Learning to teach

As someone who’s spent their entire working life in education of one sort or another, the last few months have given me some fresh things to think about.

For a while now I’ve written photographic education articles here and www.photoblog.com but preparing for my photography workshops has made me think in a different way. Writing for education and actually teaching in person have subtle differences. If you stand me in front of a group of recorder players I can easily think on my feet and come up with multiple ways to help them achieve the best possible performance. After all, this is what I’ve done professionally for the last 25 years. In a written lesson, one can go into things in more depth, explaining technicalities, in the knowledge that students can come back and re-read things again at their leisure.

 Education in action during my first workshop

Education in action during my first workshop

Photography is also something I’ve done for a long while - I received my first camera as a gift way back in 1981. However, for more than two decades I simply pointed my camera in the right direction and hoped for the best - there was absolutely no technical know-how or artistry involved! The turning point for me came with the advent of digital when I got my first camera in 2004.

I quickly realised I could learn from my mistakes much quicker with digital - the LCD screen’s instant feedback meant I could immediately tell if I’d ‘got the shot’.  This excited me and I quickly wanted to understand more about the technical side of photography. Gradually I picked up the basics, getting my head around the interaction between apertures and shutter speeds, and learning to actively compose my photos.

Over the years I’ve done lots of reading about photography, listened to what must be days-worth of podcasts on the subject, and been on a few weekend courses. Along the way I started a year long photo-a-day project which I’m still doing now, almost a decade later. But that’s a story for another day... It has taught me is that practice really does make perfect, or closer to perfect at least.

 Taking control of my shutter speed enabled me to freeze the action here

Taking control of my shutter speed enabled me to freeze the action here

My persistence means my skills have improved hugely, and I now have a really good grasp of how to make my camera do what I want rather than accepting what it presumes is correct for a given situation. I think this has put me in a good position to help others do the same.

Meeting the students on my first workshop a month ago, I saw an echo of myself 15 years ago. All were shooting using automatic mode, feeling bewildered by the myriad of settings their cameras offered. Modern cameras are basically small computers, with levels of sophistication that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago. It’s no wonder it takes a while to get to grips with them!

At that moment I realised I’d been thinking along the right lines during my preparations for the workshop. I’d put myself back in my own shoes, all those years ago, asking myself what knowledge would have helped me to be a better photographer then. My conclusion was a mix of technical know-how and practical tips. So, I thought logically through the things we needed to cover and how to present them in a helpful order.

All along, my aim was to get my students off automatic mode so they could take control of their cameras and produce the pictures they wanted. This meant having at least as basic grasp of how apertures and shutter speeds work. I clearly recalled how I found apertures to be utterly illogical at first. The solution was to come up with a simple way to remember how they worked. In my case this was a rule telling me a small f number gave me very little in sharp focus and a big f number would give me lots of depth of focus. It may not be scientific but it was a simple way to remember cause and effect, which helped me at the time!

Another ‘must teach’ subject on my list was exposure compensation. Modern digital cameras will get things right on auto mode much of the time but they are designed to work best in certain situations. Try shooting a black cat in a dark place (something I often do!) on auto mode and a digital camera will probably give you a photo of a grey cat in a moderately lit place! The solution is to take control of the exposure and tell your camera that you really do want the photo to be dark.

 Using some negative exposure compensation helped me ensure this scene came out as dark and atmospheric as my eyes saw it to be

Using some negative exposure compensation helped me ensure this scene came out as dark and atmospheric as my eyes saw it to be

I quickly realised that giving my students all this technical info was all very well but I knew that in the same situation I would struggle to remember everything. A handout was needed. Putting all my thoughts into neat, easily digested bullet points for future reference was helpful to me too, clarifying how I would explain things in person.

So what about the thorny subject of composition? Talking to my students, it was clear that for many of them composition wasn’t something they thought about much. Once again, I saw myself in my youth, aiming my camera blindly, hoping something good would result. As often as not, my horizons were wonky and the subject of my photos were placed slap, bang in the centre of the frame with a lamp post poking out of their head!

