The science of teaching

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I don’t have any photographs of me teaching, for obvious reasons: it’s just not physically possible without having a doppleganger, identical twin or astral projection capabilities.

I take the teaching portion of my job seriously. Very seriously, as any of my previous students will tell you. What isn’t always so obvious is the amount of thought and preparation that happens before a workshop or video. There are a lot more factors to consider than are immediately apparent – and I suspect many attempting to teach workshops don’t quite realize this until it’s too late. Unfortunately, most of the time price is not at all reflective of quality.

It seems obvious, but a teacher needs to have a deep understanding of the subject he or she is teaching. You’d be surprised how many teachers’ knowledge only goes slightly beyond the syllabus. This becomes a serious problem when you have very keen students; the chances of a curve ball question are not only high, but increase exponentially when it comes to voluntary participation. People pay good money to attend photography workshops because they really want to: it’s almost certain that they’re pretty serious about photography, which in turn implies research and some level of knowledge. You cannot teach somebody something if you can’t get them to understand something they didn’t know before, or impart knowledge they didn’t already have. And in order for that to happen, you’ve got to be not just one or two steps ahead of the game – but ten or more.

There are many other good reasons for mastery: confidence, for one, but beyond that, the ability to walk the walk under conditions that might be less than ideal due to circumstances outside your control. If you’re trying to teach people how to see and can’t pull out an image or two from any given situation, then that not only plants doubts about your ability/ competence but also devalues the material you’re trying to teach in the first place. It’s unfair to ask your students to attempt something you cannot do – and ideally master – yourself. One of the first things I do with any workshop group is take a walk for about half an hour, without cameras, pointing out the compositions I’m seeing. There are increasingly challenging variations of this exercise too, depending on the level of the group*.

*I was told by a student after an exercise – five clicks of the shutter, five images, no moving position – that watching me work reminded him of Maximus brutally and efficiently dispatching the Roman cohort in Gladiator…I made sure never to wear a skirt again after that.

In all seriousness, credibility is about the ability to deliver – consistently. And that brings me to the next point: one has to have an overall body of material and objective target to deliver to each student; ideally, each student should leave the workshop with the same level of understanding regardless of the session or level at which he or she entered. This is not easy; it requires you to be able to break down the lessons in such a way that is a) easy to understand; b) challenging enough to stimulate thought; c) remembered; d) not boring. Given that photographic technique tends to be either extremely subjective (the idea of balance) or very technically dry (e.g. calculating guide numbers) – this is non-trivial. The syllabus I follow for the Making Outstanding Images workshops and videos is something that’s been distilled down from twelve years of shooting, a solid year of thought into a quantified definition of the properties of such images – and then translated into an order of priority, and broken down into easily digestible chunks.

Even so, we still land up with upwards of 20 exercises. And assuming you can master those, it still doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to find a unique and pleasing image under all circumstances; there is definitely an element of experience required. And we haven’t even gotten to creating light or 100% controlled compositions – that’s just finding an image.

There’s another, bigger challenge: when teaching any creative discipline, the danger is that the teacher lands up demonstrating technique and not conveying understanding of concepts – this results in the creation of clones. Although most people would attend a workshop because they like the work of the teacher, ultimately, I don’t think the students want to produce exactly the same work in the long run. Everybody who bothers to engage in a creative activity of any sort will want – arguably, need – to put their own stamp of individuality on their output. The act of composing a frame and trying to take a photograph – a representation of the world the way you see it – is an entirely self-serving one in itself.

That said, I believe that mimicry is an important step along the road to developing your own style; it requires both technical mastery and the ability to consistently apply a certain creative bias under a wide range of situations. Chasing the end goal of applying your own creative bias is impossible if you don’t have a solid understanding of the available tools/ techniques and how they work. One thing I always repeat to my students is that not only is photography subjective, but that my opinion of composition and preference is just that: an opinion. It holds no more or no less weight than that of anybody else; most important is ensuring that the ultimate gatekeeper – the creator – is happy.

I touched on this briefly earlier, but it deserves a bit more attention: adaptation of the methods to the student. This goes beyond ensuring that material is sufficiently well-explained to be easily understood, but also taking into account different learning styles and personalities. I suspect that the types of people I see in my workshops are both fairly consistent in some traits – intelligence, creativity, success in other fields, self-motivation and leadership (some call it ‘type A’) – but land up being hugely divergent in opinion. It can be both interesting and rather challenging to manage a group made up of ten highly successful and strong-willed individuals who are used to being the authority in their own circles…sometimes, I suspect my experience in the corporate world comes in very handy indeed.

