Expert Interview Series - Interview #3

On Learning Photography:
Rob Sylvan

"Find ways to weave your photographic vision through all the interesting things you do..."

In Part 3 of our photographer interview series On Learning Photography, we find out how author and Lightroom expert Rob Sylvan found fascinating ways to develop and improve his photography skills.

After starting out contributing to in the early days and later becoming an image inspector and part of the admin team, he now focuses more on teaching and writing about Lightroom and Photoshop.

We think you'll find Rob's story about learning photography both compelling and inspiring!

Rob Sylvan, photographer and author.
Rob Sylvan

Photo Course Advisor: Rob, what is the role of photography in your life today?

Rob Sylvan: Photography plays a central role in many of the things I do professionally, socially, creatively and for fun. If anything, I consider myself a professional amateur in everything I do.

First and foremost I enjoy photography simply for the sake of creating images, telling stories and capturing beautiful moments that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Professionally, I shoot stock and fine art and do the occasional portrait session.

I also write about various photography related subjects, from stock to post-processing to photography fundamentals. I teach both online and live in-person classes, and I provide technical support to photographers who use Lightroom and Photoshop.

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

Rob Sylvan: Growing up, my family had various point and shoot film cameras when I was a child and I played around with a Minolta 35mm camera when I was in high school. But my interest in learning about photography really only took off about 10 years ago when I got my first digital camera. It's been a heck of a ride over the last 10 years!

Image of bird nest with blue eggs by stock photographer Rob Sylvan.
Image © iStockPhoto/sylvanworks
"Bluebird Eggs" - We put bluebird boxes up along the fence in our yard
and enjoy watching the birds come and go. For some reason the birds
abandoned this nest one year. Before cleaning it out I took a shot for
stock, as a nest of blue eggs is a very iconic type of image.

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

Rob Sylvan: Just before my son was born in 2001, we got a Kodak DC4800, a 3MP digital point and shoot, to take pictures of this impending bundle of joy. At the time I was working as an instructional designer for a company that developed web based training, and spent a lot of time looking at, thinking about, and licensing imagery for the storyboards I was writing.

One day I discovered iStockphoto in my search for images and learned anyone could contribute photos for others to license. Having this fun new outlet, fueled by the needs of my job, spurred me to start devouring any and all resources on learning about photography and post-processing.

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

Rob Sylvan: I did not study photography in college. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are both in education.

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

Rob Sylvan: Early in my experience at iStockphoto I was invited to join the team of people approving and rejecting submitted photos. Having the opportunity to critically evaluate so many photos on a daily basis was a huge learning experience.

Looking at and evaluating your own photos is only going to take you so far. Being exposed to other photographs, and other ways of seeing the same subjects, really helps to calibrate your eye when you come back to edit your own work.

It keeps you humble, too. Being a tough editor of your own work will really push you to continue to improve and grow.

Cover of the book Taking Stock by Rob Sylvan, about stock photography.
You can order Rob's
Taking Stock book about
stock photography here

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

Rob Sylvan: One of the best books I picked up early on was Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson. I can't recommend that book highly enough to anyone just getting started. Bryan teaches a class based around that book and also founded an online school (where I now teach as well) called the Perfect Picture School of Photography.

In 2004 I joined the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP), which is a phenomenal resource (magazine, books, videos, and live workshops) for learning about Photoshop, Lightroom and Photography (disclosure, I work for them too now).

Light: Science & Magic is another book I highly recommend

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?

Rob Sylvan: Be an interesting person. Follow your passions outside of photography. Say yes to new experiences that challenge you.

Rainbow stock image by photographer Rob Sylvan.
Image © iStockPhoto/sylvanworks
"Rainbow" - This shot always reminds me
to have my camera with me and ready all
the time. We had just arrived at a house
we were visiting in Vermont a few summers
ago and I had my camera slung over my shoulder
as I approached the house. I looked up and saw
this perfect rainbow and just started shooting
away. It was beautiful to see and makes for a
nice simple stock image too.

Find ways to weave your photographic vision through all the interesting things you do, the places you go, and things you care about most. Not only will your photographs be better for having done so, but you will be a much happier and more fulfilled person.

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

Rob Sylvan: First, I'd never describe myself as an accomplished photographer. I'm just another guy making a life doing the things he enjoys most. To that end I have not stopped learning, and hope I never do. Just recently I was learning how to capture macro shots of water drops just for the fun of it.

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

Rob Sylvan: You can't ever turn it off. You will always notice the light. The quality and quantity and color of the light. Gorgeous light will captivate you and make you wish you had your camera in your hand (a good reason to always keep one handy).

Photo Course Advisor: How did you become a Lightroom expert?

Rob Sylvan: I have been using Photoshop over the last 10 years in my work as an instructional designer and web developer. My interest in digital photography gave me one more way to engage with photo editing.

When Lightroom first came out as a beta release prior to version 1, I was very interested in a product that was specifically developed around a digital photography workflow, as opposed to Photoshop, which can be used in many disciplines beyond photography alone.

Book cover of Nikon D5100 From Snapshots To Great Shots by Rob Sylvan.
Rob's Nikon D5100 book
is available here.

I was working on the NAPP Photoshop Help Desk at the time, and I was asked to take on all of the Lightroom related Help Desk questions. I completely committed to using Lightroom over Bridge and Camera Raw and haven't looked back.

I devoured every Lightroom resource I came across and I use the program daily. Helping other people work through problems really helped me to refine my own process.

Photo Course Advisor: What is the key to great post-processing?

Rob Sylvan: Learn as much as you can about the art of photography so you can start with the best capture possible.

Take a little time away from your photos before you do the heavy editing to help you be more objective when selecting the best work.

Be a tough editor. Ruthless even. Only invest time in editing your best work.

Remember that photography is a form of communication, and post-processing is another tool to help you develop your message.

About Rob Sylvan

Rob Sylvan, Lightroom expert and Author

Rob Sylvan is a freelance photographer, teacher, and author, who is also the Lightroom Help Desk Specialist for the National Association of Photoshop Professionals and Kelby Training.

He is an instructor for the Perfect Picture School of Photography and and writes the "Under the Loupe" column for Photoshop User Magazine.

Rob is the author of Lightroom 2 for Dummies, Lightroom 3 Video QuickStart Guide, D5100: From Snapshots to Great Shots, Image Editing on your iPad with PhotoGene, and Taking Stock.

He blogs about Lightroom over at

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