18 Things I've Learned from Master Photography Teachers



As we at the Adorama Learning Center begin our focus on "Back to School", I've collected some great advice for photography students.

I have been fortunate. I've studied with some of the world's top photographers. There is much for a photography student to learn regarding equipment choices, exposure, composition, post processing, lighting, and other nuts-and-bolts aspects of photography, But there are other less tangible aspects to photography that a great teacher, someone who has vast experience as a working photographer, will impart wisdom that someone whose only experience is in academia may not impart.

So, without further ado, here's a distillation of some of the most useful things I've been told by Garry Winogrand, J. Ross Baughmann, Peter Moore, Walter Chandoah, Marsha Resnick (not related), Herbert Keppler (a former boss but a great teacher), Bryan Peterson, and Herb Goro. I don't remember who said what, but their words have stayed with me over the years:

1. The longer the lens, the more likely you'll be noticed. That's why so many street shooters use 35mm or shorter lenses.

2. If all of the photographers around you are shooting in one direction, turn around. The picture you get will probably be more interesting, and will stand out from the crowd!

3. Photograph what interests you. If you are photographing something that bores you, it will show. Conversely, if you photograph subjects that you really enjoy and reflect your interests, you will be motivated to get the best photo possible.

4. When framing the shot, only include whatever is relevant. Everything else, eliminate.

5. When you think you've got the shot, you're not done yet. Look for the second shot within the shot. Then a third, and a fourth. And so on.

6. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't forget to learn from them.

7. Human contact and sincere interest in the individual you are photographing will help you get a better portrait. But even more importantly, you may find you've made a new friend, and that is worth more than a photo.

8. Write a caption. In fact, write a story centered around your photograph. You will find this a useful exercise in creative writing and creative thinking.

9. Never write captions. The picture should work on its own. A caption is a hook on which to hang a photo and if it is necessary, then the photo isn't good enough. (Put that together with #7 and you're on your own!)

10. Know technique cold. Know your gear intimately. Practice a lot! That way, when you are in the midst of shooting, you will be able to quickly adjust settings so you can get the shot. Once the act of taking a properly exposed and focused photo is as natural as breathing, you can concentrate on developing your vision.

11. Hold the camera in your hand, not around your neck, and definitely not in a “never ready” bag. If your camera is in your hand, you're ready to take a shot at a moment's notice.

12. The best camera is the one you have with you. And there is no excuse to leave a camera home, especially with so many small cameras available today.

13. Constantly look at great photography. Read photo books, go to exhibits, check out work online. Study the work of photographers you admire. Figure out why they work and what it is about their photographs that capture your rapt attention.

14. It's OK to emulate other photographers, or painters or other artists with your photographs. Don't worry if people think it's derivative. In time, your own style will evolve.

15. A lot of gear makes you a collector. A lot of photos make you a photographer. Keep your gear to a minimum and shoot as much as possible. Film is pixels are cheap!

16. Get critiques, not kiss-ups. Look for a photographer who will look at your portfolio and tear it apart and honestly tell you everything that's not working. Listen carefully. Have no ego, and don't be offended. He or she is trying to help you be a better photographer. Create a new portfolio. Repeat.

17. Learn with the best. A photographer who has a successful studio or has a collection of Pulitzer prizes is going to give you more practical advice than someone who is always in a classroom and has little professional experience. A live workshop is great but there are plenty of online tutorials on AdoramaTV with some of the best photography teachers in the world, and they're free!

18. Hit the books. Besides looking at good photos, learn as much as you can from the pros about the thinking behind their most successful photos. I've listed a dozen books currently available at Adorama on the right side of this page that will get you started not so much in exposure and technique, but in thinking creatively about photography.


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