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February 01, 2004

Are Photography Courses Helpful?

When I first started getting passionate about my own photography, I pretty much winged it in terms of learning...but a big part of the early learning process was the instant feedback I got with my first digital cameras, and sharing images on online forums. Of course, this was back in 1999 and 2000, so the forums weren't as overcrowded as they are now, and I got a fair amount of instructive feedback from some helpful and knowledgeable individuals. I also learned a great deal from other posters who were obviously more skilled than I was.

I've previously discussed the ways personal work can be shared in two posts: How Do You Share Your Photographs and Grow as a Photographer? and Sharing your Photography and Getting Feedback. An option I listed was taking courses in photography schools, or photography courses offered by local colleges, high schools, adult education centers, etc. After a couple of years of winging it, I took a $100 basic adult education class on portraiture, and since then, on the recommendation of the teacher, I've started taking regular workshops at the New England School of Photography (NESOP).

The overall experience of taking courses has been superb...NESOP has been an excellent resource, and with many of the classes, you have access to darkroom and studio resources outside of class hours, which justifies the admittedly rather high course costs. I've recommended the experience on several occasions to people, particularly those I encounter online who tend to view progress in terms of what their next camera should be (and I'm been guilty of this as much as anybody). Courses do not automatically make you a better photographer, of course, but under the right circumstances, they lay much of the groundwork for one to become a better photographer, and enjoy the process more.

More importantly, beyond instruction in useful technical skills (darkroom, studio lights, flash, etc), the most effective courses can open a photographer up to different ways of seeing, and enable them to discover what they want to do with photography, beyond just snapping the shutter competently in the direction of compelling subjects.

I get asked the question every so often about how useful classes really are, and I see the question asked on various online forums as well. The quality of courses is variable, after all, especially courses that are offered by large adult education centers with limited facilities, and teachers who come and go. The key to a class that's worth the money and really builds your skills, based on my experience and that of colleagues, is the following:

1) A committed and open-minded instructor (with equally committed teaching assistants/advisors, when applicable). This is obvious and fundamental. A class may have a great deal to offer in terms of technical knowledge, but without an instructor who cares or commits to students, knowledge rarely sticks.

2) Regular Assignments and/or a Project. Believe it or not, many instructors don't bother with assignments because evening students don't get graded, so they give up on trying to make students do them. Even if the assignments are somewhat open-ended, a weekly review of images makes a *big* difference, in my experience.

3) Good Classroom Community. Good learning rarely takes place in a rarified atmosphere consisting of student and teacher. I've found that in my favorite classes, I had classmates with a good attitude and a reasonable commitment to getting something out of the class, regardless of experience level. Pros in the class aren't necessary (they can even make things worse)...it's simply better to have people who care and who have genuine interest in learning from others, rather than people looking to fill time or a gap in their life, or people who are prima donnas and think the class exists only for *their* benefit, not everyone else.

4) Quality facilities with reasonable access. This gives students more incentive to do work on assignments outside of classes, and even take advantage of access to studios and darkrooms to experiment in ways they might not have otherwise.

5) Good course structure, and a reasonable balance of lecture and field/lab/studio work. Photography courses can feel overwhelming for even experienced photographers, given how technical a discipline photography can be. I've personally appreciated it when a course has enough structure to allow me to understand where I am in the learning process, relative to how a professor has structured a course.

6) (optional) Outside speakers or experts to provide another perspective. One of the best classes I ever took had speakers from the commercial and fine arts worlds...having such speakers makes the learning feel more connected to what people are actually doing in the outside world.

ds_buttrick_135mm_closeup_framed.jpg

One of my first black and white portraits from my first NESOP workshop. This looks good online, but it required a great deal of cleanup and is difficult to print properly.

You would be surprised how many classes fail on one or more of these points ... and actually, this could refer to *all* adult education, not just photography classes. For example, the teacher broadly demonstrates enthusiasm and commitment, but he/she has no structured syllabus and doesn't show up all the time. Or you have a mix of students who barely know how to use the camera and more advanced amateurs with an inflated sense of themselves, and the teacher doesn't know how to teach to both audiences (I've seen this first hand...not pretty). Or the teacher lectures endlessly and gives you lots of stuff for your notebook, but is hostage to his structured lectures...he/she doesn't reach out to students, doesn't bother to critique work or listen to suggestions from students, and is only in it to promote his business/get his name out there.

boogie_hp5_framed.jpg

Two B&W workshops later, I felt more comfortable with understanding what made for a good scene and print, and this was mostly a straight print.

