What's The Right Photography Course For Me?

I've had the good fortune to share the joy of photography with thousands of people over the years. Prior to beginning this site I worked as a photography teacher at a range of photography colleges and institutions in Melbourne, Australia. These days I do a lot less formal teaching. However, there's two questions that never seem to go away. And, because they're so important, I wanted to spend some time addressing them here.

Which Camera Should I Buy?

The first question, while easy enough to ask, is somewhat more difficult to answer. Recognizing that a qualified answer should be preceded with a number of return questions signals the beginning of our journey of understanding. In my case I'd be trying to determine all manner of things including, but not limited to, the following:

  • What is your budget?
  • What do you intend to photograph?
  • How comfortable are you with potentially complicated menu structures?
  • Beware the Biased and the Guilt Ridden 

So, if you were to ask this critical question and the reply, when not preceded with a range of qualifying questions, was a Canon xxx or Nikon zzz you should probably be asking yyy. The answer is likely going to be because that's the camera that the other person (e.g. well-meaning friend, tutor, etc) users. And that's probably a good time to leave that particular discussion.

Clearly the issue isn't what they use, but what camera would be best suited to your needs and budget. You might be surprised as to how few people actually understand that simple concept. After all, you wouldn't want your money being spent to either support someone else's brand bias or otherwise justify their own purchase.

Help is on the Way

Now while I can't help everyone out there wanting to buy a camera, at least on a one-to-one basis, I do have a solution which I've been working on for a considerable amount of time. I'm nearing completion of a major project which should help folks identify the right camera for their needs and budget. Details will be announced on this site before the end of 2012. What's more it's FREE!

Do I have the Right Camera for this Course?

Another question that tends to be directed to me via customer service folk is whether a potential customer has the right camera for a specific course. This is an important question to which tutor and customer service personnel alike would want to provide the right answer. But there are a few problems that continually arise which make this task harder than it would otherwise seem. I'd summarize these problems as follows:

There Isn't a Course Ideally Suited to Your Camera

This is a common problem for folks looking for a course that will help them understand how to use their micro four thirds camera. These are great cameras and are quickly gaining market share. However, at this stage, they remain in the minority which is why it may be hard to find a course that's designed with this particular camera format in mind.

Micro four thirds camera owners attending an Introduction to the DSLR camera (or similar) course may be somewhat disappointed. Depending on the camera in question they may find quite a bit of common ground with the DSLR participants, but there will likely be times when the information delivered may not seem relevant. That's because the course is designed and constructed for a type of camera different from their own.

Should you make the choice to attend such a class try to remember that your tutor has a duty to deliver information as advertised in a manner appropriate to the needs of participants with the kind of camera to which the course was designed.

Teaching is a Challenge

At the end of the day a tutor probably has very little control over who attends their class. In my own case I work extremely hard to try to provide all participants with a vibrant, informative and fun learning environment. In the world of short courses that means providing an experience that engages all manner of people the following

  • Teenagers to retirees
  • Male and female
  • A diverse range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds
  • Varying degrees of education and, on occasions, folks with learning difficulties
  • A range of experiences in photography from complete novice to serious enthusiast
  • All manner of personalities
  • A range of expectations, often outside of that detailed in the course outline

All are welcome but in no way is it an easy job. Yet it's an area that has rewards far beyond what I consider to be the barely adequate (warning, controversy alert) remuneration paid to tutors in this sector.

Actually I'm always impressed by the fact that folks make the effort, often at the end of a hard day's work, to attend one of my classes. No more so than when they're balancing family and work needs to be there.

The fact is I still get a real buzz when I see someone's face light up with the realization of new knowledge. It's probably the greatest joy a teacher can have. That, and the fact that we are able to both inspire and educate participants towards investing themselves in this most creative art form.

It's actually very common for folks to enroll in courses to which they're not ideally suited. They may have the wrong camera or be enrolling in a course for which they're not quite ready. Here's some common reasons I'm given when folks end up in my classes.

Tonights The Night

I was advised to do another course, but it's on Tuesdays. Tonight suits be better.

I Like Your Style

I was told that this course isn't suitable for my camera but I liked your website so much that I thought I'd sign up anyway.

I get this one all the time and, while flattering, it's hard not to feel somewhat compromised. As explained earlier, attending a class that is not designed for your camera or abilities is problematic and it's not neither appropriate nor possible for your tutor to alter course content or delivery based upon the needs of a single participant. Needless to say spending a few minutes in a one-to-one during breaks is hardly going to replace hours of content.

I guess one of the problems that folk's have in identifying the most appropriate course for the needs (and the camera they use) is the way some courses are described. For goodness sake the term DSLR is hardly helpful to the uninitiated.

