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The Five Stages of Development (Almost) Every Photographer Goes Through

It’s August. And if you’re anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, you’re warm - hot even. So why not sit back and relive the good old days, back when our cameras were new, the exposure triangle was confusing, and the idea that photography could be something that could to take us to the ends of the earth and make us a lot of money in the process was still a far off dream. 

*Disclaimer: this is humor. I hope. 

Before we get into this, I wanted to address those photographers who are in fact actually traveling to the ends of the earth and making a lot of money in the process. Congrats. Awesome. There are a lot of us who are, in fact, not doing that (yet), so if you’ll excuse us for a few moments, we’ll allow you to go back to photographing some more incredible sights and scenes and posting them somewhere online (Fstoppers community, maybe), so we can get back to drooling over and reverse engineering them and thus the photography world stays within it’s natural order. 


I digress. It wasn’t too long ago that I had purchased my first “real” DSLR. With the exception of a car and several plane tickets, it was the largest single purchase I’d made in my adult life. And, for weeks up until that point, I spent hours agonizing over review after review, debated whether I needed full frame or should "settle" for a crop sensor, and whether or not a kit lens was worth the extra money. And, after all of that had been decided, I kept the camera in both my B&H and my Amazon shopping cart for days - occasionally visiting it, hovering my mouse over the purchase button and even once or twice hitting it and canceling the order before it could actually stick. 

When the order was actually placed and in the the few days before UPS delivered the package, I spent hours searching for and watching unboxing videos, imagining the grubby hands on the screen were my own clammy hands pulling the beast of a camera out of the box and holding it in the air… Finally, the day came that my camera arrived and with the finesse of a large, unstable elephant, I tore the box open and rescued my full frame camera and kit lens from their cardboard prison. I put the battery on the charger for what must have been a nanosecond, and without a clue as to what I was doing, I began snapping away at everything (on P mode, of course). A few hours after that, I was uploading photos to Facebook for the world to "enjoy..." 

Looking back at it now, it seems a bit ridiculous to have gone through all that and with such blind exuberance. Tthankfully, some time has passed since then and while that youthful photographic idealism has not completely faded into a jaded cynicism some days it seems to be on it's way. Nonetheless, I like to pause every once in a while and look back at my development through the years. When I stopped to do do this year, I wondered if it wasn't just me that fell into this pattern, but the lot of us. Stages of development, regardless of the subject are usually similar and/or somewhat uniform across the board. I’m hoping that if you continue to read ahead, you see yourself and can remember your earliest days and the pathway you're on while you enjoy this bit of too-close-to-home tongue-in-cheekery. 

The Five Stages of Development (Almost) Every Photographer Goes Through 

Stage One: Ah, remember the good old days! Everyone and everything is photogenic and worthy of being photographed. With little to no skill and/or understanding of how a camera works, our young photographer friend spends their time taking photos of everything - and I mean everything - friends, dogs, people, trees, snails, blades of grass, cars, the sunrise and the sunset, and of course, themselves. Then, with a wide-eyed enthusiasm usually reserved for the young and for the insane, our young photographer posts those photos across the Internet - Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, DeviantArt, MySpace. 

Stage Two: Wait a second, something is happening here… Every once in a while, our young photo friend sees something in one of their photos that doesn’t exist in another one of their photos - there is an aesthetic to it, there is a stickiness to it. People are commenting on it, people are liking it, it’s been shared a few times. People actually like it... Maybe, our young photo friend thinks, that this photography game is much more than that. Maybe it’s something that could work out - something beyond just capturing memories of friends, flowers, and blade of grass for fun, maybe there can be a business aspect to it as well. Of course there can! Thusly, a business name is thought up, a website and/or a page is created and the stream of photos populating their social media suddenly turns into a unkempt river. 

Stage Three: Work! Well, free work anyway… Almost overnight it seems, first friends and then strangers start contacting our young photographer friend asking for photoshoots. If he/she has any business savvy, he/she begins by asking to be paid right off that bat, but unfortunately for most of us (myself included) the idea that someone contacts you to take their photo supersedes any need for money, food, etc and so, we agree to shoot for free. 

