Teaching Photography

by William Lulow

There is an old adage of sorts that says something like, “Those who can, do and those who can’t do, teach!” Well, as a long time teacher of photography, I’d like to quarrel with this! I have met many “doers” in my career who thought they could teach, but who turned out to be lousy teachers! There’s a world of difference between the “doers” and the “teachers.” It doesn’t mean that doers can’t teach, but those who are trained teachers usually know what’s involved in teaching. Doers don’t always know how to teach!

Many practitioners in whatever field it might be, often have learned their strategies for success by a combination of good education, proper on-the-job training and a certain sense of intuition about what “works” in their fields. And, of course a good helping of plain old luck!  Photography is certainly no different than others when it comes to figuring out how to become a success. Sometimes it’s who you know. Often it’s what you know. And most always, it’s how you use the combination.

Because someone has a recognized name doesn’t always mean that they’d be a great teacher. I took a class with an extremely well-known, and respected photographer who hadn’t even a vague notion of how to teach what he knew. His assignments were haphazard and not directed at teaching to the point. Although he was a great photographer, he really couldn’t teach. I see now that the famous photographer Annie Liebovitz has offered her expertise to those willing to pay for it. I certainly don’t pretend to know whether or not she’s a good teacher. But my instincts tell me that without a knowledge of how to teach effectively, you won’t be effective! But, her name will certainly generate a buzz.

There are several fine points to the art of teaching something:

  • Students generally learn better and faster by experience. The more “hands on” experience, the better.
  • Students learn better when lessons are developed and actually progress from a “beginning” to an “end”. This usually means that some kind of curriculum or plan for lessons is developed and shared. This also can’t be done “on the fly.” It has to be set up, and it takes time and careful planning to do it.
  • Photography students learn better when assignments are objective, that is, they have a specific goal that can be assessed objectively. “Critiquing” photographs is not teaching. Offering “portfolio reviews” is also just one person’s take on your work.  One person’s point of view is just that! It really doesn’t teach you much, usually.
  • Photography students learn better when they are taught on equipment with which they have become familiar. This means that they need to purchase their own “tools.” This kind of thing is not for the casual learner or someone wishing to get “additional information.”
  • Students learn at different paces. So, giving out a ton of information all at once is not teaching. You have to ensure that students have time to digest any and all information you give them. This is best done with practice and trying a new technique until it is mastered. This also requires time, which means a semester or several classes strung together with additional time in between classes to practice. You can get a lot of information in a six-hour workshop, but then you need to go out and digest what you learned by doing it over many times.

So, because you’re well-known in your field. in and of itself,  doesn’t make you a great teacher. Like anything else, learning how to teach, practicing the art and observing the results, makes for excellent teaching.

If you want to learn about photography, find someone who has been teaching it for a long time at various institutions. Great practitioners don’t always make the greatest teachers!

(Above, student learning some of the principles of umbrella lighting in her own home studio).

(Me, making a presentation to a camera club audience about learning to “see” photographically).

(Lighting diagram showing camera and position of lights.)

Informative books I always give out during workshops so that students can study them on their own time.