Finally! A Photography 101 Course I Can Recommend

Most mainstream photography courses focus on what matters to professional photographers and ignore the 99.9% of us who are hobbyists. Their advice is misguided at best, and scammy at worst.

My book and blog are an antidote to most of these courses. If you’re here, you know the basics, and probably want to unlearn the rules to get to core of what makes you most creative. Think of it as Photography 301: Unlearning Photography.

So when I do get inquiries about where to go for Photography 101: The Basics, I don’t have many places to link to that I know I can trust.

That changes now with The Sweet Setup’s new course Mobile Photography (The Sweet Setup was kind enough to provide this affiliate link after I first posted this). I checked out the course and I like where it takes its students. The examples used are examples actual hobbyists might encounter, which is rare in a photography course. But most of all, I’ll recommend this to beginners because it comes from a trusted source: Shawn Blanc.

Any Imbecile

“Photography is a marvelous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, and art that excites the most astute minds—and one that can be practiced by any imbecile.” — Nadar (1910) via Andy Adams

Photo Safari

The podcast I just did with Jon Wilkening brought up a lot of topics centered around photography in the 1990s. Why the 90s?

I consider the 1990s the golden age of film photography. The amounts and variety of new film, film cameras, paper and chemicals would never be better.

Something that was missing, though, was the amount and variety of instructional and inspirational video content we enjoy today. There was no YouTube back then.

But there was Photo Safari.

Photo Safari was a weekend morning, half-hour TV show that changed networks and formats multiple times. It started as a way to tag along, through video, with icons of nature and wildlife photography, like Art Wolfe and Robert Glenn Ketchum, as they worked in the field. They would pass along tips to the camera or to guests.

Gear-wise, it was anything goes. You really got a feel for how professional photographers at the top of their game were just using rugged, reliable (even constraining) gear, not the latest Leica.

I tuned in (or taped on my VCR) for the inspiration of watching a master at work. Then, I'd grab my camera, call a friend and find a good place to shoot, emulating the masters. I did this for years back in my 20s.

Eventually, ratings reality caught up with Photo Safari and the niche show changed its name to Canon Photo Safari, as its sponsor transformed it into little more than a weekly infomercial. All the photographers were required to use Canons, which left out all my favorite photographers, who had endorsement deals with Nikon and Pentax (not to mention the large format shooters). Celebrity photographer guests, like William Shatner and David Allen Greer, became more of a distraction on the show. In an effort to gain a wider audience, the show lost its devoted, hobbyist fans.

I love that Youtube and Vimeo have brought us a new universe of photography knowledge, but I miss that weekly hit of inspiration I got from the masters on this tiny, quiet show about my favorite hobby.

I tried to dig up some episodes of Photo Safari's early years, but only managed to find a few clips from Canon's version of the show on Youtube. I guess I'll need to dig through the VHS tapes piled at my parents' house if I want to relive this part of the golden age of film.



Has Photography Gone from an Introvert to Extravert Hobby?

Great observation from Guy Tal on the mindset of analogue (or traditional) vs. digital (or modern) photographers:

“It used to be that photography was the favored avocation of introverts, allowing unquestioned solitary time in a darkroom—a private world behind a closed door where magic unfolded in development trays under the eerie glow of a safelight, and where one could be alone with their thoughts, disconnected from society, without having to explain. The photographer then was an eccentric, an alchemist, an observer. Today’s mainstream photographers seem almost the opposite: bold and outspoken and public; no longer experiencing, observing, and reacting, but planning and executing, broadcasting and marketing not only their photographs and thoughts but also their travels, corporate sponsors, and lifestyles, and even their most trivial accomplishments, to the widest audience they can reach.”

Old Advice is New Advice: There Are No Rules

“If you let other people’s vision get between the world and your own, you will achieve that extremely common and worthless thing, a pictorial photograph...there are no short cuts, no formulae, no rules except those of your own living.” — Paul Strand, The British Journal of Photography in 1923 via Guy Tal

Behavioral Economics and Creativity

I believe most the readers of the A Lesser Photographer book understood and agreed with the basic message of the book: constraints foster creativity.

