Behind the Camera: Learning Photography

· Reading Time: 15 minutes

Behind the Camera: Learning Photography

Welcome back to another installment of Behind the Camera.  In this monthly feature I will tackle a question that has come up over the past month that relates to my photography.  This month was a little slow for questions, however, so I have had to get creative about the topic for this entry.  Instead of looking for a question, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the learning process of photography.  When people look at photos, they are normally placed into two groups.  The first group thinks that anyone with a camera can duplicate the image that they are looking at.  The other one knows enough about photography to know what thought and considerations went into the image.  In either case, if the image is successful, then it is appreciated on both fronts.  During my time as a photographer I have fallen into both camps, and it has formed the way I have learned about photography.

Why I started in photography has been covered in my first Behind the Camera entry several months ago.  The road has been a long and eventful one for sure.  I had never had an interest in the visual arts growing up, and never bothered to take any art classes in school.  My family background was not surrounded by a lot of exposure to the arts.  I was a gearhead growing up and liked automobiles, and driving fast.  None of this prepared me to be a photographer, and it was just the physical camera that caught my attention more than the photographs it captured initially.  My photography started from a blending of a love for automobiles and cameras used as a tool to document what I did with my vehicles.

This is where the “teaching” comes into play.  Everyone learns a different way, and that means that no method is going to be equally successful for everyone.  I have never taken a single photography or editing class, but yet I have learned a lot of things over the years in both of those arenas.  I have jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to be “Self Taught” like it is a badge of honor or something.  The implication here is I sneezed one day and spontaneously learned everything I know about photography.  Being self taught sounds an awful lot like I sat in a room and lectured myself on the art of photography, and taught myself everything that I know.

If that was the case, I am pretty sure I would be in a nice hotel with friendly staff that monitors my meds, and makes sure I sleep through the night.  No, I didn’t talk to myself on that level, although I still do have great conversations in my head.  There just isn’t any teaching going on in there.  When I say “self taught”, I am talking about being disciplined enough to search out the information from other sources and then study it to learn it.  Really, being self taught is no different than if I went to school to learn it.  My teachers were lots of books, magazines, and more recently videos.  Of course, there was a lot of practice involved along the way.  The difference is the feedback, and the coaching.  This is where things get a little interesting, and the learning curve is much slower when you remove the instructor from the equation.

I have had quite a few friends that have gone through classes to learn photography, and know of plenty more that have a formal education in photography.  Concepts that they were able to learn in a matter of weeks, or months, might have taken me a year to really “get.”  They had assignments that were turned into an instructor who would then evaluate the assignment and give that all too needed feedback.  My feedback came from my own eyes, and the eyes of a few people online.  It was far from valid criticism from a learning standpoint.  I was forced to compare my work to others’ so that I could get an idea if I was progressing.  Talk about a slow process, but it forced me to be an absolute ruthless critic of my own work.

I think that this is where those who take on their education like I did will benefit and become better self critics.  Those who rely on instructors to validate their work learn quicker, but also learn to need that crutch and a sense of affirmation from somebody else.  Over time, this is minimized as experience is gained, but those who learn by pushing themselves to their own expectations get there quicker I believe.

Regardless of how you choose to learn photography, probably the hardest aspect is figuring out how to show depth in a two dimensional image.  This is probably where my images have come the furthest over the years.  When I started, I would look at the work of Mark Lucock, or Bob Shaw and think “I can do that.”  They just shot a picture of an interesting tree.  I was sadly mistaken in that simplified assumption.  I was finding plenty of interesting things to take pictures of, but the end result was very much a snapshot and appeared flat and not overly interesting.

Understanding the basics

I am going to put up with a bit of embarrassment here and share some pictures from my early beginnings as a photographer.  This picture above was shot on the Blue Ridge Parkway back in 2005.  I had read about the rule of thirds, and just knew that if I put the point of interest at the precise location I would have a great picture.  I even used a polarizing filter for this shot to capitalize on the blue sky.  Well, the resulting image didn’t have a distinct foreground interest, and the greenery that was used takes up nearly half the frame.  The sky is boring and adds nothing to the scene.  My main point of interest gets lost in frame.  I had yet to learn the importance of balance in an image, and visual weight.

