A Fun Venue for Learning Two Very Different Ways to Photograph Well. My review of two online courses.

One of the book cover illustrations for the soon to be launched novel, The Lisbon Portfolio. 
"Henry White" shooting with his Nikon and a 55 mm lens.

I've been doing this photography thing for a long time and I've come to realize that, like it or not, even photographers who describe themselves as generalists start settling into a groove over time. The groove is probably created by a combination of two factors: subject matter the photographer likes to shoot. And, subject matter that the photographer is good at shooting. As an example, when I started out my career I had a run of maybe six or seven years where a good percentage of my photography work revolved around using a 4x5 view camera to shoot interior and exterior photographs of architecture. The subjects included office buildings, factories, custom homes and even tract homes. I learned how to balance interior and exterior light and I learned how to use the rises and falls and tilts and swings of my view camera so well that it became second nature. 

But over time I found that while I was "good" at shooting architecture I wasn't passionate about it and so the people who were driven by their love and passion for architectural style and design were better than me. Additionally, while I liked the money that seemed to flow in freely I really wasn't inspired or particularly happy about shooting interior and exterior spaces. Unless the designs were really breath taking I found most of the work to be boring. Once you've practiced the skill set over and over again you really do remove a lot of the accidental but exciting stuff that makes any project more interesting. 

On the other hand I never get tired of bringing someone into the studio, lighting them and trying to make the best portrait possible. Because of the nature of portraiture it requires collaboration. It requires building an interpersonal understanding of some shared objective. And, to a certain extent, it requires mastering yourself so that you don't tip the scale too far in favor of the artist and out of favor for the sitter. Simply put, for a sitter to feel comfortable they need both physical space and emotional space. Too controlling a portraitist creates either an ambivalent or even hostile subject. Not the right mix for a revealing portrait. 

One major problem for photographers who've spent decades doing their photography is that we get locked in on certain things and we either don't recognize the need to change or don't have the tools to effect change by ourselves. Creating a new perspective is scary because we sometimes have to leave the things we know with certain assurance behind and, in a way, start over as  beginners. We have to get over our expertise when it becomes a boat anchor around our necks and we're wading out into deeper water...

I've found that I can learn from watching other photographers do things in different ways than me. Most of the stuff I find to watch on the web is a regurgitation of the same styles and points of view that we already have. We're watching videos by students of the students of the students of the originators of the discussions, who themselves were students of previous masters. There are millions of YouTube videos about "off camera" flash. Most are plainly derivative of the things David Hobby talked about and showed during the first five years of Strobist.com. David's work on Strobist.com (and the flash work of most newspaper photographers who got their start in the 1990's) is based on the work of people like Jon Falk, whose book, Adventures in Location Lighting, covered everything from the use of optical and radio slaves on small flashes to the construction and use of external batteries that could be used with consumer flash equipment.

Every once in a while I find something useful. It's usually a short interview with someone like Albert Watson or Nick Knight which ends up being inspirational but doesn't really move my craft, technique and overall point of view in one direction or another. 

But recently I decided to move past my own ego and look at some of the other photography courses on the www.craftsy.com platform. I have three of my own classes there right now. One is a free, more or less introductory course on photographing the day to day life of families. Launched last Fall the free class has played host to over 60,000 students.

I decided to look around and find some stuff I could watch that might be so different from the way I operate, both the way I see and the way I shoot, that it might budge me out of my complacency and change the course of my own "rut." 

The first course I found was this one by George Lange: George Lange's Course on about having more fun with photography.

George is a wonderful photographer, a former assistant of Annie Leibovitz, and the antithesis of me. He uses the latest, full frame, high ISO capable cameras to craft a style that doesn't depend (at all!!!) on using flash or supplemental light. But he gets great results and the rejection of lights for his personal work allows him to really concentrate on pulling emotion out of people and to enhance his awareness and appreciation of beautiful available light. For me his video course is all about the absolute JOY of photography. George seems to draw sustenance from each encounter with friends and family. 

I watched the course and I came away thinking of how much I need to free myself from my own need to control. (My favorite quote about control came from Stephen Pressfield's book, The Last Campaign. Alexander the Great's entourage, in an encounter with Indian holy men, asks them: "Alexander has conquered all the known world, what have you done?" and one of the holy men answers, "I have conquered my NEED to conquer the world.")

I found myself needing to control every aspect of a photograph, from the lighting and composition right down to the expression on a face. George is there to goad happiness from people and to capture the moment when they let go and really smile. I had a blast watching the whole course and would suggest it to anyone who thinks their work has gotten stale.....

The second course I found was one by long time photo book author and photographer, Chris Grey. It's the opposite extreme. It's a course on lighting products for clients. Something else I've done often in the last two or so decades but about which I could always learn more. When doing something complex, like product lighting and shooting, a nice refresher course is always welcome because a life spent mostly photographing interesting people is apt to make my other imaging skills a bit stiff and rusty. 

His course on Product Lighting and Photography walked me back through the process in a very logical, step by step approach which is coupled with his deep knowledge reservoir of facts and experience. Chris is good at explaining stuff. This video may not be "exciting" for a hobbyist who has no intention of doing still life work for business but it's a great review for me. In fact, I cued it up specifically because I'll be shooting new technology components for a client this week and if I walk away with three or four new ways to more efficiently and effectively do my work I'll be grateful. 

Head over to Craftsy.com and take a look. The things that make their course worthwhile to me are: There is a money back guarantee. You don't like a course? Let them know and they'll refund your money. If you buy a course and you like it then it's yours to keep forever. You can go back and review it again and again. The other thing I like about the Craftsy model of instruction is that part of being an instructor is the responsibility to respond to and answer questions from students in the online forum connected to each class. If you don't understand something the instructor is showing you can directly query him, even give him the time stamp from the part of the program you have questions about, and he or she will post an answer for you. 

Between Lynda.com and Craftsy.com you could put together a pretty good introductory education about most digital arts and crafts. Anyway, that's what I did after breakfast this morning. I watched Chris explain the technical nuts and bolts of lighting. The refresher made me feel a bit more confident about an upcoming, on location, product shoot. And that's exactly what I wanted.