The four stages of creative evolution of a photographer

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As close as I got to Everest. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

On careful reflection, there are a number of stages which every photographer (hopefully) goes through as their creative vision develops. In fact, it’s more like a pyramid or mountain that requires climbing: the higher you go, the more difficult it gets, and the more commitment is required. The lower slopes are gentle, easy and well-charted; the higher slopes are rocky, icy, treacherous and the preserve of the supremely brave or foolhardy. At the same time, far more people visit base camp than the summit; and few do it without supplemental oxygen.

Perhaps that metaphor has gone a bit too far. Like every pursuit, photography is one of severely diminishing returns: it isn’t difficult or expensive to become reasonably good, but if you’re trying to push the boundaries, be prepared for frequent dead ends, wrong turns, and never-ending criticism: the simple reality is that if you are always experimenting, not all experiments turn out better than the previous one, let alone tried and true methods.

I was at a dinner with a number of fellow commercial photographers recently where this point was discussed in some detail: we work in an environment of shrinking budgets and drying up jobs, yet there will always be some clients who perhaps are more like patrons than business as usual: they don’t mind you trying to push the boundaries. The comparison to the art world was drawn: a piece that may not make any sense to a casual, external observer makes no sense precisely because of the casualness of the observation: the viewer does not have the benefit of having experienced and seen the evolution of the artist from the starting point into their current form of expression. I think the same thing is true with photography, though to a lesser extent; we were discussing another recent batch of image submission which had to be graded/ sorted/ reviewed etc. and how to judge whether something had extremely deep and complex metaphors, or whether it was simply a bad image – the conclusion was that the caption was the giveaway. (It stands to reason that a casual-looking image with a deep meaning and careful execution would have an equally-carefully crafted caption that supports the message of the photograph. None of these particular images did.)

Pre stage
The vast majority of the population falls into this group. These are the people who own cameras and perhaps use them at social occasions, or for recording/ documentary purposes, or when they are expected to – like when on vacation – but do not actively seek to go out and take photographs. They may be creative in other areas, but just not photography. Composition is not something that they actively think about and technical skill is limited to turning the dial to the green mode. For the purposes of this discussion, I will classify them but not discuss their traits in any greater detail; I’m almost certain that none of my readers fall into this category anyway.

First stage
To progress to the first stage, you need to have the intention; you have to make a conscious choice in wanting to make a image. You may or may not know what is good, what works and what doesn’t, or the technical aspects of photography; the bottom line is that a person in this category has the desire to photograph. I suppose this is what separates newbie photographers from the rest of the population who might merely own a camera. Intention is what gives people the motivation to actually get out and do something – in this case, learning, experimenting, and trying out things. It is impossible to learn photography solely by reading or looking at other people’s images, though this can be very useful – you really don’t get a feel for things without experience, and this experimentation is something which is a common factor to all forms of creativity.

The other characterizing traits of a person in the first stage of creativity is that the way they shoot and the work they produce is reactive; they may make a conscious choice to embark on an outing whose sole purpose is to take photographs, however, it is very much a case ‘of shoot what you see’, and only photographing a subject if it’s obvious and front and centre. There is no element of anticipation, preconception, or previsualization involved; this means that the images are frequently lacking in a story – ‘the idea’ – because the photograph frequently contains only the subject and no related elements (the context) – or worse still, a bunch of distracting and misleading elements.

Second stage
The next phase of development involves some awareness of ‘the idea’. It is usually also accompanied by a heightened consciousness of one’s surroundings; this is caused by the development of one’s sense of observation and anticipation. The photographer in the second stage will visit a particular place and feel that it is photographically ‘rich’, with a lot of opportunities or stories; or perhaps that there are certain elements that must be included in a shot in order to the essence of the location.

However, the idea may not be fully formed, or the photographer may lack the technical ability to execute what they are envisioning in their minds. Images produced by the photographers in the second stage tend to feel a little bit chaotic; this is because not all of the elements in the scene are under control, or were included or excluded as a conscious choice on the part of the photographer. It is very possible for a second stage photographer to occasionally produce a brilliant piece image; the problem is that although the outcome may match the intended story perfectly, it was more due to luck than planning and would not be consistently repeatable. Most dedicated amateurs will reach this stage.

