ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Questions with an Educator: Rosanne Olson

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.

We are very excited to feature Rosanne Olson in ASMP’s very first article in the Questions with an Educator series.

Rosanne is a Seattle-based photographer specializing in fine art and portraiture. She started her career as a photojournalist, but has been running Rosanne Olson Photography for over 30 years now. Rosanne emphasizes the importance of light in photography, and her love and understanding of light inspired her to share this knowledge through workshops. Here, Rosanne shares with us some information about her workshops and time educating the next generation of photographers.

We asked: At what point in your career did you decide you wanted to supplement your photography business with education? Please describe the setting in which you educate, and how you approach teaching.

Rosanne said: I started teaching fairly early in my career, which began as a newspaper photographer for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore. I started at the paper just out of grad school with training in journalism and in telling visual stories, but with no training in lighting. I took it upon myself to learn about lighting by taking workshops – the kind that are taught at Santa Fe Workshops, for example. My first teacher was Gregory Heisler who taught us to light effectively and simply with just one or two lights. The workshop with him opened a whole new world to me, and after I became skilled at lighting, I decided to start teaching other photographers so they could also put those skills to use.

I have taught in many settings, from two-hour workshops at conferences (such as WPPI or Photo Plus Expo) to quarter-long (10-week) classes for the Photo Center Northwest in Seattle. I have taught high school students, university students, hobbyists and professionals who want to learn more about lighting or portraiture.

In the longer classes, I teach about equipment and what it can do, such as a soft box vs. a grid or strobe vs. continuous lights. Once they understand light patterns, where the light source is positioned, what kind of source is used (derived from the catch lights and shadow transitions), they can dissect images they find on magazine covers, ads and in books. With this new “language,” students are able to use their skills and understanding to create the kind of light they want. It is truly a thrill when students “get it.” Their work starts to grow as their understanding grows.

My approach to all of my teaching, whether portraiture, lighting with artificial light, or natural light is to instill a sense of curiosity in students. The best and most creative work comes from inside us. The more skilled we are in technique, the more we have to draw on when creating. Learning lighting is like learning a new language. Word by word, bit by bit, we are able to use that new language with subtlety and finesse.

We asked: What advice would you give to your students about taking risks in the industry?

Rosanne said: The photography industry is extremely competitive, more than ever before. It is important not only to be well-versed in technique, but also to develop your own style, which takes time, effort and experimentation until you arrive at what feels true. Then you have to market yourself through social media and by meeting people in person. I love ASMP and APA because they allow photographers to meet each other and learn about business, marketing and approaches used by others. Subscribe to magazines, attend workshops, enter a few contests, get your work on the walls of coffee shops and group shows in galleries. Make yourself available to help others and it will come around. By doing these things, the huge risk of a career in photography becomes more manageable. If your work is good and you work non-stop to get it out there, the likelihood is that you will have a good change of success.

We asked: Have you noticed a difference between your photography students now versus ten years ago? How do you think the young talent is changing?

Rosanne said: I think so much depends on the goal of the student. In the past few years I have had more college students than previously because the Photo Center Northwest has a relationship with a university, which did not exist before. The classes are pretty competitive so the quality of EFFORT is high. These days everyone is exposed (through social media) to all kinds of amazing photography. Instagram is all about photography, for example. So the ideas students come up with are pretty evolved. There are still hurdles for every beginning photographer that have to do with 1) learning technique so you can predict the outcome of your image and 2) learning to get past the awkwardness of working with subjects while still learning technique. But as students grow in skill and confidence, the door is open for them to challenge themselves creatively, inspired by the plethora of work around them.

We asked: How do you go about building curriculum for your master classes?

Rosanne said: My curriculum has evolved over the past thirty years. When I teach, I learn from my students. How can I explain something better? What examples can I use to clarify a technique? What metaphors will help clarify a concept? My approach to teaching is from the inside out. I teach how things work, what source makes what kind of light, what modifier creates what shape of catch light. What light position creates what kind of light pattern on the face? What light height makes an image seem scary? We are surrounded by examples of how the masters use light to create mood and story so we study samples from books, magazines, paintings and movies. After teaching for many years, I finally decided to write a book (ABCs of Beautiful Light, Amherst Media) which students can use as a guide.

My master classes begin with technique: the why and what of equipment and what it does. Then, armed with that knowledge, we put it into practice. Ultimately, my goal is to give students the knowledge to create images that come from a creative place of their own. I want them to take an idea or a concept and create an image that combines light and their ideas to make something meaningful and evocative.

We asked: What is the biggest obstacle you expect your students to face during their time as a photographer?

Rosanne said: I think the key to learning is to approach the subject (whether photography, piano, metalwork, etc.) with a sense of curiosity and determination to understand. Even after all this time in the business of photography and teaching. I love to listen to other photographers because there is always something new to learn. The biggest obstacle a student faces is to feel that they already know it all. To me this is a sign that they will probably not make it. We never know it all. That’s what makes life (and photography) exciting and an adventure that lasts a lifetime.

Find more of Rosanne’s work on her website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with an Educator series.

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