a blog by knut skjærven

Throw Your Second Best Camera At Them

Facebook Screenshot, July 11, 2011. All right reserved.

Yes, I was surprised. I still am surprised.

Some weeks ago I ran a poll on Facebook group On Every Street. The question was:   Do you think that there is connection with the degree of formal or non formal education and the ability to take good pictures? There were three possible answers to choose from: 1) Yes, definitely; 2) No, not at all and 3) I have no idea.

When you run a poll like this you always have some kind of anticipation of the answers that will come. My anticipation did not come through. That is why I am surpised. I my head there certainly is a connection between formal or non formal education, and what you are able to do as a photographer. I simply went dead wrong here. Or did I?

Today, July 13, 2011 the poll results are: 1) Yes, definitely 3 votes, 2) No, not at all 29 votes, and 3) I have no idea 2 votes. Question 2 leads by a huge, huge margin.

There are many ways to explain this result and why there is such a huge difference between my anticipation and the poll result. One explanation is simply, that I have not been precise enough in my question and the options given for answering. A second explanation is that people have not read the question properly before they made their mark.

A third explanation is, that there simply is a severe divergence here. And now I must learn.

The point is, that I am not willing to learn from this. I do not agree, that there is no positive connection between the level of formal/non formal education and the ability to take good pictures. Show me one picture of high quality, that has been taken by a photographer with a low level of formal education and/or  non formal education. Show me two pictures, show me three pictures. To be on the safe side: show me five pictures. I want to rule out pure accident.

Or even better: Point me to a single excellent photographer that have no formal education and/or no non formal education. I don’t think such a person exists. Please point me to him or her. And I will be willing to pull back these sentences and change my opinion. Slightly.

I am of this opinion: Formal and/or non formal education is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for the ability to produce good pictures (or for that matter excellent pictures). If you don’t have either of it, is not very likely that you will produce pictures of these kinds. You will never make it as a photographer without either of them. The reason I can say this, is that I frankly don’t believe that such a person exist. That is the good news.

All of us have degrees of formal and non formal education. That is our competences. Up to a certain point of education this will, in my humble opinion, be a benefit in trying to take good pictures.

That said, it is interesting to speculate about this: If formal education/non formal education have no value on quality, then where does quality come from? One road to explaining this is to say that quality comes from inspiration, from genius. It is inherent in the individual photographer and education or non education have nothing to do with it. Give Mr. Wildman a camera and he will instantly start taking good photographs. Not likely is it?

Such an explanation would have been feasible some 30 years ago, but not today. Some very lucky people may have a natural potential for good photography, may have been born with a talent or capacity for it, I certainly do not argue agains that. Brilliant people starts there. However, without recognition of talent, without nursing and feeding it, talent goes nowhere.

The good thing is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. In this case the end of the tunnel is very close to its entrance, so you don’t need to walk that far to find it. Here is my recipe: Get out of your chair, find the nearest mirror, and start looking at yourself. If you see glimpses of talent don’t continue resting on your laurels. Go get to some formal, or non formal education, and move from potential to actual talent. If someone tells you that it cannot be done, throw your second best camera at them, because it is simply not so. It is not true.

Good photography is hard, hard work.

Good luck with it. Love to see your pictures.


5 responses

  1. Marco Rodarte-Elias

    Dear Knut,

    Another very interesting discussion on an important issue and one that deserves further consideration.

    First of all, when you posed the question about “education”, did you mean education where the arts are concerned or in any seemingly unrelated field? That’s an important clarification to be made, I believe. For now at least, let’s assume you meant an artistic education, formal or otherwise.

    I personally chose option 2, i.e. “No, not at all”, even though, in retrospect, I tend to agree with you that some form of education, be it formal or not, can only be beneficial to a photographer’s body of work. Some people have no formal artistic education whatsoever, a category in which I include myself, and are quite capable of producing quality photography with some degree of consistency, not that I’d claim to be able to do so myself.

