(In Summary - Everything useful I learned in college and university about Photography, I could have learned in less than a month with the right tutor. So I became that Tutor for people who don't want to take years out of their lives heading into formal education and get into a lot of debt to do so.)
In my college years I decided I would go for the sensible option and study topics that I thought would give me a good career. I didn't choose anything creative. After my first year I asked to add Photography as an additional AS Level but wasn't allowed as it was a popular subject and I would only be able to do one years worth of study on it.
So... me being me and not liking being told no, I jacked in the boring sensible subjects and moved an hour down the county to take Photography as a BTEC National Diploma and studied Business on the side.
It was much better having the freedom to take photos as often as I liked, we spent A LOT of time cutting and sticking and writing about the photos. We also spent a huge amount of time in the darkroom, and, while I get that it's important to know where Photography started, I didn't feel the darkroom practice was particularly useful moving forward using Photography as a career path.
I don't remember learning about Shutter Speeds, Aperture and ISO in class, but I do remember asking Photographers on Flickr.com how to make my photos less fuzzy and gain clarity, like the shots I admired on their Photostreams. I got my answer there, to try and not shoot slower than 1/125th of a second when handheld.
This led me to trying out this setting one evening indoors, I noticed my camera wouldn't take a shot at 1/125th without being underexposed (way too dark) and that's when I realised I needed to be working with more light than I had.
I learned a fair amount about Photoshop in class with one teacher in particular who knew his stuff, he was technically a graphics teacher, but as with most public colleges and schools now, teachers, and even technicians are spread thin to teach a range of subjects, that they themselves aren't fluent in. This is often to the detriment of the students who don't know what they don't know and sadly aren't always taught the in-depth knowledge that they need to know - I certainly wasn't.
We also had studio equipment, we knew how to put the lights on the stands but we didn't know where to position the lights or subject, how to make the lights flash or anything more than turning the lights on and pointing them at the backdrop. When I say 'we' I'm not just talking about the students.
Thankfully my keen interest in Photography meant that I was learning outside of college, asking other Photographers for advice and tagging on to group shoots as an assistant and photographing want-to-be models in exchange for photos. Some of whom I am still friends with today.
After college I wasn't sure about University, I left it a bit last minute and decided to apply for just one, as it had a good reputation and it was in the same town as my Dad lived in, he had a big house that my Grandad left him so I could stay with him while I studied at University. I went for an interview at the Arts University. After a while, I received a conditional offer to get in, which I already knew I had the grades for, I remember being so happy when I got that letter, knowing I had a 1 in 7 chance to get in. I was thrilled!
Before I even got to Uni, I struggled, I had been living alone or renting a room for some time before applying for Uni, student loans were super unhelpful, they didn't accept that I had lived on such a low income as I only rented a small room and didn't make much money whilst at college.
I asked for support from a lot of people; family, staff at the University, all who said they wouldn't/couldn't help, either with forms, contacting student loans on my behalf or just with relevant advice. I was pushed from post to post.
Eventually, I was given the minimum amount that student loans would provide, £3700 for the entire year... Thankfully, I was living with my Dad, but I did still have to pay rent. I'm going to be real with you now. It was HARD. I hardly ate anything, I couldn't afford to, I was running a small car and my energy levels were at rock bottom. (I have since been diagnosed with sleep apneoa) I didn't have the energy for a job and Uni work. I was really unhappy living away from my partner at the time and would often drive back to his for the weekends where I mostly just slept or worked on assignments. He helped me with fuel costs and his family were lovely to let me stay with them and feed me.
My first year at Uni was ok, we learned even more darkroom practice, including bigger film formats and colour processing, all of which still haven't been useful for me in my career as a Photographer. We also actually learned to use the studio, which was great.
I took many notes from the studio sessions so I could best remember what I was taught. We mostly learned using film cameras and polaroids but you could book out the studios in your own time to shoot digitally too. I loved the studio side of Photography and it was really nice to have properly learned how to use the studio lighting, learn about lighting patterns and where to position the lights for different effects.
