Photography and gardening have much in common; going far beyond the obvious connection that gardens are the subject of many photographers. Both, in themselves, are creative activities associated with composing beautiful visions. And both simultaneously invigorate and frustrate its follower by making a satisfactory level of knowledge on the topic perpetually out of reach. Just as you think you are 80% of the way towards proficiency, a whole, mind-bogglingly large, new area of learning reveals itself on the horizon. The more you know, the more you realise there is to know.
I guess that’s exactly why both appeal to me so much. I am a bit of a learnaholic; there’s nothing I like more than climbing a steep path of discovery.
And so I was pretty excited when I was asked to take part in, and review, Clive Nichols’ Flower and Plant Photography Masterclass. My immediate question was ‘can the review be 100% honest?’; if I’m going to write a review I’ve got to say it as it is. After getting the thumbs up I got started in earnest.
For £145 (about AU$290, US$220), you have four weeks of online study tutored by the well known English garden photographer, Clive Nicols, and hosted by MyGardenSchool. Each week, you watch a twenty minute video presented by Clive, introducing you to a particular topic (eg lighting or composition). Each student then practices the techniques and attaches their best three photos to the online classroom. Clive gives feedback on each and students learn both from their own feedback and the feedback given to others.
The pace of the course was excellent; it kept momentum but provided total flexibility of weekly scheduling for each participant, whilst getting a good balance of enough work to make you think but not so much that you couldn’t keep up, fitting it around a full time job in my case. It was quite exciting having Clive Nichols review my ‘homework’ and he kindly photoshopped a few of my photos to demonstrate improvements. I found that after a while, I could predict which he would like and which he wouldn’t: a sure sign that I was improving my understanding of what makes a great photo. In reality, with time, anyone can learn how to operate a camera; it’s knowing what you want the camera to do that is the tricky bit. Seeing the other students’ photos and feedback was a major part of this learning.
What I didn’t like so much, were the technical problems with the classroom (it wasn’t just me who had problems uploading work), the sloppy layout of the notes (repeatedly mismatched photos and text) and the gaping wide hole when it came to photographing gardens. In my excitement to sign up for the course, I just assumed it would teach me how to take better pictures of gardens; something that I adore doing week in, week out for my garden design blog. As I downloaded the videos, I saw that each was titled ‘Flower Photography Masterclass’ and this pretty much sums it up; most of the content was photographing still life flowers – either individual heads or an arrangement in a vase – with lots of macro lens images: not at all what I wanted for my blog. And with only one hour and 20 minutes of video (and identical written notes) and one piece of advice for each of your 12 photos over the month, how much could one really learn?
A frustrated and disappointed me, however, gradually morphed into a contented me, over the course of the four weeks. By the end, I realised that the course had been incredibly useful and that I had had a bit of a breakthrough with my photography skills.
Whilst reading a content-heavy book would be my automatic thought for learning photography, the reality is that I haven’t read a photography book in years. Whilst a night class might sound like fun and potentially provide more content over more weeks for the same price, the reality is I don’t want to trek off to school in the evenings. And whilst joining a photography club might be a longer term, even cheaper approach to learning, there are only so many ways you can split yourself and I haven’t yet even found the time to join a Sydney garden club.
My natural learning style is theory-based, yet that’s no good when I have ten thousand gardening books that will always be a higher priority. This course opened my mind to a new method of learning; one that fits around an existing busy life, one that feels like a treat rather than another activity on the to do list and one that has (easy) deadlines to spur you on.
MyGardenSchool does need to improve the reliability of videos and uploads and it does need to get the notes right, but by the end of the course I definitely felt like a much better photographer for it. I had figured out how to translate the ‘flower’ techniques into ‘garden’ techniques for myself and was putting the learning into practice every day.
And so I came round to the idea that, despite its downfalls (and it is a new course), it was, in fact, an excellent course. Without it, I would continue to only think about reading up on photography and be taking worse photos for it. And as much as I’m now very, very aware of all the photography knowledge and skills I don’t have, I can honestly say that for someone time-poor who’d like to ramp up their photography skills, this has to be one of the very best possible ways to do so.
[Janna Schreier took the Clive Nichols’ Flower and Plant Photography Masterclass free of charge in return for an honest review. To find out more visit the MyGardenSchool website.]