The Photography Teacher Nobody Wants


There is a teacher of photography that few speak of in today’s industry. She is shunned by many and with good reason.

Nobody seems to like her.

She has taught photography and business for as far back as anyone can remember, but bring up her name today and it will be met with the rolling of eyes and snickers. And not the candy bar kind. 

She used to headline most events, back in the day, but now, she’s rarely asked to speak. Too old fashioned and antiquated, I suppose. She used to be heralded as the greatest teacher in the universe, one whose lessons are priceless and not to be ignored. But today, not so much. In fact, many photographers don’t even recognize a need for what she teaches and those that do learn quickly that she pulls no punches. She is relentless, unyielding, uncompromising and determined.

Quite frankly, she’s a b**ch.

Her name: Experience.

schoolclockExperience delights in teaching photographers lessons. She kind of gets off on it. Her methods have been around since the beginning of time. She charges nothing to teach you, but that doesn’t mean she’s free. Oh, no. In fact, just the opposite. She’s rather expensive, and most of the time you don’t learn what she has to teach until you’ve spent money and time and tears and sprouted gray hairs. Time is actually part of her lesson plan which is why most no longer want her around.

She happily teaches anyone who asks her; she isn’t selective or picky. She doesn’t care where you’ve come from or how much money you have in the bank or your level of ability. A willingness to learn is her only requirement. And time…always time.

Sometimes her lessons are easy and her reminders gentle; other times, they hit you like a ton of bricks, flattening you out and leaving you wondering what happened. But, if you stay the course and open yourself up to her years of teaching, the wisdom and insight you achieve will astound you.

The irony is that many photographers want the benefits of Experience but they don’t want to endure the time she takes to teach them, because, let’s face it, as anyone who has attended her class can tell you, it takes many, many years to benefit from what she has to offer. She will do whatever it takes to teach you what you should do,  but more importantly, what not to do.

For most, she only has to teach a certain lesson once for it to be understood; for others, it takes several lessons on the same subject before it sinks it, and having taught it once, you will recognize the lesson when you see it again, or she will remind you, again and again. Yes, Experience can not impart her wisdom unless we devote years to her teachings.

And to a photographer just starting out, those years ahead are daunting, filled with uncertainty. Nobody wants to wait. They want to be successful NOW.

fastSo, instead of allowing Experience to teach, the industry has gone another route: they have replaced Experience and her years of wisdom with Mr. Fast Track. You’ve heard of him, I’m sure. He’s kind of the cool kid in town, and photographers line up to hear him speak. Oh, he’s smooth, real smooth, and hip and trendy. He’s like the photography equivalent of Weight Loss Pills-guaranteed to work overnight. He’s got answers for everything AND a workbook, forum, DVD and/or downloadable e-book.

Mr. Fast Track knows that Experience isn’t fun and he counts on the fact that many of today’s photographers don’t want to take a slow and steady climb on the back of Experience. Heck no. They would rather sink into Mr. Fast Track’s cool leather seats and be whisked around the track a few times to give them the feeling they are going somewhere, and then dropped off, excited and breathless and only ten feet from where they started out.

He speaks not of time and commitment and hard work. Are you kidding? He’s no buzzkill. No, he speaks of things like “Path to Photography Riches,” and “Six-Figure Income in 30 Days” and “Secrets to Success.” And he does well in his endeavors, very well, for he seems to always have people ready to hop onboard.

But, Experience has a little secret. Even while Mr. Fast Track is teaching his tips and tricks for getting ahead in as little time as possible, she’s still there…watching. We don’t see her, because we’re focused on the “secrets” and the “shortcuts” but she is there, in the background watching…and waiting, patiently taking it all in and developing a plan. And although we won’t find it out until later, she is still teaching.

climberAnd after the sparkle has worn off the fast track and the shortcuts fizzle to nothingness, she steps out from the shadows, raises a knowing eyebrow and reminds us that even when we succumb to nonsense, there are still things to be learned, for with every lackluster promise we buy, every disappointment we encounter, she is teaching us what not to do next time. Every offer of instant success we snatch up, every coupon we click promising wealth without work, Experience is there, applying her wisdom to our folly.

Experience demands we learn and will find ways to make sure we take her wisdom to heart. Sometimes she’ll hit us in our bank account; sometimes it’s one-on-one with a client; other times it’s that pit in your stomach as you download your images and remember that thing you forgot to do.

And not just in the beginning of our careers…oh no. Experience is the teacher you have with you all your life, for as we encounter new challenges in photography and in our businesses, she rises up and begins to teach once again. Even those photographers for whom she has spent a lifetime training and coaching can forget the early lessons she taught. And trust me, her kick in the pants hurts even worse when it’s a reminder of something you should already know.

