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Why YouTube Is Simultaneously the Best and Worst Tool for Learning Photography

Why YouTube Is Simultaneously the Best and Worst Tool for Learning Photography

When you need a quick tutorial for Photoshop, I can bet my old Fuji that you will end up searching for it on YouTube. Am I right? But, is it actually that good of a learning tool?

Each one of us have different paths into photography, and our learning processes differ based on how we learn and what we are looking to learn, too. YouTube, at the first glance, seems a revolutionary tool for finding free tutorials, tips and tricks videos, and many more educational materials all in one place. At no other cost apart from having a smart device of sorts and access to the Internet, you can go through thousands of videos uploaded by photographers and educators from all over the world without paying anything in addition. So, where's the catch, and is there one?

YouTube was vastly different at the time of its creation, and surprisingly, according to co-founder Steve Chen, it was envisioned as a video-based dating website where singles could talk about themselves and what they were looking for in a potential partner. They had even come up with a slogan "Tune in, Hook up;" however, that idea died quickly. Nowadays, YouTube is a media giant, where users can upload anything and everything and become eligible to earn money from its ads. Just typing in "photography" in its search bar and organizing all entries by upload date and time, you'll see how much photography-related content is put out there every hour for everyone to see.

YouTube contains an incredibly large library of tutorials from "How to edit in..." to behind the scenes of photoshoots, to interviews and podcasts that will inspire you, and more. It has proved to be useful in quickly finding an answer to something that you cannot seem to resolve or follow just by reading on a blog or an article, with tutorials appealing to both complete beginners and for those who are seeking more advanced techniques. 

However, the number of videos available on YouTube is also where it falls short. If you are looking for a specific answer, you will be more lucky in finding it than if you want to learn but don't actually know the best logical step to take. It's one thing to learn how to do frequency separation by following a video, but it's a completely different thing to understand and learn how you should pursue your progress as an artist or a professional (or both). A lot of advice given out will not apply, and it is easy to run into confusing or opposing views, delaying your own progress. 

Furthermore, although I started dabbling in random tutorials myself, it's clear that I can talk about a certain project as much as I want, but if the person watching it doesn't have the motivation or the ambition to actually do it, it becomes a waste of time for them. It's one thing to gain satisfaction by ticking off a mental list of inspirational videos to watch every day, but if you don't practice any of it, then it rarely results in anything tangible. There are no shortcuts in progressing in photography unless you put the work in, with or without the help of educational videos. This is not to say they aren't useful, but they should rather complement your photography journey.

Just like with social media, it's all too easy to follow other photographers and their career paths via their YouTube channel instead of focusing on your own. I strongly believe that there is a place for YouTube and all the available content it gives us, but it's also important to realize early on that if you want to learn photography, you do need to practice it. Otherwise, how can you even know what kind of photographer you are and want to be? Don't fool yourself by spending a lot of time learning tips or techniques that you won't even implement in your own photography or ones that don't even remotely relate to the type of photography you want to do.

There is still place for paid education in today's climate, too. One-on-one mentorship or tutoring that focuses solely on you and your advancement, either in photography business or more in the art world, will most likely seem expensive compared to free material found on YouTube. However, the one-on-one environment will be focused on you and not random viewers from all over the world. 

Enjoy the content, learn, and get inspired, but also, don't let it silently steal you away from what you could become.

Anete Lusina's picture

Anete Lusina is a photographer based in West Yorkshire, UK. You'll either find her shooting weddings, documentary, or street photography across the U.K. and Europe, or perhaps doing the occasional conceptual shoot.

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Bill Nye actually talked about this issue a while back. It’s got nothing to do with YouTube specifically so much as it does with people having avenues to distribute information that didn’t exist in the previous generation. Basically he said that when he was a kid, information was hard to come by but once you got your hands on it, it was reliable because it had gone through a thorough verification process. Everything was funneled through journals, books, manuals, etc that couldn’t exist without this process.

Now information is everywhere and not only does it skip 3rd party / 2nd level verification, but it’s usually not even thoroughly tested by the original author, making the majority of it either anecdotal at best, or just flat out incorrect.

The trick these days is not having access to the right information, it’s what Carl Sagan called having a “good BS detector”. Which, sadly, is not taught in schools.

You Tube tutorials are not unlike recipes found in books or magazines. Using those recipes won't make you a chef, but you'll solve your dinner problem without enrolling in culinary school.

Sure beats reading my D810 manual. It's 502 pages. What is Nikon thinking. Remember when the camera manufactures also included a short into booklet to get the user up and running with the basics.

I agree with you Anete. There's a lot of information available on YouTube, but knowledge is still hard to come by. That's why I've started recording the oral history of photojournalism in the form of long conversations with great photographers. They aren't fancy, but the knowledge is (in my opinion) priceless. Here's my latest. https://youtu.be/ASP2wgiCT78

Here's an idea for an article that I personally would find very helpful: Links to specific photography tutorials on Youtube that are well done, informed, and useful. The reason I don't use Youtube is that I spend hours trying to sort through all the chaffe that is outdated, excessively long, or just not what i actually need. If you guys could point us in the right direction on some of this, that would be great!

Um, so "the best-selling Photoshop author in the world today" can't afford to run a proper ad on FStoppers? Instead has bots shilling in the comments? That sounds dire.