Do you learn from photography “gurus” on the internet or from real masters?

Who taught you photography? Are you an autodidact? In that case you are vulnerable to a disease that exists only on the digital waves of the Internet. It’s called amateurs teaching amateurs and it leads to photography that is mediocre at best.

How often have you read you must compose your image with the rule of thirds? It’s an almost religious dogma for the photography “experts” who are generously spitting out their advice on dedicated forums and social groups. Alas, good photography is a little more complicated than applying a rule. The art, press and other photographers who really know their trade — and have the credentials to show for — break composition rules all the time.

Creative thinking is free. As an aspiring amateur, you may learn rules because in the very beginning of your training as an artist it pays off to mimic history’s greatest painters and photographers. Many contemporary artists who became famous in our own age, studied and shamelessly copied the masters before developing their own style and vision. See Sotheby’s curriculum, for an example of how Sotheby’s includes learning from visits to the museum.

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However, they did study the masters, not other amateurs, nor even the pros who teach in Lynda’s series. Learning from amateurs is without merit as you’ll also repeat their mistakes. While paid tutorial sites are better, few pros who contribute to them are really masters themselves. They’re just good at what they do, not exceptional.

golden ratio

Photography like painting and drawing relies on the way you see things. More than any composition rule, taking the time to see what a scene or a subject is made of — the (literally) composing elements — is more valuable than following some standard advice. Visiting museums and looking — really examining for composition elements — at paintings and photos of the greatest will help you develop an eye. The rest is craftsmanship for which you could take a course or buy a few books.

There is another problem with learning from Internet gurus. Admittedly, we are all experts in some area. You may have read the law and spent time successfully solving legal issues in the real world, so you might have had valuable legal expertise at some point in your life. Others might have worked with the BBC as camera operators or Directors of Photography. All of us have expertise in one field or another, but how will you tell online any of us really have?

Perhaps you can’t. Those of use who are successful in our field of expertise will be too busy to be contributing to discussion groups on LinkedIn or Facebook, while others may boast about expertise they don’t have. The crux of the matter: as long as you don’t belong to my inner circle of friends, I can’t tell with certainty. Only if you’re famous, will I be able to find references to your genius.

Do you know Gregory Crewdson? He’s a world famous art photographer and a good example of how composition rules are rubbish. Crewdson stages his photos and the screenshot I took of an example image on his official site (with a rule of thirds overlay on top) seems to show this master photographer not sticking too much to a rule, in order to create an image that tells a compelling story, draws you into the image, intrigues and sticks in the mind.

Greg Crewdson
Source: Gregory Crewdson website  — Shown here in compliance with Gagosian website’s Terms of Use, par. 2: Proprietary Rights > Fair use.

Of course, if you only want to shoot nice looking snapshots, some free advice from Internet “experts” may help.

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