We Need To Change How We Measure Experience in Photography


There’s always that one photographer who says they’ve got 40 years of experience, and their photos are at the high school photography level. Truth is, this happens quite often. Assuming they are telling the truth, how come someone’s pictures with so much experience look so much like a beginner’s? Let’s dive deep.

What Is Photographic Experience?

The first concept that we must get our head around is experience. What is it? Experience in photography can come in various flavors: from starting your first business to simply buying a camera. The second one is more prevalent, as most photographers consider starting whenever they bought their first camera. However, buying a camera rarely makes you a photographer right off the bat. What is more, if that camera just sits on your shelf without much action, it doesn’t make you any better than you were the day you bought that camera. 

Photographic experience is therefore a measure of not for how long you have had a camera, but of something else. Measuring experience in years owned is, therefore, a measure of nothing beyond possession, not use. 

How Do We Measure Photographic Experience? 

There are several ways: in years, clients, technical images, so on. The best way is generally in years, as not every great image is technically complex or for a big client. But a year in professional photography isn’t just a year of having a camera and occasionally taking pictures. We need to make an effort to define what a year of experience means. 

A year in professional photography means doing it full-time or dedicating a large portion of your time to it. This not only includes taking pictures but also marketing, accounting, networking, and more. Above all, a year in photography is often marked by how much you learn. 

For example, if you’ve gone to university you know that learning large portions of information in short periods of time is a fair description of what you do. Pursuing a master’s degree in anything will lead you to become proficient in that topic. While engineers might learn physics full-time, you need to learn photography full-time. This means learning like it’s a university: from morning to evening. In a recent interview with Albert Watson, he suggested learning from 7 in the morning to 10 in the evening and going through the slog that is learning for some. 

If I were to start from scratch now, it would probably take me under a year to get the technical knowledge of basic lighting, camera settings, and more, that is if I studied and practiced from dawn to dusk. 

How to Gain Experience?

In order to claim that you are an experienced photographer with X years behind you, you must gain experience and probably will end up doing some of the following items: 

1. Creating Images With Clear Goals in Mind

There is nothing more useless than a 365 photo project. Not only is it akin to hustle culture, but it is also largely pointless. Feel free to debate and share your 365 experiences in the comments. 

What is more useful, however, is to create work that has meaning and goals behind it. If you’re a beginner, this might be the correct exposure. A more seasoned pro might look into expanding their knowledge of unusual light modifiers if that is what they need to move forward. 

Before every test shoot, I would recommend having a few sentences about the project: what’s the idea, how you will achieve it, and what will be the outcome. 

Here is an example of one of mine: 

The idea is to capture an older model and highlight the importance of fashion for everyone. The first image will be low key with moderately soft octa box lighting, which will highlight both clothing texture and jewelry while keeping skin smooth. The outcome will be a very sophisticated portrait-style fashion image.

2. Immerse Yourself In Art

This comes also from advice Rankin, Albert Watson, and pretty much any successful photographer give. Immersion into art is a great way to learn what looks good. Art is a broad term; some define art as everything while others consider certain paintings as non-art.

The best way to go about learning art is to become one with great artists. Start off by listing any that you know, and see what Phaidon or Taschen will have on them. The two publishers are household names when it comes to art-related print. 

If you’re a fashion photographer, you must be subscribed to the print version of Vogue. If you’re a portraitist, Time magazine or Vanity Fair are your best options. 

3. Learn Everything About Your Genre

Sure enough, you can’t know everything, but being knowledgeable about your subject will do wonders to how your work looks. In fact, this deserves an article, which I will be writing in the near future. 

A wildlife photographer must have intricately detailed knowledge of the species they’re photographing, while an automotive photographer will know what details to show, how to convey the lines in the car, how low the car should sit on the ground, and so on. For example, an F1 racing car will be most effective with hard, directional light, as it has a lot of streamlining, while a Fiat Cinquecento will benefit from a softer, more even light. The same applies to fashion, where Chiffon will be very different from velvet, so different that it would dictate different makeup, mood, and lighting. 

Closing Thoughts

Naturally, owning a camera doesn’t make you a photographer. This is pretty clear. What does is practice, perfecting your skill, and really learning the art. Bad technique can be helped to an extent, but it can’t be cured. Therefore, experience in photography should be measured in terms of years spent professionally, not just owning a camera and taking holiday photos. This is why we get some people who claim to have decades of experience but in reality, rarely shoot above high-school level. If some of this resonated with you, no worries! It is never too late to start, as long as you’re honest with yourself and give photography all you have. After all, great output requires decent targeted input.  

Lead Image: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.



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