How to Become Great at Photography

Written by Elsa Madrigal

I recently listened to a podcast about How to Become Great at Anything produced by Freakonimics radio. The basic premise of the show is how natural talent is seldom enough to become truly great at a skill. In humankind, rapid improvements at a skill are often accomplished by leaps and bounds over generations. Marathon records are broken, young  musicians  (including children) play better and complex pieces at a much younger age than before.  Photography is no different. Advances in technology, creativity, experimentation, all and any improvements have produced what now appears to be an overwhelming amount of photographs. Yet, many photographers struggle to ‘feel’ their work is adequate, and many struggle to articulate through photographs what they truly want to say. They struggle to feel connected to their work and to feel great about it. While I am not trying to claim greatness, I can claim that I have gained a bit of confidence, enough to feel good about my darkroom prints. I compiled some factors, which combined, can make you great.

1. Leverage Technology

Technology is definitely a factor. For instance, racing shoes and athletic clothing are much more optimized now and contribute to faster race times.  Photography has benefited immensely from technological advances over the last century. Unfortunately these can be rendered useless when a brand new camera overwhelms the amateur photographer with 50 buttons and 5,000 menu options. A weak foundation of the skill used with a fancy camera won’t necessarily translate to great photography.  In fact, the best teaching tools are those which strip away the bells and whistles and only delivers the essentials. Many teachers recommend a manual film camera to learn about photography. In professional settings, the advanced features of a camera will be a great aid to enhance creativity, but without knowledge of the essentials, they will be a hindrance. 

2. Talent is not Enough

Talent is also a factor, but not the only factor. A person born in Kenya is unlikely to become a record-breaking marathoner by talent alone, no matter their genetic predispositions. There are hundreds, if not thousands of talented athletes and yet only a few prop to the top. Photography these days seems commoditized. Paid gigs are often a race to the lowest price, and many photographers struggle to stand out above the rest.

3. Build up your Knowledge

I read a lot about photography, and I am well versed enough in technical aspects, but it has come with an investment. And it’s currency is time. I have been reading for several years and just last year I had to Google “what is a prime lens”. In photography, as in anything, you must always be open to learning and put time into it.

4. Find your Teacher/Guru

The main contribution to stepping one’s game at anything, according to the podcast, is working with a teacher. This is the main ‘success’ factor, according to Freakonomics. This person is preferably a master and guru in his or her own right, and would be someone who has been in the trenches and knows the nuances, tips and tricks of the field. Someone who, quite possibly knows what failure looks like and has persisted to eventually find the path to  success.
I have taken photography classes for several years now with Ignacio Alvarez. He has become, besides a mentor and guru, a good friend and like a second father. He is not afraid of showing us new techniques (or reviving old ones). Using his vast experience with analog and darkroom photography we have done many techniques seldom practiced anymore. He goes above and beyond the extra mile for his students.  If there’s something that is not in the curriculum that you are interested in learning, he will gladly teach you, often outside the classroom in his own time.

5. Find your Inspiration

Likewise, gurus often inspire us with examples of those great masters who have come before us. The internet enables us to find interesting and awe inspiring photographers. Their life is often as interesting as their work (Jerry Uelsman, Sally Man, Graciela Iturbide, Pedro Meyer, and the list goes on).
Our Lady of the Iguanas – Graciela Iturbide

6. Develop your Aesthetic

Creativity is unlimited  and gives plenty of room for one to find your own “aesthetic” and initiate projects based on what piques your interest. I have many themes on my portfolio, in which I apply with intention my knowledge to express my creativity. I find darkroom meditative and although I have plenty of options to work with digital photography, the process does not enhance my creativity.

7. Locate your Tribe

Ignacio had his own studio and is currently a teacher at Truman College. He teaches in one of Chicago’s last standing darkrooms in a community college. He also teaches special workshops and digital photography classes. His meetup group is also a lot of fun, often we go all over Chicago to explore.
My darkroom classmates are now more like trusted colleagues, providing tips, inspiration and encouragement. We often surprise each other, never knowing what kind of image will show up next from their travels or photo shoots. We have participated in shows together, and are willing to lend each other a helping hand when we are stuck. We move each other forward.

8. Make Mistakes and Fail Fast

This is contrary advice to what people may tell you. The good news is, the faster you fail, the quicker you will get to learn good habits of photography.  You will make every mistake in the book, not once, but several times. By the time you are done, there will be many photography essentials that will become second nature. Changing settings in your camera in an instant will become like walking or breathing. In film photography there are often what’s called ‘happy accidents’, but knowing which settings cause you to blur an image, or help you get a double exposure will make you happier, I promise.

9. Share and Feel Good

In the darkroom we go through the entire process from shooting to developing and printing. How you feel about the work is as important as the process of creating it. We all need that positive reinforcement. At their request, I have gifted prints to family and friends. Knowing they feel good about having a handmade print makes me happy, because ultimately what makes them happy also makes me happy. Sharing photographs is awesome, regardless of your choice of social media or website. However, many fall into the trap of collecting ‘likes’, instead of contemplating the work. Ultimately, what makes you happy is what you should care the most about.
There you have it. My version of ‘How to be great at Photography’ (or really, anything), according to me and Freakonomics.

10. Last Step

Now grab your camera and go shoot.

Fall photography classes starting on 10-28-17



Hello again everyone.  The new photography classes will start soon. I hope that many of you sign up for the beginners or studio lighting classes that start on Saturday, October 28th  or the Darkroom class that starts on November 1.  Truman is adding more classes to the Continuing Education department and you can see them all in this link.


Anyone interested in a class, please contact Laura Smith at 773-907-4440. She will help you register.  Since Truman is one of 7 city colleges, the prices for the classes through the CE department are very affordable.

