How Long Will It Take You to Master Photography? (Part One)

How Long Will It Take You to Master Photography? (Part One)

Achieving mastery of a craft takes lots of time and patience. Photography's most devoted practitioners pursue the elusive status of mastery one shoot at a time, one shot at a time, over many years. It’s not easy.

This article is an effort to break down the complexities of mastering photography, in hopes of providing those in the early stages of professional photography a solid foundation of what to expect. And even if you're an experienced photographer, you can bookmark this article to send to aspiring photographers who will inevitably approach you for help.

Questions from newcomers often focus on equipment. This article considers gear, but focuses elsewhere. It stresses the importance, especially in the early stages of serious photography, of learning skills over acquiring gear.

To properly understand just how intricate the craft of photography is, let’s first look at its development over the past two centuries.

Brief History of Photography

Before becoming a practical and versatile art form, photography evolved from a concept first described in theoretical detail by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. Here’s a fascinating historical timeline.

Photographic images were first captured in the early 1800s with a literal hole in the wall named a "camera obscura." The light coming through a small hole in a darkened room would project an image of the scene outside, which was traced onto paper and then filled in. This was all done via light and hand. Near the end of the century, Kodak began producing film, followed by the world's first mass-marketed portable camera, the Kodak Brownie, in 1900.

Through the 20th century, film photography became an increasingly popular hobby, and the world saw more and more photography studios popping up everywhere. With the digital camera revolution (starting in 1975), the technology became cheaper and more mass-produced as time went on. Fast-forward to today: it is estimated that five billion people in the world now own smartphones, meaning that at least that many carry around a camera in their pocket. This figure doesn't include the countless point-and-shoot, DSLR, and mirrorless cameras owned by professionals and amateurs.

people holding up their smart phones at a concert

Unless you've lived under a rock for the past decade, this probably looks familiar to you.

Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash

Over time, photography slowly evolved from an exclusive society of tradesmen in studios to a popular commodity that most everyone is familiar with, at least on a basic level (think Instagram). As a technology that's been evolving for so many decades, photography has been developed, re-imagined, and technically aggrandized to the point where today, we have dozens of camera systems, countless lenses, scads of studio and lighting equipment, and complex processing software to finalize images. Furthermore, there are many different styles and genres of photography, each province governed by its own distinctive rules and standards.

Developing a Plan

As I mentioned earlier, those new to photography will often reach out to online message boards or friends in the field asking which camera they should purchase. There are a few problems in prioritizing your entry into photography with the dreaded "which camera should I buy?" question:

  • Unless you plan on diving into commercial work right off the bat (I'd advise against that), your choice of a camera model won’t influence your success. If the camera in your hands has all the basic functions of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, it's fine to learn on. Just buy a heavily used DSLR body for $100 and a Yonguo 50mm lens for $53. The additional $3,000 or so that you would spend on a sophisticated full frame body will do absolutely nothing for your photos when you don't yet understand how it works.
  • Your lens(es) are arguably more important than the camera body anyway. And you can learn plenty about light from studying different lenses, since they will vary in aperture size.
  • Getting caught in the "gear trap" (a.k.a. Shiny Object Syndrome) is a waste of your time and resources, especially when you're starting out. Instead of spending boatloads of cash on the fanciest gear you can afford, spend your time learning all the basics of exposure, camera controls, composition, image processing, and the techniques in your chosen specialty fields. More on that last one in part two of this article.

Your education should come first, even if it’s entirely self-education. So, instead of focusing on the camera that you believe you need, start gathering and utilizing the resources available to learn your craft.

An image of the orion constellation
An underexposed astro image of the Orion constellation

The Orion constellation: first attempt compared to a year later.

Available Resources

You have your (basic) photography kit. Where to begin? Start with solid entry-level learning.

  • Tutorials are available from a number of sources. Of course, I’m especially familiar with the quality tutorials here at Fstoppers. A great place to start would be the Photography 101 course, and we host plenty of great specialized courses to help you start building your photography business.  
  • If you're on a budget, YouTube and many other photography blogs provide many useful guides and tutorials, and much of that content is completely free. If you don't already have a YouTube account, create one so you can start subscribing to all the content-rich channels that are regularly putting out free informational videos. Just make sure to be constantly practicing the fresh concepts and techniques you're learning. New skills become an instinctive tool after you’ve had experience applying them with the camera in your hands but can soon disappear if simply read and never practiced.
  • A mentor can be a great source for one-on-one business advice and technical instruction. One caution: this can range from a bit of friendly free advice to costly (if valuable) professional training. An alternative to a mentor is taking classes at a local art or photography center. Such classes can offer a relatively low-cost option that still provides face-to-face photography training.
  • Photography books are another great way to learn. But as with online tutorials, be sure to keep actively practicing the concepts you're learning so that you're fully absorbing them.

an interior photo of a dining area
an underexposed image of a dining area

One of my early interior photos versus four years (and many shoots) later.

Formal Education

It's time to address the elephant in the room (one pricey pachyderm): college education. College degrees are required for many jobs, and that includes some (but not much) photography employment. And it's true that on average, degree-holders have higher incomes than non-degree-holders. But the gap between those demographics is closing.

