Expert Interview Series - Interview #4

On Learning Photography:
John Batdorff

"Stay true to yourself and photograph what you love, and your style will come naturally."

Our On Learning Photography series continues with photographer interview #4, where John Batdorff opens a window into his world -- a world that increasingly focuses on black and white photography.

Peachpit Press has also recently published John's excellent book of techniques and images, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

We believe you'll be inspired to get involved in learning black and white photography as you read about John's adventures and discoveries!

John Batdorff, black and white photographer and author.
John Batdorff

Photo Course Advisor: John, how old were you when you started learning photography, and what was your first camera?

John Batdorff: I've been taking photographs since I was about 8 years old. My family was in the newspaper business, so I grew up with photojournalism.

There are photos of me in a backpack on my mom's back while she was out taking pictures for the newspaper. My very first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.

Photo Course Advisor: When did you decide you wanted to make photography a major part of your life? How did that come about?

John Batdorff: I've always loved photography but I would say I really started getting into photography again when my daughter was born. Simultaneously, digital photography started really getting hot.

While I always enjoyed photography, I never really liked the darkroom. So digital gave me the freedom I wanted, and my daughter gave me a renewed interest in the craft. I started putting my photos up online, got a really great website to display my portfolio, and started writing a blog.

Image of Indian Kushti wrestler, taken by travel photographer John Batdorff.
Image © John Batdorff
"Kushti Wrestler" - I wrestled in high school, so when I learned about Kushti wrestling (a traditional Indian style of wrestling) I was bound and determined to photograph it. This is one of my favorite black and white portraits, taken just after he had finished wrestling in a traditional dirt arena.

Photo Course Advisor: Did you formally study photography in college or earn a photography degree?

John Batdorff: I am an entirely self-taught photographer. Now that's not to say that I learned it all in a vacuum. I took courses at my community photography center, started reading blogs, subscribed to every photography magazine I could get my hands on, and read a lot of books.

I also have gone to many seminars and training sessions, and have done a lot of research. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I tend to live in the extremes. So photography was going to be all or nothing.

I also tend to be on the driven end of the spectrum, so I really dove in and went for it. I just read and watched everything I could to learn more. I'm still learning. I think writing these books has been one of my most intensive learning experiences to date.

Photo Course Advisor: Other than photography courses, what are some additional ways you have improved your skills and continued learning photography?

John Batdorff: I think finding a mentor that you can relate to is critical in growing your vision. I've worked with several mentors throughout the years who have really helped me see things in a new way.

The key to getting better at this craft is taking a lot of photos, being open to constructive criticism and simply being willing to make mistakes. I've made so many mistakes I've lost count, but with every mistake I've learned something new. If you're scared of failing then I guarantee you'll never push yourself to the next level.

Photo Course Advisor: What types of resources have helped you in your ongoing journey of learning photography?

John Batdorff: I can definitely recommend Peachpit's "From Snapshots to Great Shots" book series. They cover techniques, such as composition, exposure, and black and white, and they also have in-depth guidebooks for many of the newer camera models, such as my book, Nikon D700: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

I also think going to workshops where you'll get hands-on experience and one-on-one feedback from a pro are indispensable.

Finally, get on Twitter. There are a ton of photographers sharing loads of information every single day. They will point you to contests, new books, seminars, workshops, and great blog posts. There really is a wealth of knowledge out there to be shared, and much of it is free.

Picture of a man sweeping a mosque in India, with the Taj Mahal in the background,  by travel photographer John Batdorff.
Image © John Batdorff
"The Sweeper" - One of my favorite images from my first trip to India. I was looking for an interesting way to showcase the Taj Mahal. I entered a nearby mosque and noticed a worker cleaning the floors and waited for the shot. It took some time, but patience paid off and I got a little lucky.

Photo Course Advisor: Out of everything you have learned, what are a few of the most important tips you could give someone just starting out learning photography?

John Batdorff: I think the most important thing I have done to improve my skills is to shoot thousands upon thousands of images. It truly can be a numbers game. I know your grandma or mom probably said it to you so many times it hurts to hear it again, but practice makes perfect.

I don't think anybody starts out of the gate as a perfect photographer. It takes work, time, and a ton of images to get better.

Photo Course Advisor: Now that you're an accomplished photographer, have you stopped learning? If not, what is something that you learned just recently?

