Shop in Morwellham Quay

Some things stand the test of time. Like brick buildings or good education.

I have signed up for a 12-month course called The Art of Photography from the Open College of Arts. So I’m going back to spending my spare time studying, after a break of more than 10 years. I really, really look forward!

In the business world, I’m used to the first hour of every training course being spent on the attendees explaining their background and expectations from the course. Assuming that the college might want something similar in an email, I have used this as an opportunity to write an introduction and to take stock of what I’ve done over the last years to learn more about photography. Here goes…

My name is Tomas, and I am one of your new students on the Art of Photography course.

I’m 42 years old and work in service management for a large IT consultancy firm. I was born in Denmark, but moved to England in 1999 when the IT industry was booming. I’m currently managing a team tasked with upgrading a large public sector client’s change management processes, while also looking after configuration management for an estate with around 8,000 staff. As a large part of my job is client focused, it’s important for me to make high level plans to ensure we stay on track, but also to maintain enough flexibility to adjust for the unforeseen or cater for last minute requirements.

Using the right tool for the job - or any available tool

After a basic 18-month IT education nearly twenty years ago, I started to work, first as a software developer and later as project manager, while at the same time gaining a BSc in computer science from Open University, Odense. Six years of studying, while having a demanding full time job, taught me the discipline to set regular time aside for studies, while also ensuring there was time for friends, family life and relaxation. I hope I can remember how I did it.

I have “always” had a camera and used it for holiday snaps, but when I bought a DSLR three years ago, photography became more of a serious hobby than just a holiday thing. I joined Flickr and started to compare my own pictures against others. When I came across pictures employing a special technique, I made a mental note of it and later tried to replicate it – so I’ve been through many of the “special effects” with smoke figures, water drops, Photoshop trickery, and so on.

After a year of trying my hand at everything and anything, I found that it became increasingly difficult to come up with ideas. I often found myself wanting to take pictures, but without any idea of what to take pictures of. So I joined a group on Flickr with weekly assignments, and found that this helped to boost my creative juices. Both by “forcing” myself to use the camera, but more so from seeing how other people had tackled the same assignment, and by discussing the pictures within the group. I’ve taken some breaks from the group, but became active again about a month ago.

A few years ago I came across an advert from a local charity, asking for photographers to help them. So I volunteered, and have been taking pictures at charity events for press releases and staff portraits at their location for PR material and archival purposes since.

An enlightening message

I have recently joined Essex Strobists, a small group of people practising off-camera flash and helping aspiring models get some pictures for their portfolios. We have meet-ups about once a month. I was initially thrilled about the chance to work with, and learn from, people with more experience in lighting and posing, but have realised that I need to see it more as a chance to experiment and learn at my own pace than formal workshops.  With friends and family who don’t want to sit around waiting while I adjust lighting ratios ad nauseam, simply having access to work with models who doesn’t just tolerate the camera, but are actively involved and interested in the outcome, is great.

A couple of months ago, a friend and I shot a wedding as the official photographers. That was hard work, preceded by a lot of nervousness (and followed by some serious post processing), but ultimately I think the results were really good – and more importantly, so does the happy couple.

Six months ago, I started my blog where I write regularly about photography. Sometimes it’s a brief post about an individual picture, sometimes a small set of related photos from a nice walk, shooting a band at the pub, local events, technique experiments, etc. I try to document anything I learnt from taking the pictures – obstacles that I overcame, things I wish I had done differently, tips for myself for next time I need to shoot a similar scene. It has ended up being a mixture between a learning log and a diary of photo shoots. In addition to the blog, I also keep a small online portfolio.

By signing up to the Art of Photography course, I hope get some structure to my learning experiences. My self-taught development to date has been a bit all over the place, and while it’s obviously good to try different things, I feel that sometimes I’m trying to run before I have learnt to walk – and other times I get stuck in a rut and keep walking when I ought to start to run. I really look forward to following a natural progression of subjects that fit together.

Leading and guiding - and independently following

Family and friends are the most readily available critics, and like most folks, I like being told that people enjoy my pictures. While it’s gratifying (and I guess I ultimately take pictures simply because I enjoy it, and want other people to enjoy looking at them), there’s not as much growth potential in one-sided praise as there is in well-considered critique from someone far more knowledgeable and experienced in the subject. So I look forward to the feedback, both about things I’ve done well and about the areas where there is room for improvement.

As a hobbyist, it’s easy to get caught up in techniques and gear, and forget about the core image-making. While I recognise a few of the titles on the course’s resource list, I have far more books about Photoshop this, or CLS that. I look forward to getting back to basics and learning more about what makes a good image.

I’d like to think that by signing up to this course, I have taken the first step to eventually earning a BA. And while that is a definite possibility, it would require seven years of commitment. So for the time being, I shall focus on the Art of Photography over the next 12 months or so, and then after that see what happens next.