#1121. How to *really* learn photography

By pascaljappy | How-To

May 27

Not a day goes by without a blog post or video describing tips, rules or techniques to make better photographs. 99.9% miss the mark, and it’s not always their fault. Here’s how to use them better.

 

Disclaimer: The following is purely based on personal experience and isn’t sanctioned by any of the official schools of arts / photography, not even by any self-respecting author in yer average bookshop ๐Ÿ˜‰ So, if you find my photographs interesting, here’s how I make them. If not … caveat lector ๐Ÿ˜‰

My passion, in photography, lies largely with composition. My guess is that storytelling is my real passion, and composition is photography’s main (only?) tool for real storytelling. Most other aspects can inform, document, set a mood, but don’t tell a story created from scratch in the photographer’s mind.

So, I’ve looked at *a lot* of books, blog posts, magazine articles and videos about composition. Most, frankly, are utter tosh, repeating one after the other information created for painting in the 19th century (remember painting is an additive process, where you create from scratch, and photography is a subtractive process in which you eliminate from the frame anything that doesn’t serve your story) and serving up information that can only confuse the poor soul trying to apply it in real life in a moving scene. Golden spiral in street photography, anyone? C’mon, be serious ๐Ÿ˜‰ Here’s what I propose instead.

 

Prioritize your learning

If you were going to start a business building robotic dogs for Elon Musk and his pals as company on their martian colony, would you focus 90% of your training efforts on learning to type faster? Or even on mastering Excel? Probably not. I’m guessing robotics and psychology would be the priority.

So why are so many photographers obsessing over the latest photoshop layer blending mode or similarly arcane feature that not one of the 1000 most famous photographers in history have any clue it even exists? Remember that “management” story about fitting big stones, small stones and sand into a jar? If you start with the sand, there’s no more room for the big stones. Start with the big stones, then the littl’ans and the sand will find a spot in the negative space in between.

What are the big stones of photography? It depends on your priorities, I guess. But composition is definitely up there. As is collecting the photographs of others. I have a folder with thousands of photographs downloaded from the web (including 6000px wide files left unattended by crazy galleries that dishonest people could print or mint as NFTs …, rant over) that serve as a reference for my tastes. This evolves over time but constantly trains my eye to styles, use of colour, composition. Post processing is also important. Not the type that relies on some guy’s 20 layer formula on sale at ยฃ59.99, but the important principles (global first, local second). And, on that front, let me reiterate that Ansel Adam’s trilogy will take you further than most uni degrees (which, on the other hand, will also tell you why you love the photographs of others, see above, and will provide feedback, see below). Gear? Yep. Understanding depth of field, compression, perspective. Again, let me refer you to Mr Adams, whose books cover this and will free you of FOMO marketing forever ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Understand story and evocation

This is hard. Really hard, because it’s deeply personal and mostly unspoken. We create stories in our minds without them ever reaching the threshold of consciousness. So, how do you analyze those stories? In retrospect. See below.

Storytelling is difficult because it’s a soft science, with every non specialist on the planet freely handing out his flaky two cents. But it’s important to be able to draw a line between the technique of storytelling, and the introspective work of knowing the types of stories that appeal to us. There are common narrative plotlines, such as the hero’s journey (writing and filmmaking’s equivalent of our rule of thirds: used, overused and abused). But most are totally worthless for photography. There are major differences between the storytelling capabilities of artforms that develop through time and photography. I wrote three posts on the topic, starting with this one.

The most common story in photography is “look at this”. The photograph below is one example. Look at this statue. That’s it. Why I chose to photograph and show this statue says stuff about me, it isn’t a story. The statue is one of three standing just opposite Casa Bozo, at 10 Downing Street, London. The English’s fascination with war always surprises me, after 50 years of regular visits. Films, books, artwork, statues … I don’t know of many other democracies so obsessed with war and soldiers. That’s why I took this photograph. But it doesn’t tell a story other than “look at this statue”.