One of our sessions at university, we were asked to bring in our printed portfolios. These cost a lot to print because ink and paper is expensive. On the day of sharing our work, the lecturers brought in bottles of beer for everyone to drink whilst looking over our portfolios. I found this quite strange and it annoyed me because I was there to learn. University for me wasn't about partying or getting drunk, I didn't want people drinking whilst looking through my work. This party culture was regularly promoted by lecturers, organising nights out at local bars and generally trying to bond with students in this way. It quite frankly, wasn't for me.
After a while of being at Uni I realised just how self led that level of education was.
There were some weeks where we would only be required to be in the building for a couple of hours - for the whole week! After our technical lessons on the studio, darkroom and a couple photoshop lessons a week, we were pretty much left to it. I for one was left wondering, what education am I paying for?
My first year of Uni went by, it was tiring, stressful and frustrating at times but I passed everything and was just coming into the summer break when my Dad decided he was going to sell the house (there's a lot I could write here but I'll keep it factual) I asked him to keep me in the loop because I couldn't afford to live anywhere else. It didn't take long for the sales process to go through and he finally told me (when I asked about it) just as he was negotiating a final offer with potential buyers. I asked him if he would loan me some money from the sale of the house so I could carry on at Uni, but he refused.
I was already so burnt out from the stress of having very little money and energy, my heart sank because I knew I couldn't carry on with my course with things as they were. Sadly, I had to defer, move back to where I was staying before and start again with the hope of saving enough money to go back to Uni the year after.
In hindsight, I think the main reason why University is a good thing, is because of the contacts you can make that are associated with the University and the lecturers on your course. I did learn some useful things whilst at Uni but with the amount of time that I was left to it, I think it would have been more beneficial for me to have hired a private tutor or worked for a company that could teach me more on the job.
I could have learned everything useful I was taught in that first year in a few weeks with intense, relevant training, tutor support and tasks. I would have also avoided the stress of my living and financial situation as it was at that time.
Within a month of moving back I got myself a job working for Pixifoto. A company that's business model is with a mobile portrait photography studio and sales set up. As an employee you were given a van with all the kit you need, loads of training and shadowing time, then you're set free to work on your own. It was a fantastic way for me to learn how to take family portraits quickly, how to gel with customers and kids fast so they liked you and would smile for their 15 minute photo session. I learned A LOT both in good practices and not so good practices. I would have stayed with Pixifoto if it handn't been for how they treated me when my Grandad died.
I decided that I would start my own portrait photography business and that's when Gemma Varney Photography was born.
After a couple of years, I found that I was answering a lot of friends questions on Photography and I enjoy showing them the answer. I started Devon Photography Training a couple of years after going self employed. My main aim was to teach people all of the important information that had been helpful for me in my Photography and starting a business. I wanted there to be a way that people could learn what I had, without taking three years out of their lives and avoiding the stress that can come with going to University.
With a lot of practice, refining and learning about different ways in which people learn (I took a level three course in Education and Training) I have a training business where I teach people in blocks of three hours, all the things they need to know about using their cameras, using a photographic studio, editing images, selling images, marketing, branding, and other general Photography and Business related information.
I wanted to provide an accessible, affordable service that fits around people's lifestyles, no need to take three years out of their lives to learn the same information that I can teach in less than a month. Albeit there is plenty of practice needed to solidify what is learned.
Devon Photography Training allows people to learn just what they need to know to get to where they want to be with their Photography goals. I have a no BS, straightforward and concise way of teaching with quality handouts, practical tasks and tailored sessions. No one gets left behind and I work around peoples commitments, so no one's lifestyle has to change to come and learn about Photography with me.
My journey may or may not be unique to me, others may have learned more and loved their time within formal education. This is all just from my experience and I've been told it's good to share our stories. I hope to inspire and teach many more people how to use their camera's creatively. I LOVE what I do and LOVE that people come to me to help them with their Photography goals.
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