So don’t try to run from Experience or buy into the idea you don’t need what she has to teach. Because you do. We all do.

Image credits: Abandoned. by hyekab25, Abandoned School Clock by HappyTramp87, Speaking of Sexy Cars… by Tai Gray, Climber by Laurel Fan

  • George

    I totally agree with you and the author. A lot of the people here are missing the point. Every day that I go to my facebook account some one new seems to have set up a photography business. Every one is taking bookings for shoots and weddings thinking that by having the latest gizmo they will be able to shoot every thing that comes to hand. Many don’t have a clew about what they are getting into. Many photographers who have been in the business are scared that such people are taking their work but personally I tend to think that such people are only making the pros look better. If you go to some one who charges you peanuts for a shoot you expect peanuts and not photos in return. Put the price up and then you get the clients that really want your work and style. That is one lesson that the old teacher has taught me. No new equipment will make you better, it will make your life easier but only if you know your s**t. The author, as I see it is referring to taking thing a little slowly. Yes do take risks and yes do challenge yourself but you must also think before you act. Know your limitations and take every thing into consideration. To Andrew, I have learnt from this teacher and one big lesson was very simple but yet very important, the less you know the easier things look. Yes do take chances and don’t miss on many opportunities but not at the cost of your clients. To tell you the truth that is how I have made money, many people have been bitten by those that promis things which they cant keep up to. Don’t forget that you will be remembered for your worst photo, very few of us will have that great photo which will be remembered throughout the years. This has become a business just like the music industry were a lot try but do not succeed, full of one hit wonders who are quickly forgotten. only the best remain just because they have worked hard to get there and because they strive to stay there. It seems that many think that its easy being a photographer, hehe, the old teacher will teach them no matter if they want to attend her classes or not. They will be hit by reality and Mr fast track who wants to sell with out telling what the full deal is will not be there to hold their hand. When you are caught with out a spare battery, corrupt card, broken hard drive, heat exhaustion, a broken camera, a back up photographer, lost for directions missing phone, well then you will think twice about knowing it all. You never know it all, and when you think you do, then that is when you get hit. The bigger the risk the tougher the fall.

  • georgesaguna

    I think you have hit the nail on the head. Spot on. Personally most of the people seem to oppose this frame of thought are the ones who are attending the new teacher’s class.

  • georgesaguna

    100 percent agree with you, but I got that through experience itself and so have you from the looks of things. Experience doesn’t have to be slow and what you learn in one branch of your life will effect the other. Some times you might be lucky and get it right unknowingly, doesn’t mean you are going to be lucky next time and it surly doesn’t mean that you have the right experience.

  • Ivor Wilson

    What are you talking about? You’re already a sandwich. :-/

  • Sean Matt

    And here I thought this was going to be about Ken Rockwell.

  • bubba gump might know shrimp

    The tone of these conversations just amazes me. I really want to have surgery done by someone with no experience but who has really nice sharp scalpels, a cool surgery mask, and whose passion – at least on the weekends – has been to be a surgeon, ever since they operated on their little fuzzy wuzzy hamster, Of course he died from bleeding to death, but , hey, photography isn’t surgery, it’s just become a crappy profession where anyone with a camera and access to the web can be an instant authority. Of course these diatribes would be pretty lame if they were relegated to people who actually make their sole income from photography; wait! hell, that’d be photographers with experience. Well that’d take all the fun out of it; why learn something when you can just post your ignorant opinion? Well kids you post, I’ll just take my 30 worthless years of experience, my six figure income, and the pleasure of actually doing this for a living with me today as I go to work. Who am I to tell you anything? I only have experience – you have all the answers.

  • Canoelover

    There are too many “wedding photographers” who have a D300 and a few lenses. They tend to use Photoshop too much and charge too little. The downside of digital, I think. Don’t get me wrong, I love my digital bodies, but I still shoot Ilford Delta 400 (shot at 320) in my 120 format brick.

  • Matthew “fotomatt” Lit

    along with spelling ability. :~/

  • Andrea

    well written and oh so true. Thank you for the reality check.

  • Frank

    Dear cheri berri, it sucks when biz goes bad, eh? y’all should get some experience then ole frankie would be able to pay your and marci’s bills. Forgive me but there are a whole hell of a lot of mwacs out there I would take anyday over y’alls experience. Tables are turning missy love. xoxoxo with a cheri on top

  • Ali

    This article is a load of rubbish as it does not take into account the most important aspect of photography – TALENT.

    There are so many photographers with years of experience that are doing the same thing over and over and are completely unwilling to try something new, experiment or innovate.