From years of self education I now know there are some simple ‘rules’ one can use to create more satisfying photos. It may be the rule of thirds, or something as simple as scanning the frame for unwanted intrusive objects before pressing the shutter button but it’s not rocket science! In time my compositions have become more instinctive but those rules are still there if I need them.

 Something as simple as placing your subject can give you a more interesting photo

Something as simple as placing your subject can give you a more interesting photo

My inner teacher knew that I needed some examples to illustrate my list of ‘rules’ and I spent a fascinating morning exploring my back catalogue for them. Going back, trying to figure out what was going through my head as I took a given photo was a sobering experience at times!

So have I learnt something through this process? Certainly! It’s made me look at the way I shoot with fresh eyes and become more aware of the times when I’m getting into a rut with my photography. It’s often said that you don’t really understand a subject properly until you have to teach it. It’s definitely been an educational experience for me and I hope my future students will benefit from this too.

I have two more workshops coming up at Hatfield Forest, on 13th June and 25th July. If you’re interested in taking better photos and getting to grips with your camera why not come along? Full details and booking info can be found here.

Photography education

Some weeks ago I agreed to start writing some education articles for Photoblog.com, the website where I post my photos every day.  Since then I've been hard at work, writing my first article and this week it's been published!  My remit was to write about ways that photographers of all abilities can improve their skills and I've mined my experience of eight continuous years of photoblogging to come up with some handy tips.  You can see my article here.  If you find it interesting please do share it with your friends!

Photoblog.com has developed a lot in recent months, with a fresh new look, as well as a learning centre and an active forum.  Do take a look - there are lots of great articles there and I'm already working on my next one!

Self education

Like so many photographers I started young, getting my first camera, a Ricoh 35FM, as a present from my parents when I was about ten years old.  I used this camera all through my childhood and college years, taking nothing much more than snapshots.  Eventually I hankered after something more sophisticated and I progressed to another Ricoh point and shoot film camera in the mid-1990s.  Still my photos were nothing to write home about, but I enjoyed taking them and they were a good way to retain memories of holidays and the like.

My first camera

By 2004 it was obvious that digital photography was here to stay and the balance between image quality and cost had leveled out enough for me to consider moving on to a digital camera.  That year Kevin gave me a little Canon point and shoot, a Powershot S50, for my birthday, even though he wasn't convinced I'd really use it that much.  Thank goodness he made that leap of faith!  

Digital photography took away that long wait between shooting a photo and seeing the end result - no more waiting patiently for photos to come back through the post from Truprint, the company I'd always used to process my films.  This inspired me and I started taking more photos than ever before.  Before I got my first digital camera I'd done a lot of research, ensuring I was buying a model over which I would have some creative control.  The Canon had aperture and shutter priority modes as well as full manual and could even shoot in RAW.  At the time I didn't really have a proper grasp of what RAW actually was (for the non-techie folks among you, it's a format which saves all the photo information as a sort of digital negative so the photographer can edit it with more control before printing) but I had been told it was a good thing to have.  

A few months later I'd booked to go on a photography course at West Dean College in West Sussex so I could learn more about my new gadget and how to use it.  Sadly the course was cancelled so my friend Sharon, also a keen photographer and much more experienced than me at the time, offered to have me to stay with her for a weekend so she could school me in the basics of photography.  We spent the weekend taking lots of photos (I seem to recall it included a visit to the Cotswold Wildlife Park) and Sharon educated me about the mysteries of apertures and shutter speeds.  I found it very counter-intuitive to discover that a small f-number meant I was using a large aperture and vice versa.  To help me get the concept into my head we came up with the rule that a small f-number meant that not much of the picture would be in sharp focus and a big one meant that lots of it would be sharp.  Not a scientific method, but it worked for me!  One other clear recollection I have of the weekend is Sharon telling me that if I got into photography seriously I'd want to upgrade again to a Single Lens Reflex camera so I had more creative control.  I pooh-poohed this thought at the time but Sharon knew what she was talking about....

