Friday, December 26, 2008

NYIP: The ups and downs

In my last post, I discussed how I researched various correspondence programs four years ago when I went to look for something that could help me refresh and hone my photography skills. I explained the rationale for selecting the New York Institute of Photography's Professional Photography course.

In general, I felt the course was very good; I'd grade it a B to a B+. If it weren't for the fact that I felt some of the learning materials -- the audiocassette tapes, in particular -- were slightly behind current technology, and if not for what I perceived to be an inordinate emphasis on film in the instruction and inadequate attention to digital technology in the core course, I would even give it an A-.

To be fair, NYIP did send me -- several months into the start of my coursework -- a DVD devoted entirely to digital photography, and NYIP does now offer a full course on digital photography, a course it promoted periodically through mailings during the remainder of my coursework. I can't remember if current students were offered a tuition discount if they wanted to take that course as well (other than the pay-it-all-up-front discount); I don't think so. Perhaps my disappointment could be explained as a matter of mere bad timing.

Here, now, is my detailed assessment of the NYIP course ups and downs.

The ups

1) Don Sheff and Chuck DeLaney -- the voices on the audiocassette tapes that accompanied the texts in each of the six units -- were wonderful learning companions. Sheff and DeLaney also appeared on some of the DVDs students were directed to view at the completion of each unit. It was clear they had a good professional rapport. They were encouraging and nurturing in all aspects of the lessons, and clarity reigned; I never felt there was any gap or lack of detail, and they communicated in a way that could reach all levels of learners. They occasionally skipped through some material, but that happened only in areas that really weren't critical to understanding basic or fundamental material.

2) The photo illustrations in the booklets were helpful in understanding key points of instruction, and there are some great photographs in them. It was encouraging to know, too, that a good number of those images were taken by NYIP graduates; no doubt it was helpful to NYIP as a promotional tool, too!.

3) I most appreciated the later units, which delved into lighting (natural and artificial), portraiture, macro, children, weddings, news and sports, and architecture. I wasn't too interested in the fashion, glamor, pet/animal and advertising lessons, but I trod through them dutifully and I understood the need to do so. (Note to anyone who might actually look into taking the course: There is an optional lesson on nudes. Students are free to read the text, but they are not required to answer the test questions or take or submit any photos related to the subject matter.)

4) The unit photo assignments were challenging. I did find myself taking time to think about what I wanted to capture and how I wanted to capture it to satisfy lesson objectives. Some frustrations I experienced along the way were reminiscent of those I experienced in high school and college, so I figured something must be right!

5) Having a photo mentor who is a professional photographer is a great idea. My mentor was Walter Karling, a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times. I felt that Walter was encouraging and helpful in all critiques except one of the early ones. I'm not sure what it was about that one -- maybe he'd had a bad day -- but the critique seemed rushed and perfunctory. But in all other ones, I truly felt he was zeroed in on my work and the task of sharing a professional's insight into the nuances required to pull off the best picture possible. When extending congratulations in his final critique, Walter revealed that he, too, is an NYIP alum.

6) While the "tests" weren't classic exams, in that you had the "open-book" option of consulting the lesson if you had any doubt, each test presented challenges. Most questions required careful reading and re-reading; a misread nuance could change the meaning and/or answer.

7) The texts, audio critiques and post-lesson DVDs (which often showed a professional photographer trying to tackle some of the same challenges the students have been asked to do in their projects) are not the only materials NYIP sends you. Each student also receives handbooks and guides (one that comes to mind immediately helps students find ways to get their work published); a photographer's gray card (a device photographers use to ensure optimum exposure; if you flip it over, you can use it as a white card to customize a digital camera's white balance); a white umbrella reflector to use in portraiture work; a small camera case; and a NYIP "press" card to help students get access to take photographs for news and sports coverage assignments.

The downs

1) The first couple units of instruction (discussing the parts of a camera, exposure, camera settings and various film types) were largely a review for me; this was stuff I learned (and for the most part retained) from my photo classes in college.

2) The audiocassette tapes medium (for the Sheff-DeLaney lessons and the mentor feedback) were archaic. I didn't own a portable tape player when I started, and to get one I needed to visit several stores because they aren't easy to find anymore. It wasn't until my sixth and final unit -- in fall 2008 -- that NYIP upgraded this aspect of its course program by converting mentor feedback to compact disc.

3) Some test questions were worded such that they could be interpreted one of two ways, or ... could actually be answered both true or false depending on conditions or stipulations not provided -- but needed -- in the question. I knew NYIP did this in most questions to see if students paid close attention. I understand that. But they need a proofreader! I once sent along a protest stating as much when I returned my test in one of the early units, and I received no reply ... other than to see my "guess" answer (hey, I had a 50-50 chance!) checked wrong.

4) The school claims to be readily accessible for questions by phone and encourages such communication. But the one time I took NYIP up on that offer and called for help to clear confusion that I had with a unit assignment -- confusion that was largely responsible for delaying my progress for more than a year -- I didn't feel I got a very thorough, attentive or satisfying reply. It's very possible that my experience was an anomaly, and I'll give NYIP the benefit of the doubt. And oh, telephone calls to NYIP are on your dime; there is no toll-free number.

In summary, if NYIP's Digital Photography course had been available at the time I started my instruction (the one that materialized several months after I started), I think I would have spent my tuition money on that. But that's not to discredit the Professional Photography course, which I did find to be beneficial and helpful, and I'm grateful to the school for its instruction and materials.

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