5 things to consider when choosing a photography course
This blog post gives you my top tips on how to choose a practical photography course. When you’ve read it you will know what to look for and why, so that you can find the workshop or photography experience that best suits you.
- Know What You Want
Photography courses come in a wide variety of formats, lengths and sizes so your first step is to decide how long you want to spend and what you’d like to learn.
Choose from courses that are great for meeting people or having fun, those that provide a thorough basis upon which you can build, those that help you achieve a formal qualification, those that help you with a specific effect or photo style, from courses that themselves form building blocks or from days out where you will learn something new in a new and interesting location.
What: Do you want to learn enough to take great photos? Enough so that your holiday images will look better than they did last year? Enough to be able to take nice shots of your family as they grow up? Look for a course that does exactly what you want or teacher who is sufficiently experienced and flexible to be able to help.
How: Read the syllabus and course objectives and ask the right questions.
Why: Some courses work on giving you a thorough grounding so that you can work everything out yourself. Others will give you just enough knowledge to take nicer pictures. Others are extremely technical and don’t teach the art behind photography until the techniques have been thoroughly mastered while yet others just have loads of practical exercises that are fun. None of these approaches are wrong, they’re just different, and a good teacher will be able to do them all. So it’s up to you to find a course that suits your particular needs.
Exceptions: Structured online courses, formal diploma and degree courses and specialist courses.
Also: A good teacher will be able to provide any or all the approaches or work with you to create a combination of them that fits what you want. My normal day courses use whatever the students best respond to, and I’m sure other teachers do the same.
- Fitting it in
If you want to learn you need to be sure that the course gives you time first to understand new techniques and approaches and then to practice them. Without practice you’ll forget what you’ve learned, so look for something that gives you exercises or the opportunity to experiment. If this is done in a workshop or the actual course, that is great, but if the course is just theory make sure you’re happy with doing it yourself between classes.
What: You need to find a course that teaches you what you need to know and allows time to bed it in. If a course looks too good to be true because it covers so much in a small amount of time, it probably is. There’s no point in committing so much time to something that other aspects of your life or health suffers, so the time required to do your course – which should include both course and homework – should also fit your lifestyle.
How: Is the syllabus too busy for the time allocated to the course? How much homework is required? Does it fit your lifestyle and available time? If any of these are true the course is not for you.
If you’re a beginner or are very rusty it’s not realistic to expect to get through more than the basics in less than 6 hours. Introductions to street photography, travel photography documentary photography and lifestyle photography can just about be managed in a day, provided you are familiar with the basics. Getting to grips with studio lighting – even as a beginner – requires at least another full day.
Once you have that grounding you need to bed in what you’ve learned through practice, after which you need to use what you’ve learned to decide the next best thing for you.
Why: Manual photography requires knowledge of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Getting to grips with the concepts and practicing them is likely to take you a good few hours. Add in white balance basics and basic composition and that is a demanding day. You can do it, and learn a little about cameras and lenses, but adding more will bring you diminishing returns. Similar logic applies to the philosophy, composition and techniques behind street photography, documentary photography, travel photography and lifestyle photography, and getting to grips with studio lighting – even as a beginner – requires at least another full day.
If the course is spread over weeks you will need somewhere between a quarter and a third of the time again.
Exceptions: Structured online courses, formal diploma and degree courses and for courses where you spend a lot of time sitting in a lecture theatre or classroom.
Also: If you’re a fast learner these time estimates still make sense, provided your teacher is sufficiently experienced to keep you interested with additional exercises during the day.
- Numbers matter.
Big classes mean you get less attention. That’s not necessarily bad, especially if the course is a longer one or if it’s a day and all you want to do is socialise with others who like taking photos. However, it’s nearly impossible to give everyone the attention they deserve in a day-long workshop with more than 11 people or a term-long night class of more than 20.
What: If you want to learn as part of a group, you need to be sure you’ll get enough attention, in which case 11 students per teacher is the absolute limit and 10 is better.
How: Ask the course provider!
Why: I’ve been teaching photography for years now and still prefer a maximum of 10 students. 11 students are a challenge, especially because most classes attract a wide range of abilities. I’m not the only person who feels this way, I’ve checked with colleagues and they agree.
Exceptions: This doesn’t apply to online courses, formal diploma and degree courses and for courses where you spend a lot of time sitting in a lecture theatre or classroom.
Also: If you’re not so bothered about learning but want a more social experience, or to meet people who also enjoy photography the more the merrier!
- Check out your teacher
A good teacher can make learning fun, will have several different methods of teaching the same ideas (because people learn differently) and will have enough experience to answer all of your questions. The easiest way to check them out is an internet search on their name and images.
What: Your teacher needs to have experience in photography and be a good teacher.
How: References on their site will give you confidence about how well they can teach. That they’ve been with an organisation for a while is only a recommendation if you have confidence in that organisation.
To find out if they are experienced photographers, just Google them. Word-search their name. If their photography comes up (not their personal website, portfolio or agency photographs and be wary of exhibitions unless someone else has reviewed them). Look for articles about them or articles that include their images, web pages where their images support of something other than promotion and other similar things. Do their images look as if they’ve been deliberately produced? Do you get the impression they’re presenting the best they’ve done as normal?
Why: The more experience a teacher has, the more they can pass on. There are tips and tricks of the trade that we all only learn from experience, several different ways of explaining the same technique or idea and a pragmatism that comes from having been a pro-photographer in the thick of things. I know that different people learn and think differently so I have several different ways of expressing each concept and am constantly looking for more.
Exceptions: In every area of life there are some people who are brilliant teachers who have had very little real-life experience of what they’re helping you learn. While it makes sense that this is true for photography I’ve not met anyone who is like this in photography.
Longer courses where you’re taught by different teachers mean that you only need to check that your teacher is good at their specialism, but it still helps to have one great all-rounder who can help fill in the gaps.
Also: Beginners and early improvers are the hardest to teach and need someone with more experience than most specialist areas.
- Quality peaks
A good quality course will have great teachers, good course material, a way of supporting both students and teachers and will help you understand what you might do next. Smaller organisations may be less formal, but you’ll still get a good idea of the quality of teaching by checking out the teacher and by looking at the quality of photography on the teacher’s sites.
What: Course quality comes from the teacher, the course structure and from the support given to the students afterwards. If you are just after a social event it simply needs to be fun.
How: Look at the course website. Does the course deliver what you want and does it look as if it’s a logical progression? Does the teacher have enough experience in photography and can they teach? Is the after-course support reasonable for what you’re learning and have paid? You can find some of this out yourself and ask the course provider the rest.
How the quality of a class is managed depends a lot on the size of the organisation so it’s difficult to give you guidelines. Larger organisations should be able to provide an overview of how they ensure quality themselves. For smaller organisations ask about handouts or subjects covered and make sure that the teacher has sufficient experience to give you what you need.
Why: Quality management can only be done by people who know what to look for. Those on the course don’t know the subject, that’s why they’re taking the course! After-class feedback and surveys therefore have their place, but only measure whether the course met the delegates’ expectations and whether they were fun.
Exceptions: It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Some people may be genuinely unhappy with a course while others may be compulsive complainers so read the feedback carefully and try to make up your own mind.
Do you have any suggestions or experiences that would improve this post? If so please let me know.