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teaching photography
Photo: Lydia Billings
Photography is a funny thing to teach. About a hundred different things all happen at exactly the same moment whenever a shutter button is pressed. The camera focuses; the camera meters (measures the light); the camera figures out the appropriate white balance; if the flash is on, the camera figures out how much light to fire from the flash.

Within each of these things are a multitude of others. When the camera meters, for example, it will, depending on the settings, decide the aperture, shutter speed and/or ISO for the shot. Some photography teachers in NYC will dive right into all of this with beginner students and actually try to explain each and every function happening all at once. I can imagine no better way to utterly confuse a photography lover than to take this approach.

How to Teach Photography the Right Way

When you teach a beginner piano student how to play the piano, you can start with a song that is made up of just some basic notes. “Chopsticks,” for example, is a slow and simple song. Photography doesn’t have an equivalent. In a photography class, we can’t isolate, for example, shutter speed and aperture and just do an exercise that only involves those two functions.

This is why I (and a variety of other teachers) uncover photography in layers. The core layer, for me, is brightness (i.e. exposure). The next layer is shutter speed and aperture. Then ISO. Flash, focusing and white balance all come next, in no particular order.

There are certain aspects of how a camera works that can be both a blessing and a maddening curse to students and teachers alike. Let’s take the issue of blur. If an image or a portion of an image is blurry there are four possible causes:

1. A slow shutter speed.
2. A low-numbered aperture.
3. A telephoto lens zoomed in.
4. The camera lens is focusing at a distance that doesn’t support the entire image being in focus.

correcting blurriness in photos
Photo: John Pullos (JP)

These four functions are completely distinct from each other. The beginner student is left with one visual cue— blurriness— but unless the student understands the entire universe happening inside their camera, it’s difficult to decipher which function. How is a teacher to explain this complex puzzle?

Teaching Photography Functions

First, a teacher must be passionate about making photography accessible to a wide variety of people, not just the geeks out there who relish the technical jargon (though, as a bona fide member of that club, I don’t want to exclude them. I’ll have a geek-off with you any day of the week).

Second, a great teacher, of any subject, really has to listen from the perspective of the student. If you’re somebody who loves taking pictures and have been creating images for most of your life (which, by the way, describes most of my students), you’re going to hear someone talking about photography functions in a particular way. A photography teacher has to teach and, at the same time, hear what’s coming out of their mouth from the perspective of the student.

In fact, isn’t all communication like this? To get anything across to any audience it takes a love of sharing your point-of-view while simultaneously hearing yourself from the listener’s perspective. Teachers of many subjects, not just photography, would do well to nurture these talents within themselves.


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