Photographers go into different phases in their development. I think you can learn all your life if you stay open-minded. Some people say they reached enlightenment at one point in their journey... just to discover the next step ahead. I think we all go through those stages. The problem is when you get stuck on one of those. This post is a bit thong in cheek so if you don't have a sense of humour, you should probably move along and stop reading right here. ;)
All about the gear
It is usually the first step into photography. How many times did I hear: «your camera takes really good pictures.» Classic! Another question: «what camera and which lens did you use for that shot?»
Latest news! The camera does not take the picture! It is the guy or girl behind it that does the job.
You could put a Hassleblad in the hands of somebody who knows nothing in photography and he probably could not get anything good out of it. On the other hand, here is what a guy like David Hobby could make with a Buzz Lightyear camera. You should go see all the Cheap Camera challenge section on DigitalRev TV. It is fun and inspiring. Now take a minute to think about the necessity to have the latest and greatest gear on the market.
The problem with this stage of photography is many people get stuck on it. This leads to the "Me Too" syndrome as my wife calls it. One photographer buys a piece of gear and suddenly, you have several others who want the same. We are so good at creating needs for ourselves. Remember that it is just a piece of gear. It is just a tool.
Another thing I see is people asking which lens they should buy next. If you are asking this, it's because you don't need anything right now. When you will find yourself lacking something multiple times in your shoots, you will know what you need. For example, when I was shooting brides' prep with the 50mm on my full frame, I was often squeezed in a corner and frequently lacked the room to move around. I decided to buy a 35mm f/1.4 for that reason. 24mm would have been too wide for my style of shooting, but 35mm would answer a need for my wedding photography.
Try to get out of this phase as fast as possible and you will save a lot of money. Think and analyze your needs instead of piling up stuff on your wish list.
Technique is everything
Now that you have all the gear you want, you need to learn how to use it. We discover that the secret to photography is through mastering different techniques and skills. You should master the basics quickly: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, depth of field, etc.
Let's be honest! Understanding the basics is essential. When a "professional photographer" asks why the people on the second row of his pictures are out of focus with his/her new 50mm f/1.4, a kitten dies somewhere in the world. It makes me cringe that some people are always shooting wide open because they have no idea of how the aperture will affect the depth of field. On the other hand, is it really necessary to know that on a full frame camera, with a 24mm closed at f/8, the hyperfocal distance will be 2.4 meters?
For myself, the technical phase was the longest and I will always be partially in it, because learning is a driving factor for me. The biggest benefit of mastering the technical aspect of photography, is that, it does not interfere with the creative process anymore. You want to try something new with lights? No problem, you know how it should be done and you try it.
After a while though, we understand that technique is not everything. It is a very important part of photography but it's not the be all, end all. It is just a tool.
We'll fix it in Photoshop
Gah! Run away! I even hear that from some clients sometimes. Ask your assistant to kick your butt really hard if you ever say that out loud.
Get it right in the camera! That is one of the most important thing. You missed a shot? Don't think about how you can save it in Photoshop. Just retake the damn shot. There are plenty of software tools available, but they should be there to touch up the image and make it look better, not to compensate your lack of photography skills.
The other thing that freaking me is the "discovery" phase. You see a lot of options and filters and you need to try them all... sometimes on the same photo. Let's make one thing clear: it is not because you CAN do something in post that you SHOULD do it. For me, the best post-production work is like make-up. It looks awesome when you can't really see it. What I mean is you get a better photo but the person is not sure if you did something about it. It just look great. I think the same thing about make-up artists. They do a great job when the brides look gorgeous but you can't see exactly what the MUA did. It's another thing on creative make-up where everything is allowed. It is fun to work with that. The same goes for composite images. You can find a lot of creative and beautiful composite images on the net. But that is different, it does not depict the reality and it is made on purpose. It is the creative mind of the artist speaking.
On the opposite side, you have some self-claimed "purists" that preach that nothing should be done to a photo once the shutter is pressed. They say it was like that in the old days. Reality check here: Ansel Adams was known as a darkroom master. Even choosing a film was already the first step toward expressing our vision and not just recording the reality. Post processing is an essential part of my workflow and there is not a photo going out of my computer without some tweaking. When I was shooting film, I was tweaking my photos in the darkroom. Why should it be otherwise now, especially with all the tools at our disposal?
You should learn to post-process your image yourself though. Once again, learn the basics and be mindful of what can be done. But remember that Photoshop and Lightroom are tools. They can't do the work for you. They are there to help you express your vision but they are not the solution to everything.
It's all about the light
After all that, we finally discover that the secret to photography is the light. The word photography means painting with the light. We become obsessed with the light. The first thing we think when we get somewhere is Wow, the light is just perfect. We get our gear, use our technical abilities and don't even think about Photoshop.
Without light, photography can't exist. It is an essential element. It can be soft, it can be dramatic, it can sculpt the subject. You have to learn to see it, to understand it. You can use the available light or create your own lighting with flash, LED, etc. You can modify the light to make it softer, harder, more precise, etc.
Saying all that, light is only one more tool. A very, very, very important one, but still a tool. Sorry to say that but it is not THE secret to photography. If you want to do great things in photography, you need to understand and master the light.
What about the emotion?
In photography, especially in portrait, the most important is the subject. Even if you use the best gear, with the best technique, in the best light, if you don't know nor care about your subject, you will never make a good photo. You will be able to make a technically good photo that will have no soul. You will find some geek to congratulate you on the sharpness of your picture and on the gorgeous light but if nobody feels anything when looking at your photo, what is the point?
This apply to any kind of photography. The emotion might be easier to see in portrait but a good photographer can convey emotions with any subject. A good food photograph will make you salivate. A great landscape will stop you, so you can take time to get it all in, like if you were there when it was taken. Architectural photography will make you admire all the workmanship involved. A good photograph should bring up emotions and get you thoughtful.
That brings me to something that irks me in wedding photography. I often hear photographers pestered about the lack of time they have with the couple on the wedding day, or bitch about being late on the schedule because something came up. They might even try to delay the cocktail or the dinner to give them more time for the couple's session, when all the newly weds want is to be with their friends and family. They do that because photography is the most important part of the wedding. Isn't it? Wrong! Wedding photography should not be an ego-trip. The most important thing on a wedding is the bride and groom getting married. What is important is what THEY want, not you. If they only want to give you 15 minutes for the couple's photos, because they want to spend more time with their friends and family, deal with it! That means they might cherish candid photos of people talking and laughing together. You just need to talk to the couple, and ask them what they want, and explain to them the consequences of their choice to be sure everyone understand each other.
Talk to the person in front of your camera. Try to know them. Care about them. Slowly, the relation will grow and your client will open up for you. Then you will be able to make a portrait that really depicts that person. There is nothing more pleasing to me than seeing this kind of comments: «That photo represents you so well. It's really you». That means I did my job. Some photographers can get so much emotion and intensity in the look or the attitude of a person.
The benefits of mastering the previous phases is that you are free to concentrate on the person in front of your lens. You don't need to think about your settings. You can set up your lighting fast or you can spot that perfect window light easily. You know your gear from inside. Now, all you have to do, is be with the client and get the best out of him/her.
I don't know if this is the last phase or if there are more after. I'm there at the moment. I know I still have a lot to learn but it's not the destination, it's the journey that counts.