As photographers, we grow through 3 stages. Each stage will be shaped by what we think is important and will determine the quality of our work. The only way to move to the next stage is by mastering the previous stage. Doing so opens up opportunities to expand our skills, improve our photography and experience a greater amount of success. Here are those 3 stages…
Stage 1: Camera Technology
The first stage is one where we believe that a great camera makes a great photo. And we become obsessed with choosing the best camera and lens we can afford. To that end, we spend days reading technical specifications and lens reviews. After all, a portrait taken with a f/1.4 85mm lens is probably much better than the one taken at 85mm, but with some kit 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 thing, right? Well, that may be so (and often it’s not), but when you begin to see that the answer to that question is more than a simple “yes” or “no”, you grow to the next stage.
Stage 2: Technical Skills
In this stage, we begin to prioritize our technical skills. We begin to value the importance of lighting and composition. It doesn’t matter how sharp your lens is, or how advanced your camera metering system is – if your photo has cluttered composition and is badly lit, you probably won’t like it.
So you begin to learn about backlighting, cross-lighting, Rembrandt lighting and lighting using off-camera strobes. You also learn about posing your subjects in a way that enhances their appearance. And you begin using back, mid and foreground to create amazing 3-dimensional compositions. Phew! You’re now light years ahead of a photographer who is just beginning to understand the basics of ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
So does that mean that a great photographer is someone who has great technical skills that are complimented by advanced camera technology? Perhaps. But there’s one more thing to consider.
Stage 3: Connecting With The Subject
At some point you begin to notice that some of your photos are amazingly lit, technically flawless, are shot using high-end equipment and yet are…somehow hollow and boring. And then you go to an exhibition like World Press Photo and notice that photos on display often lack technical perfection; their compositions can be rough, the consideration for lighting seems to be patchy, images can even be blurry. And yet the photos captivate. They have an ability to move you to tears and make you think deeply about what happened.
What’s going on? When you begin to ask that question, you begin to grow to the third stage. It’s the stage where you realise that a great photograph is a result of a connection between a photographer and the subject. To become a photographer at this level, you have to be technically skilled enough to be able to almost forget about your camera. You need to be able to work its controls intuitively, precisely and almost nonchalantly – much like a great virtuoso plays the piano. That is important because all your attention needs to be on your subject and the story that is unfolding before your eyes.
Conclusion: The Ironic Twist
I think there’s some irony in this journey because it turns out that the thing you get fixated with at the beginning – the camera – ends up being the thing you need to practically forget about in order to take great photos. And the thing that you need most – your real self and the person whose story you want to tell – is already present at the very beginning. Remember – there are no right and wrong levels, and each level is just as important as another. Wherever you are now is perfectly fine and is exactly where you need to be. Just use this scale to become aware of where you need to go next to become a better photographer.