How I Learned Photography in 16 Hours
What follows is a series of techniques you can apply to any skill to dramatically decrease your total learning time, regardless of topic or subject.
Originally published at nicksaraev.com
As a professional body language coach, I have long been fascinated with the psychology and neuroscience behind skill learning. It started with my flailing attempts to learn how to ride a bike at age 4, and has persisted through my journey to learn computer science, piano, discrete mathematics, and artificial intelligence.
With lockdowns in my home province, and most of my group hobbies prohibited or disbanded, the last few months have been the perfect opportunity to test out a number of accelerated skill-learning techniques that I have been recently systematizing. In the following article, you’ll learn how to significantly improve the rate at which you pick up & master skills.
I suspect these will save you money, energy, and time, and genuinely make your life more fascinating and enjoyable. Let’s dive in.
Fractionize skills into components
Every skill is made up of dozens of other skills.
To expedite your learning of the master skill, you must first fractionize the components of the big skill into smaller, more digestable skills that you can understand independently. From there, comprehension grows as you associate concepts and cause-effect loops between components.
Photography in particular exemplifies this property. There are simply so many distinct skills required to take a great picture. You have to have an understanding of:
- The technical construction of a modern camera: sensors, shutters, mirrors, and so on,
- How exposure is controlled through ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, and how to adjust these quickly,
- How lenses refract light at different focal lengths, and the ideal focal lengths for different situations,
- Several artistic principles — leading lines, the rule of thirds, etc, and
- How to edit photos in modern software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop
This all results in the difficult to quantify, but nevertheless important good taste that characterizes beautiful, sleek looking photographs.
All of these can be learned in time. The important thing, though, is to first fractionize the wider, general skill — the gestalt — into its core components. From there, you can independently learn each subskill quickly (taking advantage of the techniques I talk about below), and then merge them back into the complete skill.
At this point, someone will inevitably say something like, “but how can I know which components are important to fractionize if I don’t yet understand the skill?”
I was waiting for someone to call me out on my nonsense. To answer it, we have to carry out the next step.
Consult with an expert immediately to build a roadmap
One of the problems with modern skill learning is that there is too much to learn. When you search up how to take beautiful photos, for example, you will receive access to a near-infinite pool of information, all of varying complexity, that often takes hours of your time to parse through effectively.
On top of that, half of your searches don’t even get that far because you don’t know what you’re supposed to search up. If I don’t know the technical term for the lens opening in my camera (the aperture), but I want to learn about it, the best I could do is probably search for things like lens opening, how to let in more light photography, and things of that nature. However, these searches are suboptimal; they are nonspecific and thus take significantly longer to comb through for whatever it is that I’m looking for.
I sidelined that process entirely by finding three people in my close network that shoot photos for a living. I met up with each of them, asked them a dozen or so questions, and got them to distill for me the essence of which skills I need to learn in order to become a good photographer.
Each person gave me a slightly different answer, but there was a lot of overlap. For example, every person I talked to mentioned how lighting was one of the most important parts of photography — from this, I could guess that adding lighting to the list of skills I should know was a Good Idea.
Other recommendations seemed somewhat esoteric, and when I asked the other professionals about it, they disagreed between eachother. I figured these components were more subjective (they existed only because of opinionated differences), and didn’t waste much time on them.
After tallying how long it took to meet with each of the experts, I was out almost 5 hours. That’s right — a third of my total time was spent simply building a roadmap of what I needed to know.
Stay within the zone of proximal development
With your roadmap in hand, you can now start the process of learning the skill.
Like I mentioned previously, most of learning a new skill is simply knowing what to search for. Thanks to Google, we all have access to a near-infinite amount of data at our fingertips. But data is not knowledge unless it’s interpreted, and that’s where the next step comes in.
The Zone of Proximal Development was a concept introduced by Lev Vygotsky (an old psychology dude) in 1932. Essentially, in order to maximize the rate at which you learn, you need to spend time on problems that are hard enough to be challenging, yet not quite so easy as to bore you. You need to be maximally stimulated and engaged, without accruing the hits to your efficiency of working on something that is outside of your ability.
To stay well within my Zone of Proximal Development, I avoided technical materials like the plague. I avoided product manuals or online courses entirely. I also found that tutorials from people that went to film school or photography school were often needlessly complex, and filled with information that was unnecessary to my simple, but powerful goal of just taking a good photo.
(needless complexity is present in pretty much any skill if you make it academic enough — that’s one of the reasons I abandoned pursuing a Ph.D, and prefer learning things on my own)
So how do you find the right content to learn from?
I used a quick hack: I followed every search term on Google, and every guide I read, with phrases like ‘simple’, ‘easy’, ‘everything you need to know in 20 minutes’, and so on. I looked for broad overviews of each topic and easy-to-follow heuristics for approximating good photos, and stopped there. This took another ~3 hours to complete.