 

That is the mistake many amateurs make: the confusion between their motivation for taking a photograph and the story told by the photograph. Both are valid reasons for taking a photograph!! I’m not judging. If you photograph to document, or for yourself, motivations are essential, and you should do your very best to understand them. If you photograph to communicate with others, story is what matters. So, if you’re hoping to convey something and get applauded by others, beware of the curse of knowledge. Assume the viewer knows nothing of what’s in your head and ask yourself what the photograph, standing by itself, tells them. I’ve already broken this rule by telling you my motivations. Without those, would you find the above photograph rich in storytelling? Probably not, although it could still speak to you if you were personally interested in soldiers, statues, trees … This, in itself, could create a bridge between you (viewer) and me (author), but it is not a story. It can, however evoke something in you. That’s less directive than telling a story (through elaborate composition), but can let you start your own story in your mind.

So, if you want to create powerful photographs, understand which actually tell a story, which are evocative and which were triggered by inner motivation that can be powerful to you, but likely not to others. The latter is typically my type of photography, so I’m not dissing that. Just understand the difference between the three. I’d wager that, on the web, in forums or dedicated websites, if 1 photo actually tells a story, 10 are evocative and 100 are personal (and 1000 are totally random acts of snapping).

Build your own feedback loop

This is the kicker. It’s by far the simplest step and the most powerful!

However, simple doesn’t mean easy, as most of us erect powerful mental blocks around the notion of feedback. Case in point: multiple readers asked me to provide a space to send in a photograph for peer-review. When I made this possible, not a single photograph was sent!!! This, in spite of DearSusan being one of the safest places on the web to seek feedback. That’s the first reason why I recommend you provide feedback for yourself rather than seek the feedback of others.

 

The second reason is more important. Seeking feedback from others is a brilliant way to make progress, IF those providing the feedback are masters themselves. That’s a big IF and is what I was offering – through gallery and museum curators – in the layer cake workshop (which didn’t sell, go figure ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) More often than not, feedback from others is not that useful. Thankfully, you have permanent access to someone that may not be a master, but is becoming one and is better than you: your intuition.

So, let your photographs sit for a few days, a week, whatever it takes for you to forget the excitement of the moment you took them. Then, just review them and set aside those you like (not for the memory, but for the photograph itself) Don’t analyze, just pick your faves. They probably won’t be those you expected when making them, and that’s fine.

Then, just review those faves and try to get a glimpse of why you like them. Don’t force it. If nothing comes, that’s OK. But for a few, maybe you’ll recognize that you nailed depth of field. Or that the framing reminds you of one of those in that folder of great pics made by others. Or that the colours are so lovely. Or that you accidentally overexposed and the sky looks sooo nice. Or that, wow, you see something in it you hadn’t seen in the original scene. Or that the use of a vertical frame was really a good idea. Or that the overcast light was a Godsend. Or that the subject is really fascinating and you want to do more …

 

As you do this, you’re creating neural connections that will have two consequences:

  1. Your ability to analyse – in retrospect – what appeals to you in any given photograph will improve. As always, my fave analogy is with wine tasting. There’s a precise language in that space that lets you describe smells, tastes, thickness … in a way that lets you infer where the wine was made, when and – much more importantly – how. It lets you walk into any good shop, describe something you tasted and enjoyed and walk out with something similar. This is what you want to achieve with your photographs, drawing inspiration from those of others. But since we don’t have an accurate language to do so, you build an intuition around the process. Those neural connections work just as well even if they don’t go through a formal language stage. The only drawback is that you won’t be able to explain your reasons to others easily, which probably is why great photographers are so woefully incapable of explaining their work in interviews in a way most other human beings can understand ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰
  2. Framing, lens choice … will become more instinctual in the field. The ridicule of all those รผber-complex composition videos will then become hilarious ๐Ÿ˜‰ Who has the time, frankly? Instead of those, automatisms will be built. Not on someone else’s terms but on those of your deep personal preferences (which is reason #3 for seeking your own feedback rather than someone else’s).