My favorite classes, and the ones I got the most out of, were ones with at least four of the above factors for success. If I had to prioritize, a committed and fair teacher that provided regular assignments is probably the most crucial. A strong and inspiring teacher can motivate anyone, but there's nothing like actually doing something and seeing others' work in comparison, and working continuously to improve under the guidance of a mentor and peers.

There are different considerations to take into account as one gains more experience, and education is slightly different when considering shorter but more intensive workshops, or when taking courses that are more oriented toward a personal project. But regardless of one's ambitions, a single good course can make photography that much more fun. Given how online discussions of photography these days tend to be dominated by talk of the latest digital gear and hopeless equipment wars (Nikon vs Canon, 35mm vs digital vs medium format, etc), the perspective provided by a good class can be truly refreshing.

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Comments

Though I'm guilty of skimming through most of your posts, I think yer a super writer. Everything you write seems proper with correct punctuations and all. Your techniques seem that way too and it shows on your pics.

Posted by: Sophie at Feb 2, 2004 12:19:03 AM

Great post - well written....excellent stuff...

Posted by: Darren Rowse at Feb 2, 2004 1:31:54 AM

ive been searching for a good course for ages now and im still confused. here in Sydney they are very expensive. ive done one of these 8 wk courses and i found the same thing.
the teacher was scattery, we didnt have enough hands on time with the cameras and he would spew forth all this talk of numbers and f stops adn my head was swimming.

i want something more and i cant find what i want and its SO frustrating!

thanks for this article. it has been very helpful.

Posted by: amanda at Feb 3, 2004 3:51:59 AM

Amanda, Sophie, Darren, thanks! Amanda, I know I make it sound so easy to take a course and get instant enlightenment, but I know the quality of teachers is very variable in some places. Try asking around, particularly more experienced photographers, and see if you can find out who they took courses from. That's how I got pointed to the place I'm taking classes at now.

Posted by: Robert at Feb 3, 2004 2:49:58 PM

Hello Robert,

It is always such a joy to see your wonderful writings and pictures here. And also all the classy and very interesting information. You have such a good and arty taste Robert. What a pity that you live on the other side of the ocean, I would love to discuss art and photography with you in a café. Together with Furrukh Kahn (via mail) and Ed Leys it is so great that Internet gives me the possibility to communicate with you, that alone makes Internet very worthy for me. I'm also amazed to see that almost everything you show on this site is matching my interest and taste. Also fantastic to see how y ou progress and get more and more involved in arts. Thanks a million time for this wonderful and tastefull site Robert.
With warm regards,

Dirk

Posted by: Dirk Vermeirre at Apr 1, 2004 4:01:37 PM

Hi,

Great article, way back in 1969 I bought my first camera. At the time Amateur Photographer was running a beginner series by Ron Spillman, each week I duly removed the lesson from themagazine and went out and practised it. It was one of the most useful things I think I have ever done.

This was the first 'course' I followed and a year later joined the Louis F. Peek school of photography, which was a distance education course. No Internet back in those days, actually I don't think there were home computers for another 20 years. How did we get on? That course was more about selling your images than taking them however and I didn't get as much out of it as I could have. Why? I didn't try selling the pictures while I did the course. Then again, I was only 15 and basically dim :-)

Anyway, a few years ago I started teaching photography myself here in Ireland, at the Institute of Technology Tralee during the evenings. I would agree with your points above, I made the courses fun (watching me 'strike a pose' for the lesson on portraits was a kodak moment!), and gave the students the technical info, letting them use my Nikon FM2, lenses and equipment so they could see what they were used for were before going off and spending a fortune on their own gear. Photography is expensive here.

Also giving students little projects during the course so they could practise what I preached, then as a suprise having them mark each others work which got them thinking about their own attempts.

All in all, a fun time and the students gained out of it, judging by the feedback after the course was over.

Back in 1999 when the Internet started becoming affordable here, I thought I'd give back some of what I had learned over the years, and put up a web site with some free tips, realising that not everyone lives near towns or cities where they can attend courses or could set aside 2 or 3 hours a week, every week, to attend one, Much as the position I was when I did the Louis F. Peek correspondence course.

In 2000 this progressed to a new photography website, which still has free tips etc, but has fee based structured courses. I tried to retain most of the aspects you talk about above. Naturally there are differences, I can no longer see what the student is doing e.g how they hold the camera, or strike a pose, so rely on what they say they were doing and what I can see when they email in their projects.

I was wondering if you or your visitors had ever tried online courses or traditional correspondence courses and care to share their experiences of them?

