I was meeting a friend for coffee and arrived at the shop twenty minutes early. I don’t normally stop there because, while their house blend’s strong-flavored, it’s hard to get a table. With a sea of serious heads angled over lattes and laptops, it’s a student hangout at all hours.

I was lucky this time, finding two seats well off from the restrooms. I took my drink, sat, and listened to the sounds of learning while I waited.

The foam in my cup hadn’t retreated far when I was reminded how the little things can stoke our passion for learning. At an adjacent table a man was tutoring a young woman in math, leading her through problems in a persuasive yet insistent manner. What branch of arithmetic he espoused I can only guess at (it’s not my language), but his tone and enthusiasm for the work was nearly mesmerizing, and at each success, when the student came to the correct answer, he offered praise. I haven’t heard excellent used like that in a long while.

When the subject is photography, however, we’re mostly on our own. Gone are structured classes, the daily deadlines of assignments, and interaction with honest, guiding voices. Accredited photography programs aside, my guess is the majority of photographers are self-taught, their education a combination of diverse experiences. It’s the no-frills School of Hard Knocks, where tuition payments never end and there’s no diploma.

Finding your way in this school can be tricky. It’s been said often that looking at pictures is the surest way to learn photography (and these days we don’t lack for pictures to look at). It’s actually learning by osmosis: absorbing the good (and bad) in what you see and trusting that unconsciously enough will seep through to make a difference. (I don’t mean imitation, although we may all do a bit of that.) Great photography, in any field, has an ability to stir the juices.

We can also ask other photographers for feedback. On internet forums this is called “C&C” (for criticism and critique). Unfortunately, too few of these comments are valuable to learning: most will be of the “wonderful-beautiful-stunning shot” variety. The flip-side are those who trash another’s pictures without adequate reasonings or suggestions, and don’t back up their words with examples. Be careful who you talk to, and always carry grains of salt.

And anyway, ultimately (you saw this coming, didn’t you?), finding motivation and building confidence in photography is 99% your doing, your sweat. It’s that simple. Your route will be unique, like fingerprints. (It’s not always a wide tree-lined street: lots of potholes, too.) Trust instincts, and intuition, and that all-important inner voice: find what works for you. I believe you’ll know it when you feel it—and that will be excellent.


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