Forget Software Skills — It’s Vision That’s Important for Photographers

David Weintraub’s most recent Black Star Rising column, “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Teaching Software,” laid out a list of 18 different software products currently taught to visual communications students at his university, ranging from Photoshop to GarageBand.

David posed a number of insightful questions in his piece, including one that particularly resonated with me: “Should we be teaching software at all?”

I won’t go so far as to say that software shouldn’t be taught in college. But I do think the balance has tilted toward too much focus on technical proficiencies and too little on core skills, such as the development of vision and storytelling ability.

Photoshop Over Photography

Over the past 20 years, I frequently have worked with young photographers, including those still in college and those fresh out of college. The experience has been just as rewarding as working with some of the biggest names in the field.

That’s why, even with all the portfolios that come across my desk, I still take the time to review the work of students. You just never know who’s going to walk through the door next.

Unfortunately, in recent years I’ve been disappointed in the portfolios of young photographers more often than I would like. Even as we see more students graduating in photography than ever before (too many, one could argue, given the size and relative growth of the industry), I am getting fewer and fewer portfolios that show a critical vision — that offer real visual opinions.

Too much of what I see today represents style over substance, Photoshop over photography. The craft and vision that animates great photography is rarely visible, an occasional glimmer amid the software masterpieces.

Vision Should Come First

I can only speak for myself. But personally, when I hire a photographer for an editorial assignment, I look for someone who can bring opinion and insight to a project.

I want someone who understands how to tell a story. I want someone who can explore a project to its fullest degree. And I want someone who has outstanding vision.

I do not look for someone who can jazz up an otherwise banal and soulless image with computer effects.

Now, I would never go so far as to say that software skills are unimportant. They are. So are business management and marketing skills, for that matter.

But I place none of these at the core of what it is to be a photographer.

Too much focus on software in college — like having to master 12, or 15, or 18 different software products — can lead to a steady stream of newly minted photographers who can’t shoot the forest for the trees.

9 Responses to “Forget Software Skills — It’s Vision That’s Important for Photographers”

  1. Great post Wayne.

    When I was in college, I taught myself Photoshop (4.0), Quark, created a digital portfolio my last year in 1999-2000, and learned to create slideshows. No classroom instruction, just what was available at the Mac lab.

    Today, I'm teaching myself HTML, Flash and learning Social Media, and website design.

    But, I focus mainly on my photography skills for with those, what's the point of the rest?

    No matter how cool your website is, if you load crappy photos, their still crappy photos.

    Photography is about capturing defining moments, having a vision, and using that vision to speak your mind.

  2. Hi Paul, thank you, I think your approach is the right one, the industry we are in is evolving so quickly that software requirements will constantly be changing, college is for exploring who you are as a photographer.

  3. As I say when I teach... A technique in-camera (multiple exposure or camera movement) or in Photoshop does not make a lousy photograph better.

    I see software as another tool that needs to be used judiciously to enhance an already strong image. Its like a painter selecting another brush...

  4. I grade graduating portfolios at the school I attended some 15 years ago. I've noticed this as well. Shortcuts and sloppiness increased as digital took hold, and when the RA4 processor finally broke for good, that was it, 100% digital. The skill necessary to get it right in camera has been kicked to the curb, not by the faculty, but by the students because that's so old school.

    A perennial problem area now is the architecture section. It went from being required to shoot and present in 4x5 chrome to digital (the Wing Lynch eventually broke, and now it's pretty difficult to get tight turnaround on chrome). The result has been a rash of badly torqued buildings, horrible, fix it later lack of lighting and attention to detail, and when fix it later doesn't work, just make it B&W. They think we are stupid and have no idea why the B&W. And then we hit them hard. Oh well.

  5. Great post, I'm a current student. Nice to get your perspective. The skills I have learnt in wet darkroom, greatly enhanced the way I used Photoshop. I regularly meet photographers who shoot 1000's of frames and try to get lucky (esp. on fashion shoots). Iv met Photographers who shoot rubbish then spend hours editing. Its a different way of working, and some are very successful indeed! ....however I don't consider them photographers. Digital artists...graphic designers, yes. It definitely is very sloppy, if you consider yourself a 'photographer'. But forget labels, the point is we must all remember to use software and equipment as tools and stay in control. I am currently using film, purely to slow me down and get in to habit of engaging brain and shutter finger. The improvement in successful shots when I now move in-between digital and film is apparent.