Of course, you can (and should) still show your photographs to others. But you’ll have a firmer footing from which to digest and cherry pick what piece of 3rd-party feedback you find useful or not.

 

All those photographs were made last Sunday in London. After 5 days of confinement, a negative PCR freed me and allowed me to legally visit the capital again. After 2 years since my last photos there.

London is my permanent photographic muse. The pace of change there means every new trip meets a blank canvas here and there, or some finished building that was still wrapped up months before. And the refusal to keep ancient and modern separated give the city a distinct Enki Bilal vibe, without the permanent gloom of his creations.

The story of those photographs is thus simply: “This is the London I walked through” after two years of Covid-enforced absence”. It mainly speaks to me, but I hope you like the photographs nonetheless. All were made in a couple of seconds, as my eye saw something that appealed, without me really knowing why. That analysis will come later ๐Ÿ˜‰

 

So, there it is: my process. With it, you can build your own workshop everyday. The Malcom Gladwell trope states that it takes 10 000 hours of practise to become a master. Of course, those catchy phrases serve only their authors. For one thing, becoming a master isn’t the goal. End goals don’t lead to life satisfaction or happiness. Continuous progress does. And that’s what I’m offering with this process.

Then, there’s the matter of practice vs deliberate practice. A million random snaps won’t make anyone good. But building a process of trial and evaluation takes you to the fast track of deliberate practice. All those lovely portfolios, all those how-to videos, all those educational blog posts mean nothing in the field, but the better ones become super useful, in retrospect, to guide how you give yourself feedback.

Pick a few that really speak to you and study your production in the light of what they teach. Then forget about them when you head out. Remember photography is a right brain process. Let the rules build your intuition (through feedback) and let your intuition be your only guide in the field.

Plane sailing
 

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    It must be something like 60 years ago, when I discovered the first book I’d ever seen, on composition. It was pure magic – brilliant! – and yet within a comparatively short time span, I found myself doing “something else”. Spurned by my photography friends, who chose to stay “in the pack”. But then it didn’t matter – I’d always been a “loner”, doing my own thing.

    Your post is a whole fresh approach – aiming to stimulate thought. The outcome ought to be fascinating – let’s hope so.

    Because my father was a winemaker, your reference to wine tasting and the “precise language” of the sommelier provided instant connection. Are you aware that “they” did a survey of complete idiots, to test the veracity and importance of the language of the “experts”? And found that totally uneducated (in a sommelier sense) people scored something like 97.5% accuracy, in selecting the best wines? Of course, they couldn’t use all those references to “vines on the east side of the hill”, or “the aroma of blackberries” or whatever, to explain WHY they made their choices. But it completely exploded the myth created by the “precise language”.

    Which leads me to another thought. Why do I see so many photos taken by complete amateurs, that tick every box? Cellphone stuff – stuff take on pocket cameras, with tiny sensors rated around 12 MP? I do a lot of “post” for other people, and see some astoundingly good images. They might not have any idea “how” to take a great photo, or create a great image – but they have an ability to “see” them, and capture them. Even with gear that I would regard as inadequate!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks for the interesting (as usual ๐Ÿ™‚ ) comment, Jean Pierre.

      I think that, in wine circles as in audio circles, the ability to use a common descriptive language and share notes is part of the fun of the hobby. Knowing the lingo doesn’t make you an expert taster, nor do you need to know it to be one. But learning it helps you structure what is otherwise a chaotic appreciation process. We don’t need that in photography either, although it would probably be interesting.

      I’m just trying to get people who really want to learn photography to trust their guts, through guided education of their intuition. Collecting what we like and comparing it to what we produce, in the light of (proper) “rules of the art” is only one way to do things. Possibly not the fastest way, but one that leads to a very personal style and approach. Standardized methods don’t appeal to me.

