The class binder

I have been stalking Karen Russell’s blog for years. I’ve never left a comment, nor sent her a message but I  have faithfully followed her, read her stories, and admired her photos. Her blog, specifically her photos + stories have been so engaging that I sometimes have to remind myself that I don’t know her personally, and she’s just someone I “see” on the internet. Ask me something about her life and I’ll probably be able to tell you a lot about her – how she met her husband, how many kids she has, when her anniversary is, etc. Creepy, I know. But it was her honesty and openness to share her life through her photos that I’ve come to admire her talent. She is a scrapbooker and for a long time, she was designing scrapbooking materials (yes I bought most of them!). I think that’s what made her a natural storyteller. Her photos certainly help tell her stories better. Sometimes, words aren’t even needed. Her photos made me laugh, cry, feel sad and feel joyful. And they are always, in my humble opinion, perfect. When I first found out that she’s offering photography classes, I already wanted to join. Two things kept me from doing so. 1) There is a LONG waiting list (which just increased its appeal 100x!), and 2) even if I can get in, I find the fee a bit prohibitive at USD395 – mainly because it’s an online class. I was afraid that I might not get the right teacher-student interaction that a classroom set up will provide me. I couldn’t be more wrong!

So anyway, late last year, she announced the opening of her class for January. That’s also the time I found out she is offering her class to auditing students. Auditing Students differ from Regular Students in that the former do not get the benefit of Karen’s photo critiques. BUT they still get to ask her questions in the class forum. The fee is significantly lower than a regular student at USD245. I grabbed the opportunity and signed up to be on the wait list. Then the registration came and I was not able to get a spot! Yes, I stayed up for it but my internet connection was so crappy that I lost my chance. A few days later, she announced that she is opening up a few more auditing spots and I lost no time registering. Finally, I am taking my dream class! That was in November, over two months before her class was set to start.

By early January, I started getting emails from Karen with a list of things I would need for the class. I registered in the class website, listing my camera and lenses, and categorizing myself as “intermediate” vs. beginner or advanced. Before the class started, I found out Karen sent out class binders to all students. Yes, it was a real physical binder, not a virtual one. Of course I got mine some time in February while the class was already underway but I was so thrilled to receive it!

It even comes with a cute red pen!

An outline of the lessons – with my name on it and signed by Karen

It comes with tabs for each week’s lesson

I printed the lessons back to back on cream paper and it’s still this thick.
I have not included the forum discussions yet, but I am also planning to print
and include in the binder.

So, about the class, I’ll sum it up in one phrase – Worth every penny I paid, perhaps more!

It was supposed to be an eight-week class but Karen added a Week Zero for introduction and to ease us into the lessons. Then, we had two one-week breaks. Initially, the plan was just to have one week off midway through the class but something came up and we had to take another week off. It worked out well for everyone because that gave us time to catch up on the assignments.

The lessons were posted weekly starting on Monday (Late Monday for me which is early morning in the US). Initially, Karen posted the full week’s lesson on Monday. After a few weeks, she started posting daily lessons throughout the week. At first I preferred having the full week’s lesson on Monday but later realized that by staggering the lessons, I get to focus more on each day’s learning instead of rushing through the whole thing. Anyway, the lessons are available in a pdf file for printing and reading, and in audio file which can be loaded into an MP3 player for listening. I read the lessons at night and listened to them during my drive to and from work. The assignment for the week is also posted on Monday. However, I go through it on Friday after I have read the entire lesson.

The content was very comprehensive. I do not consider myself a beginner since I’ve been interested in this hobby for years (starting with film), have taken a few one-day classes, and read lots of books and online resources. However, I still learned SO MUCH from Day Zero. Karen has a way of explaining concepts in a very simple and easy to understand manner. I’ve never seen anyone explain the exposure triangle better than she did. She is really a gifted teacher as much as she is a gifted photographer! I think that’s the trick. Some people are excellent photographers, but they are not great teachers. Hence, they cannot share their expertise effectively. I also have to explain that while Karen is an excellent photographer, she is not a pro. Instead, she chooses to teach rather than shoot professionally. Because of that, she is very open to share everything she knows about the craft. I imagine how hard it is for a pro photographer to share his/her knowledge since it’s a very competitive field and helping others become pros might mean losing some of your clients to these new photographers. That is unless you are the type who gets as much satisfaction and fulfillment in mentoring, and seeing your students surpass your own talent is one of your measures of success. Going back to the class, as I’ve said, the lessons are very comprehensive, covering the basic concepts as well as lots of tips and tricks. There is also an abundance of examples of Karen’s photos with complete shooting information and detailed explanation of what works and what doesn’t work. Her writing style is simple and engaging that it’s so easy to devour each and every word within minutes (I don’t know, it could also be because I am a fan!).

We have an assignment board where we post our photos based on that specific week’s lessons, and where we could read Karen’s comments on the photos posted by regular students. We were also encouraged to critique people’s submissions, whether regular or auditing. I actively participated in the assignment board for the most part. It really pushed my learning a notch since it helped me develop an eye for spotting good points as well as areas for improvement in a photo. For instance, I actually shot my week 1 assignment early in the week but was not able to upload right away. I spent a few days critiquing other students’ submissions based on the lesson for the week. When it was time to upload my assignment, I realized a lot of things that were “not right” with my shot – things I didn’t see before I participated in the assignment board. After that, I made sure I really participate in the assignment board as it complements the weekly lessons well.

We also had a lively forum and there were quite a number of active participants. There were a couple of sections in the discussion board. There’s one on the weekly Lessons where students can post their thoughts/questions about specific lessons (e.g. composition, white balance, etc.). There’s one on Assignments where people can post questions regarding assignments (this is different from the Assignment board where we post our photos and critiques). It could be a clarification on the instructions, or a comment/question on a critique posted on the assignments. There is a section on Equipment where students post questions on photography-related gear. Mind you, that forum cost me a fortune from purchases for gear I have not heard of prior to the class! LOL! We also had a forum on Site Navigation Issues where we posted concerns on the site (nothing major!) and suggestions for improvement. Of course, what forum is complete without discussions on Photo Editing?! Karen warned us that she won’t be participating in this discussion but she did pop in once in a while. The final section is also the longest and most participated – Miscellaneous. :)

People asked a lot of questions and Karen answered most, if not ALL of them. My fear of not getting enough teacher-student interaction was unfounded. In fact, I realized it is better than a classroom set up where there are time constraints. In a classroom set up, the discussions are limited by the class hours. In our discussion board, since there is no time issues, Karen responds to questions in great detail. Also, there is a good interaction between the students. I got to talk to many of them, instead of limiting my interaction with a seatmate or two which is what normally happens if you put my introverted self in a room full of people. We learned from our teacher and from each other.

Aside from the learning opportunity, our forum was also a venue for us to bond as a class. I was so blessed to be part of this batch. We’ve shared so much about ourselves that we didn’t just learn a lot about photography but about life in general. People are just so genuine, it’s unbelievable. I laughed so hard reading some posts. There are instances where I was moved to tears with some of the things shared by my classmates. Most of the time, I just feel so good logging into the forum. I’ve made a lot of new friends in this class. It’s always a great way to unwind after a busy day at work. Learning while having fun – can’t get any better than that!

I actually got a chance to meet a classmate face to face. In EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND! How cool is that?!

With Clare Telford at the Apex International Hotel

We will have access to our forum for the next two years, although Karen won’t be there as she will need to focus on her current class. We also have a Facebook group where we could catch up on each other. Actually, we are redoing our class right now starting from Week 1. We are submitting new photos for our assignments and have come up with a new set of forum rules. It’s awesome to see how my classmates have progressed in their photography. Some are already going pro, and others, like me, are really working hard to improve at this craft.

As for me, I learned A LOT! I’ve learned so many things about photography, about my camera, and about my lenses. I can see a marked improvement in my photos, and more importantly, it gave me confidence to move forward in this hobby. Have you seen my newborn shots? I know it’s not perfect but I wouldn’t even have the courage to try it if not for this class. And I am positive that had I tried this last year, the photos wouldn’t end up half as good. Also, I have never been comfortable shooting people, and never found portraiture remotely appealing. I love travel photography and landscapes. Now, I still love travel photography and landscapes, but I also have fallen in love with portraits. I am also more comfortable pointing my camera at people, and have discovered where I want to take my photography in the future. Lastly, I also have now a concrete idea of what lenses I want and need to invest in.

So, is this class for everyone? Well, if you’re interested in an online class, I definitely recommend this! However, not all people are the same. Some thrive in a very social environment, having a lot of physical interaction with others. That’s not me. So yes, an online course is more appealing to me. I enjoy working on my own, learning at my own pace, in my own quiet space. It takes time for me to warm up to people and I never feel comfortable walking into a room full of strangers. But if my class will get together some day and I’ll have a chance to meet them face to face, I’ll definitely go. That’s because they are no longer strangers to me.  I’ll be walking into a room full of friends.

Click here to check the class schedule for the year and see the class syllabus.

Where do I go from here? Well, I’ve scheduled at least one newborn shoot every month this year. I am also scheduling a couple of family and individual shoots to improve at portraiture. Plus I am also redoing the lessons and assignments along with my class. I’ve started an idea book for photography concepts. I am now building my props and tools for natural light photography. This year, it’s all about practicing and building my portfolio. I’ve reserved a slot for a mentoring class in January next year and hopefully by that time, I’ll qualify for the intermediate class. By next year, I hope  I can start earning from this craft – at least to fund my gear. I have no plans yet of doing this full time but it will certainly play a huge role in my life.

Written by Alby Laran

    1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply