photo school: creating a course

By mid-2006, Photo School had more than 40 modules, divided more or less equally between free and paid. Obviously, many people never buy a single paid module, let alone consider subscribing. That's fine. We do the same ourselves with many sites that are a mixture of paid and free.

But now there are so many modules to choose from, and now there are more and more subscribers, it makes sense to give some advice to anyone (especially subscribers) wanting a structured approach to improving his or her photography: in other words, to make some kind of course out of what is on offer.

what do you want?

There are two questions here. The first is what you want from your own photography, and the second is what you want from this site.



Hill and Moon, Wales

This is one of Roger's favourite pictures that he has ever taken, for all that he shot it in the early 1970s and despite the fact that this was taken from a Cibachrome print because a publisher lost the original transparency years ago. For that matter the quality would be better today too: as well as being second-generation (print from slide) it was shot with a 1936 Leica IIIa and contemporaneous 5cm f/3.5 uncoated Elmar. So what does he want? More, better, simpler landscapes.

what do you want from your own photography?

No two photographers follow the same path, but for most who are any good, there are two components that feed on one another: the technical and the aesthetic.

In one sense, the technical is easier to master. There's only a limited amount of relevant theory, and after that, it's practice. The important thing is not to get so bogged down in theory and technique that you lose sight of taking pictures, a fate which sometimes overtakes those who become obsessed with 'testing' new films and developers (or scanners and equipment or anything else).

At any one time, therefore, you have to ask yourself what you are not happy with in your own photography: what is holding you back?

It is always tempting to imagine that there is some sort of new equipment or technique -- a 'magic key' or 'silver bullet' -- that will miraculously improve your photography. There isn't. Practice, and increased knowledge and understanding, are all that will.

Above all, improving your photography is very unlikely to be a question of buying new equipment. If you don't agree, you might want to look at the free module called 'How Many Cameras Do You Need?' -- though another free module, Saving Money, also points out that some cameras are better suited to some kinds of photography than others.



Courtyard, Gran Canaria

Do not grow overly precious about black and white films and developers. Many photographers would be pleased to get this sort of print quality from arcane films and cult developers. This is Ilford XP2, commercially processed and printed on Sterling paper. It printed better on Sterling than on Ilford Multigrade IV, it is true, but matching film to paper is something you seldom hear from the more vocal advocates of specialist films and developers.

Frances shot this with a Nikon F and 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor, an expensive, specialist lens, it's true, but one she knew she wanted as soon as she tried it.



All that will improve your photography is taking pictures. If you aren't satisfied with the technical quality, look at the technical modules. If you aren't satisfied with the aesthetic quality, look at the aesthetic modules. But do not spend so much time doing either that you neglect to take pictures.

what do you want from the site?

We try to put up an average of two new modules every three to four weeks, one paid, one free. If there is a module that you would like to see, but doesn't exist yet, then contact us and tell us. Preferably a paid module, of course (we are trying to turn this into a site that gives us a modest income) but we'll listen to requests for free modules as well. The Hybrid Darkroom (Coming Soon) is an example of a free module that was suggested by a subscriber. For fairly obvious reasons we give preference to subscribers' suggestions. We can make no guarantees, but if it is feasible to do so, we'll try to meet your request sooner or later.

planning a course

Once again there are two questions: where are you now, and where do you want to get to?

As far as we can see, we get two kinds of subscribers, those who have been using film for a long time, and those who are just getting into film for the first time, or at least, are just beginning to take it seriously: obviously, Welcome to Film and Black and White may be of interest to the latter, and Our Darkrooms and Our Materials may be of interest to both. All four are free.

Where they (you) want to get to from there is another matter. Some are perfectly happy to remain amateurs who take pictures for their own pleasure and hardly ever show them to anyone else. Others are more interested in exhibitions, websites and publication. A few are even interested in turning professional, and although we have mixed feelings about this, there are modules on the site such as White on White (paid) which contain professional tricks of the trade that are seldom discussed.

working backwards

What we suggest, perhaps paradoxically, is that you work backwards. Pretend that you already know it all. Choose the module that comes closest to your particular area of interest. Read it.



If you are better at whatever we cover than we are, and learn nothing at all from the module, we apologize: you have wasted your money, though we have always found that all but the very worst books, or magazine articles, or web sites can tell us something new. We'd be surprised if there weren't something new that you can learn from us, even if you are a better photographer.

If, on the other hand, the module raises questions to which you do not know the answer, then look for another module that answers those (or alternatively, if there isn't one, write and suggest it as noted above). Read the module in question. Then go back and read the original module, or another one that gives some other information that you want.

This is the great advantage of this site: it's a bit like an encyclopaedia, so you can read it in any order, and re-read it, and test yourself against it, to see if you know more than we do. We hope it's enjoyable too.


A bright future awaits you on the colony planets

As well as looking at the modules, look at the galleries. If you see pictures that you like, hunt around to see which modules they appear in most. Frances shot this picture -- which reminds her of Bladerunner, hence the title -- in Beijing in 2005.

personalized tuition and picture critiques

Personalized tuition and picture critiques are things we haven't done yet, for several reasons.

One is that we're not sure how much demand there is for either.

Second, we're not sure how much to charge for them if we did. Anything less than about $30 an hour, a nickel a minute, would hardly be worth it, though you can pack a lot into an hour. Nor are we entirely sure how we could make payment work: $10 (20 minute) pre-paid chunks, maybe, and any reply, gallery view or whatever would be timed to the nearest minute.

Third, we love to travel and we're wary of being somewhere that we can't get to an internet cafe to reply in a timely manner. This shouldn't be a problem in most of the world, though China, for example, censors the internet so heavily that we couldn't log on to our own site. Then again, we wouldn't want to go back to China.

Within reason, though, we are perfectly happy to correspond as far as possible with subscribers (and indeed non-subscribers) for free, at least, until the work-load grows too heavy. Once it does, the ones who pay would have priority. Let us know what you think.

the bottom line

We make no bones about it. We think this site is more interesting and better value than the vast majority of books and magazines on the market. In order to make it work, we need quite a lot of subscribers. The number of people subscribing is rising at quite a cheering rate, but the more subscribers we get, the better we can make the site. We are more than happy to listen to our readers/subscribers -- so let us know what you think, and we'll try to deliver it. You can't say fairer than that.

Go to the unillustrated list of modules (in either alphabetical or date order)

or go to the illustrated list of modules

or go to the home page

© 2006 Roger W. Hicks