Is a college degree in photography or general arts worth its steep price? For those who plan to start their own photography business, the short answer is "probably not." For those more likely to be a contracted employee (working for another photographer or a company) my response is “maybe.”

A degree in photography can obviously be beneficial in landing an entry-level job in the field. But if you plan to freelance, it’s really not necessary. Although I enjoyed the time I spent earning my Photography/Art degree, not a single client of mine has ever asked for my college credentials. I view my college diploma as little more than the most expensive piece of paper I've ever purchased. If you are set on a formal college or university photography program, select your program carefully and consider how necessary it is for your end goals. And be careful that you prepare for the potential loan debt and investment of time required.

This doesn't mean you should skip on your photography education or not consider college for an arts degree if you plan to freelance. All that negativity about college aside, the feedback I got from my college photo teachers was invaluable. So, make sure that critiques and/or some classes, lessons, or mentorship are part of your education.

So what's the outlook on becoming proficient in photography if you decide to go the college route? Naturally, you're looking at a minimum of four years for most standard bachelor's programs. These programs slow learning down to a trickle, which could be good or bad. This might benefit you, because you will have plenty of time to practice and hone your craft. But the slow pace of a degree could be more costly and time-consuming than self-educating via the sources listed above.

Summary, Part One

I hope this has helped you simplify your outlook on the daunting process of mastering photography. We'll pick back up with several more topics next week: critiques, learning curves, real-world experience, the 10,000-hour rule, and specialization. How does my experience with learning photography compare with your own? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Log in or register to post comments


michaeljin's picture

How do you define "mastery" in photography?

Scott Mason's picture

That's a good question, I'll think it over and address it in the second installment next week.

John Ellingson's picture

Forever... I'm 77. I've been doing this for at least 65 year both professionally and as an amateur. Ansel Adams had some of my work in his personal collection. I shoot a couple of thousand images a week (mostly at high shutter rates). I have patents in digital imaging. I'm still learning and hoping one day to master photography, but realistically know it will never happen -- and that is a good thing.

Robert Nurse's picture

I'm just shy of 60. I'm better at photography now than I was yesterday. But, I suppose "mastery" is a destination I'll never reach. And, frankly, do I really want to? After "mastering" the art, will photography hold the same allure?

Scott Mason's picture

With your approval John, I might include your comment in next week's article. Are you open to that?

John Ellingson's picture

Of course. Sorry about the delay in the response.

Guy Incognito's picture

I hope this isn't too cliched, but maybe the first step towards mastering something is to accept you likely never will.

A little humility in the equation never seems to hurt.

Deleted Account's picture

The day I "master" photography is the day I list every last piece of camera gear on eBay.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

The day I "master" photography is the day I go to the great photo shoot in the sky!

Deleted Account's picture

4 years in one of the most prestigious photography school in Paris, 40 years of professional experience... I still can't master anything…

Justin Sharp's picture

There's a story about Pablo Casals, one of the greatest Cellists of the 20th Century. He was 83 years old and practiced every day at least 4 or 5 hours. When asked why, he answered, "Because I think I am making progress." By any standard, Casals had mastered his craft. There are only a few throughout history that could be included in the same discussion as Casals, yet he continued to work vigorously. I wonder if Casals considered himself to have mastered his instrument (I feel that he would have said no).

don ta's picture

Photography... it's like Fishing..
You can get all kinds of fancy gear, you can spend hours and hours casting and reeling, but that doesn't guarantee you will catch the fish.
You can have the perfect setup and still not guarantee that you will "get the shot"... Sure, it increases your chances.. but it's not %100 EVERY time.. that means it is not something that can be mastered.

You can possibly master aspects of Photography... like exposure, or focus, or setting up a tripod in less than 10 seconds... Etc.. but that doesn't mean you have mastered photography...

The thing about photography is that the thing you point your camera at is OUTSIDE of you.. you are out capturing images and Re-telling a story that you witnessed .. a story that is outside of you and your camera ..that subject matter is it's own magical thing that you are not a master of.. because that subject matter is ever changing.. whether it's the timing, the lighting, or the position..

This ever changing world and it's story is unfolding for you to capture and re-tell.. you can master your tools to do so .. but you can never be a master of the actual thing that makes photography what it is.. the STORY outside of you.

You can be successful at fishing, but that doesn't mean you are a master.
It's a combination of luck and timing, And it only counts in the end if you land "the fish". You can be a master angler and have perfected your cast, your knots, your reeling speed, etc. But that doesn't mean a fish will just end up on the end of your line every time...

In the end "mastery" is not for the photographer herself or himself to proclaim. In order to complete the loop of the photography experience -a viewer of your work must be able to see, comprehend, and feel emotion associated with your captured story -. And since an audience is required in the equation to view and process the captured image, the photographer can't truly ever claim mastery because the both the story and audience are outside of him/her.

After all, "a story unheard is not a story at all." - Don Ta.

Stoopy McPheenis's picture

I've never felt the need to be a master. As long as I'm enjoying it, I'm happy.