A long time ago in a cinema far, far away… well, 40-years ago this summer at an Odeon in Norwich, my big sister started my photographic education when she took me to see Star Wars. Spellbound by every aspect of the film, the young me was captivated especially by its visual style. That was the work of self-taught cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. He was also Director of Photography for Ice Cold in Alex, A Hard Day’s Night, Flash Gordon and Doctor Strangelove. Watch one of Taylor’s films and you’ll see the magic he put into lighting and composition.
I can’t watch television or go to the cinema without noticing, and then learning from, the cinematographer’s work. As well as taking photos for a living, I deliver training to my clients, which I love, so I am always learning; keeping up to date. Besides analysing films, I read books, magazines, photographers’ blogs and tutorials. I watch documentaries and academic lectures. Plus, I am always trying new techniques and pushing my boundaries.
There are formal qualifications in photography. A-level art has a photographic route. In the UK, National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) are delivered by a host of providers, NCFE being the awarding body. City and Guilds provide similar courses but they are not renewing their photography accreditation and their courses will soon cease to exist.
The NVQ Level 3 Certificate is an accredited course that takes upwards of 260 hours to complete. Promoted as a step towards getting employment in commercial photography, the Level 3 Diploma is more demanding, requiring at least 730 hours of study. A degree is most likely to get you employed in that highly competitive career and the NVQ can be a stepping stone into that field. However, they don’t offer a great gateway into employment.
The NVQ route may suit some who like a formal, rigid structure even if they are not looking for work. There are some excellent academic providers of both tutored courses and distance learning.
Beware! Do your research. Quality of provision on courses varies enormously. There are also providers that mislead, calling their completion certificates ‘levels’ and ‘diplomas’. These are not qualifications. Others offer the NVQ Level 2 and 3 Certificate and call them a Diploma; they aren’t. I challenged one provider about this and it transpired that their ‘NCFE accredited diploma’ was not even an NVQ. I would not touch any of these with a tripod!
Do think whether on-line or correspondence training is for you. It doesn’t suit everyone and it can be difficult to keep enthused if you haven’t got peers around you to help push you along. Seeing a good tutor face-to-face can also be very motivating.
Choose the learning style that suits you best. If you are not concerned about having a qualification for employment, then do contemplate private training from a professional photographer. It is often better value, more flexible, targeted to your needs and hands-on. I have to declare an interest here; I am a professional photographer that offers training.
Many employed in the industry today got there by following the academic route, but not everyone.
One young woman I know has just secured a place working in one of the biggest studios in Europe. She learnt some techniques on one of my courses and she has no formal photographic qualification, she just has buckets of talent and enthusiasm for photography.
It’s a different story too for most of the great names in photography. Bernice Abbott, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Capa, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, David Bailey, Linda McCartney, Ansel Adams and a host of others did not study for a photography qualification. Like Gilbert Taylor, they learnt their skills by taking pictures, usually supported by other professional photographers. They developed their own styles away from the education establishment.
Of course, there are a host of other ways to learn photography. I have over 50 books acquired over the years, some new and some bought second hand. I always search charity shops for new books to read. General photography books are all pretty similar, covering the same topics. I have a great fondness for the books of Michael Freeman ever since I bought a copy of his 35mm Handbook about 30 years ago. His later works have lost none of their accessibility or interest.
Specialist books can also help if you are interested in a specific style or genre of photography. My library includes excellent books on weddings, wildlife, landscapes, portraits, studio lighting and so on. I also have collections of works by different photographers from Linda McCartney to Koo Stark. My bookshelves are weighed down with huge volumes of collected works and photographic history books. I am forever dipping into them, learning and getting inspiration.
The internet is brimming over with sites eager to share photographic knowledge. Sites like Petapixel, My Modern Metropolis, DPNow and a multitude of blogs have huge amounts of useful information. I like searching the BBC site for the keyword ‘photography’ or Photographer and reading, watching or listening to the articles on there.
Looking at other people’s work also is a great way to learn. Look at what you do and don’t like. Discover photographers that inspire you and whose work you find challenging.
If you want to learn photography, get training but, most of all, get out with your camera and take photos. It is, after all, what we enjoy doing the most.
A truncated version of this article first appeared in The Northumberland Gazette.
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