Third stage
The first part of this stage – let’s call it 3A – is when a photographer firstly has a vision in their mind of what the end product should look like, can consistently execute this, and have the image communicate its meaning or intention to a viewer on its own merits, without the help of a caption, or intervention from the photographer. These photographers tend to have nearly every element of the image under conscious control; and have a level of technical skill that enables them to consistently repeat the execution if required. There is practically nothing left to chance, and no detail is too small. A good commercial photographer would fall into this category, and it’s probably beneficial for them not to push too much farther, especially in Asia and other conservative markets – there are far more clients that prefer the ‘safe’ route rather than the experimental one.

At the same time, there’s something missing from the images – they’re too safe, too perfect; stage 3B is where the creative realizes this and is trying to produce something different, but can’t quite make it work; it isn’t a bad image, but the full idea or story isn’t getting through. On the way to the pinnacle, one has to expect to fail at least some, if not most of the time. And by fail, I mean produce images that are not quite satisfactory for some reason or another – usually because they fall short of fully and clearly communicating the photographer’s idea at the time of capture. If this isn’t happening, then chances are you’re playing it overly safe and stagnating.

Fourth stage
Defining what makes a photographer qualify for this level is tough, simply because it’s impossible to pin a concrete set of limits on creativity. Perhaps it’s best to say they have to be gifted in some way and give examples; we start with Louis Daguerre, include Oskar Barnack, H-CB, Capa, Kubrick, Salgado, Majoli and perhaps also Avedon and Leibowitz; I think some of the Japanese photographers like Araki would also qualify, though I don’t claim to fully understand their work – but it is clearly a very developed, evolved style. I’m sure there are plenty more out there whose work I haven’t yet had the chance to see, or whose work is either kept private (Vivian Maier, for example – though I don’t think she’s a stage four) or not well publicised. There are but a small handful of people who ever reach this point; they have the common trait of pushing the boundaries in one or more aspects of the image making process simply because they can imagine and envision things which the majority of the population are unable to. I suppose in some ways, this aberration of the mind or difference in thinking is a bit like having a disability, but in a way that’s more beneficial than debilitating.

Although these people have the benefit of being able to see in a way that the rest of us cannot; a lot of them are also handicapped by it because this way of seeing is so ingrained into their thought processes and consciousness that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to break away from. This is in a way analogous to a form of savantism in which the subject has a narrow, obsessive focus on one particular topic that leads them to consider every possibility and outcome; including the ones that are normally discarded through a more balanced rational thought process. This focus results and creativity or games in one very specific niche; a slightly less intense variant of this is the development of personal style. Discovery and adoption of a personal style, in a way, is the development of and obsession with a particular look or mood to an image.

One little thing I notice about photographers who are at the fourth stage is that none of them will ever admit it: their work is never excellent, it is merely good enough (and rarely, if that). They are proud of what they do, but they know that things can still be taken further with another push; ideas fleshed out and illustrated more fully. Their work is always technically very well executed, and frequently polarising; their creativity is so far ahead of the interpretative capacities of most people that there are two camps of viewers: the concept or message is so fundamental that either you understand it, or you don’t. They have a deep passion in what they do, bordering on the obsessive; and are frequently difficult people to interact with in social settings, simply because their thought processes are so different to the majority of people that there is no common ground or reference basis on which for them to interact, leading to frequent miscommunication and awkward gaps in conversation. This in turn contributes to such artists being misunderstood or developing a reputation for genius – it’s not that they don’t want to explain the rationale behind their thought processes, it’s because they simply cannot – what seems perfectly ordinary to them and not requiring a second thought is something that requires a huge number of mental leaps for somebody else.

