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The Four Stages of Photographic Learning

This year I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking around the subject of learning.  Partly this is because I’m getting old(er), and have now been doing this job for quite some time, which gives me lots of material for introspection and navel gazing. It’s also because I’ve been reading lots of books on psychology, creativity and learning.  Lastly it’s probably because in the first few months of the year I did a bit more teaching than usual, which always prompts me to think about how best people learn, the acquisition of knowledge and so on.

One aspect that occurred to me was to do with how we learn any skill – in my case photography – in a very non-linear way.  That is, we don’t make a steady march of progress from ignorance to complete mastery – there are many setbacks on the way.  I’ll go into this in more depth in a later post.  Another aspect is how photography is split into different areas of skill, and that our progress in some areas is often way ahead of that in others, and that all-round perfection is not only very rare, but takes a very long time to achieve.

The three areas of skill in photography I have defined as Technical and Craft Skills, “Soft” Craft skills, and Insight.  To elaborate on what I mean by these:

  • Technical and Craft skills are pretty self-explanatory.  Camera handling, lighting, photoshop – all the nuts and bolts of how to take pictures that look good, and come out how we want them to.  I’d also lump in with these the more esoteric aspects of the craft, such as working well with your subjects.
  • “Soft” Craft skills are a bit more subtle.  By these I mean creativity and visual language – moving your ideas on from the most basic representation of a subject to something that’s more personal to you.  These skills are much harder to teach, and are neglected by a large number of photographers – both professionals and amateurs.  This is the bit where you develop the “you” that will appeal to viewers beyond just your technical expertise.
  • Insight.  This area is also overlooked by a big chunk of photographers.  It’s my coverall term for “where does your work fit in to the wider world?”  It’s the sort of topic that you spend an arts degree discussing in depth, and the sort of thing that is almost completely overlooked by most amateurs.  Learning what’s gone before, how other people have answered the questions you’re asking, and how you can move the whole thing forward is what insight is all about.  It’s the difference between looking at an Ansel Adams picture, assuming that what makes it great is the fact it was shot on a 10×8” camera in black and white, and then wondering why your 10×8” Black and White pictures look and feel nothing like his, and being able to identify in his work (and others) what it is that makes it special.

The way I see it, these areas of skill develop at different speeds, and across four stages:

Stage 1

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
0/5                         0/5                      0/5

No understanding of technical aspects, no understanding of creativity and visual language, or how to translate any of this into a final image, no understanding of how other people have achieved their results.  Lots of desire to mimic the masters, lots of trial and error, vast gulf between ambition and reality.

A complete beginner.

Stage 2

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
2-3/5                      1-2/5                   1-2/5

Techniques improves first, and most rapidly, often from reverse engineering/behind the scenes videos/interviews/learning by rote.  Some learning of soft skills, and insight but usually as a by-product, rather than as a conscious choice.  Gulf between ambition/reality shrinking.

Accomplished Amateur.

Stage 3

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
4-5/5                      2-3/5                   2-3/5

Approaching technical mastery in some areas, and more development of soft skills as a consequence of simply shooting more and hopefully some introspection, as well as critiques from peers.  Increased insight thanks to experience, the recognition that a master’s work is not just about the technical.  Many professionals exist at this level for a very long time.

Stage 4

Technical Craft        “Soft” Craft            Insight
4-5/5                      4-5/5                   4-5/5

Mastery of subject.  Technical knowledge enough to execute a massive range of subjects with polish and precision.  Great depth of personal creative vision, and confidence in same.  Ability to marry the two repeatedly to fulfil clients brief.  Insight enough to know what inspiration to draw from others, what to reject, and where your work fits into the broader visual world.

In my opinion, very few photographers ever get to stage 4 – I certainly haven’t!

Now, for professionals there is also a 4th skill, which I will loosely call “business”.  This covers all those aspects of being a professional that are essential, but not directly related to the actual taking of photographs.  So, production and organisation, book-keeping and chasing invoices, marketing, and generally behaving like a professional.  If your concern is with making a living from photography, never neglect these aspects, as you’ll not last long if you do!

There you go, some food for thought.  More ramblings on learning, experience, skill, and creativity to follow in the coming weeks.

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