Notes from the VisCom Classroom: What Makes a Course “Advanced”?

I’m in the process of designing my syllabus for a course at the University of South Carolina called Advanced Photovisual Communications, which I will teach for the first time this fall. This is the successor to Photovisual Communications, a beginning-level skills course, which I have taught for two semesters. (Elsewhere, I have taught beginning photography, advanced photography, stock photography, and photography business practices.)

The emphasis in the advanced course, in the words of the course description, is for the students to create “professional, portfolio-quality” images for mass-media use. Because the beginning course is a prerequisite for the advanced course, my challenge is to develop a syllabus that will provide the students with assignments, course materials, exams, and class discussions that are new and different from what they previously encountered in the beginning course.

This challenge prompted me to think about what we mean when we say we are offering an advanced course — in what ways do we attempt to advance, i.e., move forward? Traditionally, skills-based photography classes are designed to progress in a step-by-step fashion, introducing students to increasingly more sophisticated tools and techniques, and then having them practice by shooting assignments and participating in critiques. This step-by-step process is often used within a single course, from week to week, and also in the sequence of offered courses, from beginning to advanced.

For example, whereas students in a beginning course might produce available-light portraits as one of their assignments, students in an advanced course might produce studio portraits with artificial light, such as might be seen in advertisements or annual reports. This idea of progression has led to development of what might be called theme- or assignment-based courses, in which students progress from simple to more complex assignments, generally based around specific fields of photography, such as portraits, advertising, fashion, photojournalism, sports action, nature, landscape, etc.

When I started to think about the difference between beginning and advanced photography courses, I approached the problem from a slightly different angle. For me, the key concept in thinking about what makes a course beginning or advanced is the concept of control. In the case of photography, this means control over the tools, the media, and the processes involved in producing professional, portfolio-quality images. In any skills-based enterprise, the learning curve usually starts at a very low level of control and moves to a very high level.

This is true whether you are learning to make photographs or build a house. In order to succeed, you must master all the elements that go into making the finished product. Beginners typically spend a lot of time learning such mastery, but by the time someone has reached the professional level, such mastery is (or should be) second nature. Photography, being both an art and a craft, requires not only technical mastery but artistic mastery as well.

So how does this concept of control apply to my students and the syllabus I am designing? In the beginning course, Photovisual Communications, most of the students have point-and-shoot digital cameras. Some have taken previous photography courses but many have not. Only a few have dreams of becoming professional photographers — the rest hope to have careers in fields that use professional photography, such as advertising, graphic design, public relations, and corporate communications. These students, then, have very little control over the tools and techniques of photography.

In fact, despite being at the mercy of their point-and-shoot cameras with pop-up flashes, many still manage to produce exciting, provocative images — which is a testament to their ideas and visions rather than their mastery of the medium. Given the obvious limitations of the equipment, the goal of the beginning course is to expand the students’ horizons, to get them thinking about making, rather than taking, photographs, and to expose them to the critique process, so they can learn to analyze and think critically about images.

In Advanced Photovisual Communications, the students are expected to have a digital SLR camera with several lenses, an auxiliary flash, and a tripod (if not, they can borrow the equipment from the university for the semester). So in this course, it is possible to talk about control in a meaningful way. In fact, I’ve decided to structure the course around the concept of control as it applies to various aspects of the photographic process.

For example, I will probably start by discussing with the students how they can control the image-capture process through various camera settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, focus, ISO, white balance, etc. We will also explore the controls available during image editing and printing. A big part of the course will be devoted to controlling light, because I happen to believe that this is really what separates amateur photographers from professionals. Control also comes into play when exploring photographic techniques such as composition, selective focus, and depth of field. I’m sure we’ll also talk about working with models and props — another form of control (or perhaps, in the case of models, we should say direction). Displaying photographs, licensing them for use, and protecting their copyright can all be discussed using the concept of control.

Because both the beginning and advanced courses rely heavily on assignments and critiques as the learning tools, I will have to develop assignments that help the students understand each of the different controls available to them. For example, a portrait or still-life assignment can be used to illustrate the concept of lighting control, whereas a landscape or architecture assignment would be a perfect way to stimulate a discussion about composition and depth of field.

So rather than base the course around assignments drawn from the various fields of photography — a still-life assignment here, a travel assignment there — I hope to use those fields to illustrate what I believe is the essential requirement for moving from beginning to advanced photography — the concept of control.

[tags]David Weintraub, advanced photography, teaching photography[/tags]

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