Can photography be learned for free?

I recently had a conversation with an individual during one of my photowalks in Portland, Maine. The individual, let’s call her “Jane”, had been shooting photos for a while and had participated in a couple photo contests at a local camera club. I didn’t know Jane at very well, but it wasn’t the first of my photowalks she had attended either.  Our conversation started when she pulled me aside to ask why everybody seemed so thrilled with the light from the overcast sky. I pointed out the usefulness of the lack of harsh shadows and the great fill light bouncing off the snow, but Jane was still dubious.
“It all just looks flat and grey. I can’t get my camera to make it look good, like normal.” Jane said. “How do I make the pictures look interesting?”
I went on to explain the use of depth of field, composition, and subject matter and how it helps to try and tell a story or convey an emotion with a photograph, no matter the lighting conditions. I explained that an overcast day allowed greater flexibility in composition practices because the photographer would have a wider contrast ratio to work with and wouldn’t have to worry about losing data in the blacks or whites on the image file.
After I paused to hear her reaction to my explanation she responded with, “Where did you learn about this? Did you go to school for photography?”
“Honestly” I said, “though I did have to take a class in film photography for my degree, I learned most of what I know through books and practical application. That holds true particularly in regards to light theory.”
Jane responded with, “Oh, but I hate reading. I want someone to teach me photography.”
“Have you considered taking a class for photography?” I suggested, trying not to debate that she’d have to read sooner or later.
“I don’t want to pay anyone. Isn’t there any way I can just learn it for free? And don’t say ‘the internet’ because that doesn’t work.” She retorted.
Thankfully, I was saved from arguing my point with her as other photowalk attendees stopped to find out what we were looking at. Upon returning home I started thinking about what Jane had said and her attitude toward learning the traditional way. I came up with a simple formula regarding learning any creative topic of your own volition.
There are three factors involved in choosing a source for learning: 1. inexpensive, 2. widely available, and 3. worthwhile content. Of these three factors you can only obtain two from a singular source. How does this play out? Well, if Jane wants to learn photography for free then “inexpensive” becomes the given factor for her and the source is either widely available but not worthwhile, or the source is worthwhile but not widely available. In her case the most worthwhile source would be someone willing to train her, one on one, for free – not widely available but definitely the best method according to her wants. Alternatively, the most widely available free source of learning for Jane would be the library or internet, but her attitude towards these sources indicates she would perceive them as not worthwhile. What Jane would probably be better off searching for is the tutorship found in classes (I.e. worthwhile and widely available, but not inexpensive).
So, can photography be learned for free? Yes, absolutely, if the future photographer is willing to put in the time to find quality sources through their local library, the internet, friendly tutorship, or by working as an unpaid assistant.

One source I also find invaluable is podcasts like “This Week in Photo” and “Photofocus”.

If you have no-one in your network that can mentor you in your pursuit, consider joining a photo-club and discussing the desire to be an assistant to one of the pros. There’s usually someone who needs willing interns that want to learn.

About Jon Decker

Jon is on a Grand Adventure... life.
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