      Amateurs can make incredible photographs. Most have an “educated eye” (another term for the process I’m describing) and haven’t been battered into submission by the silly “rules to follow” found in forums and some blogs. What a process of deliberate pratcice does is merely to increase the percentage of good shots we make. Some people stumble upon a great shot, never to be able to create a second. Some are repeat “offenders” and every shot is aggravatingly excellent ๐Ÿ˜‰ Most of us are somewhere in the middle and need some practise to move towards more frequent success ๐Ÿ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        One of my protรฉgรฉes has quit a few – scattered around WA. I’ve started working through them, but had to stop – my iMAC is in for repairs (only 14 months old, and the drive is starting to fail – but I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to jump the RAM to 64GB, so it should be a lot faster when it comes back). When I saw the last lot of her photos, I thought some of them are really great – with your affection for this side of the world, I think you’ll agree – ad some of them certainly tell a story! Right now, she’s hiking & snorkelling around Cocos & Christmas Islands – I’ll be fascinated to see what she brings back!

        • pascaljappy says:

          Any chance she’d share some of those gems with us mortals stuck in less exciting climes? ๐Ÿ˜‰

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Every chance! She’s back now, and I’ve started skimming through them.

            And sorry about all the typos – that keyboard was condemned & replaced, after I sent that post.

            Isn’t it odd, that “we photographers” have to study & practice, and still get it wrong – while complete amateurs, often armed with nothing more than a cellphone or, at best, a phone that would fit in anyone’s pocket, can go out there and get great shots?

            Sure, a lot of their stuff is just snapshots. But when they start feeling serious, they can take good photo after good photo – and because they’re not “hemmed in” by what they’ve learned about photography, this business of “having the eye” seems to really fire up with them, but sadly, NOT always, with “real” photographers.

            Reminds me of that song in “The Pirates of Penzance”, about a “paradox”! It seems to be completely upside down. Right now, I could name at least 4 amateurs who do it, too!

  • Lad Sessions says:

    This is very helpful, not least because of the images that accompany it, which I like a great deal. Your mastery of color is right up there with your skill at composition! (And the Hassy’s resolution doesn’t hurt.). Both of the final two images are superb, and a wonderful contrast (though I wouldn’t hang them next to each other).

    For my “process” (which is rather more haphazard than intentional) I find that different walks in the woods (under different lighting, weather, at different seasons) seem to develop a theme: I first start to notice something, such as a delicate fern, and then I’m sensitized to ferns all around me; they seem to pop up just for my attention, and that day becomes fern-themed. Or on another day it will be mushrooms, or mosses, or bark, or slanting light, or backlit subjects, and so on endlessly. This fixation doesn’t mean I’m blind to other kinds of images, but somehow the concentration produces photos I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Of course previous experience conditions everything, altering expectations and attention.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Lad ๐Ÿ™‚

      That concept of “emerging theme” is very interesting. It feels to me like some different form of repeat training. Concentrating on one mushroom makes you more aware of new ones in your path and maybe photographing one after the other makes you aware of their difference and guides your shot?

      This reminds me of the Becher typographies and Thomas Ruff’s early work. Sets of repeated photographs of the same type of subjects (streets, water towers, prison towers …) to make us aware of the subtle differences and great commonalities between them. The work you have shared with us focuses more on the great variety of shapes, sizes and colours, but maybe the process is similar in that the narrow focus makes you more aware of those distinctions?

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Definitely – like Lad, I did it with tree bark – but that opened my eyes to fungus and mushrooms on or near the trees – and bees, searching for nectar, on the trees’ flowers. Pretty soon I had hundreds of themed shots.

    • PaulB says:

      Lad

      We seem to have a similar process. When I am out trying to practice โ€œStreetโ€ photography, usually at a farmers Market or street fair, I walk about and watch the people. Looking for something to catch my eye, like mustaches, unique glasses, pets, balloons, etc. Then I try to follow that theme.

