Overcoming The Obstacles to Mastery

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[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_color=”%23ffffff” bottom_padding=”20px”]In the first video in this series I talked about the 3 big barriers to mastery, to learning photography in such a way that we cut through the noise and learn to control the tools and concepts of this craft instead of them controlling us. In this second video I want to talk a little deeper about this and give you three more ways to overcome these challenges and get more quickly to that place of comfort and competence, to a place where you are more focused and use that focus to make stronger, more creative photographs.

Take a few minutes to watch this second video, then become part of the conversation. In the comments below I’d love to hear about the most significant step you’ve taken as you’ve studied photography? What has made the biggest difference to you? Also, take a moment to read the comments; I’m lucky enough to have an audience of really generous, helpful people and their contributions are always worth learning from.

In the next few days I’ll be posting another video, and I’ll email you as soon as it’s up.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David duChemin



What’s been the most significant single thing you’ve done to help you learn to make stronger photographs?



  1. My favourite photography book (and I’ve read dozens through the years) is “Photography and the Art of Seeing” by Freeman Patterson. Why? Because it’s not about the technical aspects of photography. I can get by in a conversation about sensel sizes, backside illumination, focus breathing, etc. and all of that knowledge has a purpose. But photography at its most essential is rendering what you SEE in a 3-dimensional space onto a 2-dimensional space IN THE WAY THAT YOU WANT IT TO LOOK. The first and most important aspect of that, to me, is learning how to see what’s around you. Most people don’t see 99% of what goes on around them. Start there. Then learn how to capture what you’re seeing.

    1. Well put. Mike. Freeman was my earliest hero and still a powerful influence in how I think about and practice this craft. Thanks for chiming in!

  2. What single thing has been most valuable? That’s one “superlative” + one “absolute restriction” so to speak, like choosing “the one stone from a long street”… Anyway, here’s mine:

    The love and passion for deep and meaningful 1 on 1 conversations with other people.

  3. Thanks David. You have really defined and refined the “sequence” that is required to produce more meaningful images. It’s good to see the emphasis on the use of our tools and the skills of craft needed to reach a point of having instinct take over and opening up the creative avenue, where we can really begin see what will unfold.

  4. As many other, I appreciate your teaching in a very direct simple way, explaining all your set “why” and “how” without any trace of artistic mystery!
    Thank you for being helping us learning photography.

  5. I did a course with Danie Bester (here in South Africa). He mentioned you often hehehe! And your books are among the best out there. Thank you!

  6. youtube has been great for me. Specifically 1. Craft & Vision and 2. Still Life – Art and the photographic image. I also watch some other photographers, but these two have helped me more than any other one.

  7. The game changer for me was to open an Instagram account (rbmitch123). I try to post a picture a day and try to make it one my best. In the last year of doing this, I’ve found a progression of quality.
    My most recent challenge is to post unique images and not mimick the hundreds of great photographers whose pictures I review (too much time on that) on Instagram.
    The posting process has given my photographs a focus and clarity of subject matter. Much more work to do.

  8. I guess the most significant step I’ve taken is to minimise my sources of confusion – I now use 3 camera bodies but all from one manufacturer so all menus are (essentially) the same and I have the same ‘custom’ settings on all.

    I’ve also minimised the number of educators I read / listen to and keep to just one per field with a focus more on understanding why rather than how .

    I have also decided with post processing – less is more, so again I’m limiting the sources of ‘education’ and unless something absolutely detracts from an image, it stays untouched.

  9. I think projects are great. A couple years ago, I took on photographing a tree. It was a tree in a field surrounded by barbed-wire fence and could only be seen on two sides looking east and looking south. There was basically nothing else in the field but this one tree (I call it the 1Tree Project). Over the course of a year I took over 3300 images of this tree. The rules were simple. I could remove things from the image (mostly trash or distracting weeds), but I could not add anything to the image (no adding skies or other interesting stuff). When you have limitations, you start to look for anything that will enhance your image. Foggy days, rainy days, clouds, clouds, and more clouds. There were cows that came into the field now and again, but usually it was the time of day and atmosphere. I really learned a lot by my limitations.

