11 Stages That Every Photographer Goes Through

How the $*#$ do I use this thing!!?!

How the $*#$ do I use this thing!!?!

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.


The sharpest cat eye you've ever seen in a photograph.

Do you SEE how sharp those nose hairs are??!

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!



Macro, landscape, street photography, portraits, travel, wildlife, architecture, live music, sports, fashion, medical imagery and dental photography – it’s all 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).

  1. Shutter speed
  2. Aperture
  3. ISO
  4. Exposure compensation
  5. White balance
  6. Focal length

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

Anarchist Barney

“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



Eureka! Photography is just painting with light. Did you know, it’s all about the light? Warm light, cool light, colored light, harsh and shadowy light, indoor and artificial 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

5th Avenue, New York

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.

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • Jill P

    typical street scene in Old Havana

  • Dawn

    I’m stuck on 6, although I pop into 7 a lot (especially if I don’t have a camera with me) and 8 is a no brainer for me. And James if you go to Cuba I’m coming too!!

  • Gail in Healdsburg

    James – I love this! And I did go to Cuba three years ago. Fabulous indeed. I laughed aloud when I read Number one. I stayed there quite awhile. I think I keep cycling through all of these phases. That you!

  • Glad you liked it Melynda and thanks for the comment!

  • 🙂

  • Glad you enjoyed it Gail!

  • Dunja0712

    I love your style of writing, and this is a great and fun text. 🙂
    I didn’t take this particular order, but I am at the stage 6. Everything sucks, I suck, my ideas suck and so on. Hoping to see the light soon! 🙂

  • Jekabs

    If you decide to go to Cuba, ditch your “Cuban friend” and look past the typical tourist attractions and photography opportunities. Rent a car, go to smaller towns and villages away from the larger cities. Of course you should also explore Havana or Trinidad, but that is not where the real Cuba is, not anymore.

  • Richard Henderson

    Great article. Got to stage 11 about a year ago and found a niche in B&W and Street shots. Cuba would be great but since my wife is Japanese we get the bonus of Japan every year. A great place to street shoot.

  • Brigid Shaw

    Skipped 5, definitely in 6.

  • Andrus Chesley

    Probably at 10 with a bit of 9 mixed in.

  • mikyatope

    OMG, stuck at 6 just when I started to have shooting proposals from models xD …doing 9 along with 6, and 2 just before my current stage

  • Angelia

    I’ve never been in step 5. I’ve never considered myself better than any professional photographer (or even amateurs, which I consider myself). I dip in and out of steps 6-10 … with a big emphasis on step 6. And I’m always, always, always in step 4.

  • ?????????? ????????????

    Where is the stage – “My photos are very good/better than his/her/their, but nobody else like/understand them”-depression?

  • flash321

    I’m at 10, with the full realization that photography is a course of mastery. This means I know I will be at it for the rest of my life. I carry two lenses. I just got a full frame camera. I expect myself to produce good shots and I also know that I will always blow some shots. I recommend this book: https://www.amazon.ca/Mastery-Keys-Success-Long-Term-Fulfillment/dp/0452267560
    It was four years before I realized it was Zen. I just thought that it taught me patience and a fuller understanding of the learning process. It’s easy to read and quickly, obvioulsy, the truth about the path of mastery.

  • Sarah

    Forget Cuba. Toledo, Ohio is where it’s at. Wait, what was this article really about? (Giant wink and gulp of margarita.)

  • Andrus Chesley

    Probably about 8 ish. Just too easy to carry about one camera with one lens and not a bag of stuff that doesn’t get used on that outing 10% of the time. KISS principle now days.

  • Red Rose Exile

    Stage 5? I think that took about a millisecond to get through. 6 is such a beast, probably because I thought taking a shortcut through to 9 would be a good way to improve. Not so, so it’s back to 7, and I suspect I may be there some time!

