4 Ways to Reboot and Adapt New Skills

Recently we discussed surviving rapid change in media technologies. There comes a point where we embrace the fear of change. We accept it as inevitable, and grow willing to adapt new methods and technologies. But how does one go about embracing new skills?

Going back to college for a second degree is not an easy choice, both from a time commitment and from a financial perspective. One could debate whether or not another college degree could prepare you for a new profession given how fast technology is changing everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a Masters degree in Communications, Culture and Technology from Georgetown. I still use the lessons learned, but my degree was from 2000. The long-term value was learning media dynamics, and how to think about the way people use communications tools.

Getting that degree was expensive, and it’s not something I can easily do again. So, in that vein when I need to learn new technical skills, I turn to alternative methods. Here are some ways I have embraced learning.

1) Experiential Learning

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Millennials (in general) have a great attitude about change. My friends Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of When Millennials Take Over, note that Millennials discard and adapt new technologies with the times. If one technology stops working, they move on to the next tool.

Learning by simply adapting a new method or tool can be extraordinarily difficult. Yet learning through experience can provide the deepest and most impactful knowledge. You know firsthand because you adapted by trial and error.

The challenge in this method is what I would call a sophomoric failure. A false confidence about how a technology or method works can carry you until a challenge arrives. There are often many tutorials online from people who have done the same thing, a virtual “YouTube University”, and sometimes these how-to articles and videos can help. But if the challenge is too stifling it could cost you a project or a job.

I would argue this is the challenge some social media experts face. They play with tools and talk about them, but cannot execute on projects based on their experience. A deficiency in the larger communications skill set is often the problem.

I self taught myself social media and learned several lessons along the way, including being more personal, reciprocation, etc. I became better with practice, but if I didn’t already possess other communications and marketing skills prior to my social start in 2006, I would have struggled a lot more.

2) Conferences and Seminars

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Seminars, one-day workshops, and conferences are a quick way to jolt your thinking. They help you think about challenges in a different way. These types of events usually offer a quick lesson(s), and some examples from a more experienced person(s).

The value of a seminar is a quick fix to stale thinking. It may be all you need. But make no bones about it, the impetus is still upon you to learn and excel after the event.

Further, it’s important to have a discerning eye at conferences. Not all events are created equally. At even the highest quality conferences, not all sessions are equal. To use the social media expert analogy again, you may be just getting more sophomoric knowledge from another sophomore. Look for real examples and experience to discern the value of the tips offered.

When I first sought outside experience in 2014 to break out of a stagnant period as a photographer, I paid for three workshops from KelbyOne, National Geographic, and Nikon. The lessons were valuable, and I still use them today.

3) Intensive Experiences

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A different method of learning is to take on an immersive experience. This basically puts you into a highly engaged full-time work simulation or learning environment. You are run through numerous exercises under the guidance of an experienced professional or instructor.

The effort is intense. It can blow your mind. But the new skills gained are invaluable and can really help you break out of a rut, and forge new ground. The trick is to continue using the skills in your regular work.

There are many examples of intensive workshop environments. Today’s coding academies are great examples. Language immersion seminars and schools are a more classic example.

The Santa Fe Photography Workshop I participated in over the summer was one such experience. I learned quite a lot, and have since used the tips Tony Corbell passed on in several situations, including the above photograph of my daughter Soleil.

4) Continuing Education

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Getting away for a week to several months may not be an option for many people. This is where traditional education and corporate training comes into play.

Learning through continuing education credits may not be as hip as a conference in a schwanky location or an immersion course, but it offers a proven way of learning new skills for work. The time commitment is much more reasonable (one or two evenings a week), and while homework isn’t necessarily fun, it offers a familiar routine for most.

Consider that many employers will compensate you for taking on a training program. It makes you more valuable to them. And continuing education and approved training courses are considered to be more acceptable and safe methods of learning.

When I worked at TMP Worldwide 15 years ago, I got moved into business development for a period of time (Yeah, I know, embarrassing, but I loved it!). At the time, my manager assessed my skills and suggested a Dale Carnegie sales training course. By the time two month-long class was over I had become the class SalesTalk champion, and I closed two multi-million dollar deals within the next year. Not too shabby.

These are just four ways I have learned new professional skills outside of the traditional college degree. What would you add for those looking to sharpen or reboot their skills?

4 Takeaways from Photoshop World

I attended Scott Kelby‘s Photoshop World in Las Vegas last week. Analyzing the body of work comprising the 365 Full Frame Project, I identified two core areas of improvement for my photography. The first was lighting, and I learned a whole bunch about that from Tony Corbell during his Santa Fe Photography Workshop.

