Michael Freeman is an accomplished and vastly experienced teacher whose books keep cropping up everywhere; only the other week I bought his book on 35mm film cameras, written in 1980. This guy knows his stuff, and has helped a lot of students.
Photography foundation courses are ten a penny but what makes Michael Freeman’s new course so valuable and useful is what he doesn’t focus on right at the beginning.
I’ve seen a lot of photography courses online and read a lot of beginner guides – including when I was learning the basics myself – and have gone through the process of getting a distinction with the RPS and getting shortlisted in major competitions.
With this latest course, Michael doesn’t go down the usual road of explaining how the camera works, or tackling technical issues like the exposure triangle (the interplay of aperture, shutter speed and ISO in case you were wondering). Anyone looking for recommendations on what camera or lens to buy will be disappointed too. What the bulk of this foundation course does do, however, is to give you invaluable lessons in the art of seeing – and understanding how your viewer sees your image.
I once remember hearing Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones joke that it doesn’t matter what guitar you give him, he will make it sound the same. He was being self-deprecating, but it’s the same principle with a skilled photographer.
You can give them the latest top-of-the-range mirrorless camera and pricey lens, or a bog-standard phone camera, or an old film clunker, and they will still take interesting and arresting images. This is because they are tapping into much deeper lessons and insights about how to structure a photograph, and how the viewer responds to it.
It’s really NOT about the gear, despite what camera makers will tell you. You can’t blame them: they are in the process of selling new equipment and if everyone was still getting by with Canons from 20 years ago, Canon would now be only selling printers and photocopiers. Technical innovation is fine, and developments like ultra-responsive autofocus and see-in-the-dark ISO make the photographer’s job easier, but the wise image maker realises that all this is just one part of the toolkit.
Michael is an engaging and avuncular communicator who is very confident to camera, without coming over as brash or self-congratulatory; I could listen to him all day. Right from the start he shoots down a lot of received wisdom that you are likely to hear when starting it photography. For example: “there are no rules – one thing that is guaranteed to make your photos boring is following that rule or any other… This is not an engineering course.”
Also, unlike a lot of photography foundation courses, Michael doesn’t bombard the student with lots of images from great photographers; this can be overwhelming. You wouldn’t get a new pianist to try and follow Chopin.
Indeed, he doesn’t reference many photographers at all, mainly the vastly influential Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004). I have several books by HCB and like many photographers, I sit there marvelling at his incredible compositional skill. The guy was both a master visual architect and master story teller, but after watching Michael’s course I have a much better idea how he pulled it off – the interplay of contrast and balance, an adventurous approach to framing and an understanding of how the subject(s) relate to the rest of the elements in the composition.
Getting an understanding of all this through Michael’s course will put you in a much stronger position creatively than a student of a similar level who has been lead down the path of purely technical explanations and gear advice. You could write an essay on the Exposure Triangle or the principles of differential focus and get high marks, but does this mean you can then take a great, rather than simply good, photograph? Absolutely not.
Michael is passionate about developing visual literacy and while he refers to a lot of principles from art, referencing both Botticelli and Bauhaus, the difference in photography is that it’s a much more immediate process. Returning to Cartier Bresson, he didn’t sit there doing a mathematical equation to work out the best composition for his image of desperate Shanghai residents struggling to get their money out before Mao’s army arrived; he’d internalised a lot of these principles already and was able to call on them in the ‘decisive moment’ as required.
Yes, still life and studio photography give you more time to spend on the shot, but a lot of outdoors photography depends on capturing great light – which doesn’t tend to stick around very long.
There is a strong emphasis on written exercises as part of the course, too, which helps students to clarify why they took a particular photograph in a particular way. It encourages mindfulness and self-criticism, and it’s interesting to note that higher photographic distinctions, such as the Associate or Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society, also involve a strong written element.
Towards the end of the foundation course, after Michael has started to build the student’s visual literacy and got them thinking like a pro photographer, he then turns to talking about exposure issues and lens use.
Again, these are useful as a means to an end, i.e., creative expression, rather than an end in themselves. That said, my favourite quote from Michael comes right at the beginning– “in photography you never stop learning.”
I strongly recommend this foundation course as you are getting a masterclass in visual literacy and ways of seeing, and using colour and light. Absolutely this will make you a better photographer. You might not hear these concepts talked about in such depth at the local camera club, as some ‘sage’ drones on about distractions like lens/printer/editing software choice, but get a better understanding of them by doing Michael’s course and I guarantee your images will be more interesting and satisfying for all concerned.
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