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How to find a good photography Instructor.

I recently received a message from a follower of my Photography Club’s Facebook page.  It is a very common message that I see several times a year.  In addition, it is a very common scenario that I am asked in person whenever I meet up with a new, inspiring photographer.  Here’s a sample of that typical message…

“I am a total beginner in this photography world.   I am needing camera and (imaging) basics (like camera) settings for indoor and outdoor pics, how to set camera for different lighting.  I am wondering where to start? Is it best to take classes at a community college? I need help! Is there a good place to start that is doable with a full time job and a (toddler) at home?”

I replied to that person’s message and suddenly thought that it was finally about time that I wrote all this advice down.  Thus, here is an expanded version of my reply…

I would recommend taking a few Continuing Education classes from a local community college and attend local club events and workshops.  However, I would like to give some pointers regarding taking a photography class from anybody these days.  There are a lot of BAD instructors out there that are only trying to make a buck and/or sell you their products or services without the best interest of the students in mind.  These are the steps that I always recommend to my students when taking a photography class.

  1. Know the background history of the Instructor:   How many years of experience does the Instructor have in both Photography and Teaching?  You want to find an instructor that has extensive knowledge and experience in photography, especially if they come from the FILM days.  Film photographers were taught to “Get it right in the camera”.  Back then, they did not have Photoshop to rely on and some had very little darkroom skills.  Now-a-days, too many photographers and instructors rely heavily on Photoshop type of software to correct all their mistakes and will teach bad habits to compensate for their inexperience.  A good instructor will teach you that you still must “Get it right in camera” first, then use editing software to enhance the images beyond the capabilities on the camera.
  2. Does the Instructor have a Photography background or a Graphic Art background?  These days there are a lot of Graphic Artist turned Photography Teachers.  As previous mentioned, Film photographers were taught to “Get it right in the camera” and not to rely on image editing software to constantly correct camera errors.  Most Graphic Artist have sat in front of the computer system from day one editing their digital images.  To them, it is no bother to spent hours editing over a few images.  Graphic Artist are the ones who coin the phrase, “I’ll fix it in Photoshop”.  I have personally sat in several workshops held by “celebrity” photographers with Graphic Art as their main background and have heard them brag about how they spent hours working on a single image.  However, I have never heard a Photo Lab Technician say the same thing.  Bottom line to this bullet point, is the Photography Instructor teaching you the proper photography techniques or more digital editing techniques?
  3. Is the Instructor bias towards their brands of camera and equipment?   Photography classes can bring together a variety of camera systems like Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax, etc.  A good photography instructor should know the basics of a variety of camera systems and their settings.  Their job is to help the students understand where certain commands and features are and how to use them.  Plus, they should know the differences between one camera manufacture over the others features.  A photography instructor who is bias towards their own brand(s) of equipment cannot effectively teach any other students outside that brand.  I have previously taken a class from an instructor who was bias about their specific camera manufacture.  This bias was borderline rude and obnoxious.  He once commented to a female student that her purchase of an entry level camera system from a competitor manufacture was “a stupid mistake”.  You want to find an Instructor that will NEVER say, “I can’t help you because that’s not my brand of camera system”.
  4. Can the Instructor teach both Natural Lighting AND Artificial Lighting?  The word “Photography” is Greek in it’s origins.  Simply put, it means “to record light”.  Thus, many new photographers come to learn how to capture Natural Light or daylight images.  Many of these type of photographers will then adopt the phrase, “I’m a Natural Light Photographer”.  However, even Natural Lighting has its limitations like nightfall, inclement weather, and possibly obstructions from other objects or entities.  Under these circumstances, the use of Artificial Lighting can be used as an alternative.  Artificial Lighting comes in a variety of options like Speedlite Flashes, Studio Lighting, and Continuous Lighting.  A good photography instructor should know all the ins-and-outs of both Natural Lighting and Artificial Lighting.  This is where many photography instructors fall short of their skills.  If they do not know how to compensate the use of Artificial Lighting when it’s needed, then they cannot effectively teach the use of Flash or Studio Lighting.  My personal experience of this situation comes from my Weddings.  I often find the need for Speedlite Flashes when I’m in an environment where there is no Natural Lighting.
  5. Does the Instructor have passion for teaching?  Have you ever experienced a rude or irritated sales or service person?  Does the Customer Service person behind the counter act like they really hate their job?  If you have experience this type of behavior, then you have probably asked yourself, “If that person hates their job, then why don’t they quit?”  Simply put, they don’t have the right PASSION for the job.  Dave Ramsey, a national syndicated radio talk show host, often sites the phrase, “…the Heart of a Teacher”.  He will not recommend anyone that provides financial services to his follower unless they can prove that they have “…the Heart of a Teacher”.  I have met many of my children’s teachers over the years and I have seen a variety of attitudes and personalities among them.  Several of them became teachers just because they get the summers off, while only a few of them have expressed that they “Love to Teach”.  A good photography instructor should “Love Teaching the Art and Science of Photography”.  They should be willing to share ALL of there knowledge and experiences to their students.  Too many times, instructors are reluctant to reveal certain techniques, styles, or locations to their students for fear of competition.  A good photography instructor does not fear competition.  Fear is a lack of confidence.  Thus, a photographer who is not confident is their knowledge and skills will not share what little they know.

Before signing up for an class or workshop from an Instructor that you are not aware of, you should be able to contact that person and ask them a few questions.  Write down at least 10 questions to ask regarding their background, knowledge, philosophy, and experiences.  Chances are if they are not willing to provide you any answers, then they are probably not a good instructor.  This will help you to make a better decision.  You do not want to follow in the footsteps of many students who felt like their instructor was not worth the money they spent.


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