No matter which way we look at it, photography is an expensive endeavour. We might have started out making a minimal investment with our point and shoot cameras but once we’ve been bitten by the bug, we find all sorts of lenses and accessories we absolutely must have. Just the quest to find the perfect camera bag alone can set us back hundreds of dollars and create a storage issue as we accumulate camera bags that don’t quite work for us. It doesn’t help either that we are subjected to constant marketing about the latest products with promises to help us make better pictures. Is there a way to determine how much and where to invest in our photography? I have a very simple formula that has worked for me and that is to invest more in myself than in my gear. Here’s what that looks like.
From the very beginning of my love affair with photography, I bought books. At first I purchased classics like Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure. This book is now in its third edition and is probably one of the best selling photography books ever. It breaks down exposure in very simple terms (including the exposure triangle) and then goes on to explain how to use exposure in creative ways. Bryan is an excellent teacher and a great writer and this is a book I have given to others who are just starting out in photography. I also recommend Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing (4th Edition) and Photographing the World Around You (2nd Edition). These books are an excellent complement to the technical aspects of exposure as they discuss not only the elements but also the principles of visual design. Today I buy very few books on the craft of photography and spend most of my budget on photography books. My absolute favourite is William Albert Allard’s Five Decades: A Retrospective. I’ve read this book several times and spent countless hours with the photographs and I learn something new each time. It can be overwhelming to decide which photography books to buy so just start with pictures that you love or are curious about and the photographers who made them. As you progress in your photography, buy books that stretch you, ones that you might not love but will challenge your thinking about what good photography is.
This category can be split in two main areas: classes and workshops. We all learn differently but studies have shown that when learning takes place individually and in groups, the knowledge becomes much more permanent. My first photography class was a beginners class at a local photography school, not unlike the Bangkok Photo School class starting at the end of May. I had an enthusiastic teacher who made learning fun and once that class was over, I was hooked. I continued to take classes online and occasionally in person and I paced myself based on my progress and where I wanted to be photographically. My next step was to take a workshop. It was a big step both financially and mentally. Workshops are expensive and I learnt very quickly how to make the most of my investment. Look for workshop leaders who have a good record. Don’t rely too much on testimonials because often participants are not as forthcoming about their experiences. Instead look at the results of those workshops. What do the photographs look like? Are they just pale imitations of the workshop leader or do they show something more? Never take a workshop where the leader is making pictures for themselves. You are paying to learn from them, not to fund their latest trip or book. I have reached a point in my photography where I don’t often take workshops anymore. In my opinion, if you are progressing as a photographer you will outgrow workshops and you will want to spend your money in other ways. These days instead of workshops, I travel with friends who are also photographers. We learn as much or more from each other as we can from a professional photographer leading a workshop to some exotic location.
I am a big advocate of personal mentoring. Mentoring can be pricey but in some cases, it is cheaper than a workshop and it more sustained and focused. I believe anyone can benefit from mentoring but the trick is to find the right mentor and that is much more difficult than it seems. Referrals can help but sometimes it will come down to a trial run with someone you are considering as a mentor. I have actually been in a mentoring arrangement for a number of years now and while it has changed over this time, the goals and objectives have fundamentally remained the same: to improve my photography. It takes work (mostly on your part) and a mentor who is focused on you and your needs. Some of the areas of photography I have worked on with my mentor include finding my visual voice, identifying possible personal projects, and where to go next. (As an aside, we seldom talk about gear.)
The return on investing in yourself will always be bigger than investing in camera gear. Notwithstanding the exceptions, each time a new camera body or lens comes out, your current gear devalues. On the other hand, spending money on improving your thinking around making photographs will pay dividends long into the future. I guarantee it.