A great Discovery – The Arcanum

A little while ago I was noodling around online following one link to another and stumbled upon The Arcanum. It was just what I didn’t know I was looking for!

I had been thinking about the best way to learn photography. I am a big believer in books and the pile of To Be Read Photography Books is already approaching teetering status. Yet, at the same time I recognise that at some point you need someone who knows what they are talking about to critique your work and push you along. I had a look at some in person day courses but the cost and geography tended to be prohibitive. Plus there is always the problem of trying to find a course with a syllabus that exactly matches what you need at a given point in time.

The Arcanum is an online programme based on the ages old Master/ Mentor and apprentice principles. Just for fun it is presented along the lines of a computer game, with apprentices completing tasks to enable progression through increasing levels. That gimmick ( which I actually like) aside, the wonder, for me, was that The Arcanum allows you to define your own goals and learning outcomes. They do not have a one size fits all lesson plan.

You start by filling out an application form in which you tell them what your needs, goals and interests are and why you wish to participate. Your profile then goes into a waiting area with other wannabe apprentices. The Masters, who operate as a combination of expert teacher, motivator and mentor then form ‘cohorts’ of apprentices. The Masters are all professional photographers and teachers. Their cohorts have different emphases as befits their own expertise and personality. As they form their cohort they scour the list of profiles looking for people who they think they can help and who would benefit from their cohort. They send out invitations to potential apprentices and the invitee can accept or choose to wait for a different Master.


Once in The Arcanum everyone starts with the foundational levels and works up to Level 20. These levels include tasks , challenges and importantly, several critiques with the Master on your own images. These are done by Google hangout and recorded for the benefit of other apprentices. There is a Grand Library of these and other instructional videos which you can access at any time you choose. After you complete the initial foundational levels you go back to the waiting area, updating your profile as to new goals etc and wait to be selected for the next cohort. The whole thing is run around Google + communities so you get a sort of dynamic cohort home page with new posts and contributions all the time. The cost is per month. ( For the foundational levels $79 per month). It depends how fast you work on your own programme how long it takes to progress. Slow does not necessary mean a waste of money because of how the cohorts work. You may choose to take your time and linger over a task to get the most out of that level and use the Library. Or you can go fast if you like.


You are warned that there can be a substantial wait to get in a cohort as it is important that a good match is made. As people work entirely at their own pace it is only when a new master is forming a new cohort or someone Levels up to Level 20 that a place becomes open. I therefore applied at once thinking that by the time I got a place it would probably be autumn and that suited my timetables. I was a little surprised to be picked within 24 hours!

My Master is Séan Duggan. At first I was the only one in a new cohort but it is fast filling up and already I am learning a ton from the other participants. Séan has picked a varied group and I am very lucky that I am the baby of the group in terms of experience so pretty much any contributions other members make are teaching me things. * I have also had a google hangout with a cohort member in the US who was so kind in giving me all kinds of information about Photoshop and lighting and offering to teach me more when I was ready. In the first critique I was able to transfer my original Lightroom Files to Séan and we did a screen share so he could demonstrate improvements or alternatives he was talking to me about. I can ask questions about anything whenever I like and get answers.

For me this is far better value than paying for a day course. Certainly vastly better than a degree course which I also briefly considered. Being online it gives the benefit of international connections, the ability to pop into the cohort wherever you are whenever you have time. Most importantly it enables you to learn what you need to learn at a given time to achieve your individual goals. It gives both knowledge and encouragement and pushes you in directions you may not think of going. The fact I get messages from the cohort into my email box makes the course a part of my daily life even if I can’t give it a lot of attention on a given day. It does demand from the apprentice a good deal of vision, in terms of knowing what you want to achieve and discipline to actually do the work. The technology is easy to grasp but it also requires you to be comfortable communicating virtually.

It is not cheap ( I understand that the higher levels, when the guidance becomes more specialised and advance) can cost more. however, as with the textile art cased classes I have taken on line with Lisa Call, I believe that, as long as you check the tutor out, its worth paying for quality. I am also facing the usual demons of lack of time and confidence and knowledge to achieve all I have in my mind.

I am not receiving any payment for this review, I just wanted you to know about it in case it helped you too.

* I was when I wrote that but there is a new member with just a little less experience than me but a similar polymath personality. I am delighted to meet her!