The Best Way to Learn

I just spent the last three hours reading some old posts by photographers Zack Arias and David Hobby, and I’m left feeling humbled, frustrated, and downright embarrassed. Yet somewhere under these immediate feelings is a sense of hope…

Let me rewind as I try to make sense of this:

Exactly six years ago I shot my first wedding (happy anniversary, Tim and Jenn!) Like most newbie photographers I didn’t know much, but I worked my hardest and the couple was happy. I remember thinking how much easier it was to shoot photos instead of the videography I was doing previously. It seemed like all I needed was a camera, flash, and my 28-70mm lens. I knew in the back of my mind that it surely couldn’t be that simple, and eventually the “if only” disease would kick in.

I was fortunate enough to have friends who liked my work and before long I was getting hired for more shoots. Gradually my skills improved, I met other photographers, upgraded my gear, learned new tricks, pushed my equipment to the limits and then pushed it some more; all the while making notes and learning by experience. This pattern continued for the better part of six years.

Occasionally, however, something would cause me to stop and take notice of the fact that I really don’t know much about photography, usually it’s the work of brilliant artists like Jeremy Cowart or Joey L. This caused me to dig deep and attempt to understand why, but unfortunately I often ended up blaming my gear because there are things it just can’t do.

And then I meet other photographers like Doug Via who went from using a point-n-shoot one day to off-camera lighting on a full frame sensor the next. I’m amazed by how quickly he has learned the craft. Then there’s Will Martinez who has considerably less experience than I do, yet his recent pictures from Nicaragua blew me away. If I didn’t know these guys personally then I would probably go back into my usual blame game, but that’s where this story is different.

Both of these guys actually reached out to me assuming they could learn something from a full-time photographer, but in both cases I’ve found myself taking notes from them. I wonder where I would be if I had their skill when I was still a newbie. Clearly they didn’t learn everything from experience. They must have learned from others, which brings us back to Zack Arias and David Hobby (two of the most prominent voices in the photographer community).

As I read about their experiences it felt a lot like reading my own Moleskine. Many of the lessons they learned were very similar to my own recent discoveries, until I looked at the date they were published… I could have learned these things three years ago if I paid more attention to these community mentors. Instead I was too isolated, too self-centered, and too focused on doing things my way that I neglected almost every other resource. In the end I spent more time and covered less ground than I could have.

Hopefully I can help others skip the long, slow years and focus their time better. Looking back, and simultaneously looking forward, it seems that there are three key components in learning to excel at a given craft.

Study – It doesn’t matter if you study at the Art Institute or the University of Barnes and Noble. The important thing is that you seek out knowledge and learn from others. You need a steady diet of books, blogs, magazines, seminars, tutorials, and anything else you can find. This is usually the fastest way to lay your foundational knowledge.

Experience – There are some things you can’t learn from a book, and that’s why it’s important to get your hands dirty. Doing so will refine the things you think you knew and solidify them to a new level of understanding. They say “experience exceeds all other methods of learning” because you will not forget the things you learn by experience, especially the ones that felt like a failure. Remember to learn from your successes also.

Mentor – There are two priceless advantages of having a mentor. The first is that they can speak into your life/work in a very specific way. Books and blogs can give generalized advice, but a mentor can assess your exact situation. Secondly, a mentor bridges the gap between inspiration and execution. A masterpiece seems much more doable when you observe the artist at work rather than only seeing the final product.

The trick is to incorporate all three of these learning tools as often as you can. Study without experience inflates your ego, not your talent. Experience alone is a slow curve. Having a mentor without study is a waste of both people’s time. You need all three pieces working congruently if you want to see real progress.

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