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How We Learn to get Good at Stuff


This is not a post about photography. Sure, it describes how I learned to take good photographs*, but it’s actually about how we learn to do anything.

It’s a formula for getting good at stuff.

El self-portrait

  1. I decided I wanted to learn how to take better photos. So I began wandering the streets around my home, taking pictures.
  2. I put my pictures up on Flickr. The website Flickr taught me most of what I know about photography.
  3. Putting my photos online made me accountable. People could see what I was doing. And so I began to get feedback. I actively sought that feedback and I actively tried to learn from it.
  4. I used Flickr to teach myself new techniques. (For every photo on Flickr you can see the settings that were used to capture it. This taught me about Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO (the only three things you really need to learn about on a camera).)
  5. I spent a lot of time looking at other people’s work on Flickr, learning what I liked and what I thought made a good photo. And I began imitating those photographs, learning from the different settings and styles. I distinctly remember how excited I felt when I learned how to take photos of blurry vehicle lights at night, of bouncing droplets of water, and the dark arts of rear curtain sync settings…
  6. It takes a lot of hours to learn from people better than you, to try to do something good yourself, to offer it up for feedback, to learn from criticism, and to repeat the whole process over and over again.
  7. I began collaborating with other enthusiastic photographers. We’d meet in the evening, prowl the streets of London for a few hours taking photos, then retire to a pub or Chinatown. The next day we’d post our best work on Flickr and the process of feedback, learning and aspiring could continue.
  8. You can collaborate with people via the internet too. I joined loads of different groups on Flickr to start learning and sharing ideas about the specific areas of photography I was interested in.
  9. Being praised, rewarded and acknowledged is something I thrive on. On Flickr I was sad enough to get excited when lots of people viewed my pictures or commented on them. Flickr has a clever algorithm called “Explore” which I used loads for discovering new and interesting work. I remember being really chuffed when I was first featured on “Explore” – Flickr’s showcase of good or interesting images.
  10. Flickr taught me to edit tightly. Nobody wants to see ten versions of the same picture, so I began getting better at tightening up my edit and just showing my best stuff. This principle applies for all creative things in life.
  11. And then, in the end, it comes down to practice. Committing, on Flickr, to share one photo a day, every day, for a whole year was a brilliant decision. Every day for a whole year I had to think about photography. I learned a lot but, more than that, it became a habit and a part of who I am. And that’s why I now feel able (almost) to call myself “a photographer.”

What are you trying to learn? What do you want to get good at? How are you going about it? Let me know in the comments below…

*British etiquette dictates that I need to stipulate that I’m not a very good photographer, more of a competent enthusiast. If you want to see properly good photography, check out Magnum.

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  1. Love this Al. I’m currently taking on month long challenges to try to instill new habits that are inline with the change I want to see in the world. Its early days yet but so far doing something every day for a longer period has helped the habits stick around.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Absolutely – if you want to learn, get good, then you have to try and try and try some more. And learn from the masters. I’ve just started making video. I’m talking really basic stuff, but I realised if I didn’t just go ahead and make a video (a simple piece to camera) I would never actually start, and without starting I could never improve. I’m only talking a bit of vlogging really, but I would love to be awesome at it. I’ve started, I’ve watched loads of other people’s work, I’ve read loads of how to guides, now I need to make time to practice.

  3. Catherine Carter Posted

    This was very helpful, thanks! People mention any number of these steps at times, but it was helpful to have a clear and concise list. I love the encouragement you provide to the general public. It means a lot to people. 🙂 I studied anthropology at University and am getting tired of wasting that knowledge. Plus, a good friend with great insight and lots of world experience has been encourging me to use that too. I’m doing some general blogging, photography and hope to begin docublogging soon. we wil see how it goes! Thanks again for the encouraging words always!



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