    Don’t blame the young photographers for your lack of work. Blame yourself for not keeping up.

  • Rena Pearl

    Superb metaphor and oh so true from one whose been in the profession for nearly 30 years and teaching for 25

  • Andrew B

    As a full time photographer who teaches photography as well, I completely agree with this article. Even the most talented people will better themselves with experience. There is no substitute.

    For everyone that is implying that only the old “stuck-in-their-ways” photographers are the only ones agreeing obviously have never run a business or maintained a photography studio for an extended amount of time.

    I am 27, have had my studio open since I was 20, and can honestly say that I feel more confident in my skill and prepared for the job based on the experiences I have had. Even though I have trained with some of the best photographers in the world, experience has taught me just as much, if not more, than any workshop or photoshop action could ever teach me.

  • John R

    I taught a few nightshool photography classes. Beyond the basics all I tried to teach them is to look through the viewfinder. Put into your photograph what you are trying to show and exclude the other stuff. Why are you taking the photograph, do you ever want to see it again?

    I detest Instagram with an unreasoning passion, but at least it shows people how to focus on the subject, and maybe pre-visualisation.
    But it will kill peoples passion for photography, when they realise that it isn’t their shot they’ve taken, but some stupid filter that cheapened and robbed them of their own special moment.

  • John R


  • KevinNewsome

    Sooo… you find nothing wrong with the article, but choose to shoot the messenger? And you made it personal, too. How lovely.

  • robert quiet photographer

    A great article. I like it, but being over 60 I think I’m old fashioned…hmm isn’t experience a sum of mistakes where we learn from?

  • Bob Trikakis

    When I hear “Old School” or when I was younger, I find these folks dated in their thinking. When SLR first came out, not DSLR, but SLR, photographers said the same thing. Built-in light meter, 35mm film size is too small, this is not photography. Lesson here, never stop learning.

  • Ty Ford

    In a conversation i had with a friend recently, I was informed that you can ask for your lessons to be given to you gently, but you have to ask out loud…saying the words, “Please let my lessons be given to me gently.” I’ve tried it. It works for me.

  • Andrew Mortimer

    The tongue in cheek message should be most closely considered
    by professionals (those with experience!!) to stand apart. i.e. those that can,
    and have learnt through experimentation, hardship and development. The larger
    issue is most deeply set in ‘acceptability’ I personally worry over WHAT it is
    that attracts the viewer, and HOW that image can be used. (tech standard is sadly
    becoming secondary!) The visual industry is evolving in dramatic ways… Get mod
    togs, it’s the only way!

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    WOW! GOOD ARTICLE…can I have a baby with you?

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    I taught digital photography at the high school level….at a private school….everything went well until i made them learn who Ansel Adams was…i played that dvd about his life….they were visibly angry with me…..made me want to “take them all to the trash dumpster”

  • hey nonny mouse

    the same is true of karate. didn’t realize experience was such a teacher of a wide range of subjects, eh?

  • Dilip Hirani

    Great article and some great responses!

    My take is that regardless of how long you’ve been in the business – if you don’t learn or listen you never progress!

  • Mimika Cooney

    This is a very good article in pointing out that most newbie photographers want the easy success but don’t want to do the hard work to get it. I’m tired of the false promises made by the “rock stars” selling false hope. Not everyone can be a famous movie star, it “takes years to become an overnight success!” Put in the work, the time and the effort and then you can look back and count it all a success.

  • Page Turner

    The GEAR has plenty to do with photography. The outcome of the image I “see” does not come out as I see it with bottom rung gear.
    I’ve had this argument over and over usually with those who have way better lenses than me. I can “see” fantastic images, but they often come up short, without a certain,far from extravagant lens to capture them. I’ve tried it both ways. It’s so painfully obvious. THIS is if you already have the talent and skill. And yet so many will say but it’s the talent and skill and ignore the fact that I have that. Along with copious experience with OTHER people’s lenses I cannot afford.

  • peterblaise

    You’re talking about an “appropriate” lens for your specific purpose — that is not “photography”, that is “camera operation”, that is science, but that is not generative, imaginative, creative storytelling.

    Unless you plan to share only on the back screen of your camera, in your response where you focus only on a lens, so to speak, you’ve forgotten what it takes to then empower and inspire your audience to experience your photographic story.

    A printer?

