While I hope you take this article as tongue and cheek, and realize that a decent amount of this is talking to my early self – the reality is that there is a pretty consistent learning curve that many photographers go through.
While hopefully your learning curve will not be this extreme, I think that understanding it will help you to have as much fun as possible progressing through the photography learning process.
Here is my belief about the typical progression, or the 11 stages a photographer goes through:
1. Auto mode and how the $@&# do I use this thing!?
The camera sits like a brick for a couple months, except for when you switch it to auto mode to photograph your cat, or patio furniture in the snow. You take 12 self portraits with a hat on one day, staring at yourself in the bathroom. 12 years later, you still use this self portrait.
The reality is that you have heard about 5000 photography terms that you think you need to know, and it’s overwhelming. You just don’t know where to start. While there are only five or six things that you really need to learn at this point to get started, nobody tells you that. We will cover these things in a bit.
When you think about your camera, your heart starts racing, your blood pressure rises, your hands get clammy, and you start sweating. Your camera system begins to morph into this awesomeness of sheer technology and power, that it was always destined to become.
Four lenses, five filters, a tripod that you tell everyone about that doesn’t actually work that well, a remote shutter release, a new camera strap, a flash unit, Lightroom, Photoshop, Silver Efex, a new monitor, a hard drive, a Wacom tablet, an ugly camera backpack where your gear can survive under water for 10 minutes, a light painting kit, 5,000 forum views, an HDR tutorial, and photo collages, oh my!
Occasionally, you just take your camera out to stare at it for awhile before your wife catches you, then you get on the internet to read fondly about its dynamic range, yet you have only taken your camera out into the world a couple of times.
Bonus points if you gave your wife a black eye due to your tripod hanging off your huge ugly backpack, on the way to catch a flight to an extended family vacation.
3. OMG, everything looks so awesome!
Turn the saturation up to 20 baby! The world is my oyster. Colors, sunsets, old houses, doors, cobblestone, flowers, pots, bikes – definitely bikes!
4. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, and focal lengths
Shoot, I haven’t actually opened the camera manual yet. This is also known as the real step one. There are only six things that a photographer needs to learn at the very beginning (besides light, which we will cover later).
You now engulf yourself in every type of training possible, and read, read, read. Keep in mind that the best photographers never stop doing this. You realize that different established photographers tell you completely different ideas about what to do, and it’s confusing. That’s actually a good thing. There are many different ways to get to the same endpoint with a camera.
5. I’m the best photographer ever
“My knowledge of photography is unparalleled. Everyone else sucks. My neck muscles are huge because of the sheer weight of my awesomeness (and my camera bag with unnecessary equipment). I am ART. Everything is ART.”
This is a trap that can happen to some photographers. Needless to say, a small contingent get stuck on this step for longer than they should, but everyone else usually passes on to the next step a year or two later, which is…
6. OMG, everything sucks and I suck
“I hate it all. I’m the worst photographer in the world. I’ve tried everything and I can’t take a good image. I can’t look at another flower ever again. I hate sunsets. I hate bunnies. I hate children. I hate cookies. I am a sad, depressed photographer.”
This is the point when you get past the basics, and realizes how difficult photography really can be. It goes way beyond settings. Creating interesting photography is difficult.
7. Starting to see the light
This step is so important, and learning about light sounds simple, but it actually takes most people a long time to start to see light well. It’s shocking how long it can take sometimes, because photographers tend to focus on so many other things, and particularly equipment at first. When learning to use your camera, light is the number one factor that goes into the equation. It should be the first thing that you learn before you even think about how to set up your cameras.
8. Traveling light
“Screw all that equipment. You know, photographers are too obsessed with equipment. One camera, one prime lens, a small (beautiful) bag, and a notebook that I’m never going to write in – that’s all I need. Life is beautiful. I can feel life and the wind in my hair.”
An optional black and white period often takes place here, and the gear fetish morphs into a camera bag fetish, but in reality this is an important step. For most types of photography, you just did not need all that equipment. Simple can be a lot better, more often than not.
9. Studying other photographers
“Wow, there were a lot of wonderful photographers throughout history, in all types of subject matter and all around the world. There are a lot of great photographers shooting now and doing it much better than I am!”
You spend time in bookstores and on the internet researching. You start building your photo book collection. This is usually a big turning point for photographers in their education. This can be both inspiring and humbling.
10. Focus, consistency, and subject matter
By this point, you have photographed enough where you really have put in the hours, and are starting to improve significantly. While it’s so important to put in the hours to study photography and photographers, nothing beats time spent photographing.
You become more intuitive with the camera, to the point where you start forgetting it’s there. Your subject matter, and the look of your photos, begin to become more consistent. You start to find specific content, and places that you like photographing the most.
You start creating a portfolio with images that all fit together. It’s no longer as much about the individual photograph, but about collections and sequences of photographs. You start to realize that you can create a narrative this way, that goes beyond what the individual image can often achieve.
11. Zen and a subtle feeling of inadequacy
While the other steps might take five to 10 years to progress through, this one can stick around for the rest of your photography life. There are so many incredible photographers out there doing powerful work, it can be intimidating. It feels like there is always someone out there who knows more about a subject than you. Each day you come across another fantastic body of work, from someone you have never heard of.
But you have your own interests and unique point of view, and realizing this is what sets you apart. It’s not just about your knowledge of photography, but about the subject matter and perspective.
This is where you can gain true satisfaction from photography, and for just being a small part of all of this. There is a worldwide community of people interested in the same things as you are, but all doing it in slightly different ways. It is powerful and inspiring.
Bonus stage 12 – going to Cuba
This is the final step of any photographer’s life progress. Cuba is so hot right now. I’m not going to lie, I really do want to go to Cuba very badly, although I heard it was so much better two years ago.
Can you relate to these stages of your photography journey? What stage do you most identify with right now? Have you been through others? Please share in the comments below.