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

  • hendrick

    crap, give me a sony nex FF and experience will be trown in hell

  • superduckz

    But! but… according to Apple the manufacturers will take care of all that for us with their newest devices. Experience now comes “built-in” *eyeroll*

  • Sarpent

    This article is pretty lame, and I don’t buy it. Sure, lots of folks want to take shortcuts, and many of them are vocal, but you can’t determine anything from that about the the quiet heads-down folks who have always been just doing the work.

  • Dave

    Sarpent…is English your first language?

  • KevinNewsome

    How did experience become overrated in the photography industry? I know it DID, I just don’t understand HOW. I’m guessing “Generation Instant” had a hand in it though.

    “No more 1966. Lets splurge! Bring us some fresh wine! The freshest you’ve got – this year! No more of this old stuff.” Navin Johnson was ahead of his time.

    Nice article Cheri. :-)

  • Sarpent

    Dave, are you a jerk face to face?

  • Mary

    What a grand generalization. Speak for yourself lady.

  • vinterchaos

    Half the people who talk photography aren’t even photographers, they’re gear heads that spend 95% of the time on the net , 3% buying and returning gear and 2% shooting and editing images.

    ..this article had one purpose, and it’s working. We are all commenting… lol

  • junyo

    Experience needs to get over herself. She’s the world’s most overrated teacher, because there’s tons of clowns who have lots of experience who still suck. Just because you’ve been doing it a long time doesn’t actually mean you’re good at it, or ever learned to do it correctly in the first place. Just because you learned it yesterday doesn’t mean you didn’t learn to do it well and/or maybe even expand on the lesson. The entire article is a bunch of geezer bromides; the only thing that wasn’t sprinkled in was referring to new photographers as ‘whippersnappers’. Because God forbid you take a class, attend a workshop, watch a DVD, or in some other way make efficient use of your learning time by leveraging someone else’s experience.

    Geez, the article quality on Petapixel has plunged off a cliff.

  • Christian DeBaun

    I concur with this article, and it’s the reason people like Jim Nachtwey haven’t been spread like strawberry jam all over some battlefield in a foreign country.

    For the rest of us “safe” shooters, I think the lesson applies at double the pain level.

  • Jason Kirby

    I agree with you Junyo, why learn slower and take longer to get where you want to go. You can’t learn by yourself locked in a room. You need to meet people and learn from others and sometimes those educators know they are worth something to these up and coming photographers. Why not make it worth it for the educator by charging and in return providing a quicker way to learn what you need to learn

  • Eport

    The funny parallel is that commercial photography is 95% of the time hustling for the next shoot and only 5% of the time taking pictures.

  • Freddy

    This author tends to write articles like this. Someone a couple months ago said the author sounded like an opinionated know it all.

  • Freddy

    Female experience. Male fast track.??
    Not only is this article a painting in black and white but the strokes are so broad its almost ridiculous to entertain.

    but hey. I guess if you want attention this is a good way to go about it.

  • dudung10


  • Dave

    Apples to apples: If someone gave this lecture in person and you chimed having clearly not understood what the speaker was saying then yes. I’m 100% sure I would have said this to you.

  • dietrich

    You might want to stop creeping on her. Either you’re a fake robot plant or you really like commenting on how awesome she is in each article she writes.

  • KevinNewsome

    I really like commenting on how awesome she is in each article she writes.

  • subway

    get back in the kitchen woman and make me a sandwich

  • Burnin Biomass

    Good article, you can tell by the amount of people complaining!

  • Bob Sutherby

    Being a musician, I hear gear talk all the time. It’s a nice distraction but ultimately pointless. I have a few guitars that serve me very well. If I were a photographer (and I almost became one), I’d do the same.

  • spikespeak

    I think there is value in both sides. Experience can prepare photographers to anticipate and be ready for the unexpected, while workshops, DVDs and software is a great way to continue learning and, as Junyo says, leverage someone else’s knowledge to your advantage. Ultimately, what matters is the image.

