First off I would like to thank Scott (and Brad) for inviting me back as a guest blogger.  It was an honor the first time and it’s an even greater honor to have another opportunity to be here again.

Before we get started, here’s a little bit about me…

I am a professional wildlife and nature photographer. My images have been published in Outdoor Photographer, Outdoor Photography (UK), Photoshop User, Elements Techniques, and Layers magazines. My work also appears regularly on Audubon calendars and National Park Service postcards, calendars, and posters. I lead popular wildlife photography adventures in North America.  I am also a moderator for the Nikon Digital Learning Center on flickr. Prior to working as a professional photographer, I spent more than two decades in photographic sales, helping pros and hobbyists decide which equipment suited their particular needs.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to the making of highly successful people in many fields.  There are the genetic and the geographic factors but it’s the 10,000 hour rule which states that “A person must put in 10,000 hours of work on some skill to become not only proficient at but, in the top of their field.” That got my attention.  If you do the math that’s 250 weeks at 40 hours per week, factor in a two- week vacation and that’s five years working full time to become proficient at any one thing. Thinking along those lines led me to ponder the four stages of consciousness known as the Conscious Competence Ladder.  If it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at one thing, what are the stages along the way that track our progression?

Unconscious Incompetence (You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know): At this level you are blissfully ignorant: You have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in the subject in question. On top of this, you are unaware of this lack of skill, and your confidence may therefore far exceed your abilities.1

I traded in my accordion for my fist SLR when I was ten years old.  My dad handed me one of his Pentax Spotmatic cameras with a 50mm f/1.4 lens attached.  I stood there looking at my dad and back at the camera, at my dad, the camera, dad, camera, dad… now what!  Little did I know at the time that the hobby I was about to embark upon would take me on a journey that would shape my life and career.

I didn’t have a clue what to do with this object in my hands. I was an Unconscious Incompetent.  I didn’t realize just how little I knew about the workings of my new camera.  I knew that it made photographs but I had no idea what dials to turn, what buttons to push, what was involved in adjusting the camera so that an image would be made.  Not just any image but an image that was composed and exposed properly.  One that represented my experience at the moment I clicked the shutter; an image that took your breath away when you looked at it, one that brought the scents, the sounds even the taste of the moment flooding back.  An image that transports your viewer to that precise time and place at the moment you clicked the shutter…

How did my dad get the exposure right every time?  How did my mom make images that captured my imagination, took my breath away with their vibrance and beauty?  It looked pretty simple: aim, focus, center the needle by turning a couple of dials, fire, wait a couple of weeks and when the yellow box arrived from the lab, review all the beautiful images.  But wait, where did those beautiful images go?  And, what was this out of focus,  shaky, underexposed, poorly composed junk that was mounted in little cardboard frames with my name on them?

Even with my first weak attempts, I was captivated.  I couldn’t get enough of this thing called photography.  I saw something, I aimed my camera and viola!, I captured a moment in time with the click of my shutter.  My camera became my constant companion over the years.  I had found a wonderful way of sharing my world with others through my images but, I had a lot to learn about f-stops, shutter speeds, ISO, depth of field, focal length…is your head spinning as fast as mine did at the mere thought of learning it all?

But wait, stop and think about that last sentence, if your head is spinning, you have moved to the next level of Conscious Incompetent!  At this point I knew that I had a lot to learn, that I knew so little about making beautiful images.  I was conscious of my photographic incompetence and was taking steps to become competent.  So, I immersed myself in photography.  I went to my dad for guidance on the technical aspects of photography, I joined the local camera club, I got a part time job in a camera store; I lived, breathed, and slept photography.  It was my life.  Photography opened doors for a shy little girl. As photography editor for my high school yearbook, I was given carte blanche to go where I wanted, when I wanted.  I was right there on the sidelines of the games, I prowled the hallways clicking photos of fellow classmates, I attended many school functions with my trusty Pentax along at all times.  I wasn’t shy when I had my camera in hand.

Conscious Incompetence (You Know that You Don’t Know): At this level you find that there are skills you need to learn, and you may be shocked to discover that there are others who are much more competent than you. As you realize that your ability is limited, your confidence drops. You go through an uncomfortable period as you learn these new skills when others are much more competent and successful than you are.1

Over the years I got better and better as I shot more and more.  With each series of failures, came the few successes that drove me to keep photographing.  I learned what works and what doesn’t by pouring over books and then by trial and error.  I learned about f-stops and their relationship to depth of field…

I also learned the basic differences between the different shutter speeds.  Knowing when to select a fast shutter speed to stop action…

or a slow shutter speed to blur motion…

and the relationship of ISO in the equation.  Low ISO for higher resolution, needs more light, tripod, fast lenses…

Or, high ISO for low light, which results in some noise

Through hard work, determination and a great deal of curiosity, I was progressing from a Conscious Incompetent to a Conscious Competent.

Conscious Competence (You Know that You Know): At this level you acquire the new skills and knowledge. You put your learning into practice and you gain confidence in carrying out the tasks or jobs involved. You are aware of your new skills and work on refining them. You are still concentrating on the performance of these activities, but as you get ever-more practice and experience, these become increasingly automatic.1

I now felt skilled enough to make creative images of my chosen subjects.   I could anticipate behavior and be prepared to capture the peak of action, I knew how to take control of the settings on my camera, how to work the light and create pleasing compositions.  I was constantly aware of my settings and their effect on my images, all the while watching for unusual behavior, combining photographic skills with knowledge of my subject put me in position to capture peak of action…

Unconscious Competence (You Don’t Know that You Know – It Just Seems Easy!): At this level your new skills become habits, and you perform the task without conscious effort and with automatic ease. This is the peak of your confidence and ability.1

After all the years I have invested in bettering my craft I feel that I am at the top of my game when it comes to wildlife and nature photography, I have reached my comfort zone.  And yet, I still have so much to learn.  Each time I pick up my camera it is with the anticipation of what the new day will bring, what wonderful moments will present themselves for me to document for the viewing pleasure of myself and many others who follow my work. At this stage in my career as a wildlife photographer I feel that I am a Subconscious Competent as I don’t feel that I am unconscious when I photograph but rather that I run through the technical functions sub-consciously in the back of my mind while concentrating on my subject rather than worrying about my camera settings.  That doesn’t mean everything I do is perfect but, it does mean that when the action is hot and heavy, I move quickly and naturally through the settings on my camera, selecting the aperture/shutter speed combo that best captures the defining moment.

or the subtle beauty in a scene…

I look forward to each new challenge that presents itself and to improving my skills to best capture a given moment in time so that you, too may enjoy the magical moments in nature that I am fortunate enough to experience…

Where is your photography on the Conscious Competence Ladder?  Are you blissfully unaware of all that you don’t know and happily clicking away?  Or, are you aware of all that you don’t know and frustrated with this lack of knowledge that will take your photography to the next level?  Are you on top of your game and sub-consciously operate your camera to achieve the best exposure for the given situation?  Do you still stop and think the settings through before proceeding?  Wherever you are in the photographic process, remember that it’s the journey, the people we meet along the way and our reaction to life experiences, not the destination that makes us who we are today.

In a few words, share what subjects you like to photograph, where you feel you currently are on the Conscious Competence Ladder and why…

Thanks again for tuning in and following this thread to the end.  Be sure to say hi if you see me in your travels.

LaurieExcell.com/blog
EquipmentLady.com
Snapshots to Great Shots: Composition

1Quoted from the Conscious Competence Ladder at Mindtools