How to build insight
Unfortunately, reading is not enough. To firmly entrench these concepts in my mind, I forced myself to write 200-word summaries of best practices for each component skill in order to achieve my desired outcome. My summaries were practical and deliverable-focused, and ignored theoretical concepts that would have been interesting to know, but not necessary for my end-result. Here’s an example summary I wrote on the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed:
Of all three, the most often-changed setting on modern cameras is shutter speed. This refers to how quickly the sensor is exposed to light. Slower shutter speed means more light, more motion blur, and a brighter image. Faster shutter speed means less light, less motion blur, and a dimmer immage. Since I’m taking street photos during the afternoon, and this involves movement, I never want my shutter speed to go below ~1/50. Any lower and I run the risk of excessive motion blur, since most of my subjects will be moving.
Aperture is the second-most altered setting. It refers to the diameter of the lens opening. The bigger the aperture, the more light that gets in. The smaller the aperture, the less light that gets in. Confusingly, aperture is measured using ‘f-stop’, and a low f-stop means a big aperture. Likewise, a big f-stop means a small aperture. Not sure what’s up with that. Generally, the bigger the aperture, the sexier the background blur — this is called bokeh, and mirrors how the human eye works. Not surprisingly, people love it. To include great bokeh in all of my shots, I should keep the aperture as big as possible, and thus the f-stop as low as possible.
ISO refers to the sensitivity of the camera sensor in general. I need to keep this as low as possible, since the higher it gets, the more ‘grainy’ my images look. I don’t need to change this much, and should only ever do so if I am unable to keep my shutter speed fast due to low light.
Notice how I minimized all information that wasn’t relevant to actually carrying out the task of taking a photo. None of the technical side of photography was important to me, since I only cared about what actions would maximize my probaility of taking the best picture.
Note: if I end up liking photography to the point where I wanted to pursue it as a career, then sure, I would probably need to start worrying about the nitty-gritty details. However, since my current motivation is simply taking great photos ASAP, it’s unnecessary.
You’ll also notice several simple heuristics: keep shutter speed faster than 1/50, keep f-stop and ISO as low as possible, don’t change ISO unless you absolutely have to. I’m sure a professional photographer would look at these ‘rules’, call them overly simplistic, and them point out a hundred and ten scenarios where they don’t apply. But I wasn’t going for 100% on the Final Exam of Photography 442 here — I was simply trying to gain as much practical knowledge in as little time as possible. Making mostly good decisions under time pressure is exactly what heuristics are for.
I repeated this with every skill component. When all was said and done, I had accumulated a little over 1,500 words, and it had taken me ~2 hours to write. My total at this point was just shy of 10 hours.
Practice — and fail — as quickly as possible
The final and most important step in accelerated skill learning is to integrate the distinct components back into the unified skill. You do this by discarding any preconceived notions of perfection, and failing the skill repeatedly as many times as possible to quickly learn fast, low-level heuristics for performing well.
Whew, that was a mouthful. Let’s unpack how I did it below.
1. Integrate distinct components
To integrate your distinct components back into a unified skill, you have to test yourself on the whole package. And in order to test yourself, you must first devise the ‘test’ that you will be taking. Ideally, this test would be as close as possible to your desired end-result.
In my case, I started learning photography with the goal of taking good portraits. My ‘test’ was thus simply taking portraits of my friends. I made sure to do so in a way that allowed me to incorporate knowledge from each of the forementioned sub components:
- Reset all camera settings, and manually adjust ISO, shutter speed, and aperture until I arrived at the right combination
- Adjust manual focus until it highlights the eye of the subject
- Find the right context: environment, orientation, context, and leading lines,
- Take the photo (to be edited later in Adobe Lightroom)
- Go back to 1.
After every photo, I manually re-adjusted the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, focus, and (in some cases) the environment. I did this every single time, regardless of whether my new settings were the same as the old ones. Doing it this way may seem unnecessarily burdensome, but it is the most effective way to train yourself quickly.
Most novice photographers, when attempting to learn the skill, will adjust their settings often just once at the beginning of a shoot, and then snap dozens or hundreds of photos with those settings. This is fine and dandy, and there’s no judgement to be passed — I now do this most of the time.
The problem with this approach if you’re learning, however, is that you only ever really get to work on your ability to quickly arrive at a good setting combination a few times per shoot. You tweak your settings once at the beginning, shoot several hundred pictures, and then call it a day. This is great productivity, but suboptimal for learning.
In contrast, my method meant that I had the opportunity to work on the motor movements & conceptual understanding every time I took a photo, which, for my first shoot, was over 200 times. I received an order of magnitude more experience in one shoot than most novices do in five or ten.