Beginning Photography $155

Learn the principles of photography with your digital or traditional 35mm camera. You can learn how to use a camera or you can refresh your knowledge of photography. You will learn about lens apertures, shutter speeds, light meter, film or ISO speeds, white balance, histograms, lenses, flash, composition, depth-of-field, digital storage cards, and much more. You will also learn to create great images using techniques like panning, painting with light, night photography, flash photography and others. Prerequisites: Bring either a working 35mm film or digital camera with manual exposure controls. Check the batteries! It is very important not to miss the first class!

Studio Lighting Photography $155

Learn how to photograph any subject the way you want, using perfect lighting. You will learn how to use flashes and strobe units like a professional. We will cover hard, soft, and directional lighting, as well as diffused light and light ratios. You will also learn how to use a flash meter to measure the output of each light and how to manipulate natural light using reflectors, gobos or diffusion panels. You will use backdrops, umbrellas, soft boxes, and grids, to direct light where you need it.  Every week you will be photographing something different so you can learn a different technique each time. Students should be very confident using the camera in manual mode and not in the automatic setting. Students should bring a film or digital camera that has a manual mode with adjustable settings.

Darkroom Photography $155

Take your love of photography to the next level by learning basic black and white darkroom skills and how to “see photographically.” You will learn to process film, make photograms, contact prints and enlargements. The course also covers mounting, touch-up, contrast filters, and darkroom craft. Advanced students may also enroll for additional darkroom time to complete projects. Lab hours are from 7 to 10 p.m. Prerequisites: You must be familiar with and have access to a working 35-mm camera (not disposable) with manual exposure controls. If you are not familiar with using a 35-mm camera, the Beginning Photography course is highly recommended.

Photography my way.

Photography my way

Hello, everyone.  As some of you know, I have been a photographer for almost 40 years.  During that time I have been fortunate to capture many very good photos. I am posting some of them here. Since I have been capturing images for a long time, a few of these were captured with film but most of them are digital images.  I do have other interests, but whenever I have free time, I am taking pictures.  Right now I can barely wait for the Darkroom classes to start since I have about 10 rolls of film to develop! Lately, I have been using two different film cameras, a Bronica STRs 645 and a Fujifilm 6×9, both great cameras. As soon as I print some of these images I will post them here, or rather, on my other website dedicated to film photography.  Here is a link, for the darkroom class, Check it out and share it with your friends.


Learn photography the right way

Hello everyone,

Well, the darkroom class is once again in full swing.   Students are busy developing film that they shot either here in the USA or abroad, as is the case of a couple students. Regardless of where they shot their film, now they have to develop it and make sure they develop it correctly. Some students also print some of the negatives using fiber base paper, creating some very good images. So, how did you spend your summer? Shooting hundreds of digital images hoping that they look as good as the ones you see on the internet? If that is what you do and you like doing it, more power to you. But, if one day you get tired of shooting indiscriminately hoping for one good picture, maybe that will be that day that you decide to actually learn photography.

There is nothing wrong if you don’t know anything about photography, long ago I was in the same boat. Then, one day I purchased a film camera, learned how to use it and I end up owning my own photography studio and business for 26 years. But before I could do that I needed to learn what photography is. You and anyone interested can learn photography as well, either with a digital camera or a film camera. But it is important to learn from someone that knows and has been teaching for a long time! Yes, you can look at videos on the internet and do what they tell you to do, but, do the people that uploaded the video know what they are talking about? Or are they just re-posting something they themselves found on the internet?

Photography as we all know it has not changed in the last 200 years, what has changed are the cameras that we use to capture images. Do you know that you can capture a photograph using nothing but a shoe box? Yes! You can. But that is not how we all capture images nowadays  Now we use computerized cameras that come with a 200-page manual so you can learn how to use them.

Film photography is easier and way more rewarding. You finally get to create something with your own two hands and not by trying to find the right app that edits the photos the way you like them. I hope you give yourself a chance to learn photography the way ALL the great masters of photography did.  Become the next Ansel Adams!

Thank you.

Ignacio Alvarez


What’s in a Darkroom Print?

Few people realize the amount of work that goes into getting a darkroom print. During our darkroom photography classes at Truman College in Chicago, we go through it all. After you’ve shot your film, we need to develop it. A contact print normally follows, where the film strip will give you a preview of your images.

Someone once said your worst images are your first 10,000. Imagine shooting 10,000 images in film! That is over 410 rolls of 24 exposure film! Or over 830 rolls if you’re shooting medium format.

Back to the basics: contrary to today’s digital photography mantra of ‘spray and pray’, shooting film, economically speaking, forces you to shoot less. And that’s a good thing. It forces you to be mindful. To pay attention. To be in the moment and use your powers of observation. It isn’t just an image that you want to create, but also the technical journey with your camera that you need to follow in order to make it happen.

This image is one of those observations of mindfulness. Shot in medium format, a cactus was shot first at the Garfield Chicago Botanical Conservatory. It was exposed at half the metered exposure, and then the papaya leaf was shot. The camera used was a Mamiya c220, which allows two exposures shot on the same frame of the film. The film was Ilford HP5 at 400 ISO.

The negative was then developed and printed in the darkroom. This image might not speak to many people, given the bombardment of digital photography images these days. But to those who know film, it speaks of one element that was the result of paying attention by my student. It speaks to mindfulness.

Next time someone asks ‘What’s in a print?’, I can assure you… if it came from the darkroom, SO many things had to go right for it to come to life.  Or perhaps it was a result of many mistakes, and among so many things going wrong, eventually one thing had to go right. And that thing that goes right happens when we practice mindfulness.

Find out more about my darkroom classes by contacting Truman’s Continuing Education adviser Laura Smith at 773-907-4440