I think the very best teachers – at least the ones I’ve been lucky enough to be instructed by – have something extra: true passion for their subject. In turn, they inspire that same passion in their students. Without that, merely holding attention can be a challenge in itself – let alone taking somebody from confusion to mastery. Personally, I think this is the biggest of all of the challenges – not understanding, not demonstrating, not ‘logicizing’ the material. It’s one of the reasons 2014 will be the last year I’m teaching the Making Outstanding Images syllabus; I’m afraid it’s going to get stale and formulaic for me; once you’ve done the same exercise fifteen times, that risk is rather high. The last thing I want to do is be anything less than passionate. Teaching is a conscious and deliberate choice for me; I could just as easily not do it: it must therefore stay exciting!

Putting it all together, a teacher – of anything – needs to be a master in their own right; have the ability to execute, make conscious choices, understand and explain why those choices were made; be able to deconstruct that understanding into logical and systematic chunks that others can understand; communicate those in a way that keeps a wide variety of audiences and personalities engaged and interested; inspire their students to create through the strength of their own passion and confidence; be able to manage logistics and juggle the business aspects, whilst continue their own creative development and learning in order to be able to understand, teach and be credible at other topics…not easy, is it? :) MT

I have several workshops planned for 2014 – the Kuala Lumpur Thaipusam Masterclass in January; Making Outstanding Images Melbourne and Sydney in March; Cuba Masterclass in May; Making Outstanding Images London in July. There is more information here. Alternatively, you can always send me an email. Additionally, the teaching videos are available directly from the Teaching Store, here.

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Graduated at 16, high level thinking, logical, disciplined, somewhat creatively inclined, focussed, tenacious.
    What? Only “Somewhat creative” ? Ming thinks, “vince, you suffered a stroke getting up this morning?”.
    Not really, I hit my head often enough, not nearly enough to cause stupidity.
    Seriously, ever considered your left brain dominance to maybe in a small way stifle your creative potential? Dont get me wrong, I have followed your blog exploits for some time, you have progressive grown and added value and services that showcased the very qualities listed in my opening statement, most admirably.
    This is what im leading to; having mastered most of your current craft, im wondering what kind of images you would give us, if somehow you could let your right brain dominate for a period of time, completely. No more encumberances about how the images would be used, how they will be perceived, how they would deviate from your renowned standards and philosophy…
    Just a curious wondering that came as I awoke this morning.

    • I’m all for that. The question is how do you out-psych yourself?

      • A whiskey or two?

        Research at University of Illinois in Chicago and published in the journal “Consciousness and Cognition” could suggest that the male brain does improve in both “cleverness” and creative thinking at blood alcohol level of 0.075 (0.75)…apparently. Of course this given that the limit of being legally “drunk” is at 0.08 (0.8) in the state I believe. I seem to remember a similar study being conducted in Denmark having the test subjects preform both right and left brain exercises. Apparently one thing they did notice was a diminished hand-eye coordination after a few. Just keep that in mind if you intend an experiment and mount your Otus ;)

        • Well, from my university days I do remember quantum mechanics problem sets made a bit more sense after a couple of beers…but given I now have several lens mugs, perhaps it’s not such a good idea in case I pour something into the lens and attempt to mount the mug :P

    • Ron Carroll says:

      Vince, for you to suggest Ming’s creativity suffers because of his technical mastery is akin to saying Rembrandt could have done better work if he hadn’t spent so much time mastering the theory of light and the theory of color.

      • I don’t think that’s what Vincent meant, Ron. I read it as in essence – ‘analysis paralysis’ – overthinking causes creative freezes. Sometimes, it does. But shooting is also a very instinctive process, and the technical portion has to be intuitive in order to concentrate on the creative side.

        • Ron Carroll says:

          I agree, and I didn’t mean to suggest Rembrandt sat around contemplating the theory of light as he was composing his masterpieces. Teaching is a left brain activity, so it’s possible to get glimpses into the workings of the teacher’s left brain. But the creative process is right brained — using Vince’s hypothesis — and since creativity can’t be taught, there’s simply no way to see how it works in another. I don’t think technical analysis precludes creativity, which is what Vince seemed to be suggesting; I also don’t think you’re ‘guilty’ of analysis paralysis. The fact is, creativity is a whole brain process, and neuroscience is beginning to debunk the myth of the right brain/left brain split.