The conclusion of this article has deviated somewhat into an examination of the mind of how an extremely talented and gifted person would think; this was not intentional however in the interest of full disclosure it is a topic that is very personal to me because of things I have faced in my own life. I graduated young, and have always been – by a large margin – the youngest person at my level in any organization I’ve worked at; in my last corporate job, my peers were in their 50s (I was 25). I had no problems doing the job – the huge delta in thought processes and social experience is what made me feel highly uncomfortable with my day to day situation.

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about photography is because it is one of the last few truly meritocratic fields; it doesn’t matter how old you are or who you’re related to (there are of course exceptions); in an anonymous viewing, a crap image will always be a crap image; there is far less discrimination based on age than in other fields. Perhaps it’s because a perception thing: you can instantly judge the merits of a photograph visually, but it’s impossible to know if somebody is a good investment manager or consultant or operations director simply by looking at them. (And even several years down the line, it’s still difficult to tell; it’s impossible to separate out the person from the other environmental factors affecting their work.)

This is of course not to claim that I fall into stage four or even 3B; I think it takes recognition by a large body of people for a person to be recognized as gifted. But I do know that I plan and think about my images to the point of being neurotically obsessive; there is always something that can be better, there is always something else to try, another article to write or another thought to elucidate and share. And in a weird way, I think I rather enjoy it. MT

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Comments

  1. I have been reading your blog for the last two days. Straight. Holidays, you see, and also your essays are obviously interesting. But this article clearly stands out.

  2. That was indeed the aim. Thanks Konstantin!

  3. Dear Ming, I’ve been following your blog for many a month now but this is the first post I feel irrevocably compelled to comment on. I feel that you’ve captured very well the phases of development of a photographer and I have asked myself often the same question wondering in what box would I fit in. The modern-day distinctions between a professional, amateur, hobbyist, novice, etc are perhaps less applicable nowadays when the way people can make money is actually more flexible than before (and all these archaic distinctions were based on an economic foundation). What you refer to is a creative segmentation which wouldn’t necessarily address the issue of time spent on the job, gear, earning potential, etc. – in parallel, you aren’t asking what brushes or oil paints Monet used (or for how much he sells nowadays or sold back in his days) but you ask what are the creative drives of the photographer. And this view point I find very refreshing. Thanks for a fascinating read!

  4. Ming, this is an excellent article. As an aspiring enthusiast, I like to know where I stand, and this article confirms my thoughts on it very neatly. It all makes perfect sense and I totally get what you mean to convey. Too bad some have completely misunderstood your true intentions and had to take issue with some factual statements. Silly! Please continue to share your thoughts and philosophies!

    • Thanks Mike! It’s tough to be objective when assessing yourself, but if you don’t, then there’s no way you can know what you need to do next to progress. That goes for all of us, virtuoso or beginner. The dangerous part is getting arrogant and thinking there’s nothing left to learn…

  5. An interesting article, it got me thinking. I believe that you may be putting together two orthogonal dimensions of photography though. On one hand, you have technical skill, including composition. On the other hand, you have artistic creativity — having a unique and interesting vision. I think it’s possible to progress along either axis at different speeds.

    There are plenty of technically skilled photographer out there who make well lit, competently composed, sharp pictures of boring subjects. Likewise, you can find a lot of very creative photographer who lack the technical skills to realize their vision, resulting in ugly pictures of what should be an interesting subject. The rarest photographers are those who are able to marry a unique and interesting creative vision with impeccable technical skills to bring it to reality (imho, Von Wong is one of those http://www.vonwong.com/).

    It’s true that most photographers start by improving their technical side, though, if only because an artistic picture badly realized will be less attractive than a technically impeccable picture of a cliché. That’s the path I’m following — I’m starting to be pretty decent technically, but I’m working on improving the creative side of my work.

    • I agree, and that’s something I’ve pointed out in past essays. However, to reach stage four, you very much need to have both; this is where the dimensions collide.

  6. I love this article! I think you brilliantly described the creative process, not only in photography, but in many creative fields. Having watched my husband evolve from a late stage-2-ish programmer to an esoteric programming language enthusiast, a lot of this sounds awfully familiar! :)

  7. Excellent article. I wrote something along a similar line a few months ago. The reception was’t great at the time, unfortunately most visits to my blog is gear related, anything conceptual is usually also rather controversial.

