Subject Librarian

Doing a MOOC thing...on photography

I’m generally not one for signing up for online courses. I did one a little while back and although it was interesting, I don’t think I really gained a lot from it and I certainly wasn’t able to engage with it as much as I would like. Although nominally you can do these courses at your own leisure, I found I lacked the time to commit to it and a lot of the time I was watching videos just for the sake of getting through it. They became like a chore rather than something I would enjoy. So it was with some trepidation that I took advantage of the offer to enroll in a free online basic digital photography course (part of a Christmas promotion by the course creators). I had a feeling I would find myself in the same situation, watching videos because I had to and missing out on live webinars because life. But, well, I’ve found that that was not the case after all.

I’ve been interested in photography for a very long time. As far back as I can remember, I have always had a camera and I’ve always been interested in experimenting, learning and trying out new approaches. For a long time, back in my retail days, I worked in or managed the photographic department. So I got to learn a lot about films and film processing, very often working in the lab to print out other people’s work (although this became more automated over time of course, we were able to correct exposures for the customers to ensure their photos were as good as possible). For a long time I had 35mm compact cameras. First an old Kodak camera, then a little Canon before getting an Olympus Mju II. Eventually I migrated to digital, with an Olympus camera, followed by a Lumix until finally I went to a Nikon DSLR and decided I really needed to take my photography that much more seriously.

My Nikon DSLR plus lenses (l-r Nikon D3200; 55-300 zoom lens; 18-55 kit lens; 50mm prime lens)

I’ve always been relatively happy with my composition. I think generally I get the framing right when I take a picture and compose the image pretty well. What I’ve lacked, however, is the technical knowledge. In fact, automatic modes have been all I have used since getting the DSLR. Having built up a collection of lenses (and filters), I felt it was time that I worked more on the technical elements. On my exposures, my shutter speeds and my apertures. Although I have been pleased with the quality of my photos up until now, I’ve always felt a little bit embarrassed that they have been taken on an automatic mode, I’ve had no control over the actual photos itself. I really needed to get that sorted.

Plaza de Espana, Seville (2008) – an early digital photo I’m quite pleased with in terms of composition.

And that’s when I decided to enroll on the course (although I probably wouldn’t have done if it hadn’t have been free…) and learn more about how to take photographs “properly”. I certainly feel like the course has taken me forward in leaps and bounds. Last weekend was the first time I had taken my camera out and took full control of my shots, using the light meter to help me adjust aperture and shutter speeds. I was pretty pleased with the results. More than that, I was really proud of the results. I felt like I have taken the first steps towards taking much better photographs and that my capabilities are much improved.

The course has certainly been worth my while, and it has got me thinking a lot about the way online courses work. I felt that a photography course particularly lends itself well to these kinds of courses. The bulk of the learning and the work is practical. It’s you, your camera and the scenery and away you go. Of course you need some foundation stuff to get you started, but other than that, the amount of information you need to be able to learn is not that great. There are key facts and important concepts to understand of course, but it’s not like enrolling on an arts/humanities/sciences course. I think that’s why it has worked for me, it gave me the basic tools and then I was able to go and learn myself. Generally speaking, I think I prefer that kind of learning rather than going through a series of videos and readings each week (or whenever I have the time).

One of my first fully manual photos. Shot using a 50mm prime lens with a polarising filter.

I’m still not wholly convinced that online courses in general are really my thing, but I think when it comes to photography, they just work. Or at least, in the case of this particular course, it just worked. Maybe it’s as much about timing as anything else (I had already resolved to improve my photography so the drive was already there), I don’t know. Whatever the reasoning behind the course working for me, it has worked for me. I feel that I am already a much improved photographer and, crucially, I can’t wait to get out there, take more photos and really experiment with what I have learnt. I guess that means it’s pretty much job done!

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