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Slow Learners Rule!

Posted by Greg Blue on Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

The modern learning environment seems to be based on bite sized nuggets to be consumed as quickly as possible. We live in a world where we are bombarded by imagery – this now includes academia as well – we see more and more quick fix videos to give us instant information. This is especially true of online learning, and that absolutely includes my website and so I am offering some opinions to counter the damage I am doing!


Even I’m guilty of looking at a 1-hour educational video on a particular topic and thinking – who the hell has that kind of time!? This type of learning encourages students to look for quick, easy solutions and that’s not a very effective way to study photography. Add the fact technology IS creating quick easy solutions, and it creates an interesting and slightly worrying environment for studying photography. Slowing down feels counter-productive in our modern world. But in fact slowing down is tremendously productive when measured in the long run – and the long run is so much more important.


Don’t get me wrong, quick and easy solutions are fantastic if you are a casual or hobbyist photographer, and I don’t mean that in a demeaning or patronizing way. Technology has made photography more accessible than ever before and that’s a wonderful thing! But this website is not aimed at casual photographers – and for those planning on developing into commercial photographers, technology is both a boon and a bane (at least at the beginning).


As for studying – quick and easy solutions are just a recipe for disaster in my opinion. It’s true that we all learn best in different ways, but over 20 years of teaching photography has taught me that for the majority of students, forcing yourself to slow down and really spend time on individual topics is a much quicker way to learn in the long run.


It takes me a ridiculously short period of time to cover Light Theory in my course because it really is a finite amount of information. But I find it takes a typical student about 1 year of seriously pondering and applying this information before lighting and problem solving becomes an intuitive process for them. And if they don’t seriously ponder, it will likely never become an intuitive process.


Part of the problem is that most photographic topics need to be considered from two different perspectives – 1) understanding the principle and 2) applying the principle. When it comes to learning, there is tremendous resource out there – from books to schools to online tutorials, and you should make use of as many of these as possible.


But there’s no textbook to tell you how to apply this knowledge, because that must come from within. There’s lots of writing on creativity and the ideation process, and it’s all worth reading. But that doesn’t mean there’s some textbook or website out there to tell you how to shoot your portfolio – and if there was, I’d be inclined to ignore it. Developing an individual and unique style will be one of your greatest ongoing challenges as a photographer, and it is not something that should be pursued without a LOT of careful consideration.


So what can you do to slow the pace down to meaningful consideration? Here’s a few suggestions:


1) Get thee to school young photographer! Yes, a real actual school with smelly lockers and bad cafeteria food (and hopefully wicked good studio facilities). Students sometimes forget that a program curriculum is not just about the content; it is also designed as a temporal experience. Programs and courses are carefully designed to pace the student’s learning – prerequisite courses are designed to make sure you study fundamentals before moving to advanced topics. Schools are designed to slow you down when necessary, speed you up at the appropriate time, make you think on your feet, and force you to stop and seriously ponder.


If you pick the right school, you will be face to face with some pretty amazing photographers/instructors. These are professionals who are absolutely delighted and honoured to work with you toward your own photographic goals. You also share the experience with inspired students, where you are encouraged to collaborate and support each other.


If you choose the right school, you’ll have access to superb studio facilities that are fully equipped with topnotch state of the art lighting, modifiers, grip equipment and printing facilities (yes, including analog darkroom facilities). If you go to a public school, you’ll typically find programs that are not designed to make a profit and therefore have a mandate to remain affordable (if you’re lucky enough to go to Langara College’s CS Photography Program, you’ll experience the Lifetime Alumni Program – I’ll write a blog post on this one day, because it will blow your mind).


It really frustrates me when I hear online schools state that traditional schools no longer work, when those traditional schools have assets that we can never equal in online learning. As far as I’m concerned, online learning is best used as a supplement to in-class learning. If you’re a working adult who cannot study full time, the program I teach in is strictly part-time evening and weekends and is designed with working adult students in mind.


No matter what city you live in, I urge you to at least research what schools exist in your area. Ask to check out their facilities; ask to look at their instructor’s portfolios; ask to look at student portfolios. Make absolute sure you speak on your own with students who are studying or have studied at the school to make sure you get an unbiased opinion of the school before you try them out – make sure to ask them about the program’s weaknesses as well as its strengths.


2) Hit the Road Map. Previous to this post, I wrote a post on a document called a Road Map. This is a series of questions that most experienced designers and art directors will ask their clients before they begin to work on a communications and marketing strategy for their goals. A designer cannot design a website, logo or promo piece for you if they don’t have a deep understanding of who you are, who your target market is, who your competitors are and how you need to be perceived – and why.


This document does not have to be developed in the context of a marketing strategy – the Road Map can also be developed for a single portfolio or body of work. Some of the key questions in the Road Map are “Who are you talking to?” “What do they think of you now?” “What do you want them to think of you?” “Why should they care about your work?” These are such simple questions, but the answers will define who you are as a photographer.


I go through this exercise at least once a year – preferably twice, and it is not a simple afternoon of reflecting. I will draw up new ideas for images, or envision an entirely new portfolio of work. This kind of thinking typically takes a few weeks, and it is very wise to schedule time on a weekly basis to devote to it – no excuses.


When I talk with new photographers about the kind of message they want to send to their chosen target market, I often hear things like “I want to be perceived as being highly professional and very reliable – always on time and on budget, someone who they can trust completely.” These are all admirable traits, but every professional photographer on the planet is making the same claims. Being reliable and professional is simply prerequisite to becoming a professional photographer – if you fall short on any of those traits, your career will likely be short lived.


You can’t market yourself on those traits or at least not on those traits alone. If a prospective client is impressed by your work, they will give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not useless. But they will likely not hire you until they’ve seen a good deal deeper into the kind of photographer you are. They’ll want to know your opinions and how those opinions translate into your work. They’ll want to consider how your opinions will impact the work you do for them.


A portfolio can show prospects your work is relevant to their needs and that your work is high quality. They can deduce that it’s pretty original stuff, but your portfolio cannot tell them what you will be like to work with. What will happen when you partner your formidable brain with their formidable brain? The Road Map exercise is designed to help you come up with meaningful answers to these questions. And the best thing is – it takes time.


3) Spend some time with your heroes. Look at work from photographers who you admire, and I mean really spend some time with their work. Put a few hours aside each week to spend looking at their images and try to articulate exactly why you think their work is superb. Study their background and bios and if they have blog, read that Blog! Discuss them with other photographers you know to see how they perceive that particular artist. Consider every aspect of their work, from their ideas, to their lighting, posing, composition, production techniques, etc. Write it down and turn it into an essay – this kind of careful consideration is critical to your development as a photographer.


Compare your work to theirs – are there elements that you admire in your hero’s work that you can see in your own? We often hear that it’s unhealthy to compare our work to other photographers and to a large part, I agree with that. But the photographer you should avoid comparing your work to is the one you just found on the Internet who produced a shot you really like and you wish that you took it and now you feel miserable with envy. You’ll get over that in a few minutes. Comparing your work to photographers who represent the kind of work or reputation or standing you aspire to can be a healthy (if somewhat humbling) exercise. Nothing wrong with being humbled once in a while!


Finally look for feedback from other photographers, or people working in the industry you want to target. People you have a lot of respect and admiration for. Take them out for lunch, bring some of your work and ask for honest feedback, and listen very carefully to what they say – especially if what they say is not what you want to hear.


Even if the feedback is politely negative, hopefully they will give you some constructive ideas on where they think your work needs to improve. Always give them a sincere and heart-felt thank you for their thoughts (critiquing another artists work can be an intimidating thing for the critic). Consider very carefully what they have to say – whether it is positive or negative. In the end, you do not have to agree with that critique. Also, don’t ask your Mom to do this – she will quite correctly love everything you do. However, do take your Mom out for lunch – don’t make me remind you again.


In summary, I have seen students question their abilities as a photographer or think they do not have the brains to understand a particular topic. But these same students often look at time as being the enemy, something to be overcome and beat your way through. These students are not dumb at all and nor are they incapable photographers – they are simply looking at time as being an obstacle instead of being an essential part of the learning process.


Patience is Power.

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