Step Four: Legitimacy! Suddenly - sometimes overnight, it seems - if our younger photographer friend works hard, continues to focus their time on learning and growing their art, and has a few lucky connections and/or streaks, their work begins to catch on - people start to take notice. Instead of shooting friends and family, our friend is working with agencies and booking jobs with legitimate clients. 

Stage Five: Admittedly, this stage is the most difficult to write about and/or foresee because they’re are too many variables and I think there should be at least two subheadings under this last stage. Now, on one hand, if our young photographer continues to progress, is surrounded by a genuine crew of talented people, they have the opportunity to continue on into the world of a working photographer booking ads, magazines, billboards, etc and doing so all with a smile on his or her face. If, however, our young photographer is surrounded by the “wrong” crowd (this is subjective, yes), then there is a chance that we may see our young wide-eyed friend become the jaded, cynical, full of themselves type of person that seems to be a part of just about every industry.

Our Individual Pathways, etc

Although our individual stages of development may differ somewhat, the initial pathway is similar. Ultimately, however, while there are those similarities, it’s up to our young photographer to decide for themselves which path is best. There are so many options, so many pathways for us to choose that with a hard work and a tremendous amount of focus, we can be successful in this field (despite what you hear from others). Like any creative path, it’s a lifelong journey which begins the moment we pick up our tool and start taking photos of our friends, our family, the landscapes surrounding where we live, etc. 

Post Script

Although written in good humor, I hope that when looking at the stages, it’s easy enough to see ourselves and for a moment, perhaps, remember back to the day we tore open the box, lifted our camera up and held it in the air against a blinding sun while somewhere off in the distance a monumental version of Circle of Life is being played and we thought of all the possibilities that lay in front of us. 

Thanks for reading.

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24 Comments

Mujtaba Sayed's picture

Admittedly I'm still somewhere around stage 3, but i still have those pics from stage 1, which at the time I thought were the most amazing images ever, but they are a great reminder of progression

james johnson's picture

You forget the stage somewhere between two and four (3.5?) where you hate everything you do and become dismayed.

Randy Budd's picture

This stage as I see it; I know what good images are, but I get quite discouraged when I can't seem to produce those kind of images myself.

John Schell's picture

I think like any good artist, we should be doing this on a yearly basis. :)

Karma Wilson's picture

I love this. The unkempt river part had me howling! So true. Professional website design is expensive for a reason. In my opinion the net presence part of this business is one of the most time consuming and frustrating. It takes a lot of practice to refine and can be a time sink.

However, I have a different perspective on the "free" part. On social media, I see quite a few "new photographers" offering "professional services" all the time and actually charging for snapshots taken on auto with inferior equipment and slapped with bad filters. Part of me thinks anybody seeing their portfolio and paying deserves what they get, and part of me thinks this is muddying the profession, and part of me thinks "who cares? market drives market". But personally I think a lot of photographers should absolutely work for free until there is real market value in their work. The working for free does a lot of things--gives you practice working with and for people, gives you practice working in diverse conditions, gives you a chance to donate time and energy to causes you believe in, etc....

A good compromise is working for trade. "Hey friend, you own a restaurant. I can take better shots than your cellphone with my nifty DSLR that I don't use on auto. And I'm kinda hungry. Let's trade. Make me some food and I'll take pictures of it." Then there is something at stake. You are working FOR something, other than just your portfolio, and this will usually drive a photographer to be better. It also gets your work out there in a professional sense, and that exposure can lead to paying jobs....good paying jobs.

When your work has real value those people who trade will spread the word about your skill. People will mention that their new menu or ad looks awesome, and the restaurant owner will naturally want to sound like a good businessman. "Oh, I hired this great photographer. You should check him out. His website is:"

But there is that stage, where you just don't work for free anymore unless it's offered by you for your own personal reasons. It's hard to know when you are at that stage, and I'd love to see a good article about that topic down the road! (Hint, hint). Knowing when and what to charge is one of the most vexing and controversial topics on photography boards.

