“Every Artist was First an Amateur”      Ralph Waldo Emerson

You probably remember the time, back in the day, when you wanted to become an Olympic skier, or a concert pianist, or an astronaut, or a life-changing teacher, or an outdoor photographer who climbed Mount Everest. Many of us had those dreams but never achieved them due to a lack of time, devotion, skill, or uncontrollable circumstances.

And maybe now you have aspirations to become a scratch golfer, or a famous chef, or the solo singer in the church choir, or an amateur photographer that earns awards for outstanding photographs. Is such an aspiration reasonable or just daydreaming about a goal that is far from achievable?

As we progress through life our goals change. Some of us are still striving for professional or personal goals while others are ready to move on. But most of us still have a secondary goal that was pushed aside; perhaps a vocation we dreamed about or a hobby we enjoyed that dropped off our radar. Can we take on that goal now? As is always the case in life, you’ll never know until you try.

The goal of the First an Amateur blog is to help you on your journey to achieve your photography goal. This blog is not just for seniors who have nothing better to do. It is for anyone that would like to become an amateur photographer who moves beyond the point-and-shoot stage of taking pictures. First an Amateur is intended to introduce you to a number of other amateurs who are also on a journey to become more of an artistic photographer.

Since starting my own photography journey I have talked with many other amateur photographers who have the same goals. Their journey sounded so familiar that I asked them if they would be willing to share their story with me by answering a dozen questions to compare their experience to mine. Fortunately they were very willing to answer the questions and I am hoping this blog will motivate you to join the discussion and share some of your stories and questions.

I am retired now, but for 37 years I was an educational psychology professor. I spent my professional life studying how people learn and how teachers impact the learning and motivation of their students. Now, three years later, I miss exploring the teaching-learning process and regularly reflect on learning how to become a better photographer. I’ve come to believe that sharing my journey, and the journey of the other 12 photographers I am working with, will help other amateur photographers to improve their skills and motivation to become an artful photographer.

I am excited to work with a group of amateurs who share a similar photography journey and to explore how to help people learn to refine their photographic skills. My involvement with the Teton Photography Group (a photography club http://tetonphotographygroup.org) has been encouraging and has demonstrated how working with other photographers can motivate me to improve my photographic skills. I hope when you read about what I have learned it will help you move forward with better artistic photographs. I am striving to help create an on-line community that builds on Emerson’s idea that “Every Artist was First an Amateur.”

Optional Homework

My years of teaching showed me that when learners are engaged in answering a question their learning is more effective. So to help you learn more from my next post I would like you to think about the following question.

What do you believe is the single most important variable in improving as a photographer? There is no right answer and the most important variable in your success may be different from the critical variable of success for other people. Here are some possible variables you might want to consider: better gear; more time; better camera skills; post-processing skills; more motivation; better understanding of composition; live in a better photographic environment; access to a coach or photography teacher; more energy to get out of bed at sunrise. The last one is kind of a joke but not completely. The next post should be in approximately a week. Feel free to send me your answer and I may include it in the post.

“Our” Goal

My goal is to get a number of amateur photographers interested in joining in “our journey” to discover and implement strategies to improve our photography. I describe this as our journey because: 1) I am going to share with you what I am learning; 2) I am going to share what “the dozen” folks shared about their journey in the answers to my questions (Blog Questions), and 3) I want you to get involved in the discussion by responding to the homework questions or by sending me your answers to the twelve questions. Essentially my goal is our goal because this is our journey not just my journey. My plan is to have a post about every week that discusses topics that impact our photography. I’ll try to give a fairly simple homework assignment every week to encourage you to think about a topic and hopefully help you to advance your journey.

29 thoughts on “

    1. I just can’t take off my teaching hat. Other than my own children and grandchildren, teaching is the joy of my life. I hope I can help others as I march along this journey to improve my photography.


  1. Tom Lehrer

    I look forward to joining you along the way. What a great opportunity for many of us who are interested in photography and for those of us who are old friends.


  2. The single most important variable, yikes. For me, it is more complex. There are many variables, each affecting the other and each a different percentage of the whole in different moments. Time, focus, money, self confidence, willingness to be humble or to be proud, clarity of goals, open mind to learning, understanding how I learn best and the effort I put into improving all impact the process. If I must pick one, I choose time. It is what i crave the most. To immerse myself in all things photographic and not have interruptions.


