Teaching yourself photography


Imagine, for a second, that you are a young person with a camera. There are other cameras in the world around you, and there are people who use those cameras, too, but nobody really knows what they are doing, nobody can teach you anything you don’t already know, and the only tool you have in the world is the internet. All hope is lost … Or is it?

I was recently speaking to Elisa Longhitano, who found herself in the same situation. As she was telling me about how she was teaching herself photography, I found myself smiling, and wishing I had access to the internet back when I was learning. Either way, Elisa’s story is a lovely reminder of the fact that all you need to do to learn the dark (well, technically, the perfectly gradient) art of photography, is to be curious, and just that little bit inventive… 

“It was during my last year in high school”, Elisa explains “that I decided to surf the web to find useful information about photography. During the search I stumbled across, and ended up contacting, Walter Lo Cascio, an Italian architect who has a powerful passion for photography. We became friends, and he ended up giving me a lot of great advice”, she recalls. The most important piece of advice was to seek inspiration from the outside world. “look at those great pictures that are in books and on the web if you want to learn how to take a good picture”, he told her.

Like many others would, Elisa was worried if it was possible to learn how to take photos without active mentoring. “I thought it was impossible to learn how to take a good picture just looking at others’ works”, she recalls. “Walter would be relentless, however, and started showing me some of his and of others’ best pictures.”

Learning by recreating the work and techniques of others

“I started surfing through photography forums and reading the comments left for the pictures that fascinated me.”, she explains. “Reading the comments has been pretty useful to me because I have been able to learn from others’ mistakes and also because I’ve been able to find some interesting information about topics like ‘lens aperture’, ‘shutter speed’, and other technical aspects of the shot.”

One of the photos which got Elisa inspired is the photo by Adolfo Fabbri, on the right. (Bigger version here) She started experimenting with the very dark, almost Frank Miller-esque low-key photography style, wanting to recreate the effect herself.

She started off trying to use partial back-lighting, arriving at something like this:

Which, despite being a pretty attractive photograph, was nowhere near what she was trying to accomplish. Further experimentation resulted in something which was a little bit more like it:

Which is, well, Elisa is pretty much straight on the money: It’s not a bad shot, but “It is just a meaningless underexposure!”.

Obviously, more experimentation would be necessary to really learn this new technique. She continued experimenting, and eventually happened upon a photo which turned out to be rather beautiful. The only problem? “I didn’t remember exactly what I did to reach this result!” – I’m sure most of us have experienced the same at one point or another…

As a physics student, the fact that she was unable to recreate the shot drove her spare: “I just couldn’t be satisfied because I kept thinking ‘In physics, too, an experiment makes sense only if you can repeat it’”. So she did what any good scientist would do: Set herself a target. “I must be able to repeat this kind of shot”.

So, the experiments continued.

“I started thinking about what I had to do, and I realized that beyond the shutter speed or the lens aperture, it was also important to care about where lights come from, and what is behind the subject”

The further experiments involved a lot of taking photos into the light (or ‘backlighting’, as it tends to be called), as you can see from the photos on the left. “I liked these pictures”, Elisa told me, but still wasn’t quite happy: “Even if they are both taken against the light there were too many details”.

So, Elisa continued experimenting systematically. By taking a photo at one shutter time, evaluating it carefully, and then dialing back the shutter time yet a little bit more, her vision of what she wanted to do with low-key photography started to take form.

“I did nothing special or original”, she claims with just a little bit too much humbleness for my liking: “I only tried to learn and take inspiration from other works, and with a lot of attempts and effort I think to have reached something decent.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a story if it didn’t have a rather stunning end… And it does, in the form of a portrait of her boyfriend Emanuele, titled Against the Darkness:

Lessons learned

  1. Use the internet to find photographs you like. With services such as Flickr (in this case, try searching for Low Key and select ‘most interesting’ as the sort order) or DeviantArt (Same, but ‘Low Key’ and ‘Popular’), you can find tons of inspiration.
  2. Don’t let anyone tell you what is good or bad. Make up your own mind. Select 5 photos in the genre you are trying to learn something about, and then put them in order of best to worst. What makes the best photo ‘best’? How could you recreate this?
  3. First, re-create a photo. This is a purely technical exercise – worry about creativity later.
  4. Once you have the technical skills down pat (again, a website like DeviantArt can be incredibly useful in this respect – Tell people what you’re trying to do, ask for feed-back, sit back and be amazed), try to think out a photo where you can use the new technique you’ve learned.
  5. Keep trying a new technique for a while, create your own style based on the technique.
  6. When you go bored of it, or feel like you’re ready for another challenge… Well, go to step 1!

A huge thank-you to Elisa for contributing so strongly to this article. Check out more of her photos on Flickr!

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