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The Best Photography Course I Ever Took

I often ask myself, “When and how it is it that I decided to become a commercial photographer?” The answer to this question is usually a long drawn out tale that goes back to when I was a junior in high school back in Miami. I’ll save you the long story and only share the story of my favorite photography class and assignment and why it was so great.

When I was 21, I decided to transfer schools and leave sunny Miami, FL for cold snowy Rochester, NY to attend Rochester Institute of Technology. I had been accepted into their ‘Summer Photo Transfer II’ program which crams what is normally a year’s worth of photography education into a single summer course. The class went from 9am until 5pm Monday thru Friday for ten weeks. During class we spent time in the studio watching lighting demos, listening to lectures, working in the darkroom, taking part in critiques, and all the other activities that one does in photography school. After being in class most of the day, we went out and shot pictures either in the studio or on location for our assignments daily. This was a very taxing class: we lived, breathed, and ate photography 24/7 for 10 weeks. The course made us question if we truly wanted to do photography for a living and every year a couple of students dropped out of the course because of this.

We had some assignments which took weeks to complete, but many were assigned one day and due the next. A few weeks into the course, after an exhaustingly long day of lectures and critiques, our professor presented us with an assignment: It was called the 20/20 assignment and we had 20 hours to shoot 20 rolls of 36 exposure B&W film, process the negatives, make contact sheets, and make 20 final prints in the darkroom for a critique the next day at 1:00 PM. In addition, we were not allowed to do excessive bracketing of exposures or dwell too much on a single subject. Adding to the fun was the fact that the school darkrooms weren’t open 24 hours. Developing 20 rolls of black and white negatives would take a considerable amount of time so we had no other choice but to develop all the film at home after we finished shooting all 720 frames of film.

Upon announcement of this assignment, the 20 or so students who were in the class with me were either silent in bewilderment, or grumbling about how the professor could possibly give us an assignment like this. If you figured on a normal day you set aside 8 hours of sleep, an hour dedicated to getting ready for school, another hour for meals, and time to commute to school, that really only gave us about 10 hours to do all that he asked…. This was not a normal day.

I bought my supplies and quickly drove to the beaches of Lake Ontario, the local parks, to local neighborhoods, and just about anywhere else I could imagine. Things started out great. I shot my first 5 rolls of film fairly quickly, but as the evening continued it became harder and harder to make good pictures. The sun started to set, but I had only shot about 12 rolls of film and I was tired. It would have been easy to throw in the towel early and just randomly shoot bad pictures and call it a day, but I wanted to do my best at this assignment. I ended up photographing well into the night and finally finished around 11pm.

Luckily, I had processed film in my bathroom plenty of times that summer already so the process of rolling the film onto the reels and developing the film wasn’t very hard, just time consuming. I finally finished processing the film, hung the negatives to dry, and set my alarm clock for 6:00AM: The time was now 3:00AM.

Looking back, I wish I had a group picture of my class from that next morning at the darkrooms when we all arrived to start printing. I had never seen a more exhausted looking bunch of students in my life. Many people had not slept at all and smelled like fixer from processing their negatives the night before. We all got to work in our darkrooms making contact sheets and printing. There were rumors going around about who didn’t finish, who fell asleep, and who messed up their film in processing. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the students finished the assignment on time.

The whole assignment is pretty much a blur to me now, but the lessons I leaned from it are not. I took away some very important points from this project:

Photography is not easy.

  1. You’re going to take lots and lots of bad pictures to make a few good pictures.
  2. At times you will be very confused about what to photograph or how to photograph.
  3. As long as you know how to edit your pictures well, nobody will ever know you take bad pictures.
  4. Not everybody is cut out to be a photographer, it’s more work than some want to do.
  5. Making pictures under the pressure of a big deadline is not easy.
  6. If you really love photography and want to do it for a living, you will lose sleep for it.
  7. Giving up or compromising the need for perfection is not an option.

More than anything else, I learned that I love taking pictures even when I have to do it under pressure and in a way I would normally not want to do it. That is exactly what commercial photographers do much of the time. We are shooting the pictures our clients want us to shoot, under a tight deadlines, and on occasion not in the way we would prefer to shoot them. Some see this as the reason why they don’t want to be commercial photographers and I don’t blame them. On the other hand I love the challenge and work well under pressure, so I’m well built for being a commercial photographer.