    Big fan of your work, keep it up.

    • Thank you. In the photography world…most traffic is gear related. But attract enough people, and there will be some who appreciate the philosophy – this is the part I’ve always wanted to write about because I think it’s the least considered aspect of photography in general, but the most important. It’s also the most difficult to communicate – which is perhaps also why it’s seldom discussed.

      • I’m so glad you do write these more philosophical posts; I enjoy them very much! Gear is a necessary (and fun) evil, but the goal is to make good pictures, not to collect cameras. :) I think that it can be tempting to get lost in the equipment because numbers and charts are so safe compared to cultivating creativity. I’m glad I found your blog as a newbie; hopefully, I can avoid that trap.

  8. I liked this article very much. I think I’m happily ensconsed in stage 2. I’m looking forward to clicking on the link to “style” and reading that article. Peter F.

  9. I definitively identify with Stage Two

    Honestly i think i like being where i am for now. Still learning and growing. I do recognize that there are still distracting elements in the frame when i’m shooting. I’m sure that will come in time and practice ^__^

    Not a Professional, just the not yet mature love of an amateur >__<
    – Collins

  10. Another excellent article made exceptional by the sharing of your personal perceptions as you contemplate these subjects. I very much enjoy this variation on your writing style as well as your other more concrete writing. Keep it up!

  11. Brilliant article. I would argue that pushing boundaries is not always a sign of a high level of development though. It often seems that in an earlier stage of development photographers (and other artists) experiment with extreme “boundary pushing” like ultra wide angles for no reason or overly chaotic compositions. A downside to having access to so much content online is that it seems as though artists must always push to be seen. If I see 100 photographs a day, one taken with a 21mm lens may garner a more immediate reaction than one with a longer lens but does that mean that it is truly better? Distorted features of a person from a photograph taken a few feet away may have more immediate “bang for the buck” but is it really a memorable picture? Will I care about it in a year, a day, five minutes? As a metaphor to age and maturity development, I would say that this thinking would be the teenage years. The idea is not necessarily to be good but to be noticed. I would argue that once an artist has gotten past boundary pushing he enters the final stage of development; he no longer cares about whether or not he is noticed but whether or not he is good.

    • Thank you. Perhaps I should have been clearer about pushing the boundaries: not doing something extreme for the sake of being noticed, but rather challenging their own creative preconceptions and understanding. It may or may not get you noticed. Some of my favorite images personally are also amongst my least popular – so long as one is happy and confident with their own output, who’s to say otherwise?

  12. ” in the interest of full disclosure it is a topic that is very personal to me because of things I have faced in my own life…”

    It is in that paragraph that you lost me … as an email subscriber. I can’t seem to find the unsubscribe button in your blog, so I would appreciate it if you could help me out with that. Thanks.

    • I haven’t had to remove anybody yet but will see what I can do. One question though: why?

      • I appreciate your practcal reviews and your thoughtful essays, Ming. It is obvious that you are a good writer and that you put a lot of effort into your posts. But since you asked, I have some difference of opinion regarding some of your views on street photography, which mainly employs telephoto lenses, but that is not to say that it is an invalid approach, and may be popular among bashful street photographers, since you do get students in your workshops on, let us say, Street Photography From Afar. I have no problem with that. But when you started to compare your own personal situation as a young, “extremely talented and gifted” individual to how brilliant artists and famous photographers often think differently and are misunderstood by the general public, I think that is a little heavy on the hubris. Again, you are entitled to write anything on your blog, and it is nothing personal, I just no longer want it showing up in my email inbox digest.

        • Actually, my street photography mainly uses 28mm. That’s why I own four of them. I have posts with longer lenses because I was reviewing those lenses.

          Before you accuse me of hubris, I’d suggest you a) do your research into my background, and b) stop putting words in my mouth. What I’ve written is factual and will bear audit. I make no claims to be talented or gifted, I’m making observations on other artists: this is not the same thing.

