How to Teach Yourself Photography

Post by TWiP Contributor: Adam Koplan

I was recently hanging out with my buddy Travis who works as a photography instructor for teens.  We were waxing poetic over the billions of tools on the Internet for people to improve their skills for free.  “But there's a dark underside,” Travis warned. “I've got students who spend 8 hours doing these HDR panos because they saw a YouTube video about it.  But they don't know anything about composition. Or color.  Or even exposure. They'd be better served to study those areas.”

At least these kids have Travis who is constantly reminding them of the more foundational skills and insisting that they to develop them. But for the folks without a mentor who aim to teach themselves photography, the Internet can be a confusing experience.

Advancing your photographic skills can certainly be done solo, but if you aim to be self-taught, it helps to have a good teacher.  In other words you have to exert some discipline in how you pursue information and learn how to be a good instructor for yourself.

As someone who oversees dozens of arts-education programs, I'm to share a few general principles in the field so that you can successfully navigate the vast ocean of readily available (and often irrelevant) information.  First I'll explain three educational concepts and then I'll show them applied to photography.  In doing so, I'll share my version “Photograph 101” and show you how to create your own learning plan.

The hope is that you can become your own internal “Travis.”

Teach yourself: Isolate, Prioritize, Scaffold


You've got to target small isolated areas to really improve.  Let's say you want to become Charles Atlas.  You don't just generically “work out,” you target muscles.  If we think of the development of artistic skills as a similar process to bodybuilding, then the identification of broad subcategories allows us to target them and thus develop them more quickly. When tackling an art form, it's best to isolate between five and ten discreet major sub-skills.


After we've gone through step 1 and isolated some fundamental skills the next step is to prioritize them for ourselves.  If this seems daunting or foolhardy to prioritize without guidance, you can use the Alex Lindsay mantra: “My Google is as good as yours.”  Type in variations on “most important concepts in photography.”  See what the recognized masters say is most important.


Scaffolding is huge buzzword these days in arts-education, and while jargony it does capture a teaching concept that allows most students to progress the farthest the fastest.  Scaffolding means teaching any concept in layers, so that we package information in appropriate and well-ordered chunks.  We attempt to introduce students to a skill only when they have most of the tools to be successful at that skill. For example, when teaching handwriting, you have to begin with the proper way to hold the pencil before you get to writing letters between the lines.  In something like photography, after you have 1) isolated the component skills and 2) prioritized them, now you can 3) scaffold work on them in an order that promotes ideal development.  The image in the word is telling.  Build from the foundation upwards.

Applying T.I.P.S to Photography

Our first step is “isolating.”  Everyone may tell you slightly different what the fundamentals of photography are.  I'll give you my list, but I hope you make your own after going through the same process.

My personal list of the basics:

Storytelling (What do you want your image to communicate?)

Framing (What falls inside your image and what lies without?)

Composition (How does the arrangement of shape, colors, light, space, and placement of subject within your frame add to its graphic quality)

Exposure (How should I balance depth of field with shutter speed? How do I balance light and shadow?)

Light (What is optimal direction, quality and quantity of light in my image?)

Color (What is the meaning, feeling, and arrangement of the colors within my image?)

Post-processing (How is your image going to be viewed? What must you do after capture to optimize the viewer's experience?)

And if photographing people

Relationship (How can I enter into a relationship with my subjects that will bring out the qualities I most want to capture?)

Now we prioritize…

As Scott Bourne has said, “If I don't know what story I'm going to tell with my picture, I don't bring the camera to my eye.”  I believe everything else in our list ought to be subservient to storytelling.  And I'd happily argue that point.  From there I'm more open to discussion about how best to prioritize.  My list above is my preferred order of priority.  But again, I'll restate that the key here is that YOU spend some time thinking about it and decide your priorities for yourself.

Finally we scaffold…

Let's assume my photography fundamentals list is organized in the same order as yours, now let's talk about using the ol' Internet.

You are going to write yourself a syllabus.  Let's say three weeks per subject.   Each week will follow the same basic plan.

Here are the things you might want to assign yourself in each three-week block.   Find Look at ton of images-and let's call the most captivating examples within each category your “inspirations.” Read about strategies to achieve similar results. Shoot a ton.  Upload.  Compare your images to your inspirations.  Ask critical questions about what they did and what you did.  Repeat.  Repeat. Repeat

In a further post we can get into strategies for creating self-assignments and expanding your syllabus…


Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project ( which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co. ( Follow him on Twitter: @FlyingCarpetNYC.

Photo Credit: Steven S. on Flickr


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  1. thanks found this quite use full, I am trying to teach myself after completing a short course last year I’ve really got the bug for photography. As you say its very difficult to know where to start as you can go very in depth into something you will never actually use! any follow up articles anywhere? 

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