    1. What a great project, Thomas. I have found exactly the same thing: specific projects with consistent constraints pushes my creativity. Add enough time to really go deep and there’s the possibility of real magic.

  10. You will understand that you are ready when you will “feel” your pictures.
    When you feel:
    1) Light
    2) Composition
    3) Momentum
    You will unleash your creativity.

    Understand, study and then PRACTICE…

    Great video.

  11. 1) Moving to a simpler albeit not inexpensive 🙂 all-in-one camera. My husband and I do a lot of traveling: car, train, plane, ship, feet. I just couldn’t carry all.the .stuff. It has opened my eyes – I’m no longer concerned with the ‘right’ lens, or the ‘right’ body. Most of the time my attitude is ‘it is what is’ – it’s become more about me and what I see rather than the gear.

    *I still love gear, and certain trips I do bring it all, but the freedom from worrying about all that stuff and the advantages of lightweight means I always have a nice camera with me.

    2) Using the iphone camera. It’s always with me, and with the fixed wide-angle I really have to think about what I’m doing. Sort of the addendum to 1) above.

  12. Hi David,

    I think for me a good reason to continue dealing with photography were the amazing photographs of the others on Instagram and in some amazing books. Another reason was that I finally GOT USED to my beloved camera! 😉 Now I love it even more an have to apologize for really not knowing all about its capacity! 🙂

  13. The thing that has mattered the most to me and my improvement in photography in the last year, is finally getting my tripod out and using it all the time. It allows me to slow down, to thoughtfully compose a shot, evaluate lighting, focus, everything. The other important factor is having an articulating screen and using live view. Taking that one step backwards lets me see things – all the things – much more clearly. Also manually focusing has made a huge difference, but all these things still lead back to the tripod.

  14. The most significant thing that I’ve done to help me learn to make stronger photographs was to be mentored by a friend that insisted we shoot every day at least once and sometimes morning and night. After each shoot, we would go have a coffee and download the images and analyse each image for it’s good points, bad points and what we could do to make the image better. This mentoring went on for just over 12 months. In that time I feel I learned more than if I’d been doing a degree course in photography. It was a real game changer for me!

  15. The most significant thing I have done to improve my photography is to remind myself, that in order to achieve my goals as a photographer I have to do the wok and then I go and do it. Just that simple. Doing the work and not accepting any excuses not too.

  16. The most significant single thing that I have done to help me learn to make stronger photographs was, decide. I decided that I was going to put in the necessary time, effort and dedication to learn and get better. When I retired a few years ago, I decided that photography was the one thing that I was going to dedicate my free time to. I started taking courses, travel workshops, reading photography magazines, studying books, new techniques, learning from other photographers and improving both my technical and artistic skills. I started and completed projects and assignments including 365 and 58 week and I continue and I have not given up. I now do photo shoots and and regularly asked to do photography work for people in and around my community. By deciding, it opened up a whole new world of photography that I had no idea existed. I decided that I wanted to become a better photographer and I am going to continue until I stop learning and growing and having fun which I hope will be for a very long time to come. It was the best decision I ever made!

  17. Most helpful thing I have done is to downsize my camera, get to know it well, shoot manually (most of the time) and ease up on wanting no noise in my photos. As a beginner, all i seemed to be told was “must shoot at ISO 100” this mindset set me back so much as I was constantly disappointed as something else has compensate
    when shooting handheld . I now embrace the “imperfection” of noise in my photo ! I am happy with it and that is all that matters.

  18. Last year I started going to monthly meet-ups of photographers at a local gallery here in Greenville, SC. There is always someone who brings new work, and the sharing, discussing, and getting feedback on own work is really very insightful. Hearing how others approach a certain subject, or hearing how others would have approached a subject I photographed provides so many learning opportunities! And of course, there are the prints on display in the gallery. I agree that looking at the work of other photographers, and asking the right question is key to work towards mastery.

  19. I completely agree with your observations, David. The first is probably the greatest obstacle and I feel it’s effects every day. Turning off the information spigot is hard to do sometimes. Looking forward to the rest of your videos.

