Do I need to study photography to be a good photographer?
One of the more divisive questions on any internet forum focused on photography is whether you need to study photography or get a formal education to be a good photographer. The answers you will see vary widely based heavily on the level of education of the photographer answering the question. Those who have a formal education (full disclosure – I do) tend to weigh heavily on the need for some professional training, especially in the realms of basic camera use, composition, and photoshop use. The other side of the spectrum (generalizing here) are YouTube educated, use one-click filters and have their egos stroked regularly by their family and friends telling them they are the best photographer they have ever seen.
The real answer to the question is: it depends. What do you want to get out of your photography? Are you looking to open a portrait studio? Do you want to make fine art images for art and wine festivals? Perhaps you just want to get better at vacation snapshots. Many of the forum lurkers come at their answer to the question based on what they want out of their photography. In my case, I was using the camera as a tool to capture the world around me day-to-day, this led me to rekindling my love of the still image and wanted to take my work in an artistic direction. I read everything I could about composition, but it wasn’t until I attended art classes and spent a significant time learning from mentors about composition that my images took on a very different direction. I found myself copying images from magazines and off YouTube, but not able to take my work to the next level or be successful in creating new non-derivative work. It took me years to learn how to see light and really understand how it works. This again was because of work form mentors and instructors who were helping me to see light in a different way. Because of my lack of sight, I had another level of difficulty added to my learning and had to create new ways of composing my work based on my remaining sight.
Am I saying you can’t be a good photographer without a formal education or training? Of course not. You can learn the basics and become advanced, but eventually you will hit a wall in terms of creativity. That is a generalization of course, because there are always prodigy-level people in every artform. Will you be the next Eddie Van Halen of the camera? Probably not. The worst part is that until you learn to look at other’s work and evaluate your own work effectively – you won’t know any better. I see this often when people spend a year learning photography and post something to a critique forum and get hammered by the mistakes they made in the image. That is not to say there isn’t an audience for every level of photography, but these people tend to get knocked down quite a few pegs on their first few forays into the critique forums. The most frustrating part is when they look at their work with a single speedlight and the compare it to the work of Annie Leibowitz or other high-level portrait shooter and don’t understand how their work is not as good as the high-end shooter’s work, because they don’t know how to evaluate the light, color etc.
So, what should you do? Give it all up? Sell your gear? Of course not. Take some classes, and above all else when you enter that classroom leave your ego at the door and listen to what others say about your work. Yes, you are a visionary and yes, your work can’t be compared to anything out there because everything you do is original. But give it a shot and try some of the suggestions people give about your work. I always suggest this type of critique in person rather than on the internet, because as we all know, there are lots of trolls out there who spend their day putting you and your work down. More times than not, these trolls are lurking in the forums, not producing any new work, not putting their work out there but commenting and bashing people’s work all day long. I always take online critiques with a grain of salt because you never know someone’s motive.
I am, as always willing to put my time where my mouth is, and if you would like to contact me to critique some work, I am always happy to help. I will give you an honest opinion without motive.
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