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Rarely does a week go by without me being asked “how can I improve my photos?”
I’m not going to lie, the answer that comes to mind more often than not is “By selling your camera and appreciating other people who actually have the desire to improve themselves.”
The second (and perhaps more polite) answer is usually “why don’t you take a course?”
The response is usually in the mildly affirmative, after I explain what a course entails and how having regular feedback from an experienced teacher is essential if you want to quickly improve your output. And, not surprisingly, the person who just spent $800 on a DSLR with lens kit is unwilling to spend $200 on an online course (and there are many) which would do more to improving their shots than any lens or camera body could.
The first reply is usually “But, you’ve never taken a course, and your pictures are fantastic!”
My mother was a professional photographer, and I spent a childhood inhaling stop and fix fumes. (I know, I know, I’ve never quite recovered.)
I’ve been at this for a while, but I’m never shy about asking for advice from someone I respect. As a beginner, who you respect is just about anybody, so why not start with a lesson? You don’t need a degree in Fine Arts (although that certainly wouldn’t hurt either) to improve your photography. There are four ingredients to a successful photo:

1) Technique. This is the easiest and fastest thing to improve for a beginner. Much akin to learning a guitar, those first few chords improve quickly. It’s a lifelong learning process which never ends. It’s also the easiest thing to teach in a course, which leads to immediately satisfying results.
2) Composition. Also not difficult to learn via a course, having your photos critiqued, if you are open minded, will have an immediate impact on your shot-taking prowess.
3) Light. Light, sadly, can’t be taught. But, you will learn to recognize good light conditions for what they are, and a pro can help you along the road. Ultimately, the kind of light you seek out will be personal, but at least you can avoid a few mistakes along the way.
4) Emotion. This cannot be taught. If you want to have a photo which will last through the ages, you will need some kind of personal connection to your subject. If you care about what you’re taking a picture of, it will shine through and reach your audience. There is nothing worse for me than a picture which completely masters the first three but leaves me cold and disconnected. It’s technical masturbation and sadly many accomplished pros will achieve the first three but never reach the top. Don’t take landscapes for the sake of it, or decide that every geometric shape formed by building silhouettes is worthy of study. If it’s part of forming your powers of composition, by all means fire away, but don’t bore me with the results.

I’d say that a good online course can help you achieve 2.5 out of the 4 conditions, which already places you above 90% of the people out there firing away with their iPhones.

I often think about the old parable of teaching someone to fish as opposed to just giving them something to eat, and I think it holds true. There are plenty of good teachers out there willing to take your money and teach you, so why not do that instead of spending some more money on equipment you probably don’t need anyway? The things that you learn will be of value to you for as long as you choose to hold a camera in your hands.

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