Is taking a photography class worth the time and money?

“Learn the way and find your own way.”

– Jet Li, The Forbidden Kingdom 2008

Yep, it is.

As long as it’s offered by a reputable school.

First, you learn the technical basics.  Second, you learn about composition. Finally, it makes you get out and shoot.

Prior to taking a class, I read a lot of blogs and picked up some great tips.  Still do, in fact.  However, I would argue that it is not a replacement for formal instruction.  Here are some things that learned in a classroom setting that I didn’t pick up anywhere else.

Get a grip.  I’ll admit it.  I based my camera holding technique on what I saw in the movies – you know what I mean – that ‘C’ shape of the left hand holding the top of the lens.  Or worse, the Austin Powers’ one-handed technique.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  The left hand should be under the lens, more on the base.  I think of it as a little platform made by my hand.  You’d be surprised how much it reduces camera shake.  It also makes manual focusing much less cumbersome. When you take a portrait shot, your right hand goes up, not down, so that the shutter release button is on top.  Having someone show you what’s right and wrong is so much easier than reading about it.

Understand the rules of composition so you’ll know when and why you are breaking them.  I can see how it’s easy to become a photography snob.  I was actually annoyed today while reading the newspaper.  A beautiful landscape shot was ruined because the horizon was right in the middle of the frame – for no reason! The rule of thirds is an important concept to learn and understand.  With my point and shoot, I usually framed things in the middle.  Sometimes, that’s okay, but understanding the basics of compositions has made me more aware of my choices.

Turn off the auto selection focus points.  When I initially was deciding which kind of camera to buy, the number of focal points was a selling point.  More focal points must be better, right?  Nope.  When you first start, a good approach is to use one centre focus point.  Select the subject, half depress the shutter release to focus on what you want in focus and then recompose, keeping the shutter release half depressed.  Compose, move the camera to focus, and then recompose.

Natural framing is an instant way to raise the bar.  Put a tree branch at the top of your frame?  Now it’s art!  Seriously, it does make a difference.  Use what’s around to make an average picture better.

Make friends with your light meter but don’t forget you’re the smart one.  This is the single biggest thing I’ve learned.  This is worth its own future post.

Ask your instructor about good photo labs.  We have to bring prints into class.  Most photos printed at the big box stores look orange.  Find a good lab and make friends with the staff.  Often, they offer a discount to photography students (even night class students like me!).

Don’t get hung up on the equipment.  Still working on this one, as it’s easier said than done.  I look with envy at one particular classmate’s $10K worth of gear.  She takes beautiful pictures, but it has more to do with her than the equipment. There’s a lot of debate about Nikon vs. Canon vs. everyone else. If these cameras weren’t good, the companies wouldn’t be in business.  Each brand has its strengths and weaknesses.  It’s the photographer that makes the picture special, not the camera.  A full sensor camera is not the be-all end-all.  But I still kinda want one.

Find inspiration.  I like to look at momtographers’ work because, generally, I’m taking pictures of my kids.  But look at other photographers too.  This was our very first assignment.  When asked about our favourite photographers, I could only think of Ansel Adams and Anne Geddes.  That was it!  How embarrassing.  This assignment forced me to consciously evaluate what I like and why.  For example, Philippe Halsman (1906-1979) was a wonderful photographer who took some of the most iconic pictures of the late 20th Century.  He also wrote a book called “Jump.”  He would have his subjects jump in the air to relax them.  It’s hard to keep on a façade when you are acting like a kid.  George Lepp is landscape and nature photography and takes stunning pictures.  Definitely worth a look.

Get out and shoot.  Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.  And then take one more.  I’m always amazed how many times that last shot that I almost didn’t have is the one that I like the most.

Classes give you a reason to get out and shoot.  In a way, that’s the biggest value added.

I’ve taken 8 – 3 hour classes (Photography I) and am currently taking another 8 class set for Photography II.  Once this class ends, I might take a LightRoom class.


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