Photographer Skill Progression Model

By January 8, 2016Photography Tips

I’ve noticed that those that love photography all have one thing in common, the constant pursuit of improving their craft. I’ve seen it with everyone from Novice Photographers to Professional Photographers. We can’t help but tinker and try to learn new things. While better equipment can partially explain why some photographers are better than others, skill, mostly gained through experience is the largest separating factor. To help inform me about what areas I can focus my teachings on I came up with what I’m calling the Photographer Skill Progression Model. Stage One is Understanding The Camera, Stage Two is Understanding Composition, Stage 3 is Understanding Your Environment and Stage 4 is Developing Your Vision.


Understanding the Camera

Understanding how to control your camera is the very first stage of photography. Sure you can be an iPhone photographer or shoot in full auto and get decent photos but I believe that you’ll never master the art of photography if you can’t understand your camera. To newcomers, most cameras are overwhelming to understand with their plethora of buttons, adjustments and features. My recommendation for anyone is to dedicate days to focusing on individual settings. Have a day where you focus on only Aperture. Dedicate a day to Shutter Speed, a day to ISO and a day to White Balance. Finally, spend a day shooting in completely Manual in a variety of lighting situations. I’ve found this is the best way to accelerate your knowledge of your camera and is great for anyone just picking up photography.


Understanding Composition

After you’ve begun to really understand what your camera is going to give you, the next most important thing to work on is making pictures happen. Lot’s of people struggle with composition without even knowing they aren’t good at it and some people have a natural ability for mastering composition. I define composition as capturing the best representation of your subject. Angles, Position and Focal length are the main things to focus on. While working on composition spend a few hundred shots trying out new things. If you’re a landscape photographer go to one spot that you think is beautiful and spend an hour or two testing different angles, positions and focal lengths. You might find that the slightest change, such as tripod height, can make a noticeable difference. If you are a portrait photographer this is just as important. One reason why I love Prime Lenses (non-zoom lenses) is that you have to “zoom with your feet”. Since you have a fixed focal length you learn a lot more about how Angles and Positioning matters.


Understanding Your Environment

Once you’ve mastered your camera and composition the next thing you’ll want to improve is how to manage the environments that you are shooting in. Lighting, Timing and Locations are the things to focus on here. If you’re a landscape photographer this means tracking weather and predicting where you’re going to have the best opportunity to capture amazing pictures. If you shoot naturally lit portraits of people this means scouting out locations to shoot and perfectly timing your photoshoots to get the best pictures. I’m constantly using a combination of Weather apps, Maps and Lighting Apps. If you shoot in studio that means understanding your light sources and their placement around the subject. What’s tough about the environment is that it’s always changing. Talking to other professional level photographers there’s one thing everyone will say and that’s not to give up on a shoot day, even if the weather or lighting doesn’t appear like it’s going to work, still go shoot. There are two reasons for this, 1. Weather and lighting can quickly change, developing into often amazing scenes and 2. Time spent outside shooting a camera is often better than whatever else you could be doing inside. I believe that one of the best arguments for deciding to become a full time photographer is so that you have the flexibility with your schedule to shoot in the best locations at the most optimal times of day.


Developing Your Vision

Once you’ve finally mastered the above, it will be time for you to perfect your photographic vision. This is your unique style that defines you as a photographer. Most likely your style will be defined by your passions. So start with those first, one of my friends Michael Lax loves Cars and he loves Landscape Photography so he combined the two and has been able to make a career from himself doing that. By really focusing on one thing you can become a master at it as you start to notice and make the little adjustments to produce the best pictures. You don’t have to be a Professional to start working on this Stage of your Photographic Skill Progression. In fact, skipping to this step before even starting to pickup a camera can help accelerate your progression because you’ll have an end goal in mind. Sure, you might skip some areas of focus that will make you a more well rounded photographer but you can argue more that there’s no reason to develop a specific skill you’ll never use. If you’re looking for inspiration, go through your Instagram feed and take a look at your favorite photographers take note of what makes them unique. This can help jumpstart your search for your own style.



So where are you on this list as a Photographer? And how can I help you get to the next stage of your photography career?


  • I’m curious what lighting apps you use. I think the ability to “see” light is an important milestone (I guess that would be stage 3) where you get an appreciation for hard vs. soft light, pay attention to light reflected off buildings, and color casts from reflected surfaces. There is a huge payoff when you develop that skill.

  • Jessica Schumaker says:

    This is great, Thomas! Thank you! I’m new to photography (as in, I’ve been shooting on my iPhone and in Auto mode on my Nikon for a few years now.) I’m really looking to take my photography to the next level. It’s such a passion of mine that I’d love to get to a point where I can make my hobby a career. Love reading all your posts, they are easy for me as a “newbie” to grasp and very helpful! Love the idea of focusing on one setting a day. It’s very overwhelming to me thinking of mastering my camera (and others!) in Manual mode. Appreciate all the tips you give!

  • Tristan says:

    I’m beyond pumped that you plan to post more often on blogging behind the scenes! It’s such a treat to get tips directly from a blogger photographer whom I greatly admire. I’m working on understanding composition right now; I’ve tried sticking to the rule of thirds but I notice your landscape pics in this post, for example, have the horizon line almost center, which I would’ve tried to avoid based solely on that rule. Perhaps I’m taking it too literally… I’m planning to get a prime lens soon and hopefully this will help me figure out angles and positioning better like you said.

    I often wonder…do you or Julia ever crop when editing or do you mostly keep the pictures as they were shot? I struggle with composing landscape-oriented shots with me in them that don’t include my full body so then I tend to crop them. Any further insight into composing pictures or things to look for, things to include, how to figure out the best representation, etc. would be so wonderful!

    • Thomas says:

      Happy to answer your questions in later posts. One of the best tricks for improving your composition is to use cropping. Shooting on a rangefinder camera I find I always need a little bit of cropping.

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