          Finally, try being half the age of your peers and then tell me you don’t have a hard time of it. It’s nothing personal, but I don’t you’d be able to because your conclusions are probably formed from the point of view of somebody who’s never experienced such a situation. If everybody could work the way I do, clearly the internet would be flooded with such sites – it isn’t.

          It turns out I can’t take you off the subscriber list, there’s a link a the bottom of each email where the user has to do it.

      • Ray,

        Certainly you are free to read (or not read) whatever you like, but I think it’s unfair to accuse Ming of hubris. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that he’s more trying to understand and get closure with his past feelings of discomfort at being half the age of his peers.

        For anyone who is good at what they do, there’s a continuum of how they can think of themselves. You jumped straight to hubris, but there is also… discomfort, modesty, acknowledgement, false modesty, and certainly others. I don’t know him personally (only through his articles) but if I can be so bold, I would place Ming somewhere between modesty and acknowledgement. I think this is perfectly reasonable and logical.

        Your accusation of hubris makes me think you’d prefer false modesty?

        • If people want me to post crap images or write as an idiot, I’m quite happy to stop writing entirely. I’d certainly free up a good five or six hours a day…

          Yes, I try to keep everybody happy. And yes, it hurts when you’re accused of something that isn’t true – especially when you get damn near nothing out of the effort even when people are happy.

      • Just saw Ming’s reply. Feel free to ignore mine.

      • Wow, this is really getting out of control…

        Ming, I hope you understand that we all appreciate and respect what you do. Please don’t take one person’s insensitive remark as reflective of the rest of us.

        • I’m not, which is why I’m still doing what I’m doing. I understand his point of view, but at the same time isn’t the whole reason why there are any sites like this at all for a different opinion? If you don’t like it, there are plenty of others out there. Still, it makes me sad to put in this amount of effort with the outcome of annoying somebody. I must have done something wrong somewhere, I suppose.

      • I think the sad reality is that As many people out there that as you say “post crap images or write as an idiot”
        There are several more out there with the same hubris about themselves and propose to try and bring down those around them with the same idiocy.

        But hey one you have one person who inspires (at least me anyways) to go out and take pictures
        and you have another who couldn’t figure out that your subscription emails have an unsubscribe link at the bottom and could have totally did it himself…. >__<

        • In all fairness, the emails may or may not have an unsubscribe link. I’ve spent the last hour searching and WordPress will show me a list but not allow me to add or remove people; they also say that the unsubscribe link is there but I’ve been told it isn’t by a couple of people – unfortunately no way I can check because ironically it won’t let me subscribe to my own site…

      • That’s because the subscriptions are softly linked to your site through WordPress.
        People can go to: https://subscribe.wordpress.com/
        to check on their own subscriptions to all WordPress sites that their email address has a subscription to.

        ^__^
        Anyways, Thanks !!!
        and looking forward to more inspiring articles

      • Ray, if you go to your email and search for “Subscription Options,” that should take you to subscribe.wordpress.com. Right below the gray title bar is three links, the first of which reads “Sites.” This will give you a list of blogs you are subscribed to. If you hover over Ming’s blog, you should be able to click the unfollow link.

      • Ming, as I said yesterday, I really enjoy your blog posts and especially the more conceptual ones. I do hope you’ll keep writing them! I think it’s very brave to put your art out there in the first place, and bad feedback must feel awful. But I hope it doesn’t discourage you entirely.

      • Ming, I’ve been meaning to suggest this to you for a while…

        Have you considered signing up with one of the federated ad networks? Several of the bloggers I read earn a living this way, and the ads are pretty subtle. I suspect that you probably get more traffic than a lot of the bloggers on their networks. Here are three good ones…

        http://www.federatedmedia.net/publishers

        http://decknetwork.net

        http://fusionads.net

        Federated Media covers lifestyle, business, and tech blogs, including the #1 blog on the net (Boing Boing). The Deck and Fusion Ads are both creative / tech focused, and have the advantage that their ads are very small — about the size of a postage stamp. Good luck!

      • That’s a pity.