 One of the first shots from my photo-a-day project. I look back on most of those early images and realise how little I knew. This is one of the few I'm still pretty pleased with from those early days. 

One of the first shots from my photo-a-day project. I look back on most of those early images and realise how little I knew. This is one of the few I'm still pretty pleased with from those early days. 

Several months went by and I finally made it to my postponed course at West Dean College. Our tutor, Howard Coles, instilled the technical details in us and encouraged us to be more creative in our thinking and I think I took a step forward that weekend.  Of course, seeing all the other folks on the course with their SLRs and the creative things they could do with them made me hanker after a better camera and the die was cast.  Six weeks later I had my first digital SLR and I've never looked back since.

Since those initial steps in learning to be a better photographer I have been on a couple of other short courses but the bulk of my learning has been self-directed.  As I gained experience and confidence in what I was doing I wanted to learn more and became a voracious consumer of any sort of educational material I could lay my hands on.  

Late in 2006 I discovered podcasts, free downloadable radio shows which I could load onto my iPod and listen to anywhere.  The first one I discovered was by Martin Bailey, a British photographer living in Tokyo.  His method of talking about the artistic side of photography by introducing his own photos was just what I needed and I quickly downloaded and listened to his back catalogue - at that point about eight months' worth of weekly podcasts.  Martin's shows led me to search for more and after a degree of experimentation I now listen to a selection of shows, namely Martin's one, Tips from the Top Floor by Chris Marquardt, This Week in Photography and Photofocus.  Others have come and gone over the years but these four give me a great photographic diet of inspiration, tips, gear and much more.

All the time I was exploring the world of podcasts I also read photo magazines with great enthusiasm.  I've tried most of the ones published in the UK over the years and have gradually whittled it down to the two I enjoy the most - Amateur Photographer and Advanced Photographer.  In the last couple of years I've shifted over to digital subscriptions to both these magazines, reading them on my iPad.  This has proved to be a real bonus - no more need to carry around heavy paper magazines when I'm travelling for work and I don't end up with a big pile of dead trees cluttering up the house at the end of the year either!

 I was lucky enough to have this image of Cynghordy Viaduct in Wales published in Amateur Photographer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in their 130th anniversary edition.

I was lucky enough to have this image of Cynghordy Viaduct in Wales published in Amateur Photographer Magazine a couple of weeks ago, in their 130th anniversary edition.

The acquisition of an iPad has been a game changer for me in many ways and I consume a lot of educational material on it.  My most recent discovery has been the world of eBooks.  I came across the Canadian humanitarian photographer and writer David DuChemin via one of my podcasts and learnt of a horrific accident he had while travelling in Italy in 2011.  After this accident he was unable to walk and travel for several months so he wrote and released his first eBook.  It was a simple PDF, attractively formatted and priced at a stonking reasonable $5.  By the time I discovered David's books he'd built up quite a catalogue and was already publishing eBooks by guest writers under the auspices of his own publishing house, Craft and Vision, most of them still priced at a modest $5.  I bought a few, discovered how wonderful they were and when there was a Craft and Vision special offer one day I snapped up a whole load more.  I'm still working through some of my original purchases and they'll no doubt keep me going for many years to come.  They look beautiful and the content is top notch, with a big emphasis on inspiration and creativity rather than gear, unlike many traditional books and magazines.  