John Batdorff: I have never stopped learning. There is so much out there that keeps me on my toes. I recently just studied in depth the ways color affects black and white photography. Since we really do live in a color world, we have to take colors into consideration when shooting black and white.

I'm currently learning how to be a better communicator. Writing books is a challenge and being able to get your point across is critical without boring people to death. I read all of my reviews on Amazon in an effort to be a better writer. Like I mentioned before, it's being open to constructive criticism that truly pushes you to see things differently.

Photo Course Advisor: How would you describe your own distinctive style of photography and how did you learn or discover it?

John Batdorff: I think my style sort of naturally evolved. I actually didn't put myself out there with my black and white -- other people chose that for me. Every time someone commented on my photos they would mention the black and white.

When I was asked to display my work in the National Wildlife Museum at Jackson Hole, they chose my black and whites. Then Peachpit contacted me to write a chapter on black and white. It just sort of happened.

I think I really started to improve my vision, and my style naturally followed. I think it's important stay true to yourself and photograph what you love, and your style will come naturally.

Photo of a line of elephants marching in Kenya by photographer John Batdorff.
Image © John Batdorff
"March to the Sun" - I photographed this image in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. The elephants were marching in a single line to a local watering hole off in the horizon. It was a magical moment.

Photo Course Advisor: What have you learned about photography that has surprised you?

John Batdorff: How little I knew about cameras and settings. I mean, I buy a camera like everyone else and just start using it. Who wants to read a boring manual?

When I wrote the D7000 book it took a ton of research and all along the way I was saying to myself, "Wow, I didn't know that!" Digital cameras are like computers. I think we only use 10 percent of their true ability.

Photo Course Advisor: What is one of your greatest frustrations as a photographer?

John Batdorff: My greatest frustration is typically when I don't have my camera with me and I see a phenomenal shot, or if I do have it with me but don't take the time to get out and shoot.

The only thing worse than a bad image is no image.

This happened just the other day in Montana. We were driving down to the river to go fishing, and we saw this huge great horned owl sitting on an old pioneer school house. This would have been a classic shot. And...I didn't have my camera.

I usually take the thing with me literally everywhere I go, but I was caught without it. So instead of having a great shot of an owl during the golden hour, I only have a memory and regret.

Photo Course Advisor: Speaking to those who do NOT plan a career in photography: Why should they consider buying a camera and learning photography?

John Batdorff: There are tons of amazing photographers who do not want to go pro. For many, a hobby is a hobby, and they have a fulfilling career already (or one that pays the bills) and they just want to enjoy the craft.

It doesn't mean that they aren't amazing photographers. I have an annual black and white photography contest, and I am always amazed by how many incredible photographers are out there who aren't trying to be pros. If you enjoy it, do it.

My girlfriend loves to cook, and she's really quite good, but she has zero interest in becoming a chef. It doesn't make her food taste any worse, or mean that she should stop cooking.

 Photography is a universal craft that is really accessible to all people. You can gather and store memories to be passed down. You can frame your work and hang it on your wall to enjoy every day.

Cover of the book Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots by John Batdorff, about black and white photography.
You can order John's latest book,
Black and White: From Snapshots
to Great Shots,

Photo Course Advisor: What is the key to creating great black and white images?

John Batdorff: There are so many variables, but things I look for in a good black and white are nice light, texture, shadows, lines, shape/form, contrast and strong composition.

That's kind of a lot, I know. I think when you're first experimenting with black and whites it's good to focus on simple compositions with nice contrast.

I always tell people to put their cameras on their monochrome setting and to shoot in RAW. That way they still have the color image available if they want it, but it allows you to see what works in black and white and what doesn't.

Check out my book for lots of other great tips for getting great black and white images.


John Batdorff, Black and White Photography Author

Splitting his time between Chicago and Montana, John is an award-winning landscape and travel photographer. He authored Nikon D7000: From Snapshots to Great Shots, coauthored Compositions: From Snapshots to Great Shots, and has just completed work on Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

John loves the outdoors and traveling, and also loves sharing images with others, leading workshops and mentoring other aspiring photographers. In addition, his images have been featured in the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

You can see more of his work and read his popular photography blog at

Twitter: @johnbatdorff

Facebook: JohnBatdorffPhotography

Google+: John Batdorff Google Plus

LinkedIn: johnbatdorff

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