5 Ways to Learn Photography for Free

Learning Photography

The holiday season is upon us and soon the Internet will be abuzz with new DSLR owners looking to learn photography. The black and white course I took as a high school student gave me strong fundamentals to build upon, but formal classes aren’t an option for everyone. Here are five innovative ways to learn photography for free in your community.

1. Join a Meetup


You won’t get better sitting in front of a computer screen. Meetup.com has a variety of groups for photographers across the world. Whether you specialize in landscape photography, do nude photography or want a group of like-minded people to shoot with, there’s a Meetup you can join. If not you can create your own. The collaboration and connections you make will prove invaluable to your success as a photographer.

2. Exchange Skills with a Pro


Professionals get a lot of requests for lessons and training. Hitting the field with a seasoned veteran and receiving personalized training is perhaps the best way to boost your skills. Pros may need help with a variety of tasks for which you can exchange services instead of cash. Know taxes like the palm of your hand? Offer a few hours of consulting. Good at gardening? Plop your rear end down and plant some petunias. The possibilities for exchange extend as far as local law will allow.

Let me emphasize that professionals are overwhelmed with requests for free services but most artists understand what it’s like to be poor and probably have exchanged services before. Another way to work with a professional is to offer to be a second photographer for a shoot or work as an assistant. This is one way to get your foot in the door, but the learning is quite limited, especially if you are an absolute beginner. You can only learn so much from lugging lights around.

Photo: epSos.de (CC)

3. Join an Online Photo Challenge


Online groups such as The Photo Forum host regular virtual photography challenges and assignments. These are a good way to move outside of your comfort zone and shoot subjects or utilize styles you might otherwise have looked over. For instance, one challenge might ask you to upload a picture of a reflection. Setting aside the time for a specific assignment, comparing your final product with others’ and receiving feedback are all extremely helpful.

Photo: Don DeBold (CC)

4. Take an MIT Class for Free

MIT campus

MIT offers a number of free photography courses through its OpenCourseWare initiative. Current offerings include 4.341 Introduction to Photography, 1.309J / 4.215J Sensing Place: Photography as Inquiry and21A.348 Photography and Truth. Some courses include lecture videos.

Reddit PhotoClass is also an excellent online resource.

Photo: Chris Devers (CC)

5. Trade in your Zoom for a Prime

Sleeping Man

A self-portrait taken with the Canon 50mm 1.8 II

Ever received the advice to do one thing and do it well? I once asked a pro, “If you could give one piece of advice to a developing photographer, what would it be?” His response was simple: pick a single prime lens and stick with it.

Dumping your zooms for a prime could be the best thing you do for your photography. Besides the obvious technical advantages, primes hone technique. Beginners often spend too much zooming and not enough time composing. Learning the ins and outs of one lens will help you better understand the photographic process. The limitations imposed by a single focal length will also make you a more creative and resourceful photographer.

The zoom lens that came with your DSLR is probably garbage anyway. High quality primes thankfully aren’t expensive. The best place to start is the good old nifty fifty. Nikon and Canon both make excellent entry-level 50mm primes in the $100 – $150 price range. Opt for a 40mm or even better a 35mm lens if you shoot on a crop sensor (click here for an explanation).

Canon Prime Lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/2 Wide Angle Lens — 56mm with a 1.6x crop factor

Canon 40mm Pancake Lens — Very small and portable

Canon 50mm 1.8 II – Perhaps the best deal of the Canon lineup

Nikon Prime Lenses

Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX Lens — 52.5mm with a 1.5x crop factor

Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens

Experiment with other primes or invest in a solid zoom lens after spending at least six months with your nifty fifty (or crop sensor equivalent). Both 85mm and 100mm are good for portraits. One great tip for determining which focal length to buy is to check the EXIF info of photos taken with a zoom lens to determine which lengths you use the most.