So has all this avid reading and listening made me a better photographer?  Possibly not directly, but it has made me think more about what I do, how I shoot and given me inspiration to try new things.  Of course, the thing that makes any of us improve most at whatever creative things we do, be it photography, music, painting, writing or anything else,  is practice.  Personally, I've used my training as a musician to help me with this.  When learning a musical instrument you have it drummed into you from a young age that you need to practise regularly in order to hone your skills and improve as a musician.  I took this to greater extremes than most by going to music college and learning to play the recorder well enough that I could earn my living from it.   That took three to four hours practice every day and I don't regret a minute of it as it has made me the musician I am today.  It was a natural step for me to transfer this work ethic to my photography and start my photo a day project back in 2008.  At the beginning I intended it to last for a year but I'm still at it nearly six years later.  I know a lot of people can't understand why I put myself under that pressure still but I guess, as a professional musician, that sense of dedication and determination is in my genes.  

Ultimately, all I ask is that I continue to grow and improve at what I do, whether that be as a musician or a photographer, and that the results continue to give pleasure to others.  I've had a lot of help along the way and for that I am eternally grateful.

 One of my favourite photos from today's visit to the Wimpole Estate near Royston.  

One of my favourite photos from today's visit to the Wimpole Estate near Royston.  

The art of self-criticism

My very first photoblog image, from December 2007

Many of you will be aware that back in 2007 I started a photoblog.  I posted intermittently for a while then, towards the end of 2008, I decided the time had come to make a commitment and I determined to post at least one new photo each day for a year.  It didn't matter what I posted but the photo(s) had to have been taken that day and, wherever possible, shared on the day they were created.  Inevitably there were times when it wasn't possible, for instance when I was away from home and without an Internet connection, but I stuck to my plan and religiously photographed something new each day.

As a professional musician I am used to the discipline of practising one's skills regularly in order to prepare for performances so getting into the habit of practising my photography every day wasn't so difficult.  My peripatetic lifestyle, with music-related work throughout the UK, helped too as I was always visiting new places and finding fresh photographic inspiration.  Who knows if I would have coped so well if I'd had a nine to five job in the same place every day?!

A year later I completed my self imposed mission to shoot and post every day and considered where I should go from there.  Despite the challenges, I'd enjoyed myself and learnt a lot along the way.  I knew deep down that I'd miss it if I stopped shooting so regularly so I made a decision to continue for as long as I enjoyed it.  Fast forward to almost six years later and I'm still going!  I know some of my friends think I'm crackers and others can't understand why I put myself under this pressure.  No doubt some think I could/should be spending my time doing other 'more important' things!

Even every day objects can have their photographic uses!

However, the truth is it often doesn't take me long to seek out and take my daily photograph.  As the years have gone by I've become better at sniffing out subjects and learning the best way to tackle them. I always have a camera with me, no matter where I go, so if I see something I just have to photograph on the spur of the moment I can do so. When I can I use my digital SLR but if I have too much else to carry I take my little Panasonic 'point and squirt' camera with me instead.  If all else fails, I have been known to even use the camera on my iPhone.  There are regretful occasions (thankfully infrequent) when I reach the end of the day without having shot a single photo and in that situation I've become more creative at making images from the most unlikely of subjects - for instance, an arty, abstract shot of a kitchen fork!  Alternatively, I have a 'bits and pieces' tin, filled with interesting objects I've picked up over the years for just such rainy days.  

 

Lucy can be a reluctant model but she has moments when she does me proud!

One thing that has struck me through the years though is the pressure I put on myself to create really worthwhile, beautiful images.  When I started this project I was often grateful just to find something that 'will do' for days when I've been busy.  However, as the years have gone by I've become much more self-critical about my work and less willing to make do with a substandard image.  Of course there are still days when I resort to photographing our cat, Lucy, because she's sitting there looking photogenic and I've had no chance to photograph anything else that day.  But even then I'll do my best to make it an artistically worthwhile photo rather than just a grab shot. 