John Schell's picture

Excellent points, Karma! I agree with the working for trade aspect. And, I may know a few writers, I'll pass off your article idea to one of them. ;)

Jennifer Kelley's picture

Hmmmm... I seem to have skipped a step on a 10 year cynical detour lol

Sean Shimmel's picture

John,

You have the great gift of the everyman's voice. We can all so easily relate.

Even while questing through the later stages, I still revel in "Stage 1" after all these years. The simplest things still inspire wonder and I hope I can somehow keep it that way year after year... like discovering an interesting location within the commonplace, creating a shallow depth of field, and the sense of wonder in later zooming close on an image in Lightroom to savor the color, lighting and details.

Even yesterday's 5 minute headshot session inspired me like in my early years:

http://lifeascinema.blogspot.com/2014/08/that-endless-quest.html

Marek Alliksoo's picture

Love the article, but stage one for me was a little different (probably for everyone starting on film) - first camera was the Zenit E, so while I took shots of everything because it looked cool through the viewfinder (remember those lovely lenses before the 35 1.8 which actually had "defects" that made pictures more interesting) I have never ever (to this day) taken a picture of myself. In fact I actively walk around with the flash on the camera set to slave mode to avoid people getting a good picture of myself - I think it might be a trend for hipsters actually if they weren't so narcissist that they wanted to look at themselves from every possible angle.
The second time you experience stage 1 is when you get your first macro lens - suddenly all the small and often stupid things turn so photogenic again overnight that you have to try your new lens on every subject you previously photographed with your kit/fix/telephoto/wideangle lens to see how they look now.

PS: I also love the last photo of the article.

Amborish Nath's picture

Am between stage 4 and 5,I have a decent portfolio,but now need to market myself.

Anonymous's picture

Someone told that analysing humor is like disecting a frog: both perish.
Step 4 for some artist consisted in cutting off an ear, and that was because steps 1, 2 and 3 were not satistactory.
Ansel Adams started playing piano and then he felt the need of inventing the zone system for his symphony of photographs.
One of the intermediate stages of Wegee was installing a radio set connected to police and a bedroom in his car.
Years before Muybridge killed her wife's lover as a transition to his animal locomotion.
Stage 5 of Diane Arbus was fatal.
The case of J.H. Lartigue is that whatever stages he passed through, they were an enigma up till he was about seventy.
Helmut Newton very last step was on board a luxury car.

Ralph Hightower's picture

I'm not Stage 3 since I don't do any free work, or above since I don't make my living from photography. But I enjoy it and it is an outlet.

I started out shooting full frame; I've shot Kodachrome, Kodak, Fuji, and Ilford. I've used traditional B&W film, color negative, slide, and C-41 B&W film.

I still use the Canon A-1 that I bought new 34 years ago. Why? Because it still works! Most of the time, it's on [P], but depending on the situation, I'll set it to [Tv] or [Av]; I set it to [Av] for a night-time baseball game for the lowest aperture for the lens and let the shutter speed fall where it may.

In July 2011, I rediscovered the classic look of B&W film when I finished a 3-pack of Kodak BW400CN film. For 2012, I decided to shoot the entire year in B&W; it was a year of experimentation for me to use different B&W contrast filters. It wasn't until March 2012 before I started to visualize in B&W. I had two projects for 2012: 1) Photograph the sunrise over Columbia, SC from the Lake Murray dam; 2) Photograph the full moons of the year. For the Moon Project, I used the "Sunny F16" rule and factored in the lens factor for yellow, orange, and red; I bracketed my exposures by -1, 0, +1. 2012 was a year of growth for me. Did I have regrets of using B&W film exclusively? Yes; particularly when seeing a stunning sunrise or sunset.

I've used manual mode on the A-1 to create a three frame panorama; it made sense to use manual to avoid any significant changes using Av, Tv, or P.

I bought a used Canon F-1N with AE Finder FN and Motor Drive FN so I can use either aperture priority, shutter priority, or manual. But so far, I've used the camera manually using match-needle.

Late 2013, I had been researching DSLR cameras on which to buy: APS vs. Full Frame. APS was affordable with the disadvantage of being cheated on the wide angle side and cheating on the other side of telephoto. My wife found a package deal on Amazon in December 2013 for a 5D Mk III package for $4000; I checked B&H and I found a similar package for $3500. Right now, I using the 5D like a film camera: white balance is manual.

