Sharpen Your Skills!

Photography is a vast, complex discipline.  It takes a long time to learn and master the many aspects of photography.  For the intermediate and aspiring professional photographer, identifying skills you need to work on can  be a difficult task in itself.  Another problem is complacency when you already have a large amount of photography knowledge.  So how do you figure out what you need to know next?

In psychology there is a concept regarding mastery of a skill called The Four Stages of Competence.  Thinking about your skills within this framework is helpful for identifying skills you are already close to mastering and skills  on which you need more work.  Here’s a summary of the four stages (you can find a more fleshed out description here.)

  1. Unconscious Incompetence:  The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. The individual must recognize their own incompetence and the value of the new skill before moving on to the next stage.

  1. Conscious Incompetence:  Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit.

  1. Conscious Competence:  The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

  1. Unconscious Competence:  The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily.

There are very few photographers who are such experts that they are Unconsciously Competent at every skill related to photography.  More commonly, each photographer is simultaneously at different stages of each of these four stages of competence.

What are your strongest skills?  Already you probably can identify a skill or two that you know you need to improve.  Maybe you’re not great with a flash.  Maybe your composition skills need work.  Maybe your posing skills could use a shot of creativity.  Whatever the case, take an inventory of your skills and make a plan to learn more in those areas in which you need more work.

The best photographers crave knowledge.  The best photographers want to get better.  We owe it to our clients–we owe it to ourselves as artists–to be the best we can be.  In the end, we alone are responsible for the quality of our work.

What’s the best way to learn more?  Think community.  Often, other people are our greatest resource for new information and improving our skills.  As photographers, we often work in an isolated environment like a home office or studio and therefore we aren’t constantly interacting and exchanging ideas with others in our field.


  1. LOCAL GROUPS:  It’s a great idea to join local groups so you can meet fellow photographers and talk shop. Companies like PPA, Pictage, Smugmug, and have groups that meet.  Do some research and find out if there is a group in your town.  And hey, if there’s not a photography group in your town, start one yourself!Understanding Exposure Bryan Peterson
  2. CONFERENCES:  Every year there are great conferences and conventions you can go to all around the country. WPPI has a yearly conference in Las Vegas, as well as a touring conference that stops in many cities around the country.  PPA has a conference every year in Nashville called Imaging USA.   Photo Plus is a big conference in New York City.  There are many more.
  3. ONLINE:  Online communities and forums on websites like Flickr or Digital Wedding Forum are also great places to meet experienced, helpful photographers all over the world.
  4. BOOKS & INTERNET:  There are also a slew of books and online resources out there.  A great beginner to intermediate book suggestion is Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.  And of course, if you have a question or a problem with a certain skill, the answer is almost always a quick internet search away.
  5. CLASSES:  Local colleges and universities, as well as camera stores, often offer classes for improving your photography skills.  Classes are also a great place to meet people.

This isn’t an admonition – we all need to learn more.  Take it as encouragement.  Take some time for some self-examination, and make and inventory of your skills.  Nothing feels like that amazing feeling you get when you learn a new skill and start to get good at it.  Enjoy the process–and good luck!



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