The Basics

You would think the nature of basic camera operations like aperture and shutter speed would be fundamental to teaching photography, but a surprising number of students, even college students who have had a photography class, know next to nothing about them.
You would think the nature of basic camera operations like aperture and shutter speed would be fundamental to teaching photography, but a surprising number of students, even college students who have had a photography class, know next to nothing about them.

My newspaper and I had another intern the last couple of weeks, a nice young college kid named Ashlynd. She is very enthusiastic about becoming a journalist, and we can already tell she’s going to be a good writer.

Ashlynd told me she didn’t much care for her college photography classes, echoing a number of students who came to me over the years needing help with very basic photographic skills, skills they should have gotten from previous instructors.

Yes, I understand that college is held to a different standard than other fields of instruction. At the same time, I wonder how college students get into photography classes without demonstrating some understanding of their prerequisites. I remember being vetted by an instructor in college before I was allowed to get into her class, though I don’t know how a lot of my classmates managed to get in.

Seriously. Students tell me all the time, “That professor didn’t tell me about aperture or shutter speed or ISO or…” You get the idea.

I appreciate the idea that the purpose of college is to educate at the next level, but I also appreciate that if you don’t learn the very basics, it’s difficult to advance. I also appreciate all the really great college photography instructors who can set aside their egos and cater to their students. The students and their families, after all, are paying for it.

Making a simple portrait of our neighbor's dog seems like very basic photography, but people come to me all the time asking me how I did it, and I'm happy to help them.
Making a simple portrait of our neighbor’s dog seems like very basic photography, but people come to me all the time asking me how I did it, and I’m happy to help them.

I’ve been teaching since 2007. When I teach Intro to Digital Photography at the Pontotoc Technology Center, I start at the beginning. That’s the only way it can work. Almost everyone in those classes is holding a camera that is set to shoot the way it was when they opened the box, attached a lens, charged the battery, and started shooting. In the biz we refer to this setting as “green box mode,” since most cameras have a big green box or icon on the exposure mode dial, often marked with an “A” or the word “Auto.” This setting essentially takes over almost all the settings, making a potentially powerful camera into a point-and-shoot.

Is there a solution to college kids who don’t get what they need from classes? Is there such a thing as remedial photography?

I’ll marry this idea to one I experienced in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2013. Oklahoman photographer Jim Beckel and I were photographing the historic plaza when we came across a group of photographers shooting with some very expensive, very new-looking equipment, who seemed to be struggling to express what they were seeing. They asked us to make a group photo for them when they told us they’d just taken a class from someone (I don’t remember his name or the name of the class or school.) They all rolled their eyes simultaneously, and one of them said, “He was quite a character!”

I hope no one I am instructing ever refers to me that way.

Finally, I am a firm believer that students who are having fun taking pictures are dramatically more likely to remain engaged, and retain more of the craft we are teaching.

A young photography student named Jennifer takes pictures in my class at the Pontotoc Technology Center a few years ago. I hope I gave her what she needed.
A young photography student named Jennifer takes pictures in my class at the Pontotoc Technology Center a few years ago. I hope I gave her what she needed.
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2 Comments

  1. Your class taught me everything I ever needed to know, not just about photography, but about the operation of the camera beyond the “green box.” I say this having spent more than 20 years around professional photographers before moving to Ada. Those photographers had zero interest in instructing or even sharing with anyone the fundamentals of cameras and photography; it was knowledge to be hoarded, I guess for egotistical reasons. Most of the photographers I have known, frankly, have been jerks who preferred everyone to think of their work as some magical, unknowable secret. So I appreciated your willingness to share and instruct and provide insights into the craft of photography. I wish everyone with the slightest interest in picking up a camera could take your class – and I don’t mean “a” photography course, I mean YOUR photography course.

    Having said that, I also came to your course willing to learn. I had bought my first DSLR and before making the purchase had determined that I was going to learn everything about it, every button, every dial, every mode. This I accomplished. So I think it also requires a certain willingness to set aside every bad piece of information I had ever picked up over the years, and re-learn things the right way. This is as much a requirement of education as anything.

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  2. Dan said: “Most of the photographers I have known, frankly, have been jerks who preferred everyone to think of their work as some magical, unknowable secret.”

    I felt like this often too. I had been handed a camera on my first week as a *writer* and was told to occasionally make photos for the newspaper. I had no idea what to do. It was a long road to figuring it all out for myself. Big-shot photographers often (1) looked at what I was holding, and (2) determined I wasn’t worth their time or pity.

    So even though I haven’t had your class, I appreciate what you’re doing. And what you have done on this blog (and earlier versions of it) — because even when I argued in ignorance I was still learning. 🙂

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