          • There’s definitely a lot of debate over whether creativity can be taught – or what even defines creativity to begin with, as opposed to copying and imitating but with bias – I honestly can’t answer this one.

            As to left/right brain: I went for an MRI last year after suffering from some seriously bad migraines; all the neurologist said was that I had an unusually symmetrical brain – apparently this is not that common. I have no idea where it means anything or not; perhaps the experts in the audience can weigh in :)

        • Quite astute, you are not at creative freeze, yet.
          Picasso was quoted as saying “as a child, I could already draw like an angel, when I was an adult, I wished I could draw like other children”. He had to out-psych himself too. The world now knows what happened when he managed it.

          Therefore, what would ming’s images be like when he manages to out-psych himself?
          When you are ready, show us!

  2. Rene François Desamore says:

    As long as you are passionate about your work you should remain passionate about teaching others. As a flying instructor, I love to develop the passion of flying amongst my students and I will do it as long as I have the passion of flying. Teaching is also an art more than a science and you face the additional challenge of helping your students to develop their creativity. This obviously requires your exceptional abilities.

    • It requires you to think about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and then finding a way to explain that…

      I’ve always wanted to learn how to fly, too.

  3. I enjoyed the article, but wish to question one point: I believe it would be a mistake to assume that most would-be photo gurus have a “Type A” personality.

    • They do. Meet them in person.

    • I suspect the reason your classes have so many “type A” participants is that your blog followers are generally a certain type. Your blog is, in effect, a filter. As photography blogs go, yours is far more rigorous and technical than most. In other words, you set a very high standard and that high standard appeals to your followers. Those who read it appreciate the type of photography that you do and are willing and interested to reevaluate every fundamental aspect of their photography. They are passionate about elevating the quality of their own work from the ground up. They have already come to the conclusion that aspects of their own work are not as good (which also requires a number of “type A” personality traits) and they are highly motivated to do the work necessary to improve.

      • You’ve got a very good point here: the site serves as a filter, which in turn tends to mean we get similar participants. And that’s a good thing actually, because the group chemistry in the workshops is always quite amazing. The people who take part and the non-photographic conversations are as much of the experience as anything.

  4. Ming,

    You certainly qualify as an amazing teacher. I learn a lot from your blog, photos and videos. The videos have been the best thing for my photography learning. The order in which everything is presented is perfect and each topic builds on the others. You don’t hold back on the knowledge. Your photography is evolving very fast which is a source of continued inspiration.

    Many Thanks! – Eric

  5. Very nice article. I do lead workshops for my peers every so often at work and the paragraph about being ten steps ahead of them in the subject matter really is true. Fortunately, with experience one doesn’t get so easily thrown curve balls anymore. ;-)

  6. Ming, one problem I face in India is isolating the subject. There are just too many people on the street and too many distracting objects in the background. Almost everywhere vehicles are parked. Also there is too much dynamism on the street. The wide angle lens I use (28mm) is quite unforgiving of composition. How do you handle a situation like Indian street? :)

  7. Iskabibble says:

    Ever consider holding a teaching event in Hong Kong?

  8. Dr. Paul B. Lewis says:

    Ming,
    Very good article and I can say you are a fantastic teacher. Whatever you do, take flying lessons and learn to fly. As an adult and I had a few dollars in my pocket, the first thing I did was to get my private pilot license. Over many years of flying and owning two airplanes gave me some of the most memorable times of my life. It is a great way to escape the routine daily rituals and clear your brain. I would highly recommend you try a few lessons to see how you like flying small airplanes.

    • Thank you, Paul. I’ve actually flown a 767 briefly (long story) – something smaller and more ‘direct’ might be fun. Also, a sailplane with a retractable engine. Flying is on the top of my to do list as soon as I find some time. Do you still fly?

      • Dr. Paul B. Lewis says:

        No flying for me at my age. Only on commercial flights now. Find the time even for an hour per week. It is worth the effort.

      • Rene François Desamore says:

        I did great flying out of Royal Selangor flying club. They have good instructors and are conveniently located downtown KL. You will get new perspective for other outstanding pictures from the sky. And as you cannot fly above 1000 feet in KL you will have an amazing shot when you fly between the twin towers (and maybe some jail time for other exclusive shots)

  9. Clearly not allowing yourself to fall into rote and stagnation – that’s a good thing but I’m sure your workshops will be greatly missed past 2014. Early days, but can you envisage yourself switching careers again from photography to something else at some point?

