Photography Student? Here is Some Advice from Teachers

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Are you currently a photography student? Are you enrolled in high school, college, or graduate-level photography classes this fall? Here is some unsolicited advice from professional photographic educators to take with you into the classroom or out into the field.

1. “It is totally natural to emulate other photographers who you admire as you start your journey with the medium of photography, but the sooner you can begin to make unique photographs that reflect what you are genuinely interested in, the more rewarding your journey will be. Be vulnerable, take risks with the “rules” of composition and exposure, but above all, make photographs that mean something, to you, to your subjects, and hopefully, to the world.” — Amanda Dahlgren, Grossmont College; El Cajon, California

2. “Understand that art school is a strange, brief time in which you subject yourself to endless differing viewpoints. Embrace that aspect of it. Try it all out, and muster as much enthusiasm as you can for that genre that you have disdain for—you’re in a dressing room trying everything on. You have your whole rest of your career to be opinionated and focus in on your One Thing. But I promise, open-mindedness now, and really trying in all areas, will beautifully inform what you end up doing in the long run, likely in beautiful and unexpected ways. It gives you a much more robust understanding of the larger photography landscape.” — Kris Davidson, Academy of Art University; San Francisco, California

3. “Be present and come with an open mind. While photography's foundation is technical—evolving through critical thinking and problem solving is a process. Learning to create depth in photographs through visual storytelling is a process defined through the powerful process of creation and critique. Be patient. Turn off social media, spend some time in your own head. Listen to others—fixate on an idea, concept or cause—rather than technical lighting diagrams, Photoshop treatments, and social media. Create content that is meaningful to you. Depth and substance over the slick façade.” — Christopher Kern, California Baptist University – College of Architecture, Visual Arts, and Design; Riverside, California

4. “Pace yourself, work hard, and persist. When you think you’ve hit your wall, that’s when the work truly begins and that’s when you learn the most, reap the most reward, and thrive for the long haul. Also, do yourself the favor of truly digging deeply into and learning the fundamentals. Use the camera as only one of several tools toward creating your voice. Draw from your past and use that uniqueness to contribute to the world rather than consume.” — Chris Pinchbeck, Academy of Art University; San Francisco, California; and Brooks Institute of Photography; Ventura, California

5. “Make mistakes. You will learn more from failure than from success. Try everything—portrait, still life, landscape—shoot your family, your friends, document your unique time in history. Experiment with the medium, shoot film, mess up, keep at it. It's a remarkable time in history to be a photographer. Use the language of photography to make change. If you shoot what is within your world and life, it is uniquely yours—no one can steal that. This isn't a race—it's about the journey. Make it joyful, inclusive, and meaningful. And reach out to other photographers—make your world bigger!” — Aline Smithson, Los Angeles Center of Photography; Los Angeles, California

6. “Pay attention, and be present. Use the time you have in front of your teachers as best you can; you are learning from people with experience, so take advantage of their knowledge and expertise. If you are studying online, schedule yourself the time, but also pick the brain of your Instructor whenever possible. Read ALL the responses, not just yours. The little tidbits that you can pick up along the way will serve you well in a career. Keep your mind open to both the technical and the creative, as the two make you the best accomplished photographer you can be.” — Andrea Millette, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Houston Community College; Houston, Texas

7. “Don’t run out and spend a ton of money buying loads of random lenses and equipment. Learn how your camera works and what you want to do with it and get creative with it. It doesn’t matter how great your vision is if you can’t capture it correctly. Once you have a vision and passion, then decide what equipment you want to invest in.” — Jessica Murga, Carl Goetz Middle School; Jackson, New Jersey; and Ocean Community College; Toms River, New Jersey

8. “Do the work and do not be afraid to ask questions. Students are in class to learn, they are not expected to know everything and should not be afraid to ask. I often find that one question can stir quite a bit of conversation. In any circumstance, do not be afraid to speak directly to your instructors. Trust me, we want you to succeed.” — Tim Arroyo, International Academy of Design & Technology; Chicago, Illinois

9. “The most meaningful work you make will come when you are in an unsafe place, when you are vulnerable. No matter the genre, tell your own story—make it be about something rather than of something.” — Trace Nichols, Academy of Art University; San Francisco, California

10. “Photography is an art and a trade. Many learn the art to some extent, but most don’t learn the trade. They buy a camera, have a decent eye for composition, and declare themselves photographers. Then they stop learning. After over 20 years working as a professional photographer, I’m still learning every day. If you want to truly succeed in this field, you must never stop being a student.” — Clint Saunders, Dakota College at Bottineau; Bottineau, North Dakota

11. “Make a plan for your future as a professional a key part of your educational experience, so that you have some kind of a foundation to build on (or pivot from) once you graduate. It seemed like many of my students had a difficult time projecting beyond (and/or did not want to reach beyond) their current student status, and to fully invest in their future as image makers. While I understand and appreciate the fact that, as students, money and time are often overwhelming concerns, I found that, when faced with a situation that involved monetary or time-based commitments, many students would pass it off as being out of their league or too much to ask, rather than seriously evaluating how they could embrace the given challenge and somehow incorporate it as an investment in their future career.” —Jill Waterman, CUNY College of Staten Island; New York, New York

