In the days before digital photography, it was difficult to learn from other people’s works. First and foremost, you had to find the work. You had to go out of your way to browse galleries museums or even craft shows to find good examples of photography. As you’re learning photography, you did what you could to afford yourself such opportunities. But there was only so much you could do. In many cases, the works were so far above your skill level that you had no concept of how a specific shot might have been taken. For that matter, you spent so much time finding such works, the little bits of inspiration that could be garnered were often lost.
I was one such young photographer. Early on, I shot with a dated camera with few automatic features and only in natural light (no flash). I bought books for learning, books for inspiration and I visited as many galleries and museums as I could. I was fortunate enough to have a very good museum nearby that focused only on local artists – a great source of inspiration in those early years. But at my skill level, I couldn’t learn very much without asking questions of artists that weren’t interested in returning my calls. I essentially had two options: 1) Pursue a career in photography and become an apprentice or 2) Just keep shooting and learn through failure. Obviously, I ended up choosing the second option as photography was not my primary career interest. It was a long and rocky road, and my growth was slow. But again, that was all before digital.
Easy Access to Inspiration
Possibly the most obvious benefit to digital photography is the ease in which our work, and the work of others, gets shared. Sites like Flickr and DeviantArt exist for this purpose. I joined DeviantArt many years ago. On the surface, sites like it are a great place to find inspiration – the works of others that give you great ideas for your next session. But once I started posting my own photographs, I learned another source of inspiration – those who comment on your works. If you can learn to take constructive criticism, there is plenty to be learned from what people say about your works. I’ve learned countless new techniques through such comments. Better yet, getting noticed inspires you to do more and shoot more and challenge yourself. The more that you post, the more feedback you get and the more you learn. It’s a circle, and it helps you grow tremendously.
Easier to Dissect and Learn From Photos
Almost every digital photo has EXIF data attached to it – information that will tell you details about shutter speed, aperture, whether a flash fired and so on. This is only technical data, and many would argue that it’s only scratching the surface. After all, such data does not tell you about the design intent. But knowing such information might clue you in to the intent. Or if not, it will at least help you to understand how the shot was composed. Either way, it’s information you wouldn’t have observing an analog photo or a photo in print. So it gives you a leg up on trying to understand a shot. Knowing that a flash wasn’t fired, for example, will inform you that there was an alternative light source. Is it natural light? Perhaps an incandescent? These things can’t explicitly be determined through EXIF data, but you can arrive at a conclusion through process of elimination.
Hive Learning for Hobbyists
In the days before digital, professionals learned from other professionals. This was their collective – their hive, if you will. By right, professionals of today still learn a great deal from professionals and there are many trade secrets that are passed down from one photographer to another. But never underestimate the power of experimentation – and hobbyists will always experiment. When one hobbyist tries to mimic the style of a professional photographer, they will uncover a few techniques that have helped them to do so. These may not necessarily be the same techniques the professional used; but if they work, it doesn’t matter. Well, that person will share his newly acquired wisdom with his own hive – the other hobbyists who are also working towards a similar goal. Some of the people within the hive will experiment some more and add to the overall technique, possibly making it better or easier. This sort of collaborative learning is often referred to as hive learning. It has many benefits, but the most important benefit is that we learn best by doing. Our experimentation as a hive has helped us to uncover some incredible techniques – some that even professionals have benefited from. The online communities that surround Flickr, DeviantArt, ImageKind and so on have made the hive much more accessible to everyone. We have all learned a great deal from the works (and failures) of others – all through communities that have sprung up primarily due to digital media.