This shot was also from 2005, at Fort Fisher near Carolina Beach.  The trees were what really caught my eye here, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the image.  Again, I nailed the rule of thirds because that was what I knew.  What I missed was the quality of light, exposure, and even focus in the foreground.  Speaking of foreground, I had a real bad habit of filling half the frame with nothing of interest.  Looking back, this would have been a composition for a panorama more than a 4×5 crop.  As with the first image, the reason I shot the picture in the first place was lost in the grand scale of the frame.  I really should have filled the frame with what I like rather than adhering to the rule of thirds so rigidly.  At the time though, I thought I had created something great, but it wasn’t looking like the images I had seen from other photographers.

Even as far back as 2005, clouds were some of my favorite subjects to work with, but I hadn’t really figured out how to include them with landscapes.  The silhouetted trees really had no strong foreground interest, but they did provide an anchor for the sky.  I was really excited about how the clouds looked, but when I really looked at the image, it was as collection of elements that really didn’t compliment each other.  Again, I had failed to create the image that I was looking for.  Had I turned this in to an instructor, I’m sure they would have looked at it, and given me a distant stare waiting for the punch line.  There is so much wrong with this that it would be hard to even begin to make suggestions on how to fix it.

When I shot these three images, I didn’t have the benefit of getting feedback from somebody with an understanding of what I was trying to create.  I only knew that the part of photography that I was concentrating on was represented here.  It would take a lot more reading to figure out the execution of the rules, and when to break them.  I also had a lot to learn about combining rules to actually create a cohesive image.  My list of books grew over the months and years.  I would read books on composition where I learned how to actually apply the rule of thirds, and that there are alternatives to this rule which are more effective at times.  There would be books on exposure, and how to properly read a light meter and how useful it can be.  I learned about hyperfocal distances and how important that can be for making sure that your scene is all in relatively sharp focus.  I read about the theories and concepts behind photography, and found out so much about how to present my visions.  Ultimately, I learned how to read a scene that was in front of me.

Rural Virginia

Some 13 years later, you can see how i have a much better understanding of how to present my visions.  Here you see a barn in the mountains, not unlike the leading picture above.  The difference was my use of an interesting foreground (the fence), elements of depth (diagonal flow following leading lines), and of course, a much more interesting sky.  This represents how I have learned to “read” a scene before I even pick up a camera.  I look for lighting primarily, but I also want to make sure that the elements that I am going to include all help tell the same story.  Everything in this image works together to give a sense of time and place.  The main element (the barn) is readily apparent, and is given a strong position in the image.  The use of colors helps to add to the visual impact of the barn in the total scene.  My subjects are no longer getting lost in the frame.  The idea here is to include what is important in the scene and subtract what isn’t.

An Invitation

In this image, the tree was my focal point and the primary reason I wanted the image.  The sky dictated the direction I shot in, but the tree was what I wanted to focus on as in the second opening image.  I have learned to get in close.  The rule of thirds is still alive and well here with the main trunks of the tree sitting on the right third and the lower third, with the outstretched branch at the upper left intersection.  In short, I have learned that the rule of thirds can apply to the different parts of your subject as opposed to just a broad spectrum “place the subject at this point or that point.”  More importantly, I have learned to read the light of an image and capitalize on the light direction.  This was at sunrise, and the sun was to my back.  It lit the foreground and subject as well as threw color in the sky beyond the tree.  These were tricks that I didn’t know about years ago.  Learning composition and the use of light are two very key things for a photographer to understand.

End of Days

Clouds will always be an important part of my photography, and I have gotten much better at capturing them over the years.  In the image from 2005, I had an exposure nightmare with the trees in extreme shadow and the clouds overexposed.  There was no distinct foreground interest, and the reason for the shot wasn’t exactly clear.  These issues have been worked out learning how to control my exposure based on the light.  Here, I waited until the sun was below the horizon which softened the colors in the clouds.  I was able to expose in a way that I got plenty of detail in the foreground and in the sea oats.  The foreground makes a lot more sense and sets the scene for the image.  The clouds are not only pretty, but they are dynamic.  There is depth for days in this image which the other sky picture was missing.

In each of these cases, I have demonstrated what a little photographic understanding can accomplish with similar subjects.  I didn’t have to go to school to figure out how to create these images, but there was a lot of learning involved.  I’m sure that if I had turned in the first three images to an instructor, they would have critiqued me very hard and then offered suggestions for how to correct these issues.  With my “self taught” program, I had to really look into the images to find out what was wrong with them and why I wasn’t getting the pictures that I was trying for.  In each of the three cases, I was excited about the images and really thought I was capturing the moment when I pressed the shutter button.  When I compared my images to those that I was trying to learn from I realized that I had missed the mark by a wide margin.  That prompted me to read more in depth about how to construct a picture.  These days, I still have a lot to learn about photography, but I can say that I have a very good understanding of the art and craft of photography.