12. “Take risks and don’t be afraid to fail. You are likely to learn much more, and propel further ahead creatively, by studying what didn’t work than from taking comfort in the safe successes.” — Tamara Hubbard, Academy of Art University; San Francisco, California

13. "Get over the notion that doing commercial work is “selling out” and that you can’t be an artist if you do assignment work. Also, work as an assistant for a variety of different photographers.” — Lance Keimig, New England School of Photography; Waltham, Massachusetts

14. “If your instructor shows you examples of previous student’s work, DO NOT immediately assume that this is exactly what the instructor is looking for. You’re in school to learn. You’re also there to learn to find your own voice. Learn to identify your own personal vision. If you are given rules or guidelines to work within for an assignment, it is important to follow them. Remember to explore the outside edges of the box. But DO NOT, and I repeat—DO NOT do assignments based on what you think your instructor may want. Or what you think may earn you a good grade.” — André Hermann, Houston Community College; Houston, Texas

Twelve Tips from Todd

1. Push Yourself — Regardless of whether you are taking photography to get needed credits, or are passionate about becoming a photographer, you should push yourself artistically and creatively for each and every assignment and have fun doing the assignments.

2. Experiment — School is the safest place to experiment with your photography and be creative—so create photos that you might not usually find yourself taking. Get out of your comfort zone and push your photography in a new direction.

3. No Snapshots — Don’t take a last-minute snapshot on campus or grab a right-before-deadline portrait of your college roommate standing in your dorm room. Make images that you are proud to share with friends and family and social media that show that you are serious about the art and not just trying to get credit for the assignment. Teachers can easily tell when you are working hard and when you “mail it in.”

4. It Shouldn’t Be Work — There is “homework” and there are “photography assignments.” The two are very different. Photography should never feel like “work.” Creating should always be fun, even when it is challenging. If you aren’t having fun as a photography student, then you might want to find a different type of class.

5. The Card — Play the “Student Card.” By telling someone that you are a photography student, you can often get access to places that other photographers can’t, find bigger smiles and better poses from strangers, get deals on gear and software, and communicate with photographers you respect. In school, I contacted many photographers whom I admired. Without fail, they were all generous with their replies and time. That effort has even led to long-term friendships. Take advantage of the benefits of being a student.

6. Professionalism — Pay attention to the details of an assignment, as well as the syllabus, due dates, technical requirements, administrative stuff, etc. Get your assignments in on time, every time. Being professional opens doors later in life and helps keep them open. Start now by being a professional student and keep up the pace after graduation.

7. Proper English — Using proper grammar and spelling is a key to success in school and in your professional life. (My Copy Editor is likely shaking his head and rolling his eyes at this moment.) Regardless of your education level, you need to clearly articulate what you are trying to convey. A photo is worth 1,000 words, but if those words are illegible, or written as if you were sending your friend a shorthand text message, you’ve lost your audience. Whenever you post comments, email your teacher, or communicate with other students through writing, make that writing as professional as you can.

8. Critiques I — Peer (and instructor) critiques are where real learning takes place. There is a Golden Rule regarding critiques: if you want to get in-depth feedback on your images, then you should also give in-depth feedback on your classmate’s images. Do not drop a critique for a classmate that says, “Nice shot.” No one benefits from that type of feedback. Be thorough in your critiques and hope you get the same in return. Also, be sure to reply to every critique diplomatically, if needed. Keep the conversation going.

9. Critiques II — If you love the image, tell your classmate why you love it but also analyze it closely and see where you think they could improve it. Even the best images can be improved. Vice versa, if an image doesn’t work for you, tell your classmate how you think they can improve the image, but also mention what you might like about it, as well. Never be 100% negative. Again, diplomacy.

10. Critiques III — Monday-morning quarterbacking photos might seem pointless because we are talking about photos that have already been captured. But there is value and learning in both giving and receiving critiques. Analyzing your classmates’ images can make you aware of things to apply to your own images. And the goal of received feedback is to give you things to think about the next time you are creating images.

11. Technical — The sooner you can get past the technical hurdles of photography, the sooner you can focus on composition, capturing a moment in time, or controlling the camera to capture images that match your vision. Do not be afraid to ask your teacher about the technical so that you can learn it and move forward. You need not know everything technical, just learn what you need to get the photos you want.

12. Seeing — A Kodak book, The Art of Seeing, reads, “Seldom does a photograph succeed because of unusual technique or exotic equipment. It succeeds for one reason. Because the photograph was well seen.” Learn seeing. Practice seeing (even when you don’t have a camera in hand). Look for photographs all the time. And, when it comes time to do assignments for class, take photographs that were well seen. — Todd Vorenkamp, Dakota College at Bottineau; Bottineau, North Dakota.

Are you an educator or a student? What tips would you like to share? Sound off in the Comments section, below!

2 Comments

Photography is not about cameras, its about looking. The French have a word for it, Flâneur: a person who saunters around observing society. The decisions you make before you lift the camera to the eye decides what your content looks like, not your camera. Spend time studying the history and aesthetics of the medium. Read every word John Szarkowski wrote. Especially “Looking At Photographs,“ and go into the streets with an educated eye. Craig Carlson, School of Art & Design, San Diego State University.

”… you can’t say more than you see, and there are not so many people who see very much“ … Henry David Thoreau

Sage advice, Craig. Thank you!

I appreciate the education, the quotes, and you taking the time to comment. Excellent stuff!

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