How To Teach Photography

by William Lulow

As a long time teacher, I’ve come to expect that teachers should share information of a “How To” nature with their students. It’s not enough for a teacher to say “This is how I did this particular photograph” without explaining the actual reasons for what they did. For example: if you have photographed a famous person, it wouldn’t be sufficient to say that you set up your lights in a certain position without explaining why you did it that way. You need to give the student information as to what you were trying to achieve with a given photograph. Students of photography shouldn’t be satisfied with cursory explanations of what you did with a famous subject. The problem is that most students of photography are “wowed” by an iconic photograph and are sometimes impressed that they are in the same room with the person who made that photograph. But that doesn’t suffice as a “teaching moment.”

I was attending a seminar given by a fairly well-known (though by no means “famous”) photographer who was actually giving information on why he was using the equipment he did. An audience member asked how the photographer got the assignment in the first place. That is indicative of what so many students really want to know. The speaker’s response was something like: Well, you have to use your contacts. You have to practice your mechanics. You have to get yourself out there and network. These are all things that we already know. This is not giving students any new information. But, even if you explained how you got a particular job, students will have to go out and get their own jobs anyway.

My point is that no two photographers will photograph the same subject in the same way. That is why I have continued to teach technique and explain why I used lights in a particular way. Or why I used a particular lens or other technique. As a teacher of anything, your goal should be to impart some knowledge of a particular subject. It’s not giving away a “trade secret.” It’s helping to raise the students’ awareness of the kinds of techniques that are required for success in the industry.

Here is a photograph I made early in my career of Ira Levin, the well-known writer of such novels as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Boys From Brazil” among others. I was given the assignment by Random House after having shown them a portfolio of portraits I had done. I had done some research about Mr. Levin and discovered, among other things, the kind of wine he liked. I had read “Boys From Brazil” before our photo session, so I knew what the book was about. I had decided ahead of time, what kind of photograph I wanted to make. Mr. Levin was a writer of mysterious and sometimes rather macabre novels. So, I wanted a photograph to help illustrate this. I actually used my 4×5 view camera to make the shots. I didn’t want to make a “head shot,” but I wanted instead a shot that would be more in keeping with my take on his personality. I set up and posed the shot to reveal just that. We shared some of wine when he first arrived at my studio to try to break the ice. I was a bit nervous at first because this was one of my first “famous people” shots. But as we talked and got to know each other, everything went smoothly.

Here is the result: