Monday, August 14, 2017

The Four Levels of Learning by Rick Sammon

The Four Levels of Learning
Rick Sammon

In looking at the opening photograph for this post, which I took while teaching a photo workshop in Provence, France, you may say something like, “Rick is a pretty good horse photographer. It’s cool that he got a shot of those horses, along with their reflections, running through a pond at sunrise.”

Well to be honest, I took the photograph in a very well set-up situation, and that image is a processed version of the third image below.

In looking at that image, as well as the work of any professional photographer, it’s important to remember this: most pros show only their best work. Believe me, I have tons of outtakes, not only from my Provence shoot, but from many shoots.

So it’s important to remember that when you look at an image, you usually don’t know all the effort that went on behind the scenes to make it – and how much that image was processed. Processing is a very important part of digital photography, for some, like me, it’s equally as important, or even more important, as image capture. That is not new news. Ansel Adams, perhaps the most famous landscape photographer of all time, spent much more time in the wet darkroom working on a photograph than he did taking one. Yousuf Karsh, perhaps one of the most famous black-and-white portrait photographers, also spent more time working on a print in the wet-darkroom that he did photographing his famous subjects.

The idea here is that it’s not always a good idea to compare your work to the work of others. It can be discouraging if you are not getting the kind of images you see in books, magazines and on the web.

It’s also important to remember that all pros were amateurs at one time, and that they followed a path – sometimes referred to as the four levels of learning – to becoming a pro.

I first learned of that path from one of my photo workshop students, who learned of the concept from Gordon Training International, an organization that published a paper called, The Four Levels of Competence.

Here is that learning path, one that I followed (not only with my photography, but with my music). Follow this path and you will see that you are not alone in “your quest to be your best” as I call it . . . in everything you do. 
1.  Unconscious Incompetence. We don’t know we are not good.

When we first get into digital photography, we take some shots, look at them on the camera’s LCD panel, and say something like, “Hey, that’s cool. I did that!”

One reasons is that the image-capture process is fun. It also provides instant gratification. Another reason is that everything looks good on the small screen.

Another reason is that, at this level of learning, just don’t know what makes a “good” photograph: exposure, lighting, composition, subject and, of course, the mood and feeling of the image.

Although this photographed captured a wonderful moment in Provence, it’s nothing more than a snapshot: the horizon line is titled, there no separation among the horses, there is too much dead space in the frame, and the picture lacks impact.

2.  Conscious Incompetence. We know we need help.

The second level of learning can creep up on us, or hit us like a ton of bricks. Either way, realizing that we need help and have potential is the first step in becoming a good photographer. We have hope! We can read books, attend workshops, take on-line training courses and so on to get help. We can also help ourselves, simply by taking more pictures.

Here’s the photograph from which I created the opening image for this chapter. Some beginning photographers get a picture like this and are pleased with the results. Photographers at the Second Level of Learning, however, ask: How could I have made a better in-camera image, and/or how could I process this file to create a better image?

Simple cropping, a bit of cloning, and then warming up the image (by boosting the reds and yellows in Lightroom), was all that was needed to improve this file.

3.  Conscious Competence. We know we are good.

Knowing we are good is a good feeling, for sure. But it takes a lot of hard work to get to this level of learning.

But how do we know we are good? Well, others may tell you that they like your work, they may buy your work, or you may get hired for an assignment. More important, however, is that you know (as opposed to think) you are good. You can’t fool yourself, which some people do unintentionally, when they are at the First Level of Learning.

Here are the reasons why I feel as though this is a good photograph
  1. All the horses’ heads are separated. In photography, separation of the elements in a scene is very important, as you will read in the Making Order of Chaos – Separation chapter.
  2. The highlights, the brightest part of the scene (horses’ heads) are not overexposed and washed out.
  3. There is space in the frame into which the horses can “run.” That space is very important in action photography.
  4. The horses heads are not “decapitated” by the horizon line,” which oven happens in the photographs taken by photographers at the First Level of Learning.
  5. The fast moving animals are sharp in the scene, thanks to the 1/2500th second of a shutter speed I used to freeze the action. I also set my Canon 5D Mark III to AI Servo focus, which tracks the subject right up until the moment of exposure.
  6. And finally, the two horses in the middle of the image have their front legs out of the water in a perfect running position. In horse photography, the position of the legs is very, very important.
All that said, I have called this image one of my best “dumb luck shots” in my presentations. Many elements came together, including one I will share with you at the end of this post, to make this a favorite image of mine.

When it comes to “dumb luck,” however, it is important to remember these two expressions: 1) Luck favors the well prepared. 2) If I had the choice of being good or lucky, I’d rather be lucky.

4.  Unconscious Competence. This is the level that we all want to reach in the things we care passionately about. We don’t really have to think too much about what we are doing . . . we just do it!

This is “it” when all that we went through in Level One, Level Two and Level Three come together and we can just shoot and get a high percentage of great images, and at the same time envision the creative possibilities that await us in the digital darkroom.

The rollercoaster ride of making picture is not over; we will still have creative ups and downs. But being on that rollercoaster is much more rewarding than being on the merry-go-round of being satisfied with pedestrian images.

As a brief aside, that rollercoaster/merry-go-round analogy can be applied to our lives, too. It’s easy to ride the merry-go-round, but the rollercoaster is much more exciting.

Many well-known musicians are at this Fourth Level of Learning. When it comes to jazz musicians, for example, when they are jamming with other musicians, they are not thinking about what key they are in (like the exposure in a photograph), what notes they are playing (like composition in a photograph), the importance of space between the notes (like separation in a photograph) and so on. They are just doing it, exactly like we need to do when it comes to photography.

One of the keys in getting to the Forth Level of Learning is practice. That includes getting to know your camera controls so you can make exposure and focus decisions in flash, just as a jazz musician knows how to improvise – even in the dark.

Knowing my camera controls, understanding some basic lighting and exposure techniques, and knowing some digital darkroom techniques, helped me get this image of a horse running on the beach at sunrise.

I think it’s important for photographers to be honest about what went into the making a photograph, so other photographers, as I mentioned, don’t compare their work to the work of others. What’s more, and this applies to my Camargue horse pictures, a photographer should not create the impression that any photographer can go to a location and simply take, while touring around, the same kind of pictures he or she takes.

Here is a behind-the-scenes snapshot that shows just one of five Provence cowboys who was helping my workshop group make pictures. These cowboys ran the horses toward us for three days at sunrise and sunset, so we all had a very good chance to make good pictures. I, and my workshop co-instructors, acted like movie directors, basically setting up a scene, which was great fun.

That is something else to keep in mind. There is a big difference between taking a picture and making a picture. You can do it, too.

When I teach digital imaging, I mentioned that simple cropping and envisioning the possibilities that await us in the digital darkroom. With a simple crop, and by adding the BuzSim affect in Topaz Simplify, one of the plug-ins I use, I was able to turn my behind-the-scenes snapshot into a creative image, one that looks more like a painting than a photograph.

Good luck in your journey along the path of the Four Levels of Learning. Never give up, and remember what the Buddhist say: Learning is Health.

See you in Chicago!

Rick Sammon is one of our main speakers.  He is a Canon Explorer of Light and award-winning photographer who loves his day job.  He is a tireless, prolific and inspirational image-maker who is called by some "the Godfather of Photography." Rick's enthusiasm for digital imaging is contagious.  He is a man on a mission - a mission to make digital photography fun, creative, exciting and rewarding for others.  He will be speaking on Sunday, November 19th on "Creative Visualization for Photographers."

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