    1. Ruth, you are the winner ! 🙂 The first reader to actually share your answer to your homework assignment. I’ll have to think about what your grand prize will be and when you will receive it. Time is certainly a critical variable and I have the same reaction as you do concerning interruptions. When I go out on early morning shoots (I just got back from one at Schwabacher’s Landing for sunrise this morning) I become engrossed in the environment and my photography – AND they seem to be one-and-the-same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Single most important variable – time behind the glass. In many pursuits, experts say that about 10,000 encounters are needed to achieve your highest level of performance. I suppose that means 10,000 image captures, but wait. Is it 10,000 images with each camera, each lens, each unique combination, each type of processing???

    Hard to answer but it is clearly time in the box – behind your lens, experimenting, varying conditions, exposure variables, processing, and getting feedback from your peers. Posting images, entering competitions, requesting portfolio reviews, critical self-review, and forcing yourself to select the best of a series of photos all help.

    This repetition, experimentation, and critical review all need a certain level of basic knowledge about the artful and technical sides of photography and ultimately require a certain level of gear and processing software that allow the capture of high quality images. But gear alone is not the answer as most photographers will say, “It is the 12″ behind the focal plane that are the most important.”


    1. Loren, I agree with you 100%. Time behind the glass (and thinking about that time) is critical. You reminded me about my favorite author and book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell talks about the 10K rules of success, and although very few of us can put forth 10,000 hours taking photographs, the more time we put behind the glass the better we will become as serious amateur photographers. Hmmm, I’m motivated to read Outliers again, maybe even before my next post. If you’ve never read Gladwell, take the time to read his down-to-earth explanation of how things work in life. VERY interesting.


  4. Jade Walton

    I would have to agree with a couple of the answers above. I find that time behind the lens is of course crucial, but I think more importantly for me is the ability to humble myself for critiquing. As someone who is incredibly new to the idea of photographing landscape and wild animals, I find it hard when I take a photograph that I love and think is great and someone else has a comment saying it’s not golden perfection. Ok, I kid a bit, I don’t mind constructive criticism, but it is hard for me to take sometimes. I get in the mindset that it’s either pure gold or a throw away- no inbetween. And now after writing this, I think changing my mindset may be the most important variable.
    Thank you Randy, for creating this website to help myself and others.


  5. Jade, I understand completely. When I went to my first Teton Photography Group (TPG) critique (in January 2015) I didn’t take any photos ‘cuz I thought mine weren’t good enough and I was sure they would get ripped-up. But the feedback to others was very constructive and when I brought my photos the next month the feedback I received was supportive and constructive AND it really helped. I have found the TPG to be the support I needed. I am hoping to “Pay it Forward” with my blog and a Peer Mentor Program I am planning on creating for the TPG. More news to come in the near future.


    1. Absolutely. I taught interpersonal communications for many years at the university and found that feedback was one of the most difficult skills to teach. I found that the most important aspect of feedback was the difference between informational feedback (feedback focused on clear non-judgemental information) and evaluative feedback (that was cheerleading or harsh judgmental statements that said nothing about “why”). I see most of the statements on FB to be positive evaluative feedback (“Great Shoot”) but I found the Informal Critiques to be more informational feedback that helped the photographer understand exactly what was working (“The leading lines really keep me focused on the mountain tops.”) or what could be changed to improve the image (“I find the branches in the corner to be distracting.)


  6. Nancy takeda

    Hi Randy, I am so technically challenged with us kind of stuff (photography yes, but blog, more so. I’ve never participated so I have no clue if this is what I do). I have an art background. I see compositions where other people see stuff. I have a very strong imagination. I am a writer. I not only paint and draw, but I do fiber arts. I have the eye for photography, but all the settings get the better iof me, and I want to throw up my hands. BUT I refuse to be a green button person. If I was going to let the camera do all the work , I’d go back to my instamatic. I can do this, it is just a slow process that frustrates the person who got me started in digital photography. He doesn’t realize that I sit at the very edge of the technological age, so it’s hard for me. I need a more patient teacher. Thanks for listening. Nancy T


    1. Nancy – I am so happy that you have stepped up as a novice (but very good) photographer and as a leader in the Teton Photography Group. I believe that “First an Amateur” is the essence of what 95% of all who own a camera really need and I am glad you will be a part of the effort.


