The best way to learn photography(?)

City PhotograhySince I gave up my old job and became a photographer I am rarely kept up at night worrying about something. This is because I am lucky enough to be doing something I enjoy and doing enough of it that it is paying my bills. However, I responded to a question on a social media group from someone calling out they were new to photography and were looking for ways to learn. In true internet forum style, everyone gave their responses and it soon led to the usual rubbishing of other people’s views and the poor original poster is now even more lost and confused than when they started and I had a shorter sleep than usual concerned for them.

So what is the right answer? Well, to be honest there isn’t one! End of blog post, thanks for reading. Of course, that isn’t the end of the post – there isn’t a right answer because every one of us is different and has different priorities. Instead, I thought it would be good to share a set of options that I am aware of and my view of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Before we go into the options though I thought it would be good to regurgitate something I learned in my old corporate days but is really pertinent to this topic. When we are starting something new we don’t know what we don’t know – let’s use the analogy of learning to drive and then apply this back to photography later.

Unconscious Incompetence

In this stage of learning you know you want to learn to drive but you have no idea of how to start the car or the fairly complicated procedure of changing gear, when to change gear, why you are changing gear, how to park etc. You are either going to deny that you need to learn to drive or you are going to start taking lessons or have someone show you what to do. This then takes you into the next stage of learning.

Conscious Incompetence

You’ve had a few lessons and are now bombarded with all this information. You can guarantee that you’ll have a few stalls at traffic lights and it all becomes over-whelming. You kind of get the things you need to do but actually doing them is a struggle so you either decide that driving isn’t for you and buses are pretty good or you practice more and reach the next stage of development.

Conscious Competence

It’s driving test day and you’ve had weeks of practice and now someone is going to spend 45 minutes in the car with you after you sit a theory test and you are going to show them that you can drive. You’ll be concentrating so hard to prove that the things you have learned are demonstrable by you. You know what you are doing and you have to think hard every time you do it to make sure it’s right.

Unconscious Competence

Nirvana! Well not quite. You’ve been driving a couple of years and doing 10,000 miles a year, never had an accident. You’re now not needing to think about how you are driving, it is has become instinctive. There are dangers at this level that you become so used to not thinking you don’t concentrate and so it’s always worth taking yourself back to an earlier development stage and refreshing now and again.

OK, so that’s the theory – lots of words and hopefully you aren’t too bored and have kept with me. So how does that relate to the tools for learning? I’m going to look at a few of the responses to the post that got me thinking about this and you can decided yourself where things fit.

Online Articles

The internet is amazing, so much information that it is hard to imagine that you can’t find anything with a Google search or two. There are some terrific resources out there, Lynda, Kelby One, Creative Live and Phlearn are all great examples of sites that have comprehensive and reliable videos to watch.

If you know what you are looking for then you can find free videos that will get you the information you know you need but what if you are so new that you don’t know what to search for? Unconscious Incompetence – it’s going to take you a while to find what you think you need and the downside of the internet is anyone can post anything (look I have done it overnight for this article!) and it may be totally wrong – just as there are many great resources such as the ones mentioned earlier, there are just as many band and frankly wrong videos that you can watch.

The other consideration of online is that it is a one-way process. You can’t ask questions and get an immediate answer unless you are paying for the live courses and your answer is picked from the many going up on the message board.

Finally you are, by necessity, sat in front of your computer learning so if you want to then apply the knowledge you need to be able to retain that knowledge to put it into practice – imagine if you were told to learn how to drive online and then be given the keys to a car and to do everything you have just been shown what to do?

Workshops and Tours

There are quite a number of photographers who supplement their incomes by providing a workshop session to photographers that allow them share their knowledge with people willing to pay. The advantage of this is that there is a two way process involved here – you can ask a question and you’ll get an immediate response. Good workshops will usually use a teaching process similar to the ones that you have probably seen when you have attended a training course in your own job – tell, show, observe, review – where you are told how to do something, give an example, let the learner do it for themselves and review how thy did it.

There are things to be aware of here too. Anyone can set up a website and say they teach photography, you don’t need a licence to be able to do this so how do you know if what they teach is any good? Check the quality of their own photography, try and find reviews of other people that have attended.

This isn’t going to be a magic bullet solution, you won’t attend one of these sessions and instantly become the next Ansel Adams. You will need to put into practice your learning from these sessions so ask the workshop if you get any post-learning support or if they toss you back into the world after they have given you your allotted time.

Online Courses

I have never tried this option so I will limit my views on them. You will often see discounted courses that allow you to become a pro-photographer in just 10 weeks, usual price £499 now only £50 and at the end you will be certified as a pro-photographer.

There’s a reason I have never tried these – would you believe it if you were told that from being unable to drive in 10 weeks time you’ll be racing against Lewis Hamilton – that doesn’t happen.

I am sure that some of these courses are reputable but from the many pro-photographers I have met with, I have never heard one of them coming through this route.

Formal Courses

This is a traditional route for photographers to learn their craft. Some of these such as the Open University may well have an online element to them, others such as HNC, HND or Degree courses will need regular attendance. This is definitely going to give you an excellent grounding in photography, you’ll be learning from people who have had to be assessed for their capability to teach and it will give you lots of what you need to make photography a career.

The considerations for this style of learning are fairly obvious, it is going to be quite a time commitment and probably a reasonably hefty cost commitment too. You also need to think about whether you need to do something like this if you are happy to continue to be a hobbyist photographer – do you really need a qualification?

I have also heard from some people on this route that they became frustrated having to learn things that they didn’t think would be useful in the future. Be prepared for this and go into it with open eyes.

Finally, some of these more formal courses have restricted numbers so you will often need to show a level of competence to get onto them although there are often shorter courses that can be easier to get on.


Photography isn’t a team sport but it can be. If you have a group of friends that are all interested then why not head out with them and pick up what they know and apply it to your own photography.

Certainly nothing wrong with this route and obviously you will be limited by the knowledge of your friends. It’s nice and social and hopefully you’ll have fun which is really what it’s all about! Don’t forget though that some photographers become different when thy are taking photos – they are concentrating so hard on what they are doing that they aren’t the jovial chap that you recognise from ‘normal life’.

Camera Clubs

Throughout the world there are many clubs and societies dedicated to photography. Often they’ll have special interest groups such as Nature or Studio and the people running them will usually be competent.

The criticisms of Camera Clubs can sometimes be that they have a reputation of being ‘stuffy’ and stand-offish. It can be quite intimidating as there are often club competitions where everyone shows their work and a judge will give (hopefully but not always, constructive) criticism of the submitted photographs and it can be quite hurtful to hear your image being destroyed in public.

My own experience of a camera club has been that they are a good place to pick up some knowledge but you will rarely find someone that will help take you through from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

So which is best?

The right answer is probably a combination of most of them depending on what you want to do with your photography, how much time you have, and how much do you want to pay?

I’ll share you my own route but don’t think that this is the definitive right answer. I started off by going out with friends taking photos and in parallel spent six months or so searching the internet in frustration trying to find the way to do things. I eventually joined a camera club and gradually progressed to the ‘advanced’ section where I decided to work toward attaining the Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society with some assistance from some members of the camera club. Along the way though I have practiced every day and every so often I attend a workshop or a course on something that interests me. A mix and match will work but you need to think for yourself which mix works for you.


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