Open University Photography Course

In May this year I enrolled in a photography course at the Open University. I’ve been interested in photography for a while (I’m on my fifth digital camera in not many more years) but it was when I bought a Canon EOS 400d digital SLR a year ago that my interest became more serious. I had a look at the local college and looked into a couple of one or two day courses offered by local photographers but settled on the Open University’s Digital photography: creating and sharing better images (course code: T189) as being the best value and most comprehensive. It’s a ten week course (run twice a year in May and October) and the focus is a roughly 50:50 split between in camera techniques and the so-called “digital darkroom” of image manipulation on the computer. This may not suit everyone as some believe that a photograph should be taken correctly in the first place and any post-processing is “cheating” but it suited me just fine.  The course is worth 10 Open University points (most OU qualifications are multiples of 20 points) but I intended to do the course to improve my photography rather than to work toward a recognised qualification.


As with many OU courses there is no instructor led face-to-face training, after enrolling for the course students receive a couple of DVDs with course notes, video tutorials and a copy of Adobe Photoshop Elements.  All of the content can also be accessed on the OU website, although the videos are necessarily of lower quality which make the Photoshop tutorials difficult to follow. The course currently uses Elements version 5, which is not the latest version (version 7 will be released shortly) but is more than adequate.

Each week students must read the notes for that week and watch the video tutorials which are generally a narrated recording of an instructor demonstrating a Photoshop technique – for the first couple of weeks one of the instructors had a slow monotonous voice that made the videos difficult to follow but this improved greatly with the instructors in later weeks. There’s then a practical exercise each week where students must submit a minimum of two but up to ten photos electronically using “Open Studio” (an online photo sharing site similar to flickr or picasa) for fellow students to critique. There’s no formal feedback from instructors, although there are experienced moderators who may also comment on students’ work.

The OU say that any camera may be used for the course (2 Megapixel or above if it’s digital) and that an SLR is not required. However, I would say that a digital rather than film camera is essential as it would be too difficult to take a whole film of photographs each week in order to have it developed and digitised in order to submit pictures for that week’s task. I’d agree that an SLR is not essential (lots of my course mates were using compact digital cameras) but a camera with some level of manual settings is a must.

There were a couple of things that I thought could be improved with the course: one subject that I expected to be covered but wasn’t was flash photography (diffusers, slow sync, front/rear curtain).  I also felt that the topics were a little weak in the last couple of weeks – almost as though they had struggled to find enough material to fill the full 10 weeks, although I think the OU would argue that this was to allow students that may have missed earlier topics to catch up before the final assessment. Finally, although the Open Studio website was very well designed, the accompanying forum was non-intuitive and amongst the worst I have ever used. In fact I suspect that many students (myself included) didn’t use the forum because it was so poor choosing instead to have conversations using the commenting system in Open Studio or moving on to the T189 group on flickr. However, I know that this was only the second time that the course had been run and that improvements are being made to the online systems.

Overall I found T189 to be a very rewarding course and my fellow students provided encouragement and useful tips. I know understand concepts like depth-of-field and could even tell you what (most of) the abbreviations and funny little symbols on my camera all do! The weekly tasks are great because they give you a reason to go out and take photos each week My confidence and the quality of my photos has certainly improved as a result. – I might have found this more difficult if I had done the course in October: there are only so many pictures you can take in a grey and rainy Suffolk! Before I completed the course I would take photos save them to my computer and tag them, now I find myself cropping, straightening, tweaking the levels, adjusting the colour balance, cloning out distractions, sharpening, dodging, burning…

There’s a mid-course assessment (multiple choice Q&A) and at the end of the course, students must submit a panel of 10 photographs and submit a written piece to answer a selection of questions about the photos they submit. I believe that students then get a pass or fail along with a score (I’ll find out at the end of the week when I get my result!) and those students getting the higher results are encouraged to work toward Licentiateship Distinction at the Royal Photographic Society.

One Comment to “Open University Photography Course”

  1. Sara 12 April 2009 at 5:21 pm #

    Thanks for posting this review, I’ve been wondering whether to sign up for the course for a while and your review has just clinched it. I want to learn how to use photoshop having done no photoediting at all before, so the video’s sound like they will come in very handy!

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