Non-Linear Learning

As promised a few days ago, here are some thoughts I recently had about how we learn about photography (in fact most things) in a non-linear way, and perhaps how we can get a bit better at learning full stop.

Being the navel-gazing, introspective type that I am, I’m always disappearing up my own backside and wallowing in my back catalogue rather than going out and shooting something new.  I had a huge opportunity to do this a few weeks ago when I reclaimed my entire archive of negs and contacts from my parent’s loft, and, as I was sorting them out and filing them away, inevitably got tempted to have a good trip down memory lane.

Mountain Bike
From my first roll of film. Good Skills.

Besides stirring some amusing memories, looking at lots of my old work really made one thing stand out – my progress as a photographer has been extremely patchy over the 21 plus years I’ve been doing it seriously.  Some of my early work looks great – it’s technically competent, and there’s some very strong ideas there.  By comparison, some of the stuff I shot once I was down in London – both during my time as an assistant, and immediately after – is utter, unmitigated rubbish.  Now, you can make the argument that in my assisting days I had very little money, and was trying to shoot my own stuff whilst working as a freelance assistant, but of course the same sort of excuse could easily apply to when I was a complete beginner.  Back then I had very little money, and not a huge amount of time, since I was a full time A-levels student, and yet I still produced some great stuff.

Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle, from, I think, 1992 – aged 15

Even worse, some of the stuff I’ve shot since starting out truly on my own in 2001 has been rank.  It almost seems like I was at times unable to learn certain basic lessons, or that I seemed obsessed with making the same mistakes over and over again.  This bothered me slightly, as, if nothing else, it doesn’t bode well for the future!

I’ve been reading a lot of popular science/psychology stuff lately – think Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Kahneman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the like, and thankfully some of it is sticking.  The simple reason I seemed to make some progress and then stagger back again is because THAT’S ACTUALLY HOW WE LEARN.

We seem to think that our learning develops like this:

Linear Learning

Put very simply – as time passes we get measurably and irreversibly better at things.  A nice linear progression from ignorance to mastery.  If, somehow, you’re able to actually achieve this is in your life, could you please let us know how you do it?In my experience, learning a skill is actually much more like this:

Non-Linear Learning

Excuse the crap freehand drawing, but you get the idea!

We tend to surge forwards at times, make leaps and bounds in one area of our work, but then stumble over other areas.  Or, we seemingly forget basic lessons we should have learnt – shooting stuff that would result in the above featured “quality control” sticker.  Either because we think we’re beyond such basics, or that we’ll get away with it, or we’re in a hurry – the excuse doesn’t really matter.

The Plants
From the start of my final year at college, 1997, during a good “run” of work.

As far as I can tell, being human we’ll never truly escape from this bumpy learning curve, despite all the frustrations it may cause us.  I do feel though, that in the past couple of years I’ve managed to smooth it out somewhat, and not slip back so often.  In convenient list form, here’s what I think has helped me:

  1. Above all, accept the fact that you’ll make mistakes.  This is only a bad thing if you then proceed to repeat them.  There’s the famous saying, attributed to Albert Einstein, that Insanity is: “doing the same thing and expecting different results”.  If you keep making mistakes, that’s the universe’s feedback mechanism telling you you need to change your methods.
  2. Don’t let those little setbacks put you off and discourage you from trying again.  You’ve probably got a huge library of knowledge backing you up, and you simply failed to recall one little bit on this occasion.  I can think of countless times when I was studying at college when I would look at the work of some master photographer or other, go out and try and mimic it, fall very short indeed, and think “what am I doing wrong?”  The reason I’m still going now, is that each time that happened I first of all didn’t just give in and pack up for good, but that I tried to work out WHERE I was going wrong, and correct it.
  3. Take a small creative pause when you make a mistake or get stuck on a shoot.  If something’s going wrong accept that a photoshoot can contain a lot of very complicated moving parts, any one of which might be misfiring.  Before you throw your hands up in despair, stop and look around you.  The solution to your “mistake” might be very obvious indeed, but in your angst you may not be able to see the wood for the trees.
  4. Spend as much time as you can working on your skillset, your craft skills, your creativity, and looking at the work of those around you whom you admire and want to emulate.  Personally speaking, this has been what’s made the biggest difference over the past couple of years.  Perhaps the most useful resource has been starting to use my logbook again after barely touching it since college.  I know I’ve been promising to shed more light on the way I use logbooks for some time now, but I promise I will get stuff written up in the next month.  As a device for improving your photography they’re absolutely critical.

So, next time you look at results you’re not happy with, and start cursing yourself for being so stupid, ignorant, what-was-I-thinking-I’m-a-moron, accept that there will be something you can learn from this experience.  Then make sure you learn it.

Peacock Test
Personal Test shoot from the end of 2013

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