    • Well, all the more reason to attend one this year I suppose :)

      I’m not ending workshops entirely, but will not be teaching the ‘core toolkit’ Making Outstanding Images syllabus again; I want to concentrate on more advanced creative development which almost nobody is doing now.

      As for switching careers – who knows? Far too early to say. I don’t *want* to, but I am realistic: it’s difficult to stay fresh and at the top of the game for more than five to ten years. Tastes and styles change, and as a result one must either continually change too – that may mean compromising your creative integrity – or stagnate and be locked into a single ‘type’ of work. That’s not good, either. A very tough balance, I think.

      • Michael Matthews says:

        Perhaps it’s time to apply that symmetrical brain to devising something like a purely mechanical, self-correcting, self-perpetuating system for currency arbitrage. Then live off the proceeds and become a photography dilettante. Wait a minute — there’s nothing wrong with being a dilettante, once you abandon the latter-day pejoratives associated with the term. I believe it springs from the idea of doing something purely for the delight of it.

        • Haha, basically machine code to print money. I like the idea of that.

          As for being a dilettante: that’s not a bad thing at all. Amateurs do not have the same demands by their clients as professionals, and are thus fully free to shoot for themselves. In all seriousness, have to be a professional to give me the freedom to be an amateur – does that make sense?

  10. what do you think of Eric Kim’s workshop?

  11. This post really resonated with me, because I’ve taken two workshops with two well-known photographers — both having blogs with large followings — and I came away disappointed both times, for the very reasons you gave. There was little depth to their presentations/teaching, and they were often stumped — embarrassingly so at times — by questions from the class. And I remember a couple of ‘answers’ that were flat-out wrong. So I’m hoping to make it to one of your classes this year. Thanks for posting this.

    • :) I hope I don’t disappoint! Still got a place or two left for Melbourne (27-29 March) and London (16-18 July) if you’re interested ;)

      Out of curiosity, how big were their workshops? Was the lack of depth due to being spread too thin, a lack of structure, or something bad/ disconnected in the pedagogy?

  12. gbories2014 says:

    A reblogué ceci sur dnslookupfr.

  13. Having participated in one of Ming’s workshops the structure and a clear flow in learning was what attracted me and it did not disappoint. Also being able to adapt your teaching when for whatever reason the situation demands….Day 1 Amsterdam was NOT the most useful day to start a workshop, but at least we learnt how important light was :D

  14. Leandro Gemetro says:

    Ming, there is something that I really want to know: when it comes to evaluate student’s work, how do you draw the line between what is right and wrong regarding your personal taste and feelings? It must feel like a fight between being objective and your personal taste (subjective)

    • Oh, I’m very upfront about it: everything is subjective. But since you’ve signed on for one of my classes, I would assume that means you agree with my work/ opinions/ general stylistic preferences :)

  15. “the teacher lands up demonstrating technique and not conveying understanding of concepts”–that’s exactly what I was trying to say the other day (in relation to the pro evangelising P mode for the wrong reasons).

    • There’s nothing wrong with P mode, you just need to know when is the right time to use it :)

      • Of course, but you won’t learn that unless the teacher teaches you properly. With the other videos I’ve tried, I always end up reverting to the knowledge I’ve learned from this site/your videos; good endoresement for you, not so much for everyone else!

        • Glad to hear it! :)

          • Poses the question: is it better to take lessons from all over (a diverse range of influences can’t be a bad thing, so why not a diverse range of teachers too?), or find a style and a teacher that you like and stick with it? I appreciate there may not be a one size fits all response…

            • As contradictory as it may seem to my own business, I encourage all of my students to expose themselves as many influences and opinions as possible – that is the only way to become a well-rounded photographer and somebody who is aware of their preferences, strengths and limitations. It has never been my goal to create clones, rather just to provide you with the tools you need to create what you visualize – and help you to visualize to begin with, of course.

Trackbacks

  1. […] thoughts on my teaching methodology and philosophy, read this article. The best thing I can leave you with is some of the feedback from my previous workshop and email […]

  2. […] thoughts on my teaching methodology and philosophy, read this article. The best thing I can leave you with is some of the feedback from my previous workshop and email […]

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