The DSLR Camera - A Definition

The term DSLR is used to describe a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. OK, so the acronym becomes a series of words that don't really mean anything. Welcome to the world of the acronym. Now let's try to make some sense of the term.

Clearly digital tells us that it's not a film-based camera, while the words Single Lens Reflex refers to the fact that the camera is designed for a single lens to be mounted, via a bayonet thread (much like some of the old fashion light bulbs), to the front of the camera.

Actually the term digital refers, for the most part, to the chip or sensor onto which light falls. It is here that the image is recorded, though it has to be processed before it makes sense to the human eye. The result of in-camera processing is usually a JPEG image.

To fully benefit from a course designed for DSLR cameras you'll need an interchangeable lens camera that incorporates a mirror system allowing you to see what the lens sees and, as a result, achieve more accurate metering, composition and focusing than would be possible with a traditional point and shoot camera. Put simply, does your camera allow you to remove the lens and replace it with another one.

Most digital single-lens reflex cameras, commonly referred to as Digital SLR or DSLR cameras, use a mechanical mirror system and pentaprism to direct light from the lens to an optical viewfinder at the back of the camera. This optical viewfinder is positioned above and in addition to the LCD panel on the back on the camera. It's this system of mirrors and the pentaprism that are referred to by the 'R or Reflex' in the term DSLR.

OK, but what's the relevance of a 'SL' (single-lens) in the term DSLR?

Back in the day there were Twin Lens cameras made by companies such as Rolleiflex and Yashica. Here's how they worked.

The lens closest to the top of the camera passed light, by way of a mirror, up to a viewfinder or eyepiece for composition and focusing. The lower lens would pass light, through a variable lens opening (aperture), onto the film for an amount of time controlled by the shutter speed.

One of the disadvantages associated with this system was the phenomena known as parallax error which would occur when photographing at a relatively short camera-to-subject distance.

What appeared to be sufficient space at the top of the frame, from the viewpoint provided by the camera’s highest lens, often resulted in a portrait with part or all of the subject’s head cut off.


Medium format Folding and Twin Lens Reflex cameras

This phenomena was also shared by film-based box, point-and-shoot and single-use (i.e. disposal) cameras and by some of the less expensive rangefinder cameras.

The fact that a DSLR camera provides a far more exact means by which you can frame, compose and focus your image are examples of the tangible benefits provided by this type of camera.

Basic Operation of a DSLR Camera

The basic operation of a DSLR camera can be described as follows:

  • To enable the photographer to see what the lens sees the mirror reflects the light coming through the lens upwards, through a ground glass screen, into the camera's pentaprism and then back, through the viewfinder, towards the eye.
  • As an aid to composition, framing and focusing the lens is automatically set to its widest aperture.
  • During exposure the aperture usually closes down to help achieve the exposure (brightness) required.
  • The mirror assembly swings upward and the shutter (a visually opaque curtain or blind) opens allowing the lens to project light onto the sensor (digital film) where the image is recorded.
  • A second shutter then closes, ending the exposure and preventing more light from reaching the sensor.
  • The mirror returns and the lens’s aperture is set back to its widest opening.
  • The camera writes the resulting digital file onto a memory card.
  • The camera is now ready to make the next picture. 

All of the above occurs, often within a fraction of a second.

Still Not Happy

For those folks still unsure as to whether or not their camera is appropriate for the course at hand it's probably fair to say that if your camera allows you to interchange lenses you'll probably be OK. This doesn't change the fact that your particular model of micro four thirds camera won't exactly match the functionality, menu options and logic of the larger and, currently, more conventional APS-C and full-frame DSLR cameras.

But that doesn't mean you won't find value in an Introduction to the DSLR camera course. You'll just have to be patient and understand that, in addition to having to deal with the differences in features, button layout and menu logic associated with the larger Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax and Olympus cameras your tutor will, somehow, have to meet the challenge of making sense of and explaining the wonder that is your own little piece of technological.

Ultimately the decision to attend is yours. Be assured your tutor will do their best to accommodate your needs. But also understand the difficult nature of their job and the time constraints under which they are required to meet what are often quite demanding customer expectations.

Risk and Rewards

With the right attitude and reasonable expectations you should finish the course happy and with a far greater understanding of your camera and how to employ it in a way that taps into your own unique creative nature. And remember that a hammer is still just a hammer. The best photography courses and tutors meld customer expectations for information on their cameras with how to use these technologically marvels to create compelling and engaging images. No matter what camera you own, you can't make art without heart.

Completing such a course should see you gain a reasonable level of proficiency with your camera. You can now concentrate on the more important aspects of image making as you embark on your exploration of the beauty of our world and its people through the art of photography.

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Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru