Everyone Starts at the Beginning

The path to creative proficiency is unique to each of us, but we all follow the same overall path.

· 4 min read
Everyone Starts at the Beginning

It's fun for me to go back and reflect on how I learned photography myself.  I got into photography in the early 2000’s starting with zero knowledge beyond point and click the button. My first DSLR was a Sony A200, and my path to expertise and building a successful studio followed a common path we all take to some degree.

This is not intended to be a guide for anyone to follow to be proficient, but more a comparative to appreciate how we all learn this creative skill set.

Source: Conscious Competence Learning Model

Stage Description Perspective Shots Taken Keeper %
1 Unconscious Incompetence "Look how artistic!" 100 5%
2 Conscious Incompetence "I need a new lens." 100 10-15%
3 Conscious Competence "Want to model for me?" 100 25%+
4 Unconscious Competence "I can make money doing this." 100 35%

Stage 1

Unconscious Incompetence - "Look how artistic this shot is!"

Our first real camera and we're shooting everything on “auto”.  We have no idea what all the dials and buttons do, but look how crisp those pictures are!

From the "Conscious Competence" model, at this stage we are blissfully unaware of our incompetence, but it's hella fun to shoot anything and everything. I surmise that we all start to gravitate towards our preferred subject early on. For me, it was people. Not posed, but lifestyle'esque. Caught in the moment, if you will.

The beauty of digital imagery is that there's really no cost to capture like there was with film so those in this stage should just fire away. Finding your passion is the most important part of this stage.

Stage 2

Conscious Incompetence - "I need a new lens."

Watch a few videos, read some articles, and we begin to pick up some knowledge.  We know that we don't know enough, but are playing with camera settings intentionally, and manage to eek out a handful of cool shots. I can say with confidence that no one escapes GAS (gear acquisition syndrome).

GAS may kick in earlier, but we all inevitably start looking at lenses, lighting, or whatever that we absolutely need to get that shot we've been trying to capture.

Stage 3

Conscious Competence - "Want to model for me?"

Many give it up before this stage, pulling out the camera only on special occasions.  If you haven't given up this is when the real learning begins.

This is also the longest stage of learning.  Shooting in manual or aperture mode, playing with composition, good vs. bad lighting scenarios. Methodical learning is occurring, while we learn, test, and refine.  For example, I started working with models myself in this stage and spent a significant amount of time learning to pose, light, and shoot different body types while preparing to build out a boudoir business.

The "Taste Talent Gap" is something few really discuss, but I feel it is so important for all creatives to understand and acknowledge in their own journey to proficiency.  We all build our understanding of what it takes to create great work well before we establish our own talent to create it, and it can take years to improve our talent to bridge this gap.

"Taste Talent Gap" as defined by Ira Glass in the following video:

Stage 4

Unconscious Competence - "I can make money doing this."

To me, this is the most fun stage from a creative perspective because you have a firm grasp of the tools and techniques, and can get creative with the concept or theme of a shoot. In essence, you don't think how, you just do.

If you haven't done so at an earlier stage, as I had, many also make a go at monetization here.  I did in the past with my studio and had gotten pretty successful with it.

Depending on how long you've been in Stage 3, you likely have sufficient equipment and have some connections to assist. In my opinion stage 4 is the stage of pure creation. You are able to ideate a creative concept and pull the logistics together to shoot it with little thought on the technicalities because it's muscle memory at this point.

There's an interesting byproduct challenge with this stage of proficiency. With every shot set, nearly every image is perfectly dialed in, sharp, and looks great. Selecting a single image for display is not always easy, nor is it optimal when the image series tells the story.

It's the Journey

Not the Destination

I have to agree with Albert Einstein on this. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know. The clarifying statement I would add is that I know what it is I don't know.

When I meet other photographers, I love asking them how they learned, and how they've grown with their art. While each of their stories is uniquely different they all share the same passion for learning and improving their craft, and all tend to follow these same stages of learning.

If you're curious about it, a 5th stage has been added to the above model in recent years by educational psychologists. Conscious Unconscious Competence - a point where you understand how you learned, and share so others may benefit.

Just go shoot!