    The advantages of knowing what to look for and how to compose an image that is visually pleasing are excellent tools to ensure constant high quality shots, as abundantly demonstrated by the old Masters (on canvas) and master photographers (on printed media). Of those in the latter group, the name of Cartier-Bresson springs to mind quicker than one can manually focus a rangefinder. Unsurprisingly, HCB was a classically trained artist and applied the very same techniques of composition whether photographing, drawing or painting, achieving the intended result regardless of the chosen media. It is a known fact that, by his later years, Henri would rarely use a camera, preferring to draw or paint instead. He, apparently, saw no real distinction among the three, much to the annoyance of fellow photographers and even some of his own fanbase, who felt somewhat betrayed. But I digress here. The example of HCB seems to tip the scales towards option number 1, i.e. “Yes, definitely”, but with that in mind, what do we make of the man who many consider to have inherited Henri’s vision and gift, Sebastiao Salgado, who was an economist, having worked in the coffee trade to earn a living for some time before moving into photography per se? I think we can safely exclude luck as the reason, considering how prolific his body of work is and to believe someone is born with such ability seems a little simplistic to me.

    What I seem to be aiming at here is the conclusion that the most correct answer to the original question is that there really is no definitive answer, which, by default, indicates that my answer should have actually been number three, i.e. “I have no idea”. There really cannot be just a black or white answer here, there are far too many shades of gray in between…

    July 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    • Many thanks, Marco.

      What a brilliant comment you have written. I need to come back to it later, but many thanks for the time and energy spent here.

      I agree with almost all of it, but will elaborate.

      I meant education, and non formal education, in general. In my view both HCB and SS are highly educated people.

      For me it perfectly reasonable that you can sharpen a photograpnic talent by reading economy.


      July 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    • Replicate from Facebook, On Every Street.


      Marco, that is a good idea. Thanks.

      But please replicate everything substantial, that you write here, and post it to the blog, as well. For keeps. As you know, this comment on fb will soon go away never to be found again.

      I will do the same.

      Also, I will come back with a proper comment to your brilliant comment here, very soon. I find this issue most interesting. And important.

      I did not mean artistic education in particular, but that is of course included. I meant formal/non formal education in general.

      And: I certainly am of the opinion that Sebastiao Salgado, being educated an economist, had a very relevant formal education for being a good photographer. I fact such “a cross-fertilization approach” is one of the most important step stones in my argument.

      More about that later. Have a very good day.

      (Replicated at the blog).

      July 15, 2011 at 10:55 am

  2. Kathy

    “….Photography is self-taught. Ansel Adams’ only formal education came from working one summer in a San Francisco photo lab. I and everyone I know who does this for a living taught themselves. I read books and practiced.

    It’s nice to have a degree from a photo school, but costs more in money and lost career time than it’s worth. If you have what it takes you can teach yourself faster. If you don’t have the eye, no schooling will teach it to you….”

    Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, R. a. (2011). How to Become a Professional Photographer. Retrieved 08 11, 2011, from How To Go Pro: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/go-pro.htm


    I couldn’t agree more with the article I have shared. I also want to state that unless you are lucky enough to be born into money or have already found an unrelated lucrative career, formal education in the field of photography simply is not practical. Aside from that aptitude in my opinion cannot be taught and if a person has a lack of aptitude formal education will be nothing more then a waste of money and time.

    August 11, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    • Thank you, Kathy, for your well written comment.

      I agree with much of what you say. I particularly agree that talent or aptitude cannot be learned, but it certainly can be cultivated. It does not matter if you do that by formal education or by non formal education. Whatever way you want to go. Self study, or self schooling, certainly is a form of education. For some even the best one.

      However, even if you have not got a basic talent, even if you do not have aptitude, you can come a long way even without it. You can never win a Tour de France, but you can certainly learn how to sit on a bike and make it travel. If that is your wish.

      I don’t accept the idea, that there are some born genius around and the rest of us can just can pack up our gear because we haven’t got a chance anyway. I don’t know of any who is successful within an area who does not combine talent/aptitude with hard, hard work. Do you?

      Formal education in photography can certainly be very practical, depending of course of what and where you want to study. Non formal education can do the same for you.

      All the best

      August 26, 2011 at 1:07 pm

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