        I hope the site remains to be worth your while to do. It’s one of the most informative and civilized photography blogs I’ve found (right up there with The Online Photographer and Luminous Landscape). Thanks for doing it.

    • Ray,

      Let me get this straight: Ming posts 100’s of excellent photos, writes thousands of informative words, all for free … then one day he writes one paragraph you disagree with (and possibly you mis-understood), so you immediately write Ming off? Interesting approach!

      • Sven, I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might have shot myself in the foot here. Which is why I’d like to understand why prompted the initial response…however, I’m not sure the answer was entirely objective or rational.

  13. thanks for writing this article, it provides in a way like a lighthouse on the evolution of a photographer, thats better than reaching a particular stage and thinking that one has gone insane . Having attended your sessions, i must say, its one of the best investment in photography i have done. – cheers

  14. Well written!

Trackbacks

  1. […] how it looks’ or to test the way the camera responds. Even once our abilities develop beyond the initial learning stage, we still (hopefully) continue to experiment with the intention of pushing our creative boundaries. […]

  2. […] made a conscious choice to be a shooter, the rest of the mental state ties in quite neatly with the four stages of creative evolution of a photographer; it’s almost inevitable that you will reach a point where you can think of nothing other than […]

  3. […] photographer and blogger Ming Thein wrote a wonderful post back in November 2012 about the creative evolution of a photographer. He identifies four stages (actually five if you include the pre stage) that […]

  4. […] (if you’re at the level of being able to consistently create what you envision – see the stages of creative evolution – then this might not apply). In that case, seek the opinions – notice the plural – of more […]

  5. […] 2. A shift towards the fine art market. I’d already started this in 2013 with the two reasonably popular print runs; ultimately I think this will require me to further evolve the way I shoot, too. I recognize that this is perhaps an even more difficult market to break into than commercial; simply because it’s entirely irrational and dependent on you getting a lucky break or two somewhere along the line. Nevertheless, if one doesn’t try, one will never know. Hopefully, in the long term, this will result in two things: firstly, the ability for me to shoot only things I want to shoot, in the way I want to shoot them, and secondly, a stratification of income sources to allow a bit more financial predictability. Ultimately, I think I need to make the jump from creative stage 3b to stage 4… […]

  6. […] different: 2014 will be the first year I’ll also be teaching masterclasses. Remember the stages of creative evolution of a photographer? The Outstading Images workshops bring you up to Stage II. The masterclasses will bring you one […]

  7. […] mastered the technical basics, can capture what you see, and start to wonder what’s next? Creative evolution, is what; the next step is capturing what you imagine. You create the composition, you create the […]

  8. […] mastered the technical basics, can capture what you see, and start to wonder what’s next? Creative evolution is what — the next step is capturing what you imagine. You create the composition, you create […]

  9. […] books published; it’s almost always about being somewhere between stages two and three on the stages of creative evolution of a photographer. That is: you want to be able to see, and translate that into an image that’s strong enough […]

  10. [...] thoughts on what goes on outside the technical portion of photography, and in a way, how the creative evolution of a photographer affects this chain. Understanding how this works can help us to make stronger [...]

  11. [...] I touched on this somewhat in the article dealing with the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, I think there are several ‘levels’ to seeing; and by seeing, I mean the ability to [...]

  12. [...] I touched on this somewhat in the article dealing with the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, I think there are several ‘levels’ to seeing; and by seeing, I mean the ability to [...]

  13. [...] that’s required – of course, how the balance lies is down to where you stand in the creative stages of evolution as a photographer.. I find it too easy to get shuttered down one’s own creative alley – [...]

  14. [...] try it if you’re serious about taking a photography to the next level; in my article on the stages of evolution of a photographer, you’ll remember that the most difficult thing to achieve is the ability to visualize your [...]

  15. [...] wrote an article in similar context on his blog recently. Below the link for anyone interested: The four stages of creative evolution of a photographer – Ming Thein | Photographer I always find his articles a good [...]

  16. [...] 1. the four stages of creative evolution of a photographer by Ming Thein [...]

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