About the author: Steve Giralt is a NYC-based photographer who was selected in 2005 by PDN magazine as one of 30 emerging photographers to watch. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.


Image credit: Rochester Institute of Technology by Wearn, EPFL Photography class 2 by Roman Schmitz, 114/365 – old friends by foreverdigital, I love Photography by ficknoster


 
 
  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Great post – Thanks for sharing Steve!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UMRJBOOIMADJYZKE42NT6NBWCU Albin

    Nice read, my daughter went through something similar at Dawson College Montreal, and has been working through various ways to make a living (freelance, partnership in a local studio space, etc.) One thing you don’t mention is that, apart from the commitment to making good photographs as such, must be a commitment to some very unpleasant but very typical small business activities like marketing, holding clients to contracts, and pricing work to make a living rather than pricing it to get another thrilling new job that loses money. I’m beginning to think ambitious young commercial photographers should learn the craft and assess their aptitude for it at photo school first, but then take another full hard course in business practice after they’ve had some fun but lost some money a year or two out of school. Dawson tried to teach some basic business skills, but the students took it lightly, and most of them are no longer in the business.

  • MIkeC366

    I made my decision just this Tuesday when the Olympic Flame came to my home town. http://wp.me/p268wp-k8 The buzz of getting in there with the professionals was great. I know what I want to do now. So much so that I blagged a press pass for another flame event today. This time I didn’t have to fight the public for a position. What a great day. Sunday I’m doing a dog show. This is great, I love it.
    M.

  • http://twitter.com/stevegiralt Steve Giralt
  • Judy Royal Glenn

    The project sounds grueling, but you had several great take aways!

  • http://www.facebook.com/MikeCullen Michael Cullen

    Nice! I survived the RIT Summer Transfer back in the ’80s. Best damn 10 weeks of school I ever had.

  • http://wemetlastnight.tumblr.com/ Albi Kl

    Awesome post. A good reminder of amount of work that needs to be done when not shooting.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Steve: I’m wondering if Willy Osterman was on the RIT faculty when you were there, maybe the teacher of this course? He and I did MFAs at the same time at the University of Oregon and he was my first photography teacher. I think my first class with him was in 1978 although my memory of that time is thin. He was a fantastic teacher, I was a less than fantastic student although he taught me a lot. He went on to teach at RIT although for how long I don’t know.

    Willy was also one of Ansel Adams’ assistants in his Yosemite studio during summers and Willy printed for Adams. He brought me in on a summer workshop and I got to actually carry Adams’ tripod (it weighed a ton).

    Great story, brings back memories.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Steve: I’m wondering if Willy Osterman was on the RIT faculty when you were there, maybe the teacher of this course? He and I did MFAs at the same time at the University of Oregon and he was my first photography teacher. I think my first class with him was in 1978 although my memory of that time is thin. He was a fantastic teacher, I was a less than fantastic student although he taught me a lot. He went on to teach at RIT although for how long I don’t know.

    Willy was also one of Ansel Adams’ assistants in his Yosemite studio during summers and Willy printed for Adams. He brought me in on a summer workshop and I got to actually carry Adams’ tripod (it weighed a ton).

    Great story, brings back memories.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Steve: I’m wondering if Willy Osterman was on the RIT faculty when you were there, maybe the teacher of this course? He and I did MFAs at the same time at the University of Oregon and he was my first photography teacher. I think my first class with him was in 1978 although my memory of that time is thin. He was a fantastic teacher, I was a less than fantastic student although he taught me a lot. He went on to teach at RIT although for how long I don’t know.

    Willy was also one of Ansel Adams’ assistants in his Yosemite studio during summers and Willy printed for Adams. He brought me in on a summer workshop and I got to actually carry Adams’ tripod (it weighed a ton).

    Great story, brings back memories.

  • Stephanie Meyers

    I’m in the summer transfer program right now! Willie was my teacher last fall and winter. He’s still at RIT and doing well!

  • Stephanie Meyers

    I’m in the summer transfer program right now! Willie was my teacher last fall and winter. He’s still at RIT and doing well!

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Thanks for the update Stephanie. If you run into him, tell him Richard says hi (from U of Oregon days).

  • Ernest

    Great post, really enjoyed reading it.

  • Kelly

    Awww RIT! I wasn’t in summer transfer but this certainly brought back memories of my early RIT days :)