Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Lately, I've been noticing ads in the scrapbook magazines and other places for photography retreats. These are usually weekend or several-day sessions, with classes taught by celebrity scrappers who are known (and justifiably so) for their fantastic photography. I've also seen lots of chat about these retreats on online message boards. They can be expensive, so there is lots of talk about whether they're "worth it" or not. Scrapbooking has become more artistic and single-photo layouts more popular, at the same time as DSLRs (digital SLR cameras) have come way down in price, causing scrapbookers, many armed with new, feature-laden DSLRs, to want to learn how to take better photographs. After all, when you really examine some of the layouts published in magazines,often times it isn't the artistry of the design or the great color scheme that most catches your eye, it's the outstanding photographs. Great photos are, without a doubt, easier to scrapbook because they can stand on their own and don't require lots of embellishment to make them look good.
While I think the kind of photography retreats that have become popular lately are wonderful, if you're considering attending one, I'd like to suggest that you check what your local community college has to offer first. I did this several years ago, after finding out that a series of photography classes being offered at a local scrapbook store were on a night that I simply couldn't attend. I checked the community college course catalog and, one dreary winter, signed up for a class called "Beginning Photography for Non-Majors." I was able to take the course in the evening (I work full-time) on a night that fit my schedule, and for approximately $125, I got a 14-week course taught by a professional photographer.
The very best thing about taking a class like the one that I took is that it lasts long enough that the instructor can cover complex topics slowly, so that the students have time to practice and master each skill. In my class, we were generally introduced to a topic in one 2-1/2 hour class session (and we had reading assignments to go along with the class instruction). For example, one topic that we spent several weeks on was "qualities of light." We learned about different kinds of natural light and how they affect photographs, and during class, the instructor showed examples of each type of light using student work from previous classes. We then had to complete a shooting assignment on the topic, where we had to take at least 24 photographs with at least two photographs illustrating each type of light that we were studying. The instructor picked 24 as the minimum number because although most people in the class had digital cameras, there were a few students who were shooting film, so the idea was to shoot an entire roll of film. We were required to put our images onto CDs, because over two class sessions, each student presented what they considered their best photographs to the class, explaining how they took the shot, why the shot was a good example of a certain type of light, and so forth. Can I just tell you how amazingly inspirational and educational it was to see the images other students had taken? My class was a mixture of adults like myself taking the class for their own enjoyment, and regular students at the college who were majoring in other areas but had an interest in photography. There were quite a few students studying filmmaking, and I found out later that was because the class was a beginning requirement for film students. These students, in particular, were amazingly creative and seemed to see the world in a completely different way. Some of the images they captured took my breath away, and made me see my own photographs (my own life, in fact) in a new light.
In addition to qualities of light, we studied composition, motion techniques, self-portraiture, and other topics. Each topic was covered in depth, and we had to practice the things we were learning by taking photographs using the techniques or illustrating the concepts. While I'm certainly no expert photographer, I learned an amazing amount about photography during that semester. The photograph above is one that I took for our first class assignment, which was an autobiographical photo essay. We were supposed to photograph things and people that were important in our lives, but the essay also had to include a minimum number of self-portraits. All self-portraits had to be exactly that, taken only by us with no one else helping. The myriad creative ways that people got portraits of themselves was eye-opening. For my part, I captured the toaster photo by setting up my camera and tripod in the kitchen, draping myself over the counter so that I got the reflection that I wanted in the shiny metal side of the toaster, and then using my remote control to trip the camera shutter. I used a pretty long exposure time (1/13 second) because I was shooting inside and I didn't want to use a flash. This image, I'm proud to say, earned rave reviews from my classmates as well as from the instructor; it was one of the best that I shot for that assignment.
In future posts, I'll share some of the ideas, tips and tricks that I learned in that photography class. But in the meantime, if you want to learn how to take better photographs, whether for scrapbooking or simply for your own personal pleasure, I definitely encourage you to check out your local community college. Although I've been digital for a few years, I generally do very little to my images outside of the camera because I've never taken the time to learn how to use Photoshop. So, one of my goals is take another class at the community college, this time in Digital Photo Editing.