  20. The best way for me to learn the “craft” of photography is to use a verity of cameras. If I stick with my familiar comfortable DSLR my photography becomes predictable. When I pick up my Holga, pinhole, Hasselblad or 4×5 I have to see the world in a way that fits the tool. Each tool forces me to look, I mean really look at what is in front of me to figure out how to bring out the best with what I have. If I work with that handy DSLR a fixed lens will do about the same. Limit yourself to see more.

  21. David, I love your videos, e-books, and your rants!

    I really took to heart the video you did on printing your work. So this year I brought a Canon 100 Pro and started printing my images. This coming Friday, Feb 9th. I will be having my first exhibit.

    Printing my images has been a life changer! Thank you for the support and the occasional rant!!!

  22. One of the best things I ever did for my growth was joining a critique group. When I was first asked, I was hesitant because I didn’t feel qualified to give critique, and I also didn’t want to be the worst one in the group! I am SO glad my husband told me it would be good for me. There are a dozen or so of us who post images for feedback in a private Flickr group, and we are all at different stages in our photography journey, but we all have a desire to learn and practice and improve. Just finding out what works and what doesn’t, and how different people perceive images, and what makes something stronger or what suggestions others have for an image, has been immensely valuable… and not only in getting feedback, but also in giving feedback! Giving feedback to others forces me to really SEE an image, which has helped me become better when I create images of my own. It’s inspiring and fun and a great source of support and has done wonders for my own journey.

    1. I love this Katrina! I’m so glad your husband gave you the nudge. We learn so much from hearing good critique, but even more from having to GIVE thoughtful critique, to spend more than a few seconds with an images an actually process what we’re looking at, how we’re reacting, and why. Thanks for the comment!

  23. David You asked for my AH moment you know the one where the lightbulb came on. Well I have had several so far and the most recent was when I read Guy Tal’s book. There is so much to earn in that book and one piece comes to mind where he talks about making Decorations for some person who has no appreciation of the created Image .
    A few years earlier I took an ongoing Photography tutorial with a woman who actually pushed the Post Processing idea so much and in her world every single Image had to go through The Process and there was no other way. This has turned me off post processing and I now really understand the concept of “Polishing Your Turds” and yes it is OK to delete stuff without putting it through some time wasting process on Photoshop.
    The local Camera shop runs a weekly competition and so I was asked to enter some stuff in it. This competition has some face-book voting system where the winner is decided by popular vote. Auntie Marge always wins as Auntie Marge always votes for herself until she does. Not exactly what I had in mind.
    I used to always welcome constructive criticism but after reading Guy Tal’s book I now realize that it can be pointless to listen to someone who doesn’t really understand the concept of creating Art with mood and feeling as opposed to something that will be popular as a wall decoration. So for me the Big A-H came from Guy Tal.

    1. You couldn’t have received an AH HA moment from a nicer, wiser, more human writer than Guy Tal. He’s wonderful. As for Auntie Margie, well, it takes all kinds, doesn’t it? 🙂

  24. Switching to manual, it was so hard at first, I made many mistakes, but now more often then not I’m making an image which conveys my way of seeing rather than what the camera thinks I should see. I have been guilty of looking for shortcuts, spending hours googling random stuff, until I realised that I hardly picked up my camera any more. Thank you for these videos.

    1. I love it. So many people insist on fighting with their camera and all they have to do is switch to manual mode. It takes some learning, but once you get the hang of it there’s such freedom in not having that dang machine second-guessing you all the time! 🙂

  25. Last summer I saw an ad for your blogcasts on Facebook and decided to follow the click bait!! That was a game changer for me. One of your images of the spouting whale blew me away. As I began to watch your videos….and really listen and soak in the words you were saying….it gave me the encouragement to follow my heart. To make stronger decisions about composition that weren’t just like every other image. To silence those around me who would brag about the gear they have and the money they have spent to get the latest and greatest. I don’t have the means to do that so hearing you talk about vision and composition and studying others’ mages was What I had to focus on. While I still follow the basics of getting the best images I can, it has changed my heart and my desire to go deeper. To look at surroundings differently. To experiment and try new things. There is a constant voice encouraging me to keep going and to get rid of all the distracting noise around me that I have let be a discouragement. My photography has become a true passion again. Thank you for sharing you wisdom and knowledge. I love your rants!!! They cause me to pause and reflect and to refocus on the only voice I need to really listen to. The One who has put this desire in my veins. You have rekindled that and for that I am truly thankful.