      One thing that I do that is a little different (because street is not landscape), I donโ€™t find a subject and think about the lens to use before making an image. When I arrive at my location, I decide on the order I will use my lenses and I make a lap or two of my activity area to see what is happening, then I change lenses and make another lap. If I find an interesting subject I make the best image I can as fast as I can. Only rarely do I get an opportunity for more than one image.

      I do something similar for my landscape images. I pick a lens to start my walk to find a subject. Then I try to use everything I have on the subject, or so I have been told.

      PaulB

      • pascaljappy says:

        Paul, the lens lap idea is intriguing. It’s not intuitive to me, but I see the goal. Plus, you don’t swap lenses as often, so you get less dirt on your sensor. Interesting approach.

        I find that my eye/brain requires a lot of time to fully adjust to a focal length. So it’s impossible for me to swap as often and a lens is quite likely to stay 2 weeks or more on the camera. In fact, one would do me fine, but it’s nice to get a change of perspective (literally) now and then ๐Ÿ˜‰

        When a “new” lens is on the camera, I find myself hunting for photographs that fit the frame. Whereas after a longer while, it becomes natural and intuitivie, and everything around me seems to show up in that exact frame ๐Ÿ™‚ Things then come to me rather than me looking for them, presumably because my brains shifts into intuitive/receptive mode, instead of being stuck in hunting mode.

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Pascal, yet another important post in the photographic puzzle, to puzzle about! I mostly try to
    avoid so called experts opinions and am very selective in what I read/watch and feed into my
    already crowded whole system anyway.
    Ansel Adams and recently Ming Thein’s frameworks have been very influential since they both offer a joyful way to explore from a sound platform that doesn’t impose a one truth, way of seeing or style.
    I also keep a nearly 100 photo book library (many classics), which I gladly visit for inspiration, details or reference.
    Like you vividly describe and photographically have been demonstrating; Its an inner journey of discovering what works and sharpening ones skills by reduction and sublimation by trial and error without loosing the simple and the delightful nerve in ones developing photographic languages.
    Most often, when I put down my own expectancies, something intuitively or subconscious spontaneous (but not a combustion) better composes and orchestrates the potential of a scene; Then I will apply PP-rationale later on after some initial (biased love of my catch) has settled…if its good, there will be other details/layers/relationships emerging like compositional trimming that enhances/clarifies the whole. I keep a yearly folder, named 250 Best Raw Files, which I gradually fill and process. It’s interesting to visit, say after 2-5 years, to see which ones stick and why. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    PS, those plane/sky colours & subtle contrast are simply gorgeous!

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I love Ming Thein’s blog, Michael. His journey of exploration of photography is incredibly intelligent – and set out in language anyone can understand. And he’s so objective in the way he presents it all that he could be a robot! It’s all practically devoid of any personal opinions whatsoever. “Gimme the facts, man! Just the facts!” LOL

      • pascaljappy says:

        Ming is a very clever and erudite person. Speaking to him is always a fascinating experience. His content is very rich and a great source of information for that feedback phase I mention. Don’t have Ming’s content in your mind when you shoot, but do examine your photographs in the light of what Ming explains.

      • Michael Fleischer says:

        Yes, I agree Jean Pierre – it’s such a wealth of in depth perceptive treasures, multi aspected and almost an entire encyclopaedia of wisdoms (beyond any current robots capability ;-)) achieved at a very young age, yet as you point out very neutral & accessible & balanced without the usual (multi-headed) BS…very refreshing like clean mountain air above the fog, ahh!. I was fortunate to participate on “Ming Thein Weekly PS 2016” and oh boy, did it “stretch my birdcage” as well as invaluable helping my transition from slides to digital…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Michael.

      Yes beware of “experts”. There are far too many out there for their own credibility. Plus, never forget that the Internet now works in a way that famous youtubers and bloggers are experts at Youtube and blogging, not necessarily at what they talk about!! The ability to drive business to Google is far more important to anyone’s online visibility than any real technical ability.

      Ming is very interesting. And he walked the talk.

