With the arrival of the digital age, photography has become more accessible than it has ever been. Now-a-days, it seems that everyone has a fancy DSLR camera, or a modern mirror-less model, with interchangeable lenses. Strangely enough, the camera manufacturers want you to believe that all you need to do is take the camera out of the box, charge the battery, and add a memory card, and you’ll soon be shooting like a top pro for National Geographic.
This couldn’t be further from the truth!!!
Sure, just about any name-brand camera you buy will have the potential to record a high-quality image (which is often limited more by the quality of the lens than the quality of the camera body). The keyword here is “potential”. There is more to being a competent photographer than owning high-quality gear. You gotta know how to use it! You also need to have a solid handle on composition techniques, not to mention the ability to evaluate (and manipulate) light. Of course, digital cameras are of relatively little use if you don’t own a computer and photo editing software, so it is important to know your way around your PC or Mac and editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Apple’s Aperture.
How does one learn all of this? Well, you can go to art school and study for a formal degree. You can read books and magazines and teach yourself. You can even read your camera’s instruction manual if you don’t mind losing your sanity. Or, what is becoming more and more the case, you can work with a professional instructor, either within a group, or one-on-one. In this case, the question becomes, “How do you select a photography instructor to suit your specific creative and technological needs?”
The answer is multi-faceted, and requires as much research and analysis as it may to purchase a camera! To help you on your quest, I’ve developed the following list of criteria to consider when searching for a compatible and competent photography instructor:
- Are they experienced? Find out how long they’ve been a professional photographer and, of equal importance, how long they’ve been teaching photography. Like any other mentor in life, it helps to have someone who has “been there” and “done that”.
- How strong is their portfolio? Just because one has a lot of experience in the business, doesn’t mean that they have a solid portfolio. And, a solid portfolio doesn’t necessarily come from someone who’s formally trained in photography (e.g., went to art school). Some of the “best” photographers I know are self-taught, so don’t let this affect your decision. Look at the quality of their work. It should speak for itself. NOTE: Just because they have a solid portfolio doesn’t mean that they’ll be a good instructor!
- How versatile are the instructor’s capabilities? Someone who has spent their life doing product shoots in a studio may not be the best person to learn travel photography from. The typical consumer is not interested in studio photography, and their interests are usually as vast as the art form itself. Best bet is to find someone who has breadth of portfolio and skills, as well as a quality portfolio. If, indeed, you do want to learn studio photography, then seek out someone with that specialty who is willing to teach you.
- Do they have a well-defined teaching and learning philosophy, or do they just wing it? For example, my teaching company, Vagabond Vistas Photo Tours, has a very specific and published philosophy. When folks land on our website, they get a very clear look into how we operate, and where our priorities lie with our clients. It’s makes for a very comprehensive and organized approach to learning, which results in both efficiency and effectiveness. (learn about the VVPT “holistic” approach to photography HERE)
- Is your personality compatible with that of your instructor? This may be difficult to assess at first, but it is very important, nonetheless. See if the instructor has a free “get to know each other” orientation session available before making any serious commitment. Bottom line is that you’ll learn a lot more if you are having fun with the experience, and the degree of your enjoyment may hinge on how well you hit it off with your instructor.
- Does the instructor understand different makes and models of gear? With a new camera model coming out almost daily, it would be unreasonable to expect any instructor to know every camera model inside and out. But, given that most consumers own either a Nikon or Canon model, at the very least the teacher should understand the fundamental camera and lens set-up of these two manufacturers.
- Will you learn about compositional techniques (and theory)? One can assume that any photography instructor will cover topics such as exposure (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) and auto-focus, as well as other technical functions of your gear. But, will they also cover the right-brain stuff, like the elements of design (the building blocks of composition) and how they apply to photography? For some folks, learning all of the buttons and dials on a camera is much easier than learning how to fill your frame with the right content. While some people believe that a “good eye” is something that only a select few are born with (which may be true), a good photography instructor will also be able to teach you how to train your eyes to “see” better. This is an essential part of your learning. Even if you do have the so-called “good eye”, it is important to know exactly “why” you see things the way that you do such that you can build on your god-given talent!
- Does the instructor publish testimonials of past clients? If not, why not? If they are not published, can they send you some, or put you in touch with their clients? If they are published, then have a look at what others are saying.
- Will your work with them include hands-on exercises? Depending on what type of guidance you are looking for, ask if the sessions will include both sit-down and hands-on instruction. It’s one thing to be taught something “on paper”, but it’s another thing to have the teacher go through it via practical applications.
- Why did the instructor decide to become a teacher? If they are doing it simply because “they need the money”, then be careful. Ideally, you want someone who is as passionate about their teaching as they are about their photography. With the professional photography industry becoming so competitive these days, many freelance photographers are resorting to “teaching” to make up for lost revenue from their “shooting” business. If they don’t enjoy their teaching responsibilities, it will come across in your sessions with them. Don’t be afraid to ask them up front “why” they teach photography. The answer can be very telling.
- Do they understand digital workflow as well as they understand photography? Digital photographers, whether pro or hobbyists, need to be more than “just” photographers these days. They need to be organized, and they need to know their way around a computer and high-tech software. Ask your prospective teacher if they have a program for their clients that covers digital workflow and computer use. Gaining these skills, and being an efficient photographer, can be as important as learning exposure!
- Do they offer “distance learning” options? Face-to-face meetings are always best, but what happens when you can’t get together? Are phone consultations available? Internet video conference? Screen-sharing capability? Though this option may not seem necessary for you, you never know when you’ll need immediate help, or where you may be when you need it!
- If you’re doing group work, what is the size of the group? Obviously, the smaller the group, the better as far as personal attention. This can make or break the success of a group event for you. Be sure to find out what the maximum group size is of any workshop or photo tour. I am always surprised at how many photography workshop and photo tour companies do not publish the maximum group size number along with the details of their event. Be very careful here, as they are likely hiding something, and may not have a maximum size! And, if they do have a max, then why are they not being public about it? Could mean that they believe the group size is large, and they don’t want to divulge this information unless asked. So, be sure to ask!
- Is the teacher willing to share all of his/her knowledge with you? Sadly, there are photography instructors out there who will teach you only the fundamentals, while holding back some of their own “secret” techniques. I’m not suggesting that they should try to turn you into a replica of themselves, but they shouldn’t hold back from sharing their special formulae. Whether they do share everything or not will be testament to their passion for teaching. And, as noted above, if the instructor is not as passionate about developing their clients as they are about their own creativity, then you may want to find someone who is.
- Finally, what are their fees? For one-on-one instruction, do they offer price breaks if you sign up for multiple sessions? Where will sessions be held? Will you meet on weekdays or weekends? Mornings, afternoons or evenings? I’ve seen photography instructor fees range from $25/hr to $100/hr for private lessons, so there is no hard-fast benchmark as to what you should be paying (though I’d tread carefully with the very low-end rates as this could be indicative of the person’s experience). When analyzing the fee(s), be sure to take into consideration all of the factors (as detailed in this blog post!). Sure, you may be on a budget, and the lower fees may appear more attractive to you. But, if you’re not getting any value out of the instruction, then it’s wasted money whether you’re paying $30/hr or $130/hr. Group fees have a huge range as well. Be sure to do your research and be sure that you are comparing apples to apples!
There you have it! I bet you didn’t realize that so much went into finding a photography instructor, did you? You must think of this experience as an investment. When you are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for the experience, then that shouldn’t be difficult to realize!
Of course, if you have any questions about this list, or about what Vagabond Vistas Photo Tours has to offer, just give us a shout!