    1. Carol – You just made my day. You voiced perfectly my hopes for all my students and everyone I’m lucky enough to speak to through my blog and podcasts, etc. Thank you!!

  26. Not to brown nose, but I’ve read a couple of your books and my biggest light bulb moment came at your concept and begging of the reader to find his/her vision and work to develop that. That advice has been the biggest – developing and nurturing a vision of what I’m moved by and a vision of what I’m saying in my photography.

    These other things are hugely important – knowing your equipment is huge, (just shot the moon at night with others and a woman quit at one point because she couldn’t see to operate her camera) and analysis of photos – both my own and others. (and keep in mind it’s easier to see patterns in a person’s work if you’re looking solely at his/her work and not intermingling the work with numerous others’ work)

    But nothing has been more important to me than trying to develop and grow a vision for what it is overall I want to say in my photography, and what it is I’m trying to say in each photo. I wind up with a much more focused image (not lens focus) from the camera, more focus on how to approach it in post, and I wind up having much more passion for the image itself while working with it and viewing it.

  27. Hey David,

    Im really enjoying these videos and discussions you are fostering.

    In a previous life of mine I was a musician. I played in rock and roll bands for 10 years or so back in the 90’s. We recorded several albums and played a ton of live shows. At one point we had a dozen or so people working for us and with us to get these songs on cd. Producer, engineers, art director, manager, web guy, a couple guys doing mastering the album, girlfriends working the merchandise table at our live shows, even a couple friends would go around the city and hang flyers for our shows. Point being, we had a small army helping us on our creative path.

    I thinks its safe to say when most photographers start out its a very solitary journey. Sure we all read books, got tips on websites, but In my experience, its more likely you will meet a photographer who has not had any professional instruction, than one who has. Learning about light, camera operation, editing, printing, framing, web design, portfolio creation, and composition is mostly done all by themselves. In my opinion, creating a portfolio and seeing it all the way to print is a similar process to writing a musical album. Yet most photographers believe that they have to and can do all that by themselves?

    So to answer your question, the single most important thing Ive done to help me create stronger photographs is simple…seek outside help and education. I take a workshop from a different photographer/ instructor every 2 or so years. As well as I submit my work to be critiqued by other artists. Not to sound pompous, but I do this full time, have a gallery and teach others about the photographic arts.. But who am I to say I know everything about photography? I don’t, far from it. So I continue to take classes or attend workshops, and I always lean something 🙂

    1. Fantastic insight, Raynor. I think you’re right – we do tend to be lone rangers. One of my most treasured assets is the group of friends I have that can break through my echo chamber and give me outside perspectives, challenge my thinking, and – often – collaborate with me on the projects I’m working on. Thanks for chiming in!

  28. It is interesting the reaction to asking the question ‘why’ vs ‘how’ . The reaction seems to viewed as a challenge or critique.

  29. Listening to the world that surrounds me and letting it speak to me so I can instruct/direct the camera… and I learned that by the guidance of photographers like Freeman Patterson, Guy Tal … and of course you too David… learning from, not so much the masters… because as you note mastery is a journey, not an object… but learning from them as they share their experiences on the journey…

    1. Thanks David. I’m honoured that you’d put me in such illustrious company. Freeman and Guy are two wonderful human beings with such depth.

  30. Good Morning David,

    I have waited 70 yrs. for the Visual Tool box which I purchased from Amazon. Excellent, try and do each lesson faithfully in my walks in Fish Creek prov. park here in Calgary. In film days used Blad, Nikon and did weddings, portraits on the side and made a few $$. My current cameras Leica D-Lux 6, and Sony RX100. I have read a lot of books in my life time, but yours is one that I enjoy so much.
    My desire is to have a Leice M with any kind of lens, but time is running out for me (I’m 86) but will keep hoping lol, but will enjoy the D-Lux 6
    thank you

    1. Wow, thank you for that, Stan. My very best to you. May the remaining days be filled with so much enjoyment – with or without the Leica M. 🙂 Long life to you, my friend!