  6. At college (just pre-photoshop by a year) we weren't so much 'taught' technique (beyond certain neccessary basics) or vision, but encouraged to relentlessly pursue them ourselves and ask LOTS of questions. In other words help in developing our own vision and aquiring the tools and skills to realise it. As well as learning how to make images and stories, I learned how to print to a high standard - essential in my view to carrying the process all the way or instructing others in finishing my work.

    I learned photoshop much the same way; trial and error, one or two books and a huge amount of time. My photoshop work is inevitably a continuation of my darkroom technique, with a few tweaks. Now I use no more than 3 imaging programs regularly.

    Probably the most important thing I was taught at college was this, from one particularly good lecturer: know what you will end up with when you frame the shot and press the shutter. How will you print or process it? You have to do this in split second or you are essentially fixing mistakes thereafter, and no amount of software will solve your "it doesn't look how I imagined" dilemma. But learn, above all, that if your image has no burning passion and conviction when you press the button, or if it doesn't fit the theme of your narrative, it never will.

    So show them the tools; the software, the darkroom, the formats and say "what do you want to say", and those who really burn to be heard will develop their own way of using the tools they need, without being told the "right" way to use 18 imaging programs, just as I learned to use BW paper, and a condenser, rather than diffuser, enlarger.

  7. Boy did you hit the nail on the head! I look at photographs today in which many are pretty cool but the first thing I notice is the excessive use of photoshop and plug-in software. While I understand the use of all of these to rapidly crank out weddings it still disturbs me a bit as I find that the basics of good photography seem to be missing. The simple, well shot, well composed, well lit image seems to be a thing of the past in general. If one isn't applying all of these techniques to an image then the image is dismissed. I ask what happened to "capturing the moment", "a simple image speaks a 1000 words". Many seem so unemotional and although 3D in appearance are very flat in emotion.

    I find photoshop and some lightroom plug-ins useful in creating a more fine art image (I try to stick to things that could have been replicated in the darkroom) but further than that the images become paintings or a new type of art v. photographs. While I really do appreciate some of the fine work I see out there utilizing software I do believe that if we want to see true photography not disappear the educational system should consider reviewing portfolios prior to entrance into a photographic degree program. If one does not have the "eye", creative ability to see and connection required with a subject then all the software in the world is not going to make a good photographer. Teach camera and lighting technique, not creativity as I don't believe that can be taught and certainly don't push using software to give the illusion of a good photograph to replace basic creative skills and talent.

    But let me add one other thought. This problem doesn't seem to be strictly with photography. Movies, fine art exhibitions, advertising, politics, everything these days seems to be emotionless...I mean true, gut emotions are missing. Today everything seems to be heading towards a facade, a pretty face hiding the real inside that most seem reticent to expose. So I wonder if this is something that is not going away because so many viewers/buyers of photography have not explored or experienced the depth of soul and who we are. Does this make sense? It seems that everyone out there wants to be and look perfect, rejecting the inherent beauty within.

    Thus enters excessive photoshop and perfection. Just a thought!

  8. These are all great comments from what appear to be photographers directed by vision. I'm a photographer trying to find customers in N-E Ohio. I do my best to "create" well composed/lighted images for my clients. Problem - the market thinks technology makes one a photographer.

    Anyone with a "big" camera and a "big" lens is viewed as a pro photographer. In addition, the owners of "Big" cameras and "Big" lenses sell themselves for little money. Because their customer may not recognized a good photo from a bad one, they think they're doing their friends a favor by refering them to a cheap picture taker.

    I guess it's a sign of the times - technology, not art!

  9. Great Article Wayne!

    I am starting out in the photography world and was shocked to go to a photo group meeting where all they talked about was expensive equipment. All of my photographs are taken with a canon point and click and not many understood that it's the picture you take, not the software you use. I don't use photoshop or lightroom, either. I wrote about that day and about camera equipment I use here:

    You and your readers might understand where I am coming from.
    Thank you for the great post!

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