How Long Does It Take To Get Good at Photography?

Photography is a bit of a never-ending cycle of learning and failing. However, I often get asked how long it takes to get good, as well as how to achieve that.

When I started out in photography, I thought that in about 3 years (the length of a degree in the U.K.) I would be at as good a level as a professional photographer. However, I found myself at a point where I was able to assist a photographer, badly. Thankfully I have somewhat of an obsessive nature and I am also very single-minded (to a fault), so over a decade later I had managed to make photography my career. 

As a photographer who is also present on YouTube and social media in general, I often get asked advice from fellow photographers about why they are not successful yet, but when I ask how long they have been practicing for, they have only been learning for 2-3 years. And who knows how intensely they have been working in that time?

In this video I go over my theory as to how long it takes to get to various levels of photography. As well as looking at the actual amount of work required to get to each stage. Hopefully, this can put a few minds at ease. Although knowing this doesn't stop me from constantly being disheartened by my own progress. 

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19 Comments

Adrian Morton's picture

16 years so far and I'm still sh** at it,

Indy Thomas's picture

Me too but in my case 40+ years and I still feel I need to get better.

bbetc's picture

I got a lot better once digital cameras came along because I could immediately see the result of a picture I took and also because I took many, many more shots since I didn't have to buy film or pay to have it processed.

Charles Mercier's picture

Me too!

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

Yes, because you can instantly see the picture, but also at least as important I think, because you can always look back at what settings were used to produce that picture right in the metadata for the picture without having to manually write it down, match your notes to the filmroll, match that to the negatives, and keep those notes with the negatives and with the prints!

Richard Tack's picture

The turning point was when the realization came that I had developed the ability to determine which shots sucked and why.

Willy Williams's picture

Somewhat similarly, it was when one shot really worked for me unexpectedly, and subsequently I found a really good teacher/mentor who could explain to me the WHY of why it really worked, and made some great suggestions on how to make future shots far better. Like others, digital technology was a huge help in that I could see the results and make any necessary shifts before leaving the site.

Charles Mercier's picture

I haven't seen the video yet but one important factor is your talent level.

Dave F's picture

No, no, no, a thousand times no. Talent is a real thing for maybe 1% of people who become successful at their craft. The rest simply put in the work. It's important to note that "work" isn't just about doing "the thing" a thousand times; it's also about learning the why's and when's behind what you're doing. But hard work does not necessarily equal smart work, which is why it takes some people longer (and why many never figure it out at all).

If anything, talent is why people DON'T succeed, because they convince themselves that it's actually a thing.

Charles Mercier's picture

Geez, take a chill pill. I said ONE FACTOR. Look, there are hundreds of professional basketball players out there but despite all the equal opportunity, not everyone is as good as Stephen Curry, James Harding.

Dave F's picture

You said "one IMPORTANT factor", which was three words too many. Not only is it not an important factor, it's not a factor at all 99% of the time. It's a harmful myth to spread because it convinces people that they have no chance of ever being any good, since the people that ARE good have some innate ability that they themselves don't possess.

In all of that "equal opportunity" did you ever consider that maybe a few of those people just worked a bit smarter and harder than the rest? When was the last time you heard someone famous for a particular skill respond to a "what's your secret?" question by saying, "because I have tons of talent that nobody else has". Nobody says that, they all say they worked their butts off, because they did. People just don't want to hear that answer because it screws with their worldview that they could be just as successful "if only they had talent". It's an excuse, not a reason. It's easier to believe that success is achieved through something that's all chance and no effort than it is to accept that you could have done it too if only you had put in the work.

bbetc's picture

I don't agree with your comment about "a harmful myth." People may be born with abilities that others are not. For example. I went to a two-room school with eight grades a long time ago and we had plays and pageants several times during the year, always involving singing, that the town was invited to see. I could learn the words to the songs with one reading but I could never learn the notes. During practices in school, I sang along but when the actual performance was put on at the town hall, the teacher would take me aside and tell me "Don't sing, just make your mouth go." There was one time, though, that I actually starred. We did an "operetta" with all the cast members playing birds. The stars were two crows who were not supposed to be able to sing well and on the evening of the event one of the crows was ill and I was asked if I could learn his lines in 20 minutes. No problem and I was applauded for singing off-key.

Some people can pick up musical instruments and figure out how to play them; others can draw or paint with no training or cook, etc. Me, I handed in my Algebra II homework with just the answers and the teacher asked where was my work. I did it in my head, I replied. A great many people have something they can just naturally do.

Dave F's picture

I agree with you to an extent but it's mostly irrelevant to the point. In almost every case where there's a talent involved (using "talent" to encapsulate the examples you described), it's such a small component of what's required to be good at something that it's borderline meaningless.