  31. The thing that has helped me most recently has been (benefit of mirrorless) to shoot in Fuji’s Acros b&w emulation. It helps me concentrate on shadow and light, which for me has meant a greater focus on composition. I don’t shoot landscapes, so what’s in front of my lens is always changing. This helps me compose for, and with, the light, in the moment.

  32. One way I have grown as a photographer is by giving talks on my photography. While preparing, I needed to think through how I was going to articulate my thoughts on my photographic process to the audience. Trying to put my thoughts on composition, patterns, shape, light, etc… has made me pay more attention to these items.
    Bottom line, want to learn more about any topic? Teach what you already know to others who want to know where to start. You will find yourself trying to articulate (maybe for the first time) your thoughts, and in the process you will learn more about the topic you are passionate about. (Gee, I am not sure I even articulated this very well).

  33. I photograph rescue dogs for a local rescue, last year I joined a facebook group that picks a theme each week, we create a blog entry with photographs matching to the theme and have a blog circle published on Friday early morning. This has allowed me to see what other pet photographers are doing, shoot intentional to a theme, shoot with a ‘deadline’ (I try to do every week). I think this has been one of the best things I have done recently. They suggested your book, “The Visual Toolbox” and I am reading that with intent to start those assignments as well. Best thing is shoot with intention and know why you made the choices you did when shooting.

  34. I have been lucky enough to travel to Cambodia for four years in a row shooting for a non-profit. I have made friends with locals who have given me access and time to their families, work and culture…. no snapshots, but cultural involvement. Huge lesson! Take the time to know your subjects and their world…

  35. One of the best things I’ve ever done is put a 50mm lens on the camera and go shoot. Learn to move and compose images without a zoom.
    Choose different angles and move higher or lower. Don’t just stand there! SEEING. Watch what the light is doing. And as David says go look at some images by other shooters.

  36. The most important thing for me was setting up an Instagram account, @gimmeldingen_palatinate . On a day to day basis, I post around twice a month a series of 12 images with regards to a special topic which is important to me. I needed this “duty” to overcome my procrastination. Cheers Michael

  37. Throughout the years I’ve spent working as a designer, concepts such as composition, balance, sense of story and even working within constraints have also helped to shape my photographic vision and pursuit. However, the one thing to date that has allowed me to better execute my vision in this pursuit has been a better understanding of the camera, it’s functions and operations. I still haven’t completely achieved the functional ‘muscle memory’ that you talk about, but I am working on it. Cameras are capable of SO much at this point, it’s easy – or at least tempting – to fall into the trap of letting it do all the work, make all the decisions. What drives my pursuit is knowing that while the camera captures the light at a point in time, I make the photographs! The process of intentionally mastering the craft is so compelling to me.

    1. Understanding my camera has been a big step forward for me too. And customizing it. I found my hands were accidentally hitting function keys and that preprogrammed functions were popping up. I removed functions on the keys I was likely to hit accidentally and re purposed others for functions I actually use. And then tried to memorized where they were. This allows me (usually) to get the picture I intend to take without spending too much time on the mechanics.

  38. The most important leap forward was retiring. I still teach one online college course, but online means so much more time is my own.
    Highly recommended!

    The second most important thing was being introduced to and falling in love with Lensbaby lenses. Suddenly, I was making images I was in love with that didn’t look like anybody else’s.

    I invested in a weeklong workshop with Lensbaby specialist Kathleen Clemons, and that advanced me technically like nothing else because she forced me to use a tripod. Lensbabies are manual, so suddenly I was learning how to manage settings I had not been motivated enough to learn.

    I DO choose to do a lot of life long learning on a variety of topics from learning how to use Lightroom CC Mobile to going on virtual location with Frans Lanting, to learning studio portraiture from Lindsay Adler, all through the Creative Live.com site.

    But on a daily basis, I still think I, as you say, spend too much time on FB and IG. My focus is diffused more than I’d like, so your voice is like a bell back to the moment.

  39. The most important thing I have done is to go back to where I began, to the basics. When I first began being serious with my Lieca M2. Everything was manual all my lenses were prime and my workshop teacher was a Korean war combat photographer. It was about Moving your intention to your print and getting feedback from peers and the instructor.and study of other important photographers. I lost my way as automatic features crept in. Now I make better choices on how to use camera features and I am back in control of my digital camera.