  • Andrew

    Not only that but how else are you supposed to gain “experience” if not by taking those chances. I dont call them “shortcuts” to success they are opportunities. Sorry that we dont all take years and years to get somewhere but I refuse to spend the first 20 years of my career in the same place and no opportunities or advancement given. This author makes it sound like gaining experience means not taking any opportunities or chances early in your career.

  • Frank

    But this article speaks the truth.

  • Gavin Seim

    Well said – For a minute I thought you might be writing about me ;)

    Zone System kids..

  • peaceetc

    Kevin’s no robot. I know him and I value his opinion.

    And, no, I’m not a robot, either.

  • Stan B.

    junyo- Think you’re confusing Experience with… familiarity. Experience connotes a certain level of expertise- every kid who learns to play the game in grade school does not become a pro. It means that you pick it up and play with it, clumsily at first, but keep practicing- despite cursing it out some more. After years of testing and fumbling, you start to learn its moves, how it works, how it doesn’t, and how it works best.You also learn about yourself- yeah, Time is involved; and then finally… you begin to dance with her! And then you’re able to apply it successfully, over and over again in hundreds, if not thousands of situations.

    Continued experience, experimentation and dedication in (whatever) the field may even lead to mastery (as much as any one person can master anything), where that person can even lend it something… new. All your recommendations are very good introductions that you can learn from- they do not adequately substitute for actual… Experience.

  • dietrich

    That doesn’t even make any sense. Typical Frost article comments – most people think it’s ridiculous, and the people that don’t all seem to “know” her.

  • Marcus Sudjojo

    Good article….

    I teach a photography course (nothing fancy, just some basic stuffs), and I can’t stop emphasizing the importance of experience and ‘working hours’ to skill level. It’s very much like learning to drive. You can learn about driving a car theoretically as much as you want, but until you actually get yourselves behind the wheel, you can’t really drive a car.

    Sadly, some people expect to pay some money, attend a few day course, and lo and behold, a new mighty photographer has emerged. Courses that advertise ‘instant skills/photographers’ aren’t much help to this issue as well….

  • olafs_osh

    why being a robot started to be a bad thing all of a sudden?! as robot and a microwave, I feel sad.

  • Cinekpol

    Well, reflects quite nicely current market situation with mirrorless flooding in with some in-camera apps and other stuff like that and tons of people who bought them dismissing DSLRs like they’re greatest evil in the world.

  • Tom Waugh

    Great article PP team. More like this please.

  • junyo

    With all due respect Stan, that’s incorrect. Experience connotes persistence, not any level of expertise. You’re making the same assumption as the author that just because one’s been doing something for a long time it follows that they’re doing it well, which sadly isn’t a given (as witnessed to by my poor golfing skills).

    Skill, defined as “the ability to do something well” is really the ability to consistently apply knowledge to produce a specific output. Can/should you learn/gain skill from personal experience? Absolutely. But people who require personal experience or iterative loops to learn stuff are idiots. And it’s arguably the least efficient way to gain basic skills, especially technical ones. This article (and the supportive comments to it) spit in the face of intelligence and basic logic by insisting that anything learned from any source than EXPERIENCE is somehow fake knowledge that people should avoid. Again, it’s geezers demanding respect because they’ve put in time and their way is the ONLY way dagnabbit !!!

    And I say that AS a geezer.

    The author doesn’t even make a passing nod to the value of instruction; they’re downright dismissive of the concept. Which is just nonsensical.

    Practical example… as an assistant instructor at a workshop, during the free shoot portion, a student was having an issue with a shot where they needed to add fill to the strongly color cast ambient. The main instructor was “helping” by trying to figure out how to kill the ambient and replace all the light with strobes. Now this guy is great, he’s been taking pictures longer than I’ve been alive, his knowledge about photography is encyclopedic, and he’s been a mentor to me. But he’s also relentlessly a studio photographer. I tell him there’s a much easier way, and go fetch my gels out of my bag, add a full CTO to the student’s strobe. Done. This is no knock against anyone. The main instructor had never heard of small strobe gels – mainly because clip-on strobes fell outside of his range of experience, it was obvious to him once he had that bit of info. The student gained experience in a timely manner without having to bang their head on it because Mr Shortcut was there to inject some pertinent information (and having kept in touch with the student, it’s awesome since he’s mega talented and absorbs info like a sponge). That’s not a shortcut, or a cheat, or somehow invalid learning; that’s how people gain skill in the modern world.