Take your example about singing. Instead of the ability to memorize the lines, though, let's say you had a pretty good voice (or even a great voice) without having to think too hard about it. Does that automatically make you a great or successful musician? No, not even close.

You still need to learn rhythm and time, at least some theory, a decent amount about gear (for both performing and recording), etc. Want to write your own music? Songwriting is a completely different skill to playing, and that's just the music. Writing your own lyrics too? Again, yet another skillset. Recording? Different skillset. Playing live to more than just a handful of people at the local school? Different skillset. And this is all just scratching the surface.

You don't get to a professional level by outsourcing absolutely everything about being a musician other than your "natural voice". Sure, you still hire producers, sound engineers, other musicians, managers, roadies, etc., but you're typically working with at least a little (if not more) knowledge of how all those things work. If nothing else you have to do a lot of that yourself at some point because you don't start out being able to afford to pay other people to fill those roles.

Let's talk about photography. Say somebody starts off with a better sense for composition than someone else. They still need to learn the gear, how exposure works, how to see light, how to think about subjects, how to direct people (if shooting portraits), how to manage a crew (shooting commercially), how to plan trips (shooting landscapes) not to mention the outdoor skills that are required if you're going into the backcountry, etc. Post production, both how to use the tools and how to see the process, printing, designing and/or building sets... all (or most) of these things (and more) are necessary for being a successful photographer. And nobody is born with an innate ability to do all of those things. If you're lucky, MAYBE you start out slightly above average at ONE of those things. But in the grand scheme of things it's such a small variable that it's the work you put in that determines your success, not the "talent" of being able to do one of those things a little better than somebody else.

Charles Mercier's picture

Look, the question is HOW LONG...to BE GOOD. So yes, given an EQUAL AMOUNT OF EFFORT over time, a person with talent will be become good or excellent IN A SHORTER PERIOD OF TIME.

Painting takes time, period. But the second time that I ever used a paint brush (oil - and ask artists how difficult it is) after my first practice painting, having never taken any lessons, I did this Van Gogh copy - from a postcard.

So how long does it take to be GOOD if you have talent? Not much. The question of being an expert, the top of your craft or successful takes MUCH longer and some people never get there and some people take longer.

The question is not IF someone can get good.

bbetc's picture

Is it, "I think I'll climb some mountains and spend $10,000 on equipment to take pictures" or is it, "I like to climb mountains and my friends really like the pictures I take with my cellphone so I'll get better equipment and see if I can sell any of my photos."?

I suspect that a great many people concentrate on photographing what they like...to see, to do. And maybe they realize they are good enough at that to make money from it. If they want to start exhibiting their work or selling their talent, then they get involved with "specialized" equipment, post-processing, etc.

But not all photography can be done under controlled circumstances. I like baseball and have seen professional games in 140 different stadiums but a baseball travelling 90 mph moves 132 feet per second so a lot of action shots are based on how well one can anticipate what is going to happen or sheer luck. I go on a lot of whale watching trips, fighting the bouncing boat and the crowded deck, again depending on luck for the best shots. I have some that could be sold but then one could probably find something similar as a free stock photo. I photograph birds and have had some of my work accepted by someone who makes a bird ID app. I just donate pictures for charity auctions; if I wanted to make money from photography, then I'd need to consider a different area of photography.

As for music, I have trouble distinguishing between timbre and pitch.

Mike Ditz's picture

Don't dismiss talent or hard work.
Hard work will get you far, but without talent, natural ability or knack you can only go "so far". There will always be that person who works as hard as the other one but has what I call that "last 10%" which comes from within, the ability to see or do something others miss.
And that's why some some movies, cars, restaurants, building, photos, songs, designs are stunning instead of very good. They were created by the folks with that 10% of secret sauce.

YMMV

Indy Thomas's picture

I am in the camp of "work your butt off". That only comes with enough interest to start with.

What passes for talent is often a novel approach based on the person's environment , background, upbringing and physicality. It can be seen as "something different" because of the person's unfamiliarity with the conventions and "rules". They just are thinking of something different. I have seen lots of "new talent" blend into the noise of the market with work that looks like everyone else's. Surveying the thousands of new photographers work illustrates this homogenizing effect.

For all the thousands of people who said they "loved" photography, there are thousands of unused DSLRs gathering dust in closets all across the planet.

The fact is that interest in a subject is the defining factor in whether you will work at the subject at all.
Those that are truly interested cannot stop practicing, learning and practicing some more. Others start strong but fade into a sometime hobby. Not a sin but quite different from someone who wakes up in the middle of the night to write down their ideas for new photos or techniques.

Jim Bolen's picture

It's like asking how long does it take to get good at the guitar. Some people are just naturals- doesn't take long. Some people never get great their whole lives, despite their efforts.

Wayne Myers's picture

If you want to make money, becoming good at business is as important if not more important.