Learning Photography

Just in Time versus Just in Case

Convict Lake, California copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.

Learning and enjoying yourself while you learn is a situation that we crave our whole lives. That’s why when you find a hobby, like photography that lets you learn for a lifetime, you tend to stick with it because it’s so much fun.

But search on Google right now for “learning photography” and you’ll get 334,000,000 search results. How do you sift through all that and find a kind of learning pathway for yourself? How do you even start?

You can give yourself some photo assignments, first of all. Maybe you can shoot themes. Those are always fun. Just make sure you introduce something new into the task, every time.

What do I mean by that?

Learning and enjoying while learning doesn’t just happen automatically if you give yourself a task. If the task is too easy, it’s boring. If the task is too hard, it’s frustrating and stressful and could turn you off from learning it.

Convict Lake, California copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.
When I had learned to trigger the camera remotely, I started working on learning how landscapes are lit.

The task has to be designed well to make it both a learning experience and a fun one at that. It has to be relevant, have a feedback system, and stretch your skills.


This criterion for designing your photography learning task means that it has to mean something to you. That’s what I mean by ‘just in time.’ If you learn a skill  because you might need it ‘just in case,’ the relevance floats out of the situation—why learn it if you don’t need it right now?

By creating a need in your task design, you’re setting yourself up for a quick learning curve. Because you need the skills you are learning to make that good shot, you’re going to put a lot more concentration into the photo shoot, giving yourself a very good chance of putting that skill into your working memory, there to call on whenever you need it in the future.

How do you narrow a skill down? It depends on your current skill level. If you know the exposure triangle but need practice with exposure compensation, then that’s what the lesson is, for you at this moment. Design something out of that concept.

Creek, Northern California copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.
Learning how to create with a slow shutter is a lot of fun.

Another aspect of relevance is the authenticity of your task. Are you alone on a photowalk, practicing your exposure compensation? Or are you searching for that super duper image that you will post on Facebook or Flickr tonight? Having a real audience for the work that you’re doing gives you added pressure, and that’s a good thing.

What? Did I just say that pressure is a good thing?


Adding a relevant audience gives you additional motivation for doing the task well. That little bit of stress you introduce into the task is just enough to complete your optimized concentration.

Feedback System

A feedback system means you get responses about your task results. This is important especially in shaping what you do next, to improve. So it’s important to share your work on a public platform.

Northern California creek copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.
Shooting this for Canon's PhotoYou magazine helped me learn how to use slow shutter and remote trigger in a couple days.

Flickr is a good place to start, but be aware that Flickr is often indiscriminate about quality. In the early days of learning Photoshop, I have posted horrendously processed photos on Flickr, and people liked them. Why is this bad? It’s bad because it’s like singing Celine Dion songs to my dog Mushu, who always, always licks my face happily no matter how croaky I sound. Do I then conclude that I am Celine Dion reincarnate from Mushu’s happy kisses? I’m not in any way saying Flickr is bad. I am just saying, it’s not a place you can reliably improve your photography just from the feedback. But you can sign up for specific groups that do give you authentic critique, instead of the fluffy “Great shot!” I learned a lot from the Strobist Group on Flickr.

A forum specifically designed for photography learning might work better. There are quite a few online. Search Google for “learning photography forum*” and you get 316,000,000 results.

Stretch your skills

On your journey learning photography, give yourself a new task or skill to learn every time. Say you are solid with the exposure triangle and have been using exposure compensation pretty well for the past few weeks. How about adding a new complexity to the task, like “Shoot a series of images for an essay on architecture of temples.” The task means you have to shoot both indoors and outdoors, so you’ll be using previously learned skills.

Then you might move onto “Shoot a series of portraits at the morning market in Chinatown.” This second task means you have to use the previous skills, mixed lighting situations, and you are shooting constantly moving subjects.

Challenging yourself more means you are learning more. As you move into more complex tasks in photography, you can also adjust your feedback system so it adds that extra pressure that will activate your optimal concentration. Is there a contest you can enter? Are you ready for 500px?

Thoughtful design of your photography improvement tasks can help you improve faster and enjoy your learning. By assigning yourself task to learn “just in time” for the right audience using a new skills, you are on your way to a fun and productive journey in photography.

What will you learn this week?

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