Photography: Roman Schmitz
Among the sixty-plus courses taught at the Perfect Picture School of Photography (PPSOP) is a four-week class called The Art of Seeing. The class, which is listed in the “beginner/intermediate” category, aims to sharpen a photographer’s eye, and help him or her see what others miss. It’s taught by freelance photographer Chris Hurtt together with the school’s founder, Bryan Peterson. Being able to see an image in a line of sight is certainly essential for any creative photography, but Bryan’s success as an entrepreneur (as well as a photographer) isn’t just down to his ability to spot a potential picture in the mundane. His success also owes much to his ability to spot opportunities to put his knowledge to work in a way that others have overlooked – and that’s just as valuable a lesson for any photographer to learn.
Some of Bryan’s vision may be down to his entry into the world of photography, which began more than 30 years ago. As an artist, he complained to his brother, a photographer, that pen and ink drawings required spending large amounts of time on location. His brother suggested photographing the site then drawing the scene after he returned home. Peterson took a camera, developed his first image, and was hooked. That was back in the 1970s and he hasn’t picked up a pencil since, building a photography career instead that has seen him shoot for clients as large as American Express, BP, Kodak and Micrsosoft, and landed him the New York Art Directors Gold Award.
Photography Answers from Halfway Around the World
When he wasn’t shooting though, Bryan was also teaching, putting on workshops to teach other rising photographers how to use their cameras, and writing a series of books on photography technique. In 2006, he launched PPSOP, a photography school that holds all of its classes online.
“Over the years I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with people in person when teaching workshops, and with the internet growing it was just a natural evolution – a new way to connect with people,” Bryan told us by email between assignments in Singapore and Australia. “The fact that people can upload an image, ask what went wrong, and get an answer about that specific image from an instructor that might be halfway around the world is still something I find amazing.”
Classes are held over a period that ranges from four to eight weeks. Students are given a lesson that they can download, and provided with an assignment that they can complete over the weekend. They upload their image to the class and receive critiques from the professional instructors, and comments from students. A question and answer section provides a forum in which students can ask teachers about technique or other problems, and students are free to contribute to the discussion too. According to Bryan, the forums can become lively spaces in which participants don’t just offer advice but form friendships too, despite the distance. A number of students have organized their own photography adventures to put their new knowledge to use.
That the lessons are held online also gives the classes a varied mixture of backgrounds. Ages range from high school students to pensioners, and registrations for the January sessions have come from some seventeen different countries. The school’s Chinese webmaster has even created a local version of the site to cope with that country’s growing market of photography enthusiasts.
“Our classrooms are as diverse as passport control at any large international airport,” says Bryan.
Prices for the class range from $195 for a four-week course to $395 for an eight-week course, a not insignificant sum, especially for a high school student — and especially for an online course. Participation from other students around the world, and even regular assignments and critiques can be picked up for free at plenty of photography websites, not least Flickr. There are no shortage of groups that work in a similar way: choosing subjects, sending photographers off to complete challenges then letting everyone weigh in on the results. The difference though, apart from the price, is the input from a professional instructor, and the ability to send that instructor a question (and be confident of receiving a professional response).
Trust is Everything
It’s the trust in the quality of the knowledge that students receive that persuades them to pay for classes, and the ability to work with a teacher who has proven expertise.
“What we are told over and over is that the interaction with the instructor is invaluable,” says Bryan. “We are fast to respond and genuinely want to help people achieve whatever goals they have relating to photography…. There are a lot of choices out there and many of our students have tried them out — and after a course with us they let us know they finally found what they are looking for.”
If spotting the demand for a photography school that combined the ease of online access with the trusted quality of a real workshop was sharp, the real challenge was turning that vision into something that worked. Bryan had no experience of building a website and found the terms that the programmers he hired were using as alien as talk of f/numbers are to new photographers. His former students then became a resource upon which he could draw. Among his own workshop participants were programmers and database administrators whom Bryan asked for help. Building the site was difficult but it worked out well in the end, he says.
So what can other photographers learn from Bryan’s own experience? To shoot often, certainly — Bryan’s advice for turning photography technique into second nature. But if you want to teach your photography knowledge online, to have a passion for sharing knowledge, an ability to connect through email, and the candidness and personality that helps students connect to their teachers.
If you can see an opportunity there to expand a photography business beyond the images you create — and do it without leaving your computer — you might well have spotted something valuable.