  40. I do an exercise where I sit or stand in one spot for ten minutes and look for images. I allow myself to move my head, but not move much more. By the end of that time my brain has become attuned to SEEING and it almost impossible not to find something. It is a meditative process, so there are those benefits as well.

  41. My biggest revelation was that post-processing can be more than just cropping, tweaking the brightness/contrast and adding a little saturation. I have let go of trying to have my images be as “realistic” as possible. Now I process to accentuate the elements adding to my story, minimize the distractions, move or add elements if necessary, to improve the composition, plus a host of other techniques to make stronger photographs.

    1. I feel the same as you and wanted to say that I have tried to go totally the other way by making say yellow images & tones there in rather than B&W, it feels like we could play a lot more with our images than we do.

  42. I have done a few things to improve my photography. 1) Completed a 52 week challenge in 2017, and I am doing one for 2018. 2) I read my manual (as I have heard you suggest before). 3) Took lots, and lots of pictures–most were stinkers, but a few were awesome.

    1. That’s huge. Make lots and lots of photographs. Being able to see the stinkers for what they are is important, but even more important is to be able to study them and figure out why. “What could I have changed? ” is a great learning question.

  43. I have developed a lot since I joined a very active photography club where the members organize one or two outings for themselves each week and have a weekly meeting with competitions, presentations and illustrated talks.

  44. The single most important thing I did, which wasn’t totally intentional, was to QUIT photography for a few years. Yes: quit. I sold my gear because I was broke, needed the money, that was part of the reason. But behind that, I realised that what having and using a camera–many, many cameras!!–since I was a teen, had taught me was HOW TO SEE. And that I didn’t need a camera to really look, to observe with unprejudiced eyes, to be alert and mindful on my walks, my travels, my everyday life.
    Then, a few years later, I had my MA degree, I had work (totally unrelated to my degree: I’m a bus driver!) And I could afford to get gear, and boy, I hungrily bought photo gear again. I’d missed it. But what surprised me was that my photography hasn’t stalled nor had I forgotten how to take a picture. Rather–no surprise–it was much better and more engaged with subjects than it had ever been.
    Now I’m not suggesting you sell all your gear and go into some monastic-like trance state, but do this: for a week, a month, walk around with the same curiosity and observational skills you employ when you have a camera in hand, but take no gear. So what if you missed a great shot? You SAW it. You were wholly present for that moment.
    Then, when you return to the camera (I think at least a month of no photography is required) you will perhaps be delighted to see with a new clarity. The mindful eye.

    1. I love this! I actually find solid blocks of not doing something very helpful. In that time things kind of gel. Like when I take a bit of a break from learning a new language. Or the rest day you need between workouts. We need that incubation time. I also love your point about “you SAW it” – I always tell my students that’s the hardest part. Yeah, OK, the resulting photograph wasn’t everything you had in mind, but that you saw it at all is a great victory.

  45. I’m glad to hear your thoughts about the “shortcuts”. My husband says “shortcut is the longest distance between two points”. I couldn’t agree more. It just makes life more complicated if we refuse to learn how things work. That includes camera and the technical basics.
    And as to the question what helps me to overcome distraction? I volunteered to make a series of portraits – this was going to be the first time I’ve ever done it on my own. So, I did all the things you always recommend – studied other people’s portrait photographs, explored the lighting possibilities, checked my gear, practiced at home to make sure I knew what I was doing, went to the location, chose the most suitable place to take the photos, did test shots and showed them to someone far more experienced than me. This feedback, together with all the pre-study allowed me to decide what light to use, how to modify it, how should my models pose, etc.
    The result was far better than I expected (or that I feared) and I started looking for other possibilities of photographing people, even though I always thought my (lack of) social skills makes this impossible. I read somewhere that one of the very good portrait photographers said that his own awkwardness makes his models to feel better about the situation. So – even the perceived personal drawbacks can work in our advantage. We’ll never know until we try.

  46. I have grown a sizeable library of books by the masters and inspirations. Right now I’m studying works by Arnold Newman and Peter Lindbergh. I try to set aside time every day to study these photos and apply what I uncover.

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