 

One of my earliest aircraft shots, from 2008

The times I'm particularly aware of my increasing self-criticism are when I'm tackling a type of photography I once found really difficult.  I went through this process when I first started photographing things that move.  I began with cars on a motor racing circuit.  Yes, they move quickly but, in general, they take a fairly predictable line on each lap which is moderately easy to track.  From there I attempted shooting aircraft in flight.  Still a pretty large subject, but moving much more erratically and in three dimensions too. When I first attempted this at the Goodwood Racing Revival in 2008 I found it inordinately difficult and wondered if I'd ever get the hang of it.  Practice paid off though and, in time, I began to hone my technique.  The next step was to photograph birds in flight.  Immediately aircraft felt like a piece of cake to shoot by comparison - at least you have a larger target to aim at!  Once again, I've practised hard and, while I don't profess to have the technique complete nailed, I get a lot more hits than misses these days.

A photo I took in June this year of a Red Kite at Gigrin Farm in Wales

You'd think I'd be happy at this stage, wouldn't you?  You'd be wrong...  

It didn't take me too long to become reasonably proficient at the technical stuff.  I've always had a rather mathematical brain so f-stops and the like weren't too hard to get to grips with.  However, I never had a particular aptitude for art at school and had no real understanding of the concept of using light to create artistic effects.  When I first got into photography I was happy just to get things in focus and composed in a moderately satisfying way.  Light wasn't necessarily something I particularly considered, aside from the matter of whether there was enough of the stuff to take my shot!  As the years have gone by I've grown to notice the sculptural effect light has on things and the way it can change the photos I make from ordinary to extraordinary.  I now find myself noticing the way light falls on buildings, illuminates trees and shapes everyday objects as I go about my travels, often thinking about how I might photograph the scene, even if I can't stop at the time.  I also notice the way scenes are lit in TV shows and movies now and the way this can direct the viewer's eye.  While I think this newly found awareness of light has had a positive impact on my images the down side the fact that I've become much more picky about the way my photographs look.  

 

I've spent the last couple of days at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, photographing their autumn air show.  Whereas a few years ago I would have been content to take a photo of an aircraft in flight that was in the frame and sharply in focus I find myself now looking for that added element of the light.  A plane shot against a bright sky can appear as a graphic silhouette if the angle of the wings is right.  However, more often than not it just looks underexposed and dull.  If the light catches the underside of the wings at the right angle though it can have a magical effect, sculpting the carefully drawn lines its designer created.  This weekend the light was far from kind, with never ending pale grey, cloudy skies and very little sun to speak of.  A deep blue sky and some sunshine would have made my life easier.  A dark, foreboding, stormy sky would have been even more dramatic, especially if we could have persuaded the sun to break through to illuminate the aircraft.  

Sometimes light is everything - I think that glimpse of sunshine reflecting off the Vulcan's wings makes this image

Sadly, for ninety percent of the time this was not to be.  Instead I found myself tracking the planes across the sky with my finger poised on the shutter button, waiting for them to cross the one dark piece of sky or to pass through that single elusive ray of sunshine, at which point I would let rip at full speed!  There were eureka moments though when the weather gods were kind and I found myself faced with the perfect combination of light and shade, not least of all when the last remaining airworthy Vulcan bomber took to the skies.  It's moments like these that make you want to leap in the air, shouting, "Yes!"

There may be no blue skies or sunshine but that little bit of light under the body of the two Lancasters makes such a difference, sculpting their shape and making them seem so much more three dimensional

 

So, do I feel I have improved as a photographer?  Undoubtedly, yes.  When I look back through the photos I took in the early days of my photoblog there are a few little gems that I'm still proud of but they're few and far between.  However, I do think my more recent work is better, both technically and artistically.  I am, of course, my own worst critic and there are occasions when friends say to me how fabulous a particular image is and I think to myself, "If you think this is good you should see the work of photographer xxx - that's so much better!"  I guess this is a very healthy frame of mind though, as seeing the inspiring work of others undoubtedly spurs me on to keep improving my own skills and vision.  It'll certainly be interesting to see where the next leg of my photoblog journey takes me....