    Peter Blaise wrote, at least, (edited):

    “… [ what ] we can control in our photography …
    [ 1 ]– in capture …
    [ 2 ] — in editing …
    [ 3 ] — in presentation …
    [ 4 ] — in the audience’s experience of our presentation …
    … DSLRs [ and their lenses] are the greatest evil in the world if they are an idyll, an idol, a false god getting in the way of the [ real ] photography [ — the storytelling ] …”

    I appreciate in [ 1 ] (above) the difference between an image captured with an accurately set comparatively more-accurate lens and an accurately set comparatively less-accurate lens.

    Either lens and setting only continues the cascade from imagination to “capture”, then through [ 2 ], [ 3 ], to [ 4 ] “presentation”.

    If the original concept through to presentation slips anywhere shy of the artist’s genius and or the audience’s capabilities to appreciate it, then the lens hardly matters if the slip is not lens-related.

    There is a lot to photographic storytelling that is not lens related.

    But if we were to concentrate on lenses, I note that lenses are often compared on their qualities of sharpness, contrast, and distortion.

    Yet, I note that modern digital software tweaks these in post (tunes the image file post capture) to make even severely compromised images “pop” and make the audience go “… wow! …” to the point where the original lens is less important with digital processing than lenses were was in the harder-to-tweak film days.

    I also note that Zeiss discovered, much to their chagrin, that lenses that seemed good at 6 megapixels, but seemed to be limited or revealed as poor at 12 megapixels became stellar at 24 megapixels, go figure.

    So, you may poo-poo that lens on your system, but my system does it proud.

    Your choice of a lens as “appropriate” may falter as you migrate from camera to camera.

    No technical decision is ever made as a “done deal”, they all need to be revisited over and over to confirm their appropriateness for purpose.

    But, the storytelling may be effective nonetheless — think of the terrific stories we see from 100 to 150 years ago when lenses may have been less accurate (and uncoated) compared to today’s offerings.

    Again, all this blah-blah-blah is camera and kit and hobby and technology chat — what does this have to do with “photography” and the imagination of successfully telling a story in a photographically captured and re-presented image?

    I suggest: not much.

    Again, what does the camera [ and lens ] matter in the attached photograph ( peterblaise-2014-01-05-0962bw-c ) — you get the story, right?

    It’s ~0.3 megapixels, by the way, so the camera and lens are hardly the determinant factors in the story.

    But, do tell us where you share your images, and let’s see if the lens is the make-or-break criteria for storytelling success.

  • Matt Emmett

    Couldn’t agree more, I leap forward in skills after a particularly rewarding shoot. It’s always the ones that inspire me or challenge the most that give the biggest leaps too. I have just started to generate the beginnings of a second income from my prints and things are gathering pace all the time. Exciting times, but I am painfully aware just how little I actually do know by the realisations I make about lighting technique, processing or subtle changes in a composition each and every time I go out.
    It’s easy to get carried away when you see an image emerge after processing and editing and think ‘wow, this is the best image I’ve produced to date’. Go back to that image in 6 months time and re-evaluate it and you’ll find that now you really don’t think it’s particularly special. The same will be true of you current ‘best work’ in 6 months time. Embrace experience and she will reward you again and again.

  • peterblaise

    Great that you mentioned printing – what I call “presentation” — the part of our work as photographers that our audience gets to experience as our photographic story (though on-screen web presentations are dominant today, aren’t they?) — most so-called “photography” discussions are really “camera operations” discussions.

    Photography is story telling, and a camera is to that story what a typewriter is to a novel.

    Congrats on your growing success and connecting with a print-appreciating audience.


  • Gary Box

    Very good article, and right on the money. Although experience won’t guarantee success or quality, it sure helps on both. I have a quote over my desk that has been there over 20 years from a much younger Gary Fong “Learn the basics as a foundation, then discard them for more passionate expression”. Few today want to learn the basics, they want to skip right to the cool stuff, often missing key elements or techniques, never understanding WHY something should or should have been done.

  • Andrew Beveridge

    .. experience or being a professional has no relation whatsoever to ability. I know many professional photographers who have 20+ years worth of experience and produce utter crap. Also, being a professional merely means that your main income is generated from that particular job. As an example a qualified and experienced plumber could earn 51% of his income through photography thus making him a professional photographer. I think the younger generation who are entering the industry should be given more credit for kicking and dragging, what had become a dated visual art, into the new century.

  • ivanguar

    Why were they angry?

  • ivanguar

    Well, you won’t get really far in your photography quest with a built in light meter. This still stands as Truth. And 35mm was a small size film, that’s why all the most valuable product photography continued to be medium format for a long, long time. Are you perhaps mistaking “market change” with photography?

  • ivanguar

    Did the Kodak Insta-matic kill photography??? Instagram (and by that we mean cell phone pics) exposes people to the very basics of photography as never before. Everybody now has a relative sense of framing and (maybe stretching it here) composition. All brought to them by their smart phone. And not to talk about color. All these apps for color grading are opening many people’s eyes to the color of things and how colors relate to each other and how contrast and brightness and shadows condition what you see. It may be a little subliminal for now, but with time I believe we’ll have generations with a sense of composition in the frame hard wired in their brains.

  • AkashPatel

    fro knows photo aka jared polin is a perfect example. he is always making crap tutorials like that. he failed as a photographer so now he makes youtube videos to make money. anyone who spends 60 hours a week making videos can never be a successful photographer because you’re not taking pictures. look at his portfolio and you’ll cringe. he has an ebook, dvd and all the very basic stuff people can learn on their own and he is ripping a lot of kids off. he couldn’t make it as a photographer and his followers have no chance either.

  • Bruce Kaplan

    Experience is important, but so is surrounding yourself with people who are better than you. Otherwise you can only grow and improve to a certain level. I am still searching for a mentor. I find that very few Pros want to share their craft/experience. I find that this is the case even when I volunteer to help by starting at the bottom like: doing the grunt work.

    I am not giving up yet. Perhaps someday, if I press on, I will find a way to will work with the best.

  • Peter “Pots”

    Wow, what a lot of whiz-bang that we all knew. If you want to learn, then shoot, then get comments from those you trust. You just have to listen to those you trust.

  • storysanders

    Experience IS the best teacher. It’s not until you experiment with what you learn (school, books, dvd etc.), do you gain the experience. Sure, I shoot with a 600D, not a professional camera, but my images turn out better than the kids who drop thousands of dollars on a 6D.

  • John Mueller

    Everyone that takes photos is NOT a photographer. why don’t people get that? Experience is key in any profession or hobby. I always cringe when I see someone start their own Photography business and they’ve only been shooting a couple months. It’s not a get rich quick scheme.

  • Broseph of Arimathea


  • Joey Tennant

    I am someone who sees what they want and goes for it. That being said, when I started out in photography I used books, webinars, classes, etc. to get me on the fast track and just dove in. Sure if your devoted you can probably learn the basics in about a week. However, the stuff that separates the 1% of photographers who actually make good money from everyone else is the fact they have been there and done that. They know what to expect and how to overcome it before it even happens in every aspect of photography. Anyway, the fast track has been a bumpy ride. Plus looking back a lot of my photos I was so proud of kinda look like crap now. However, I never gave up and kept shooting and consequently have gained practical experience and now my photos and I are much better for it. Simply put those who survive the test of time and pressure in the real world are those who will rise to the top.

  • John

    After 100 years the world is finally starting to appreciate Photography

  • Phil

    This is one of those articles that talks a lot, but says very little. Of course experience is useful. But as we all know, the photography industry had become stale, and people were using experience as an excuse to be repetitive and unimaginative. If you could photograph a wedding and get every image perfectly exposed, it didn’t matter that they lacked creativity, and were the same as every wedding in the last 20 years. It left the door wide open for a new approach, where experience still matters, but has fallen way down the priority list, not just in the eyes of photographers, but of clients too, and the customer is king. If no-one wants to listen to the teacher any more, maybe it’s the teacher’s fault for sitting on its fat arse and getting complacent.

  • Natalia Taffarel

    I could not disagree more. People take experience for granted and look for shortcuts CONSTANTLY – I should know since I teach people and the VERY first thing i need to do is change their mindsets.
    He is not talking about an actual teacher, it’s a metaphor, funny it just went over your head :)

  • no

    sure is sexism

  • Tom Woodward

    Comments like yours prove the trolls have their rolls (you being the troll). This is my first ‘read’ of her work, and I know she is correct. There are no short-cuts to success in any industry. Work hard, know your tools, study what and how the ‘masters’ (renaissance era) took to their trade and maybe, just maybe you will be recognized as ‘good’ at what you do.

  • Zack Widup

    I’m a Zone System kid. Been doing it for 30 years. I guess Experience taught me a few things along the way. :-)

  • Zack Widup

    The camera and equipment are just tools. A person with experience knows which tool is best for what he wants to do. Maybe in one instance a DSLR is the proper tool to use, and in another a 4X5 film view camera is the proper tool.

    What I see missing in a lot of the new photographers is the “experience” of studying the works of other photographers. People like Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, etc. etc. have produced photographs that others think are great. What makes them great? There’s something to be learned here. And if you’re truly trying to be creative, it helps to have studied these others’ works at least so you know what not to do, so you don’t duplicate someone else’s creation. “That looks like Edward Weston’s ___ …” I mention one of these photographers’ names to new photographers and I just get blank stares.