  • Brian

    Wow, a lot of people are really unhappy with or critical of this article. I’ve spent almost 40 years making my living solely as a photographer and I agree wholeheartedly with what she wrote and unfortunately I see a lot of truth in it.

    Photography is an unusual area. In the early days of photography one had to master a great deal of technology, chemistry and science, to get an acceptable result. Now the basic ability to capture a technically acceptable image is automatic. And for some, those with little real experience, they may think that’s all there is to it. After all it’s very satisfying to add another title to your self esteem resume, “I’m an accountant AND a photographer!” all one need do is buy a cell phone with a camera, and fool yourself a little.

    To me fully automated cameras are like owning a player piano, you turn it on and it strikes the keys for you and makes music. To a seriously trained pianist, it sounds like crap, because they know what a real pianist is capable of and have a vastly larger musical reference library in their heads to refer to. To the untrained it sounds just great, but would they consider themselves musicians because they can use a player piano?

    For those expressing their disdain for this article, I have to wonder, how many of you make your living as photographers? How many of you have clients and spend every day producing images on paid assignments? I’m willing to bet very few.

    I’m sure there will be justifications as to why you have little desire to turn your hobby, something I’m sure you have made something of an investment in, into something that you can get paid to do. Then again, maybe it’s because in spite of your own belief in your mastery, that few others are willing to invest their time and money on your skills? So instead of thinking that you already know all there is to know and that experience matters little, you should instead consider yourself always a student, never a master, and allow experience to make you better.

  • szmilo

    A thought-provoking article. I wonder if photography can be considered an art (or even a craft) without a period of apprenticeship.

  • Jodie Holstein Otte

    This…. THIS is spot on.

  • dietrich

    seems people are critical of the article because it’s written poorly.

  • peterblaise

    How would you photograph with only a few guitars? =8^o

  • peterblaise

    Interesting “Philosophy of Photography, er, Camera Operations, er, Cash for Pro or Stock Photography” musing since the author really has nothing to say, but …

    Experience tends to be a dark hole of precious over-valued investment where we stop seeing things that are so familiar that they become invisible, and we also become inured to or overwhelmed by the new, but we don’t want our treasured, prideful, heavy weight of experience to go to waste, so we carry it around with us regardless of it’s burdensomeness and interference with our possible success.

    Beginner’s mind is what it’s all about, seeing and appreciating what’s actually there without the weight of the past telling us “how it must be”.

    Here’s an example in my case:

    After years of experience trying to “get” a sunset, I stood in awe of one with a new friend at my side, both of us with cameras in hand. I shot the glorious sky and got back little tiny 4×6 inch prints with a little unimpressive dot of a sun. the dynamic range overwhelming the contrast making nothing but imprecise mud.

    My friend also ogled the glorious sun, then turned around and shot things that were actually 4×6 in real life, things behind us that were illuminated by the golden light, like leaves on the ground and such, and got back glorious 4×6 pictures with telling, clear, sharp detail that reminded us of the glorious sunset, while my pictures reminded me of how much my “experience” wasn’t paying off!

    The point is to have a point in photography, whether it be to learn the gear, or to satisfy the customer, and if we are our own customer, that’s an endless, ever-renewing exploration.

    Have fun either way.

    Love and hugs,
    Peter Blaise Photography dot com

  • peterblaise

    Funny, calling DSLRs “evil” when folks have chosen to call Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens cameras EVIL!

    But, really, the gear has absolutely nothing to do with photography — that’s camera operations.

    Photography has to do with seeing and presenting and seeing again in the presentation, and there’s none of that awareness in mere camera gear operations as if DSLRs were the be-all and end-all of photography.

    Quick, what kind of camera took this picture?

    Answer: it doesn’t matter, mostly because any camera could have, and the processing and presentation are now more significant players in your experience than the original camera was in my experience as photographer.

    There are only 5 things we can control in our photography, and few if any camera knobs are labeled as such:

    — Perspective

    — Cropping

    — Focus and depth

    — When and how long

    — Tone and chrome

    And we control and review and change those — and ONLY those — in capture, and again in editing, and again in presentation, and again in the audience’s experience of our presentation.

    DSLRs are the greatest evil in the world if they are an idyll, an idol, a false god getting in the way of the photography.

    Love and hugs,
    Peter Blaise Photography dot com

  • Stan B.

    junyo- We may be talking past each other, or simply caught up in semantics.

    Experience, in my book, is an ongoing learning process which ultimately frees oneself to open new doors, in turn leading to other- experiences. Experience, as you define it, is something that encourages rote repetition, stagnation- prejudice. I prefer the former, and I’ll meet ya halfway…

  • peterblaise

    Yes, some people think that having someone show them a few minutes about camera operations, or even “rule of thirds; leading lines …” imaging sensitivity immediately empowers them to make images that match other people’s images that impressed and inspired them to get into photography.

    Camera sales, car sales, computer sales, and so on — and especially classes — are all the same: “… buy this and be an expert on the way home ….”

    Regardless, photography is different for each photographer.

    Memory gatherers and stock shooters and wedding photographers and photojournalists and so on each have different thresholds of experience and results they are after — critiquing one on the criteria of the others is inappropriate.

    Carry your camera with you everywhere, and shoot everything all the time, and bring it back alive, and you’ll get not only experience, but actual pictures.

    Then put down your cameras and move on to the next forgotten phases of photography — editing and presentation.

    Frankly, I’m surrounded by more photography — a delightful cascade of thousands of our images every day — thanks to the free Picasa dot com slide show screen saver on all of our computers, more than by the comparatively scant few dozen expensive mounted and framed pictures on our walls.

    Yes, experience is all, but not at someone else’s bidding — at the hand of our own joy.

    Love and hugs,
    Peter Blaise Photography dot com

  • Steve

    Do you have a link or any other evidence for that matter to support that sweeping statement?

  • Alan Klughammer

    I think you are all missing the point.
    Experimenting is how you gain experience!!
    Manufacturers constantly tell us that if we buy their latest wizz-bang, we too can create images as good as the professionals
    And people are eating up this promise of quick and easy mastery. Look at the recent layoff of newspaper photographers, experience means nothing, we will give all our reporters iphones.
    I don’t care what field you are talking about, from gardening to brain surgery, an experienced practitioner will produce better results than someone who has read all the books and bought all the tools…

  • Alan Klughammer

    sudo make me a sandwich

  • peterblaise

    Having a word processor in everyone’s home does not delimit, denigrate, or debilitate “successful” professional writers — same with cameras in everyone’s hand having no impact on the capabilities of “successful” professional photographers.

    But, just like this article being, shall I say, inarticulate, yet it still got published with advertisements and many comments, same-same for photography — there are many photos I see in publication that are unattributed or attributed to free resources.

    The photos in the opening article are apparently attributed to FREE resources! =8^o

    So, while it’s true that such low-ball non-shopping non-payment creates the impression that it’s cutting into the prior avenues of monies for professional photographers, the truth is there is more of everything for everyone, so grow or die.

    There is no buggy whip market, and no chemical darkroom market.


    There will always be an imaging market one way or another, and it will always evolve — maybe teaching Picasa is the thing to do in the next season while we anticipate the next phase of storytelling through photography.

    If we fall in love with only or little corner of a shrinking market, it will either become a hobby … or perhaps we will seem to disappear for a season and write our own “philosophy of a photography? book?!?

    Love and hugs,

    Peter Blaise Photography dot com

  • Bob Sutherby

    Hehe, cheeky.

  • peterblaise

    Actually, a skilled presenter can tell quite a compelling story with either a guitar or camera — or both — so have at it, either way!

    Ringo Starr, Graham Nash, Tony Sweet …

  • Ken

    Great article. So true.

  • Neil

    Even joining in on ‘male fast-tracking’ is gaining knowledge and experience. I agree with @junyo:disqus – pretty much everything he/she says is spot on. I would take less experience with great vision over someone very experienced and stale.