Yet, some of the book’s biggest fans don’t follow that message. They know what they should be doing to create better photos (or art in general), but they’d rather justify their latest purchase.

This behavior is common. I’ve received hundreds of emails from readers about how they wholeheartedly agree that imposing limitations on themselves works, except when it comes to the fancy camera they just bought. That camera is special.

It's a total disconnect with logic we agree on.

On the latest episode of NPR's Planet Money, Jacob Goldstein was explaining that this phenomenon is not only known to economists, it was a part of the reason why Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in economics this year. As Goldstein puts it: 

“The discovery was that simply having a thing makes you overvalue that thing.”

I'm not exempt from this phenomenon. 

When I write on paper, I use fancy pens and pencils. I even go to pen shows and listen to the Pen Addict podcast.

I don’t practice my own philosophy when it comes to my writing tools.

I know what I should be doing. I keep this quote around from an interview with writer/director Morgan Evans at to remind me of what constraints looks like for a writer. He only writes with the cheapest, most plentiful (while durable) tools. He puts all the concentration on what's being written, not on how it's being written:

“When I write I use regular yellow legal pads you can get at Staples and Skilcraft government pens. I can't emphasize how wonderful these pens are. They write for a literal mile and are built to give tracheotomies to the President. I'm not kidding. Google it. I write longhand first usually. I always have tons of legal pads all over the place. They're the only thing I can fill up. I'd take a shitty legal pad over a Moleskine any day.”

But my new pen is soooo nice. Right?

Random Positive Reinforcement

From David Allen on the GTD Podcast:

“One of the factors of creating addiction is random positive reinforcement. If you’re trying to train your dog…you don’t want a treat every time. The more random, the more powerful the addiction to the behavior. There is hardly anything that has more random positive reinforcement than email and social media. Any of you golfers out there: one good stroke, one good drive, will keep you coming back to hit 400 crappy ones.”

The golf analogy perfectly describes the addiction to photography we experience.

Combine the random positive reinforcement of social media with the random positive reinforcement of photography and you get the success of Instagram.


If You Could Only Photograph One Subject...

Artifact Uprising interviews Photographer Tim Coulson:

"If I could only take photos of one thing for the rest of my life, it would be my family. I've had the privilege to travel to the ends of the earth, taking pictures of the world's most amazing locations. And if I could just take photos of Kesh and the boys — of us being us — I would choose that over anything."
"A deep lesson I've learned is that there's a really fine line between documenting the essence of something and over-documenting to where you become withdrawn from what you're really doing. I want to be here, actually here, for all of it, and I want to document our life in a true way. But, as important as it is to document life, what is by far more important is to be in your life."

Yep. This is the essence of the A Lesser Photographer philosophy. Photography is one of the greatest things in my life, but it must make way for the greatest thing.

Eric Kim Quits Instagram for Blogging

From Eric Kim's blog:

"Why? I realized it was a major distraction in my life. Rather than focusing on what I do to create real value (blogging) I wasted my precious energy on how to optimize my follower count."

Generally, I don't like to announce when I quit doing things or change up my publishing formats anymore. It's not interesting or applicable to most readers. I just do it and move on. But, Eric's post is an exception to this rule, because he's helping people.

It may sound counterintuitive to leave Instagram for blogging, when most photographers have done the opposite, but that's the point. "Different is better than better." Zig when everyone else is zagging.

He's focused on a goal and he's eliminating anything that gets in his way. Instagram was getting in the way of creating (both in terms of time and mental health), so he's eliminating from his life.

Eric posts way too many blog posts everyday for me to keep up with. I couldn't read them all if I wanted to. But 1 out of a 10 resonate with me. And if he publishes 50 posts a week, that's 5 posts every week that reach me in a personal way. That's way more than any photo publication I can think of.

It's no wonder he says he now makes about $200,000.00 from his ideas about photography (most of it coming from workshops). He becomes more influential and valuable with every blog post and he knows it.

Eric invited me a few years ago to dinner with one of his workshop classes. I can attest they were having a great time. I suspect there would be twice as many people this year trying to get into that workshop class.