Like I said, I did find the AP course very useful, because I got off my butt and practised it every week, whereas the one I paid for very well put together but at the time of no real benefit to my tender years, I didn't get around to selling anything for over 20 years. Strangely enough I do still remember a lot of what was in it though, so it must have made an impression on me.

Keep up the good work,

David Butcher, LRPS.

Posted by: David Butcher at Apr 24, 2005 4:58:38 AM

Ha! Was just browsing around, wondering if an online photography course was for me, and came across this - an interesting read, thankyou!

Posted by: Alex at Dec 15, 2005 5:43:42 PM

hi this page came up when i googled for basic photography courses in sydney. these 8 week courses are expensive but i am willing to fork out the money if the teaching is good. i eventually want to work as a social documentary photographer but defintely need to master camera basics. can anyone recommend a good amateur course that caters for a 'right-brained' learner ? :)

Posted by: chez at Apr 21, 2007 12:02:17 AM

You mention about the weight of online discussion being about the latest gear. I sell digital cameras for a living (please don't throw stones!) and I'm amazed that some people think that spending thousands of dollars on the latest model camera will somehow make them professional-standard photographers. Some good-old photographic fundamentals wouldn't go amiss, I'm sure, which is why I started this project a couple of months ago:

http://www.photography-courses.com.au

It's a list of photography courses available in Australia. Photography schools can post their courses free of charge. Hopefully it will go some small way to improving the quality of photography here!

Posted by: paul at Sep 7, 2007 11:08:27 PM

Hi!

I'm starting to find my way in Photography. Since institution that offers photography study is very limited here (in Philippines), I bought books to study it myself. I would like to ask, is it wise (or at least helpful) to invest in an online photography study?

Posted by: Japheth Zaide at Jan 23, 2009 12:26:42 PM

This is great information about photography classes, good points on standards as well. I really like your black and white photos too. With all of your very valid ideas on what makes a fitting photography class, I truly hope your teaching it, or you plan too.

Posted by: photography studio equipment at May 6, 2009 2:41:38 AM

The lessons should be arranged in an order that will systematically build your skills, but you should not be afraid to skip around, you may have some skills already or you may have a camera which doesn't do the specific settings needed for a few of these lessons.

Posted by: Digital Photography Classes at Mar 21, 2010 2:33:05 AM

There are different considerations to take into account as one gains more experience, and education is slightly different when considering shorter but more intensive workshops, or when taking courses that are more oriented toward a personal project. But regardless of one's ambitions, a single good course can make photography that much more fun. Given how online discussions of photography these days tend to be dominated by talk of the latest digital gear and hopeless equipment wars (Nikon vs Canon, 35mm vs digital vs medium format, etc), the perspective provided by a good class can be truly refreshing.

Posted by: guild wars 2 gold at Sep 9, 2010 2:14:28 AM

There are different considerations to take into account as one gains more experience, and education is slightly different when considering shorter but more intensive workshops, or when taking courses that are more oriented toward a personal project. But regardless of one's ambitions, a single good course can make photography that much more fun. Given how online discussions of photography these days tend to be dominated by talk of the latest digital gear and hopeless equipment wars (Nikon vs Canon, 35mm vs digital vs medium format, etc), the perspective provided by a good class can be truly refreshing.

Posted by: guild wars 2 gold at Sep 9, 2010 2:14:28 AM

There are different considerations to take into account as one gains more experience, and education is slightly different when considering shorter but more intensive workshops, or when taking courses that are more oriented toward a personal project. But regardless of one's ambitions, a single good course can make photography that much more fun. Given how online discussions of photography these days tend to be dominated by talk of the latest digital gear and hopeless equipment wars (Nikon vs Canon, 35mm vs digital vs medium format, etc), the perspective provided by a good class can be truly refreshing.

Posted by: guild wars 2 gold at Sep 9, 2010 2:14:32 AM

Photography courses at Sydney University. Open to everyone.
http://www.cce.usyd.edu.au/courses/courses/creative+arts/photography

Posted by: Jason Riley at Nov 20, 2010 5:11:42 PM

Great article!

Posted by: Julia at Feb 8, 2011 7:34:59 AM

great article

Posted by: Julia at Feb 8, 2011 7:35:47 AM

Great article. Too many people starting think about the latest digital camera and what features it will have thinking it will take a good picture. While this may be true in a technical sense they forget the creative aspects. The best way to improve the latter is to improve their photography skills. A great starting point is a photography course. Not only is it a great way to share and compare work with others, I also believe it's more fun this way.

Posted by: Andy Beck at Aug 12, 2011 9:40:27 PM