  • Ali Baba

    I’m at stage 9, but frequently fall back to stages 5 and 6

  • Daniel M

    Can’t really relate. And no, not interested in Cuba…or Iceland.

  • freeopinions

    “While I hope you take this article as tongue and cheek,”

    I will if you do.

    “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.”

    All I know is that I want to know the settings on that #3. Next time I see two bicycles, I want to get a picture just like that one…I’m sure if I know your settings mine will be just as good. And then I can share my (your) settings with the camera club and we can all get great bicycle pics…

    “For most types of photography, you just did not need all that equipment.”

    As long as I can get that good, creamy bokeh, I’ll buy anything. But it has to have manual settings. I only shoot in manual, because I want complete control of the bokeh, and I never edit. I want the image I take to represent only the best algorithms the Japanese engineers can devise, so I will never shoot raw. I want that 8-bit image Straight Of Of Camera.

    So when will we ever see an article on Photo Forum Cliches?

  • Isabelle N

    I’m just 19 years old and apparently I’m at stage 11. (And stage 6. Always.) Now what? It gets confusing, indeed…
    I took up photography when I was 12 years old. I used to take pictures with the most basic camera that didn’t even have common settings like adjusting the aperture or the ISO. But I think this gave me a very good starting point as I could focus on creating the content of the photograph. Later on I bought a dslr camera and can’t really remember ever shooting on auto mode. I’d read enough to know the basics of setting up the speed, aperture and ISO so that I could immediately start using the manual mode.
    I still don’t know where I am. What I know is that I feel super lucky to have discovered the beautiful world of photography. It’s what makes me happy. 🙂

  • My B&W stage started at about step 2 and I’m still doing a lot of B&W. BTW, been to Cuba twice. First time was to get married in 2008 ( I was at step 1 then), and second time turned into a big photo learning experience a few years later (probably about step 7). You forgot the step where you have an experimental phase with film photography, probably around step 5 🙂

  • Patti McCormack Corley

    I am involved in 4, 6, 7 and 9…I gave myself a timeline for competency. I’m about 1/3 through and as long as I’m having fun and meeting people, it’s all good for me.

  • Trequartista

    I’ve been following the articles on your website for a while now. Many of them are really good, but this one has been my absolute favourite since I read it few months back.

  • jumbybird

    Love #12

  • .?.

    for 3 years, i rarely took photos at speeds faster then 1/250 and i never knew why my photos were always blurry. then one day i bumped it to 1/500 to 1/1000 and bam, i love every photo i take now. Now I just need to work on capturing light which is the hardest.

  • LFC4SB

    Thanks for the great article James. I’d say I’m at No 7. I can’t ever say I’ve thought I’m the best photographer thankfully. I’m surrounded by good photographers in my photography group & we are constantly learning from each other.

  • Mark

    I’ve jumped to the Cuba stage. I’ve got the last 2 years and I’m planning again. It’s an incredible place to shoot! Every 10 feet you have something! ( I think that was one of the steps ) Do your research and go largely.

    I think you are right you move back and forth. I like the idea of studying other photographers and study there styles.

  • Floyd Brown

    I also skipped to the Cuba stage. It really is a fantastic country for photography, but most importantly the people are warm and friendly. Otherwise I’m at the 7 stage, learning about light and taking lots of hands on classes. Still got a bit of a gear fetish, but mainly for upgrading my lenses. I recently shot with some pro lenses and was amazed at the sharpness compared to what I have been shooting with. I have found myself looking at camera bags (LOL) and trying to resist the urge to search for just the perfect one. Great article.

  • Sally Shaw

    #7#8#9 Mostly #8 🙂

  • Avacreates

    I’m at stage 6 too Nicole. I especially suck at cramped indoor shots in fluorescent lighting with my d5000 and kit lens which I use coz the organisation wants action shots of their volunteers. I’m a volunteer photographer for an organisation that help the homeless and I suck big time at my job ?.

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