Being immersed in photography for most of my life and teaching it for several years, I’ve come to realize that a person goes through three specific phases as they learn the craft. At first, I thought that being aware of these phases wouldn’t be of any use to a photographer’s education and growth but the more I examined the phases and helped people learn photography, I now believe that knowing the phases, I call them The Photographer’s Phases of Growth, help in one very specific way – being aware of them will help a photographer with their emotions and expectations. Emotions, at least the wrong ones, and unrealistic expectations, can stifle growth.
Too often I’ve seen a photographer expect too much too soon. They just got their camera and they’re quickly disappointed when their images don’t look like the Ansel Adams poster in the library or, they’ve been snapping pictures for less than a year and decide to turn pro then quickly flounder in their own mediocrity.
The phases of growth aren’t attained as a person learning karate might move from one belt color to the next – say, learn x-number of Karate moves and you move from white to yellow. Instead the phases of growth for the photographer are more esoteric in nature yet still observable and often a photographer will dabble in multiple phases at once. So let’s discuss these phases.
Phase One – The Technician
The moment you open the box containing your new camera you’re a technician and this is when the learning curve for a photographer is the most steep. You’re bombarded with a myriad of controls with many of them mired deep in menu systems. You have to learn what things like aperture, shutter speed and ISO do, plus you must learn how to adjust them on your camera and what those controls need to be set to for specific situations and expected results.
Many photographers do not leave this phase. Some cannot grasp the concept of how the aperture of a lens governs depth of field so they end up shooting landscapes with very shallow focus or outdoor portraits where the subject blends into the background. Others may not understand shutter speed taking shots that are consistently blurry. Those are only a few reasons why people stall in this phase while many others may learn just enough to get by, taking just enough decent pictures, which in turn, encourages them to continue. For those technicians that are just learning only enough to get by, I’d like to encourage them to pause, stay in this phase a bit longer and learn all these technical things until they’re second nature.
I’m reminded of a teacher I had in college. The class was Calculus 101 and the first day of class the professor said, “You all must get A’s in this class. You cannot expect to move to Calculus 102, 201 or 202 as well as Physics 101, 102 etc or Chemistry 101, 102 etc and do well, if you don’t learn the fundamentals of Calculus that I will be teaching you in Calculus 101. The base of all those other courses is Calculus 101 and you need a strong base to build upon.
Similarly, you as a photographer cannot expect to learn and properly apply advanced photographic concepts if you do not have a firm grasp of the technical aspect of photography. Fortunately for you, the Internet is flooded with photography 101 articles and videos. You must take the time and immerse yourself in photography 101 and not leave until you get your “A” in the class.
Phase Two – The Craftsman
The craftsman has a good grasp of the technical aspect of their equipment. Now they’re learning about composition via some so called composition rules. They’re learning about light and the quality of light and how it can affect a scene.
The photographer in this phase often takes the obligatory sunset photo and they often experiment with selective color or they capture a strawberry the moment it splashes in a bowl of milk. These types of images are by most standards cliché and some, such as the selective color image, can be considered dated but taking these types of pictures is essential to the progress and growth of the photographer.
After learning all the technical things in phase one, these types of images that are taken in phase two are to be considered exercises in the real world. The photographer is now applying what was learned in phase one to real situations. As they progress through this phase, they think less of aperture, shutter speed, iso and the like and think more about things such as rule of thirds, framing, visual weight and balance. They experiment more with post processing doing HDR and merging panoramas.
A craftsman can make a good living at photography and many never move on to the third phase but all to often, the craftsman’s images tend to be cliché low risk shots of interesting people or things. They pay their bills and put their kids through college – certainly nothing to be ashamed of and quite frankly, that’s better than most photographers but, as long as they remain in the phase of the craftsman, they will never attain greatness.
Phase Three – The Artist
The artist is what we, as photographers, should all strive to be. The artist knows everything about their camera and they know composition so innately, they probably couldn’t explain it in words to another person. They simply know what needs to be done to get the results they want. The artist visualizes scenes before they become reality — they might pass a grassy hill in a field that doesn’t look like anything remotely artistic but know, when the light is a certain color at a specific angle and the clouds are just so with a unique color and a deer peers back at them from the crest of the hill, the image would be spectacular and most importantly, they are patient enough to keep walking past that grassy hill every day until what they see in their mind’s eye is what is on display on that hill.
The artist will have many enthusiastic followers and just as many equally enthusiastic detractors. That is because they’re so well versed in all of those compositional rules they often break them or ignore them all together if it means that their unique artistic vision will be realized. That tends to be enduring to some whilst simultaneously infuriating to others.
The artist’s photographs will stand the test of time and more often their entire body of work will be considered more important than any single image.
It really comes down to knowing what you know and realizing what you don’t know. Once you do that little assessment of yourself you can know not only what phase you’re in but where in that specific phase you are – what you learned so far and what you need to learn to move forward.
Most of all, you cannot expect to consistently take pictures like the artist, if you’re still a technician or craftsman so don’t be discouraged or ashamed if you are that technician or that craftsman. Those phases are essential before moving to your ultimate goal of artist.