I turned 70 this year and realized I had been making photographs for 45 years. Of everything I’ve learned during this time, the most important is realizing how little I really know. I consider myself a pretty good photographer, but not a week goes by where I discover some new detail that makes my work, and my vision, just a little bit better.
But how does one learn and continue to learn throughout one’s career? After all, most of us are trying to earn a living and support ourselves, which leaves very little time for school. There must be another way.
I never studied photography formally, but I’ve managed to learn more than I could have imagined without stepping foot in a classroom. Here’s how.
Embrace the Future
Technology is always changing things, and if you stick to your old-fashioned way of doing things you’ll never have the chance to improve. For instance, you might still like shooting film, but your reason for doing so should have something to do with the quality of the image you’re after, not because you’re afraid to learn a new technology.
I still know some people who are proud of the fact that they don’t have a computer and don’t think they need one. I feel sorry for them. They’re not giving themselves a chance to learn anything new.
When I shot color film and sent it to a lab, I never liked the way they printed my negatives. When I started shooting digital, I had complete control over how I printed my color photos. If I had stuck with film, this wouldn’t have happened.
Whether I use color or black and white, I can darken or lighten the most delicate of details at will, something I never could have done with film. I can also change the contrast and saturation of those details very accurately and selectively and see the results of those changes immediately. Again, this wasn’t possible with film.
There are an ever-increasing number of professional workshops available to the public. They’re promoted online, they take place around the world the world, and they’re relatively inexpensive. Not only that, but the demise of printed photographs in magazines and newspapers means that some of the best photographers on this planet don’t have the business that they used to. In order to maintain their income, they’re now spending a lot of their time giving these workshops.
It doesn’t matter how long you have been a practicing professional, you’ll always learn something new at these workshops. I have rarely spoken to any photographer, famous or otherwise, who has failed to give me some piece of advice. Sometimes the simplest statements can be the most helpful.
The Internet is a vast library of technical and visual information. I love looking at other work on my computer, and although a lot of it doesn’t interest me, there’s always something to see. Sometimes I look at a photograph and wonder how it was made, what the photographer did to get that rich tone, how long he waited for the subjects in his frame to align, or how he exposed the image. With enough research, you can always find these answers online.
These days, if you need information, all you have to do is ask. Reach out to photographers on Facebook or Twitter or send a direct email. In some cases your queries might be ignored because these people are flooded with correspondence, but don’t give up. I’ve heard stories of well-know photographers answering emails and even picking up the phone and helping those on the other end. It happens.
Think of your favorite photographers. They might be from different countries, different centuries, or different shooting styles, but I bet they all have one thing in common: the desire to continue growing their photography skills through working and learning. They knew that they couldn’t remain static if their best photographs were still ahead of them. Neither can you.