How To Learn Photography
by William Lulow
People often ask me how I got started in photography. The first answer I always give is that I was fascinated with the process of making pictures. I loved the equipment, the lighting, the results and even the process. Back in the days of chemical darkrooms, I used to love even the smell of the darkroom! There seemed to be something in the idea of making images that just appealed to me. I also found that I had a natural ability to deal with equipment, to understand how light stands worked, how the shutter worked with the lens aperture to control light – I was technically adept at using the types of equipment needed to make pictures.
Next, once I decided to make a career of it, I set about learning everything I could about photography. I went to my local camera shop and sometimes, just hung around looking at the books and pamphlets. I would then ask the store owners about pieces of equipment they recommended.
Then, I went to a local photographer and asked him if he would be interested in looking at some of the photos I had done. He agreed and then proceeded to criticize them and finally said, “Let me show you how to really make good prints!” This was his nice way of saying that my prints weren’t of sufficient quality. Well, swallowing some pride, I listened to him and finally was able to make some “professional quality” prints. No blocked highlights, detail in the shadows, and I began to understand more about the process.
After beginning this way, one of my early purchases was the complete set of the TIME/LIFE BOOKS on PHOTOGRAPHY. I read each and every volume cover-to-cover many times over. Even though these volumes are outdated, they are rich in the history and technique of image making. They are still great places to start learning about photography in general. Don’t forget, the entire digital revolution was taken from older aspects of photography. When Adobe was creating Photoshop, they first consulted with established photographers so that they had a better idea of what kinds of tools to incorporate into their program. There is really not that much difference in the idea of how a camera controls light. It’s just that the tools are so much more sophisticated now.
My next step was to work with several successful studio photographers (including the famous Life Magazine cover photographer, Philippe Halsman). These were jobs I was paid for (not a work-for-free “internship.”) At each studio I learned more about the photographic process. I had achieved a high degree of darkroom expertise by this time, so I had a marketable skill.
Today’s young photographers need to be familiar with various types of lighting equipment as well as a number of digital cameras, lenses and how they work before offering their assisting services. In addition, you now need to have some computer skills (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) with studio software that photographers use every day. So, workshops, classes and just plain practice with your own equipment has become more important. There are still assistant jobs out there, but you have to be persistent until one of those becomes available. Then, you have to stick with it long enough to learn what that photographer can teach you.
Of course, there is really no substitute for experience. You need to see, first hand, by actually using the camera and the software, what it can do, how it all works together to produce an image and what each piece of equipment does. The best advice after reading as much as you can, is to go out and practice. Shoot lots of images and continue experimenting with software until you develop your own sense of style. You will also develop the ability to produce professional results every time.