I lean toward the lethargic, work-wise. I’m not alone. There are others just like me, floating along on the stream of life only to discover (what, again?!) a chunk of time has passed with few of our vague ambitions achieved. But not this year. My plan this year was to turn the heat on myself, to make goals and get stuff done. Write better, write more. Travel more, carry less. Take a photography class and more photographs that don’t feature food and drinks. Failure was not an option, or not my first choice, anyway.
In at least one area of my life this year I was wildly successful at failure: an art photography class. As it turns out, in photography as in life, failure is nearly always a reliable path to learning.
Before setting my plan in motion, I bought a new camera, a digital SLR. Pre-purchase research included the sort of diligent fieldwork you’d expect from a world-traveling writer: I asked two friends about their cameras. Both had the exact same camera and both said it took great photos. Essential to me was its light weight and compact size for travel. Also, it had a cool name: the Rebel. Hello, Amazon Prime.
The camera I ordered came in a “kit,” which sounds like a super-good deal to an unschooled paparazzo like me. The box contained not only a camera, but also a couple of lenses, plus lots of extras. A camera bag constructed from a material one step above paper and likely to disintegrate at the first sign of rain. A spray bottle of what smelled exactly like the window cleaner under my bathroom sink and a minuscule scrap of cloth to clean my smeary fingerprints off the lenses.
Oh, I also received a strap. In my judgement, a camera strap isn’t an “extra” but what would I know? It’s been 25 years since I had a real camera. I’ve been using my iPhone camera for years now and never had a strap. Except for that regrettable washing machine incident, it’s been going well.
Armed with my new Canon Rebel SL1, I went out on a pilgrimage across the land, eyes peeled for photographic miracles. I would tell the world’s stories, not only with my words but accompanied by dazzling photos. Who needs a photography class?
I set the Rebel on full-automatic, traveling to places like Minnesota and Cuba and my local food truck pod in Austin, Texas. I acted like I was on assignment for National Geographic. By which I mean I took 10,000 photos and maybe 10 of them were any good.
9,990 deleted photographs later, I knew if my photographs were going to move beyond the realm of poorly-lit food pix and selfies, I needed to improve my skills. Which is how I found myself in Stephen’s photography class at the Austin School of Photography.
My previous photography studies date back to high school in the 1970s. With a borrowed camera, I mainly photographed our dog, my boyfriend and my niece, Erin, who was the first of a new generation in our family and therefore endlessly fascinating. A couple of years later, a University of Minnesota photography class focused more on postmodernism than f-stops. I developed photos filled with irony and blandness that earned me a grade but no style.
Photography Class Failure
Austin School of Photography promised to teach me “practically everything a photographer needs to know in order to begin shooting with purpose.” My purpose was to come back from a trip with more than 10 decent photos on my SD card, so I was in the right place. I came to the first class keen to learn.
The first thing I learned was that putting an SLR camera on automatic was for lazy ne’er-do-wells. Stephen told me and my classmates to set our camera on manual and never, ever change it back.
The second thing I learned was that Stephen considered my favorite lens, a 18-270mm zoom, to be something only perverts and private detectives use. I timidly suggested to Stephen that my zoom lens allows me to be unobtrusive about photographing interesting people spotted on my travels. Stephen told me those photos were “voyeuristic”. He made that sound like it was a bad thing.
Each Wednesday Stephen—followed by Andrew, ASofP’s owner and instructor for the more advanced Photography 2—covered aspects of photography techniques, physics, strategies and styles. We studied the work of great photographers to illustrate the lessons. Stephen and Andrew cram a lot of information into their classes. They sent us into the world, our brains overloaded with new knowledge, ready to apply each lesson to an assignment.
“I’ve got this!” I told myself every week. I imagined myself roaming Congress Avenue or Austin’s hike and bike trail, following instructions to produce perfect photographs.
The following Wednesday my classmates and I returned to class, a sleeve of photographs in hand. Each week I bombed. Every single assignment failed. Exposures were off. I relinquished my “control of space” because I was nervous about being intrusive. I cocked up using the Zone System. I used a telephoto when a wide angle lens was a better choice.
In an era of technology that puts a camera in the hands of 4.6 billion people, when even toddlers are taking photographs that end up on Instagram, my photography skills seemed to be in decline. I was ready to sneak the Rebel back on full-auto, resigning myself to taking a thousand photos to pull off one decent shot.
Andrew talked me down from the ledge of mediocrity. In a nutshell, he told me: Failure is an important element of learning. Experiential learning stays with you. It isn’t jettisoned from the brain as soon as you’re out of class and back to floating on the stream of life.
“The assignments,” Andrew said, “are set up for you to fail.”
Andrew is a sadist who doesn’t understand how much I fail in everyday life.
But true to his word, I did learn, thanks to my many photographic failures and the help of Stephen and Andrew. I had a handful of successes, too, which made me feel better even if I didn’t learn as much from those. I built upon my decades-old grasp of photographic principles and applied the life skills a woman develops in 30 years of talking to strangers while traveling. I became a better photographer when I let failure be an option.
This summer I applied my new skills on a trip to Ireland and the Netherlands. I still find myself mentally thinking through the options and steps for each photo, which means I miss shots more often than I’d like. Even now I take 10,000 photos but the number of decent shots is creeping upward.
On Stephen’s recommendation, I added a wide angle lens to my camera bag. I’m learning to get closer to my photo subjects while traveling; learning to risk being told to shove off by a potential subject. I still have my 18-270mm zoom lens, though. If nothing else, I may have an alternative career in spying on cheating spouses.
Resources & Gear
(Recommendations are mine, without compensation of any kind.)
Austin Camera & Imaging (for new and used gear in the Austin, TX area: 5350 Burnet Road
Camera Gear: I sold the lenses that came in my camera kit (tip: don’t buy a kit) to a local camera dealer and bought two used lenses from them. Buying used camera gear can save you some serious cash, plus you’ll pick up some good tips. These guys know their way around photography.
- Canon Rebel SL1: its light weight and small size make this an excellent choice for a traveler
- Lenses: #1 Canon 24mm f/2.8, #2 Tamron 18-270mm
- Bag: after a couple of false starts, I figured out what works to carry my camera gear. The cross-body shoulder bag I use for travel. Full disclosure: it’s a diaper bag I found at a thrift store.
- Strap: the kit strap was junk. I actually did more research on a strap than I initially did for the camera. The effort paid off. My Black Rapid camera strap is well made and rather than hang on my neck, which can be painful after a long day of traveling, it’s a cross-body strap. The camera rests below my hip, right at hand level. It’s the piece of gear that gets the most questions from other photographers and travelers.
- Tenba’s Protective Wraps (I use the 10″ and 16″ sizes) to protect the camera and lenses while in my bag.