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.
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?