Again, the ability to integrate all of these skills quickly is what makes someone a competent photographer. And similarly, the ability to integrate all of the disparate sub components of a skill is what makes someone competent at the bigger skill.
You become a competent writer once you learn how to integrate expression, tone, grammar, and storytelling in your work. You become a competent skateboarder once you learn how to integrate pushing, balancing, sliding, and ollie-ing. Every skill can be abstracted away into components, learned quickly, and then put back together with practice.
2. Discard perfection entirely
Perfection is most likely holding you back. Many try to become the best, but in doing so, never even get to good. Why? Because perfection is a paradox: the closer you get to becoming perfect at something, the more capable you become at pointing out why you’re not perfect.
Voltaire succinctly summarized his thoughts on skill learning with the following:
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Rather than pursuing perfection, when you begin learning a new skill, pursue competence. Pursue ‘good’. Pursue a level of capability that permits you to make mistakes, while letting you get the job done with quality and in a decent amount of time. You can iron out the inconsistencies in your work later, once you have the core of the skill under control. For now, just focus on getting it over with.
Photography in particular is a skill that many novices want to perfect. But the truth is, there is no one perfect photo. Art is subjective by nature, and what may seem beautiful to one might appear sub-par to another.
Instead of chasing after the rather ill-defined notion of becoming the ‘perfect photographer’, I simply aimed to be able to take nice photos that a majority of people would like. I wanted good, not perfect, and it let me gloss over a bunch of low-impact details and work on the real meat and bones of my skill.
3. Practice quickly and fail often
Lastly, I practiced quickly and failed often. I shot for one hour every day for three days, bringing my total to thirteen hours. I also spent an hour every evening in Lightroom editing my photos, which takes us to sixteen hours (then I wrote this post).
This sounds simple, but most people get in their heads about learning a new skill. They spend more time thinking about writing, for example, than actually writing. Or, they’ll spend a greater amount of time talking about the newfangled skill to their friends & family, but spend little to no time actually performing the skill in an effort to improve.
Human beings are social creatures, of course. We want to feel validated in our pursuits, and there’s nothing wrong with using a skill as a clever bit of social capital.
But that doesn’t make it the optimal way to learn.
Partly by design, and partly by mandated lockdown, learning this skill was very much a solo adventure for me. After speaking with experts in step 2, I did not spend much time talking about photography with others, aside from a few quick questions here or there.
Photography was something I did, not just talk about — and because of my commitment to doing, I managed to learn far more in a few hours than most people do in several months.
Granted, I suppose one could call this article an elaborate way to get my socializing in. I do certainly enjoy writing things that other people read. But hey, let me live a little!
To summarize, fast, efficient skill learning is a systematic process that includes breaking up the master skill into smaller components, quickly digesting these components, and then using conscious, directed practice (within your Zone of Proximal Development) to weave them together into an effective pattern.
At the beginning, you must first consult experts in your chosen field of study. Sample a broad pool, asking each about the most important concepts on your roadmap to gaining proficiency in this skill. Average out their suggestions to get an understanding of what you need to know.
From there, find resources that are simple to understand, while still being challenging enough to force improvement. Search for acclaimed guides on every sub-component, and include words like ‘simple’, ‘easy’, ‘ELI5’. Get rid of needless complexity and focus on the practical stuff.
After reading, watching videos, and listening to educational content, build insight by writing short, action-focused summaries on each sub-component. Use simple heuristics and/or mnemonic devices to quickly bootstrap your understanding, and don’t be afraid to make sweeping generalizations and simple rules as long as they work most of the time.
Lastly, practice quickly and fail often to learn the practical parts of each sub-component and integrate everything together. Focus on completing an entire action cycle — that is, a task that utilizes each part of your skill from start to finish.
In photography, for example, this would be staging, changing your settings, adjusting your focus, taking a photograph, and then editing it. In writing, this might be creating an outline, writing a first draft, editing your work, and then publishing. Weave together everything you learned in the previous steps, and don’t be afraid to fail quickly. It’s the best way to explosively quicken your understanding.
I’m not a genius, or otherwise gifted. I’m a completely normal person who just happened to have found a systematic process for learning things quickly. What you’re reading is simply me sorting this system out on paper, and detailing how I applied it to an in-demand skill that many of you presumably want to learn.
You can absolutely excel in this too. It’s just a matter of consistent practice. After you’ve learned one skill with this method, the rest come easily, and they each become increasingly fascinating the faster you can pick them up.
I like think of it like this: rather than spend years of your life learning a skill, why not spend a few hours learning how to learn skills in general, and create shortcuts that you can use for the rest of your life? I definitely know which one I prefer.