Oh, I use exposure compensation for both film and digital for what I'm looking for.

Michael Bonocore's picture

John, I freakin love this article. I went through every stage, and sometimes, I still go back to Stage 3....ok, quite often I still go back to Stage 3.

Sara Smoot's picture

Loved reading this. Very interesting and very true:)

Ralph Berrett's picture

You can tell this story is base base on the 2000 to the present. :)

Mine is a little old school.

(1) High School, photo course, newspaper/yearbook & first wedding.

(2) College photo, photojournalism, college paper, college/sports information, part time shooter/lab tech for newspaper, freelance, stringer, first NFL game and more weddings.

(3) Finish College, work for daily, finally get dad to admit you have a career by taking him on the field of NFL Game, build first website (geocities) and still more weddings.

(4) Start shooting digital for papers, start doing commercial work on side, flickr, facebook, website, model mayhem and yet still more weddings.

(5) Leave Newspapers, shoot editorial/commercial video and stills and thank God no more weddings ;).

Peter Stewart's picture

Great read John. We've all been there and continually improve.

Only took me 4 years to discover that using selective color really wasn't doing me any favors :)

David Vaughn's picture

It took me 3 years before I even knew what RAW was.

Even with all the knowledge on the Internet, I am apparently pretty dense. lol

Anonymous's picture

(...)
In my case, the young photographer thought that his father's camera brand necessarily had to mean something or convey some special message for him, so stage one consisted in burdening a Rollei 6006 happily here and there.
For stage 2, that young thought that Ansel Adams was God.
In stage three he realized several things:
First, that stage 2 were not true.
Second, that stage one was equally wrong.
As a consequence, the young man started rambling, i.e. adquiring scrap of different brands, and adventuring into the harsh fields of alternative processes; among other dizzling searches of a kind of truth.
But, yes, that stage was fruitful for him; books, photographers, darkroom,papers.
A new world.
Stage 4 made him believe that Leica was the truth. But it was not, as he discovered.
Anyhow he learned a lot.
Firstly, photographing, no matter what camera he had on hands.
And lastly, understanding his own work.

David Vaughn's picture

What if you're cynical but you're not full of yourself?

Is that the most pitiful combination?:(

Anonymous's picture

Thank you for this article.It is a far different take on photography than my stages. I started on film in the 1970's. A lot this article applies of course to us old timers as we have adopted digital or come to photography through digital later in life.. I had the glimpse of fame and fortune when people started to ask me to do their weddings. I became addicted to wedding and all photography in the ensuing years. I am a bit envious in some ways of the modern generation because in the 1960's when we were teenagers and young adults not many in Australia were much into photography. The Kodak Instamatic , which was virtually a box camera using cartridges, started to change all that.We missed out on documenting our teenage and young adult years. People were more into the revolution in pop music that was going on.I am grateful that I caught the bug early enough starting off with a pentax spotmatic.I like this website and the post are always interesting.

Matt Allan's picture

It's been almost ten years for me and I feel as though I am hovering at the tail end of stage 3 and about to spill over into stage 4.

Funnily enough though, it wasn't until I stopped trying to force it that the fun started to return, I started to see the things in front of me again and progression started to become evident.

I'm happy shooting for shooting sake these day and I'll take whatever may come on the journey but I have made my peice with the fact that I'm shooting for the love of it and not for the money.

Anonymous's picture

Ah, the digital version... stage one, shooting everything... back in "the day" we wuz poor, and film cost money, and developing cost money. Stage 1 back then was carefully choosing what was recorded. Personally, the 20 or so rolls of film I shot in my teens are worth more to me than most of the thousands of digital images I've made since.

minh le tri's picture

In 10 days i will get my dream nikon d7100 + 35mm 1.8g from Japan. Tks.

Rafa Rodero's picture

I'm in the stage 3 working hard and learning as much as possible waiting for those few lucky connections to step into the stage 4 :) So if somebody wants to connect with me I will be more than welcome!