions when, for bragging rights alone, it’s worth having one for a high profile job.

We’ve all seen plenty of dodgy pictures taken with top-end cameras by people with “all the gear and no idea” and equally there are some cracking shots out there taken by talented creative photographers using fairly ordinary old gear – even smartphones!

Don’t believe the hype; what would manufacturers, retailers, distributors and marketing gurus do without a new model to shout about every six months. Great photography is all about creativity, timing, composition, perspective, lighting and experience; the camera is just a tool.

Don’t believe the Hype

The Thrill of Learning

Since I started to run photography training courses, I never fail to be delighted and amazed by the sheer joy as people discover what they can achieve once they have mastered a few basics.

What they are learning isn’t rocket science, it’s all out there in instruction manuals, bookshelves full of guides and countless videos on YouTube but somehow the ‘hands-on’ experiences is so much more satisfying.

It’s only natural that someone is going to pay to come on a course because they want to be there and they want to learn – no one is forcing them. Making the decision to go on a training course – any course – is an indication that you want someone to help you, someone who can answer your questions in a way that a book, manual or video never can.

Almost without fail, students start comparing notes, helping each other out and working out how to solve the assignments I set them with a little cooperation, trial and error and a few pointers from me where required.

Training groupThose coming on the “introduction to photography” courses do so because they want to move beyond the auto settings. They know the camera is capable of more but somehow they are reluctant to move out of their comfort zone without a guiding hand.

Practical exercises to experiment with aperture settings and shutter speeds and move into what the manufacturers like to call ‘creative modes’ leave them beaming when they see the results on screen.

There are loads of courses out there, run by experienced photographers who can teach you more in a few hours than you’d pick up in months or even years.  They give you the time and opportunity to discover what you can do and what your camera is capable of.

The Thrill of Learning