      1. Nancy takeda

        It is going to be a challenge. If I can just understand one thing and master that I’ll be happy. Aaron suggested I set my camera on aperture, set the ISO to auto, then only deal with the F-stop and white balance for a while that maybe I’ll be ok for a while.
        Your words are always kind and very much appreciated.


    2. Nancy, As a teacher of teachers I have always enjoyed taking on a challenge of a student who wants to learn but is feeling frustrated. My first challenge will be to get you to relax; it may take a little time but we’ll be able to bring you along. First-an-Amateur is a community of learners who will help one another. Let’s find you a partner to work with and I am certainly willing to help with the technical stuff as long as you understand that I am a wee-bit technically challenged myself – – – but maybe that is a good thing 🙂


      1. Nancy takeda

        Thanks Randy. My problem is that I know what I want I just don’t express myself in terms that someone else gets. And that is what frustrates me. I am a visual person. I don’t do well with words. By the time I get to the end of a paragraph in my photography books, I’ m generally lost, and have confused what I read at the beginning. It is like my painting and knitting: show me how to do a particular pattern stitch. Show me how to work wet into wet and not get hard lines in my water colors. That is what frustrates me. I love to write, but words can be my undoing. If I can figure out just a few things, like f-stops, maybe I’ll be fine. Let the camera figure out the rest. I want amazing solar eclipse pictures in 2017, and at the rate I am going it will take me that long to get passable regular sunlight pictures. I will appreciate what ever some one can do for me.


  7. We’ll have you ready for 2017 and even 2016. Patience is essential in any art work whether it is learning to paint or play the piano. In photography we all have to have patience in waiting for the moose to get up and walk (see my FB post) or learning how to set your f-stop accurately.


  8. Nancy takeda

    Sometimes I wonder. I did fall pictures with a friend. She drove. I ran the camera. I thought they came out pretty well. I was happy. When shown to another photographer, they were torn to pieces. Made me what to shove the camera in the bag and say ok, I am done. And yet I showed one of the pictures to a co-worker, and he called it “wow, that’s a keeper.” Do you take the criticism of another photographer, and struggle, or the pleasure in the non-photographer”s “wow”? Or “I like it, it’ s what I envisioned, deal with it, and try to see what I saw”? It just gets harder to even want to try.


    1. Nancy, i am so sorry you had that experience. But I am not surprised. Very few people have the gift and the know how to give feedback in ways it can be received, heard and be useful. Until I have paying clients, my photography is good if i am pleased with it. I am still learning what pleases me in a photo, my own and others. I am working on sharpening my eye, i.e., if i “like” a photo on Facebook, what exactly, about it, do I like. People who tell me i should send my photos to National Geographic either lack the critical eye i am looking for or are trying to butter me up. Either way, i say thank you, and know they will not be helpful to my growth as a photographer. The other thing i learned is that i am very emotionally attached to my photography and need to detach a bit in order hear feedback as it is intended. You are not alone.


  9. Nancy, Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner but I was out of town at a conference. Your concern about being “torn to pieces” that left you wanting to shove your camera in the bag is probably a common problem for new amateur photographers, but I can’t be sure. The reason I can’t be sure is that when WE (that would be you and me and most folks who are learning a new skill) feel attacked by comments about our artistic work (or most other work we are starting) we often pull back and want to give up. When we lack confidence about our progress or the product we created it changes our motivation; our “goal” become to protect ourselves from the hurt of those comments. Rather than working to improve our skills and photographs we give up or make excuses why we can’t participate. Thanks for sharing your experience; it has motivated me to put up a different post about the motivation of new amateur photographers. I’ll try to get that new post up in the next day or two.


  10. Nancy takeda

    Thanks to both rawwagner and Randy. I have the artistic eye, I just don’t have the technical knowledge. And quite often the picture is exactly what I wanted. Maybe it is a little soft, but how do you know that wasn’t exactly the effect I wanted. I can see in commercial photography that certain rules apply. I don’t necessarily want my work to look like every other photograph of the Tetons ever taken. I am an individual, and what I see and feel when I look at a piece of work, whether mine or someone else’s, is purely my feels. Don’t shove me in a box and try to make me conform to every rule written. I will rebel. I have always looked at the world a little differently.. I find people confused by what I either see or don’t in art, whether a painting or photograph. That is just the way I am. We are going into a time of year where the weather will become more and more miserable, when I spend what little down time with other projects. So I will have some time to work through my frustrations.
    Thanks again,


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