      Ansel Adams, I find, has never been equalled in his ability to keep everything so simple. I see videos on post processing that use 10, 15, 20 layers with all sorts of filters and the results just look unnatural. Adams used exposure, contrast and local burning/dodging. That’s it. I never use anything more complicated than that either.

      Keeping things simple is a proof of true mastery and Adams is right there at the top, on that front.

      Applying PP later is important. That, to me, is one of the reasons why the Zeiss camera didn’t succeed. Capture is right brain, post processing is left brain. The two cannot mix. It’s a matter of preserving flow. That will be the topic of my next “How-to” post.

  • philberphoto says:

    What a fascinating post! Brilliant!!! I couldnโ€™t put all the comments Iโ€™d love to make in writing without exceeding its length:-( So here is what I cannot not say.
    You talk about composition as being supremely relevant to storytelling, and, of course, I have to agree. There is however another dimension to composition and storytelling IMHO, it is what you donโ€™t show, and leave up to the viewer to imagine and fill in. The viewer is not only a spectator, he is actually a participant in his own view of an image, methinks.
    Second point: you talk about a feedback loop and other peopleโ€™s peer review/opinion. This brings into the equation whom you shoot for. Are you shooting for a client, as Ming Thein does/did mostly, for public acclaim from whatever circle, from universal down to a couple of photo buddies, for yourself? I find that the images that I shoot that โ€œtalk to meโ€ the most on an emotional level, which are the ones that I would consider putting on a wall, are almost always quirky, less-than-explicit, intimate.
    Lastly, I think the end-result has l lot to do with the interaction between subject and โ€˜tog. How the โ€˜tog can identify and execute an image that is neither dominated by the subject, a.k.a. a postcard, nor by his/her own personal style, which would then make his/her production formulaic and -ugh- predictable and boring. The best images are those where the intrinsic visual components of the subject complement naturally the storytelling intent and style of the โ€˜tog IMHO.
    PS: not only do I find this post of the highest caliber, but the various comments are a wonderful addition. Thanks and congrats to all!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Philippe, thanks for the kind words ๐Ÿ™‚

      I think when the viewers fill in the gaps, they are making up a story in their mind, not the photograph. The photograph is evocative, not storytelling. That’s what I tried to point out when comparing photo to video wrt to storytelling. When a book tells a story, it leaves no blanks to fill in. In order to tell a story in a way that everyone will interpret in the same way, a photograph has to present various subjects with various explicit relationships, through composition. That’s rather rare.

      I agree with you on the second point. And my purpose was to highlight a process that allows anyone to make progress for themselves. Product photography is largely technical expertise. Clients have little imagination when it comes to presenting their product. Even Ming, who can be creative, photographs his watches in a very matter-of-fact and technically perfect manner. DS is really about self improvement and I never care about the final result, being much more interesting in the process of becoming better.

      As for the third point, I think some photographers look for that balance, others look for something else. The beauty of a process that lets you define what constitutes a great photograph is that it also allows you to converge towards that ideal :-

      Cheers

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Philippe, while it’s true that Ming commonly shot for clients, he also posted any number of shots that were his private selection/collection. And I think I love them more than the “client” stuff – he was free to do whatever he pleased, and for me, that was when his talents shone.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Simple, clever, efficient proposition… thanks Pascal!
    Funny enough, considering the idea, “The Hop Locker” looks… very evocative to me ๐Ÿ™‚
    Very “Edward Hopper”-like… and no, it’s not the name of the place that gave me that feeling, I noticed it afterwards ๐Ÿ™‚
    The picture with the bus has a “quality of color intensity” I’ve rarely seen anywhere… and “Plane sailing” has that medium-format subtle gradations quality… I feel these photos represent the best of what the Hassy can do in capable hands…
    Congrats!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Pascal ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ That photograph reminds me of Hopper too! The scene instantly stood out, probably because of the warm lighting and strong colours, on a very overcast day ๐Ÿ™‚

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