Learning how to learn, photographically

When I went to college, in pursuit of a Bachelor of Liberal Arts, my mother encouraged me to put my energy into what she called “learning how to learn.” I just finished a workshop where a student told me the best part of the class was that he had “learned how to learn the way to make the best photograph possible of a given situation.”

By way of background, what I came to understand about my mother’s advice was that she knew that college was where I needed to go to learn to think on my own. My high school education was fine, but college was meant to be, and turned out to be, completely different.

In college, I studied philosophy, anthropology, political science and, of course, the history of photography. Organically, my professors were trying to get me to draw connections between the different disciplines in order to develop an overarching framework for my life. What my mother hoped I would learn was how to think independently, as I learned to analyze, and appreciate different issues and ideas, preferably from a variety of points of view.

Her point was that those skills are more valuable than any one job-based skill. Proponents of liberal arts education similarly argue that developing independent thinking and analytical skills are the real value of a liberal arts education. Today, skills based education is definitely important, especially in our ever more complex economy, but learning how to think is more important, because that skill can be applied to any pursuit.

So how does this apply to photography? On a broad level, most photographers can (and often must) learn new technical skills, such as the latest version of a camera or a given software program. That is a fairly linear learning process with a beginning, middle, and end.

The more important skill is to be able to figure out how to get the thing(s) in front of the camera/lens onto the digital chip or film, just the way the photographer wants. This involves a variety of different mental processes, while drawing on previous experiences making and viewing images. All these must be applied simultaneously to rapidly changing situations that are presented to the photographer. There is nothing linear or simple about that!

On the last day, one of the students, Bill, told me he had “learned how to learn the way to make the best photograph possible of a given situation.” I pressed him to explain.

He said he did not think he could ever fully know how to make a great photo in any situation he might face in the future. But, he said that he now understood what questions to ask in order to figure out how to do that. Then a light went off in my head when I realized what we had gone through in the workshop. The process was organic and not explicit, but once Bill told me what he had experienced, I better understood the process I had taken him through. I was so pleased with my new understanding that I wanted to write this blog entry in order to make the process that Bill went through more explicit and available to all photographers.

At the rodeo, we photographed during the days when riders who cannot be scheduled into the main rodeo performances compete. They are the so-called “slack.” The “slack” competition is much more relaxed, so photographers have better access. During “slack,” the competitors do the same thing multiple times in pursuit of the best competitive time possible. The first day of the workshop we worked on metering, composition and especially studying the pattern of the various events.

At this point, I should note that I am not a photographer who does lots of random grab shots. I spend most of my time walking around till I find a situation that I think will make an interesting photograph. Then, I wait until something comes into the frame that I have already composed. If it sounds like Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, you are right.

During the rodeo class, I encouraged the students to adopt that strategy, even if they were going to disregard it once they left our group. Then we discussed what I call “choke points,” which are places where the flow of activity tends to be concentrated. For example, people have to all move through the same place in a similar way as they walk around a crowded corner. Such “choke points” generally make better images because the activity in them is repeated, over and over. The key to utilizing a “choke point,” is analyzing the flow of activity in order to establish where and when to actually take the photograph, as well as what to keep in or out of focus.

We also discussed pre-focusing on the path that the rodeo competitors take as they compete. For example, barrel racers follow the same route, so there was no need to try to follow-focus. Instead it worked best to focus on the place where the best action happens, and then wait till the racer’s come through and then click away. It was usually best to start before they enter the frame because they moved so fast that even a photographer with good reaction time could miss the best moments. In the barrel racing, the point where the racer’s pass around the barrel is the best place to photograph in terms of the racer’s movement, expressions, body language, etc.

We also explored the photographer’s need to plan their own position/angle so they were in the best place they could find in order to use the direction of the light to achieve the desired effect.

I encouraged all the participants to photograph extensively then regularly review their images. This was to help them establish which elements to exclude or include in a given composition. With their compositions continually being refined, each day’s set of images was better than the previous day’s.

Finally, I encouraged the students to be open to changing the point of the image as their photographing unfolded. The students (like any photographer) started with one idea for their photographs. But once they started working, if they were open to it, the images changed. For example, a minor element in the “initial” idea or composition could become the best part of the final photograph. Being too strongly wed to the first approach to a given image is the surest way to make sure that a photographer does NOT get to the best possible version of the final photograph.

What my student Bill figured out by the third day was very important for any photographer. He learned that after a little while, he could look at a variety of situations he might be photographing and then figure out how to make the best photograph possible by following the steps listed above. He noted that figuring out how to make the photograph and actually executing that plan were two very different things. He also added that though he had learned the skills photographing a rodeo, it could be applied to anything he was going to photograph in the future.

It was a great experience watching Bill as he “learned how to learn the way to make the best photograph possible of a given situation.” That made the workshop an especially rewarding one for Bill and for me too.

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