Getting it right in the field

One thing that I have always tried to do was to get it right in the field.  In the beginning I needed to do this because I didn’t have a photo editing program that was overly powerful, or one that I was proficient at.  I used Microsoft Picture It!which was bundled with other software.  My chances of ruining an image were higher than of me fixing one that was needing help.  I had a much better outcome if I got things right in the field at the time of capture.  That meant that I became rather proficient with filters to correct color, and exposure.  These were largely tricks of the film age, but since the majority of the books I was learning from were based on film photography, that is what I did.  It made me quite capable of reading a scene and photographing it in the best way possible.  This has carried over to my current methods.


I still use filters, even though I am using Lightroom and Photoshop as my processing tools.  The number of filters that I carry has been reduced from the early years by a good many though.  I don’t have a need for color correcting filters like warming filters since I know how to work my white balance controls.  I don’t use funky Colored Grads because I never really liked the effect.  I no longer carry three different ND filters because I have replaced them all with a single variable ND filter with the addition of one more 10-Stop ND filter.  What I do carry a lot of are the ND Grads which represent six of my filters.  You can see what they do in the video and picture above.

Sure, I have the option of using a digital version of this filter through Lightroom, and to be completely honest, I do use it.  But…that digital filter doesn’t help me when the disparity between highlight and shadow is so much that the camera can’t capture enough detail in both.  This is when I use the physical filters to get the image as close as I can to a finished product before I even press the shutter.  This mindset helps me minimize my time at the computer after a trek.  This is very beneficial since I usually have finished images by the end of the day that I shot them.

Time Passes

There are other times when an image wouldn’t be possible without filters in the field.  This is one of those times where I wanted some extra drama in the sky by incorporating some movement in the clouds.  Since the sun was so bright, the only way to slow the shutter enough to give me a 30 second exposure was to use that 10-Stop ND filter.  It is all about getting it right in the field.  All of that experience shooting like it was a film camera has really paid big dividends for me in terms of my current methodology behind the camera.

Speaking of getting it right in the field, I know many photographers who shoot images with a lot of wiggle room so that they can crop later for the best composition.  There is nothing wrong with that, and in many types of photography that is needed because the use of a single image will be different and will require different crops.  For me, I don’t like the thought of losing valuable pixels of information for no reason.  I can see the image in the viewfinder, and on the LCD.  This is how I know I have my composition right.  If I have a question, I either move or go to a different focal length before releasing the shutter.  This is how I end up with 10 shots of the same subject many times.  I want to have options when I start processing the day’s shots.  I would rather throw out an entire wide angle shot in favor of keeping a different, tighter image, than throw out 2000 pixels in that image to get the same effect.  The benefit here is ability to print larger with more detail.

The most important things that I have learned

1)  Fill the frame with what you like!

2)  Tell a story with your photos

3)  Exclude elements that don’t go with the intention of the capture

4)  Include visual clues to give a sense of depth

5)  Search out the light before concentrating on the subject

6)  Change you perspective by using different focal lengths

7)  Use the rules to set up initial shots, and then break the rules to improve it

8)  Always look behind you as there might be better light in that direction

9)  Experiment because digital images are cheap

10) Have fun and immerse yourself in your work!

What is right for you?

I’ve tried to stay on the fence about which is better when it comes to learning.  I have spent the majority of the time discussing what I know, so I’m sure it comes across like I’m saying this is the way to do things.  That really isn’t the case at all.  Everyone learns differently, and depending on your learning style, you might benefit from one over the other, or possibly a combination of the two.  It all comes down to figuring out the basics, practicing, and finding what techniques work for your individual visions.  No matter how we learn, there will be a time when you file all of that information into a tool box and you go out and shoot images in your own specific way.  This is when you become a photographer in my opinion.

Far too often, I hear “what settings did you use?” or “what lens was that?”  These questions are largely the wrong questions to ask.  They will tell you what worked at that specific time for that photographer’s vision.  They really hold very little bearing on how you might shoot a similar image.  Better questions would be “what kind of light were you looking for with this image?” or “Why did you include this element or that element?”  These are the questions where a budding photographer will actually learn more about the craft.

The act, or art of photography will always be one of the best ways of conveying what you see when you look at something.  But as a writer must learn to craft a sentence, a photographer must learn to craft a photograph.