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.
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....
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!
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.