It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Laurie Excell!

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.
Snapshots to Great Shots: Composition

1Quoted from the Conscious Competence Ladder at Mindtools

      1. Yes, I usually do that, try to be Scott’s first comment! Look forward to seeing you in Vegas PSW 2011!

  1. Hi, Laurie! Great post and amazing photos. So fun to see you here. I’m somewhere between conscious incompetence and conscious competence. I’m not frustrated or surprised others know way more than I do, but I’m not competent either and I’m far from having everything be second nature. But I am improving and enjoying the journey. I shoot whatever grabs my heartstrings – mostly nature and family with some local water fowl thrown in. My latest thrill was to photograph the white pelicans wintering over at White Rock Lake here in Dallas along with American Coots, seagulls, and assorted ducks and geese.

  2. Thanks Scott for having Laurie as your guest today! Laurie, thanks so much for your blog and all that you do to share your love of photography with us! I have enjoyed following your blog over the last year or so….great stuff!!

  3. Laurie, a few years ago you gave me a print review at Photoshop World in Orlando and I want to thank you for the very kind words and the very important boost to my confidence as I was pretty new to the craft.

  4. Great post, enjyed reading it. That chariot photo is sweet! Thanks for the inspiration – I’m in the uncomfortable zone and plan on enjoying every frustrating minute of the journey.

  5. Hi Laurie,
    I’m glad that I do know you. Your words rang true to me here. When we were on the cruise ship around Hawaii I thought I knew a lot. Now, 2 1/2 years later, I know that I’m just now getting to the “Conscious Competence” level because I do understand a lot but know I have a long way to go to get to your level of expertise.
    Thanks for a great blog post that I will surely share with my students.

  6. Laurie:

    Wonderful guest blog today! It really put into perspective where I am in my photography journey and where I have to go to better myself. I guess I think of myself as a Conscious Competant, although there are times when I feel really incompetant! :D I started out shooting wildlife and still subjects (i.e. flowers), but I have tried to start photgraphing more people, as they provide a much more varied subject matter. Out of my comfort zone, but that’s a good thing!

    I think one of the defining moments in anybody’s endeveours is when people start to ask you for advice, whether it’s with technology, technique, or general information. At that point, you realize that “hey, maybe I’m not so bad after all!”.

    Wish you were teaching a class at PSW Orlando, as I would have loved to attend and learn more from you. Maybe at a future conference. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  7. Great post Laurie. You have such beautiful images. I was lucky to be able to learn so much from you at DWLS in Bozeman a couple years ago. You were so open and willing to share your knowledge. Sad to see you won’t be at this year’s in Napa :-((.


  8. Loved your post. Your images inspire me to get out and take photos. I agree that spending a lot of time at something makes one better. I used the same philosophy with my trombone students when I was a college professor. Many hours of practice makes perfect. Your photographs inspire me.

  9. Laurie, excellent post. I find I sometimes bounce between Conscious Competence back to Conscious Incompetence (at least in my mind) especially when seeing some of the fantastic photography out there. But I think this then forces me to learn new skills and improve upon the ones that I have. I follow your blog regularly and find your Tech Tuesday posts have a lot of great tips. I hope to one day be able to attend one of your photo safaris as I have heard very good things about them.

  10. Laurie,

    Great post. I have learned so must from you, both in person and on your blog. I have different days that I feel like I am at different levels on Competence. I guess that is what keeps us learning and trying to get better at this thing called photography. Thanks for keeping me motivated.


  11. Wonderful post – exactly what I would expect from Laurie.
    I had the pleasure of getting to know Laurie a year ago at a worshop in Moab. She is the most talented instructor (as well, obviously, as photographer) who is incredibly energetic as well as…and this is unusual: kind. No matter how basic a question she is asked, she always responded in a kind and 100% helpful manner. She always hung around until the end of the shoot, made the rounds of all the participants with helpful comments with being intrusive, without disappearing to make her own images.
    I’m glad to have the chance to give her the recognition she deserves.
    If you want to attend a superb worshop, follow Laurie.

  12. Loved the post Laurie! I took an exposure triangle class from you at PSW Vegas in 2009 and the way you explained things has totally expanded my skills and interest in photography. I actually emailed your post to my boss. It rings true no matter what field you’re working in.

  13. Hi Laurie,
    Great post. Thanks for sharing some of your family pix with us – adds depth to your teaching today (love the accordion shot). I like the perspective that the various stages provide; it helps to think about how far one has come. It also helps to define the “always improving” part as a good thing and not a frustration. Your photo of the wolf hunting in the show is one of my very favorites; glad to see it again today.
    Hope I can join one of your Excellent adventures again……….I learned a lot.

  14. What a kool post…I’m all over the page but never feel very competent & yet there are times when I “could” be Ansel Adams!! ha Thanx to Scott Kelby for featuring such a passionate artist. I have learned ALOT from following Laurie on the web and have a dream that one day I’d be able to go on one of her excursions. Thanx Laurie for all that you do to help us poor souls!! :)

  15. Hi Laurie –

    Loved your post today and your talk 2 weeks ago here in St Petersburg, FL. You taught my hubbie Dick and I tons of stuff in the Maine workshop. And we love the heron and crab photo! And the great white heron at the gallery exhibit.

  16. Hi Laurie! What a great post as a new photographer I believe I’m at step 2 trying to get comfortable shooting in manual and know that my Camera (Nikon D7000) is light years ahead of me. I’m going to enjoy the journey as it takes me to step 3 and hopefully arrive one day at step 4.

  17. Hi Laurie,

    Great post. I know I am at Conscious Incompetence in my journy in photography. But I will tell you, the time Tom and I spent with you in Portland for the day of private training was the best money I spent ever on photography training. I learned a ton. When you have someone of your calibar standing right behind you and you can ask any question and if the answer is 30 seconds or 30 minutes, you take the time and explain it in detail so “I get it”. How cool is that!!! I got some great shots from the lesson that are now hanging on my wall at home and at work. I hope I can connect again for additional training in the future.

    Your friend always,


  18. Great post. I’m wavering, having some consciousness of what I need to learn, and trying to regain that unconscious wonder with the world that lets me just be in the moment and forget all the technical stuff and simply see. It’s an exhilarating balance, though I look forward to more moments of unconscious competence.

    Thanks, Laurie!

  19. It’s so good to see you as the guest blogger. Thanks for such a great post. I love learning from you. For whatever reason it doesnt make me feel like a dolt. The way you present material makes me more confident to go and keep shooting and keep gaining on my abilities.

  20. Thanks Laurie. That was a great post. I am now making your blog one of my “must-reads.”

    I think that I am Unconscious Competent. I often go out birding with friends who are new to photography and they ask me questions about what to do. I find that I have to think about it before I can answer them, so I guess I am doing it without thinking.

    This should be read by every creative person. It not only makes you think about where you are now, but also where you want to go.

  21. Hey Laurie, thanks for the post.

    It’s great to see you back for an encore performance and to hear pearls of wisdom from such a talented photographer and teacher.

    This was a post well worth bookmarking to revisit again.

  22. Your image of the wave is the most perfect thing I have ever seen. Thank you for your insights, Laurie, as well as being such a great support on the Help Desk.

  23. Laurie – Wow, your work is great, I’m usually not a fan of wildlife stuff because you don’t control that much, but damn was I wrong. Girlfriend you kick some A*s. Very nice. When I see you in Vegas remind me to share my Polar Bear joke I heard on NCIS.

  24. I am not a landscape or wildlife shooter, but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t click on your blog. I look at a lot of photographers in your category, just cause I like to look at them even though it is not my primary interest, but darn it girl, you clearly are the best. More the landscape stuff for me, but it is something really special.

    A little more info on the processing is always helpful, I only have CS5 and Lightroom 3, but you do some really cool stuff in some other programs.

  25. Thanks everyone for the very kind words and enthusiasm for the topic of this weeks Guest Blog. It’s very humbling to read the posts and know I have touched your lives with my images. And even more so that you have learned something from me that moves you forward in your photographic journey. THANKS!

  26. Great blog Laurie!! I am a fan and follower of your blog. With rankings, I would break photography into two distinct groupings. On the camera grouping, I rate myself as almost unconscious competence. With the post processing grouping, I am conscious incompetent! I know where I want to go but struggle geting there…. maybe I was born too late and shoud have arrived in the film days! :-)

    Keep up the great work!

  27. IMHO the first step from unconscious incompetent to conscious incompetent is the hardest. It requires that You’re prepared to have Your delusions of grandeur shattered. I’ve seen a lot of people stuck at that point.

    I tend to get stuck at conscious incompetent because there is always so much more that I want/need to master. There is always a new level.

  28. Laurie,
    Very nice work, every time we’ve said hello, your always so kind and gracious with a smile on your face, put a camera in your hand and pow, Wildlife Ninja – you kick some a*s. Kidding aside Laurie, beautiful work. When I see you at PSW Vegas make sure I share my Polar Bear joke with you.

  29. I enjoyed your Guest Blog. I would love to know the story behind that photo of the momma bear and cubs. How far away were you when you took that shot? That looks like a very steep slope.



  30. Laurie, As always – thanks for the share, it is great to hear that with another 4 years of 40 hours per week I might be good at one thing!

    Undergoing a crisis of confidence right now as I move up the level of my work and start looking at what some of the great portrait photographers up in norther Florida are doing as a comparison! Humbling indeed!

    Guess I better hope to stick with it so that I don’t have to start over and turn the hours-of-time-investment-clock back to 00,000 hours! LOL


  31. Hi Laurie,
    I’m a between conscious incompetent and conscious competent ( I think ) which is also my point here, “You never know how ignorant you are until you know something.” It was more fun when I didnt know how little I knew.. ( Ignorance is bliss..) I’m having a real problem with a friend at the moment who is trying to get her first wedding shoot. I keep telling her not to do it. that it will all end in tears etc… She thinks she is ready because she can do one portrait that takes her 30 mins to setup and another 30 to fix in lightroom… I Its a whole different ball game when you have 50 people and 30 mins to shoot everything…Plus the B&G will hit the roof when they see the results of their special day are nowhere near the quality they will be expecting and that she can shoot when she has lots of time and a patient sitter. I would dread doing a wedding and I am honest enough to say ” I just aint good enough.. YET”

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