The second was touch-ups and editing, and that brought me to Photoshop World. I learned quite a few things (lots of little tricks), but walked away needing to get down to basic blocking and tackling (lesson two below). Overall I had four big takeaways, which are below. All photos in this post were either edited at Photoshop World or were taken while attending the event.

1) Lightroom Is for Organic Edits, Photoshop Is for Cooking

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Lightroom is my primary editing program (the above Potomac River photo is a Lightroom edit, no Photoshop). Most of the teachers at the conference do their basic corrections and touch-ups in Lightroom, which is a derivative of Adobe Camera Raw.

The Lightroom program uses image data taken from your capture, and allows you to strengthen and reduce elements of the light to correct your photo. You can significantly improve a photo in Lightroom, and also completely change its look and feel from literal realism (as determined by your camera) to surreal.

There comes a point where serious edits need to happen, and that’s when you move to Photoshop. It’s where the real cooking on a photo happens (this can be good or bad, depending on your tastes). Cooking is an industry slang term for serious image correction and manipulation. It’s what separates the true retoucher from those who are amateurs and photojournalists.

I would say more than 90% of serious photographers venture into the Photoshop realm. You have to do it, even if it’s just for corrections that can’t be performed in Lightroom.

2) Layers and Masks

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If you want to become a Photoshop wiz, you need to learn how to use layers and masks. Smart application of these tools is what makes a surreal or incredible cover image fly in 90% of publications. I am a stumbling fool when it comes to layers and masks, particularly the latter. Unfortunately for me, building composites, smart object-based editing, and in-depth retouching all revolve around layers and masks.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a few tricks besides the widespread use of layers and masks. For example, I now know how to better correct white balance and noise, use some nice blurring tool tricks, and have some additional liquify techniques. The above image (taken in Alexandria, VA the night before Photoshop World) uses a few of those tricks.

That being said, I find the Photoshop interface to be a nightmarish experience. One bad setting and it’s all off. Being self-taught, I can only blame my crappy teacher. Still, the UI is not my friend.

One resource I found was Adobe Photoshop Evangelist Julieanne Kost’s blog. She’s a fun person who creates some really unique images. She also happens to have a ton of Photoshop and Lightroom tutorials on her site. Check it out.

3) Everyone Is Using Filters and Plug-ins

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Almost every photographer who spoke mentioned using filters, in limited roles or as a post-processing add on. Some use them as presets or layers and then alter their use. Others find the right post processing after effect. And others found them to be a great way to worsen a photo. For most, it is an approach, but not the approach.

This above photo of a homeless gentleman was taken outside of the New York, New York hotel. Most of the edits were done in Lightroom with a few small corrections in Photoshop. I didn’t like the B&W rendering in Lightroom so I moved it to DxO Elite Film Pack (which has lots of lovely “analog” overlays), and used one of the filters for the final B&W version.

4) You Can’t Cook Brilliance

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One big takeaway, and perhaps the best one, is that it takes a great capture to make a strong photo. You can cook all you want in Photoshop, but it only disguises a bad capture to a certain extent. Even great retouched model portraits work off a good capture.

If you have a bad capture and want to make it better, you will spend excessive amounts of time in Photoshop. In addition, I have to say I walked away feeling some of the featured work was overcooked. A good photo stands on its own, even with flaws.

I don’t believe in straightening noses or creating abstract non-existent landscapes based off of wild composites of multiple places. That’s just me. I want to take a capture and present my interpretation of what I saw. Maybe this is the marketer’s version of photojournalism, un-pure and cooked and with steroids, but nevertheless a photo of what was seen, in studio or on the street.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciated Jay Maisel‘s session more than any other at Photoshop World. He cut through the graphic soup, and talked about capturing the spirit of the moment, of being present and photographing a scene through a lens. Maisel said focus on the remarkable and don’t worry about flaws, a good photo will overcome. He doesn’t edit his photos, by the way.

In reflection, I took a few pics in Las Vegas, but I thought the above red bridge photo was my best. It’s been edited mostly in Lightroom with a couple of corrections in Photoshop. There are nitpicks: I left the Eiffel Tower pillar on the left, and the awkward pillar shadow on the upper right ceiling. I also left the cheesy Vegas photo experience crew at the end of the bridge, though I did burn their images so they wouldn’t stand out. All of these things could have been edited out of the image in Photoshop with considerable time (and layers and masks).

But why? Perfection wasn’t what I saw. It’s inside a fricking casino. What I saw was a beautiful pedestrian bridge leading to the observation deck at the Paris Hotel Eiffel Tower. In fact, these red lights were the most remarkable thing I saw on this particular trip, at least to my eye. So my edits revolved around pulling out and enhancing the color and enhancing the vanishing effect.

Thanks to Scott Kelby and the KelbyOne crew for a thoughtful and well-run experience. I learned a ton.

I’d be interested in hearing how much editing is too much in your opinion?