Every photographer goes through a learning curve that extends from the first camera you use all the way until (hopefully) you achieve some level of photography actualization with a decent amount of knowledge about your craft. While the stages of the learning curve vary from person to person both in their content and their timeframe, many of us go through the same trials and tribulations as we seek to become the best photographer we can be.
With that, let’s see if you identify with the life stages of the photographer.
Full Auto Mode
In this stage, you feel an abundance of excitement about taking your photography to another level. Gone is your easy point-and-shoot. Your mobile phone has been safely stored in your pocket. It’s just you and your brand new DSLR or mirrorless camera, and the novel-like instruction manual you’ll have to read in order to learn how to use it.
In full auto mode, there will be long periods of isolation in which your camera just sits there in its brand new camera bag, too complicated to learn, too many frustrating hours trying to decipher all the buttons and settings. Then, as you watch more and more YouTube videos on how to use it, you gain confidence, but only enough to shoot in full auto. Pictures of your dog lying on the floor, your kids at play in the backyard, and maybe a self-portrait or two are all that you manage to take.
Annoyed that you aren’t taking as many pictures as your new camera warrants, you resolve that getting more gear will force you to make more time in your life for photography. Three lenses, two tripods, a couple of post-processing programs, and a bag full of filters later, you have an extensive kit, but still very little idea of how to use your camera, let alone any of the new gear you just bought.
Nevertheless, weighed down by the incoming credit card bills, you persevere and start to figure things out, if only just a little bit. A few more YouTube videos, a visit to a photography forum, and a subscription to a photography tutorial website get you headed in the right direction. Your camera (and all that other gear) eventually start to make more frequent appearances at family events and gatherings with friends.
Photography God Mode
With a little more practice, you find that every picture you take is amazing. Portraits, landscapes, street photography - it doesn’t matter. Sure, you’re still in full auto mode and have very little control over what’s happening in-camera, but it doesn’t matter with results like this! Things are in focus, you’re using the rule of thirds, you know the difference between overexposure and underexposure, you’ve mastered layers in Photoshop and know how to adjust contrast and brightness - you’re really hitting the big time now, and your photos prove it.
After a brief stint as the world’s best photographer, reality sets in. You realize that you still have no idea what ISO means, the difference between TV and AV mode on your camera is totally lost on you, and you couldn’t explain aperture to someone if your life depended on it.
With new resolve, you set out to learn the technicalities of photography. You immerse yourself in lessons and tutorials on aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You learn about focal length, discover the glorious world of exposure compensation, and become a pro at manipulating white balance. Your mind is awash with hundreds of tips on how to improve the sharpness of your images, the best types of lighting for portraits, and how to take long-exposure images of waterfalls during the daytime.
With a greater understanding of your camera, your gear, and photography in general, now you really feel like maybe you’re a pretty awesome photographer. You’ve taken some good shots, some of which you probably had printed and framed to hang on your walls or give to others as gifts. You’ve gotten lots of compliments on your work, striving to remain humble, yet reveling in your own magnificence from time to time as well.
Then you find yourself in a situation in which nothing you do makes the camera take the photo you want. It’s wildly overexposed or massively underexposed. Your indoor photos are yellow and gross. You have no creative ideas for shots. The pictures you take are dull, boring, and lifeless and pale in comparison to the ones you see online. Basically, you feel like the worst photographer ever.
Desperately wanting out of the highs and lows of bipolar mode, you dedicate yourself not just to studying photography tips and tutorials, but you also study the work of others. From world-renowned photographers to Instagram aficionados that have only their phones, you look for ways that their work speaks to you and to others. You study their approach to photography, their use of light, the compositional techniques they use, and the like. You buy books, watch more videos, and take in all the information you can from people that have made a name for themselves in the photography industry. Not only do you learn a lot about photography as an art, but you also learn more about who you are as a photographer - you discover what aesthetic speaks to you and begin to adopt an identity regarding the type of photography you want to undertake.
As your knowledge of photography has increased, so too has your desire and ability to get out of full auto and begin to explore your camera’s other modes. You give shutter priority a try at your kid’s soccer game. You explore aperture priority mode for low-light portraits. You adjust ISO, white balance, and start to use off-camera flashes to give your images the light and shadow they need to really pop. Basically, you’re beginning to become one with your camera, able to make split-second decisions that improve your photos. As you spend more time shooting, more time practicing, you’re quickly getting to the point where you can take full control.
And that point is finally here! You’ve put in the time, you know your gear backwards and forwards, and you understand the fundamentals of photography that allow you to finally turn that dial to M and be fully responsible for what’s going on in-camera. As a result, your images really begin to shine. They’re clear and sharp, perfectly composed, and use light in ways that enhance the composition for a more interesting photo. You’ve got a small yet growing portfolio to show off your work. Your camera has morphed into less of a tool and more a part of you that you can use seamlessly and without too much thought. The process of taking a photo has become second nature.
This is the step that will last you the rest of your days. But that doesn’t mean the learning is over. Even in manual mode, there is always something new to learn, be that a photography technique, a new post-processing program, or a new-fangled camera that has cutting-edge features. Manual mode also comes with the utmost appreciation for photography as an art and an industry. You take pride in your work, but also marvel at the incredible things other people are accomplishing that will help you stay humble and hungry to learn more.