I have been reading a book by Seth Godin called “The Dip”. I would probably have called it The Plateau because it is about that plateau you hit when you take up something new, like photography, French, tennis.
At first you learn quickly and relatively easily, but once you learn the basics you reach a plateau where your improvement has stalled, and it is obvious it is going to take a lot more time and energy to take this thing any further. And even then, you will improve in baby steps from that point on.
This is the place most people quit, or continue on being mediocre. As Galen Rowell said, the difference between whether you make the effort or not depends on the size of the rat eating at your gut. My rat is humongous.
The payoffs at the end are good because so few will make the investment in getting through the slog that it takes to break through to the next level. You will be in rare company in most pursuits if you master something. Maybe not so much with photography. There seem to be a lot of very talented photographers out there. Maybe we are wired differently. A lot of photographers will tell you quitting wasn’t an option, they had to see it through.
I tend to throw myself at pursuits so it is always surprising to me when I talk to local amateur photographers and make a suggestion about how they might improve and the response is almost always negative. They can’t (won’t) invest $150 in software that would help them process their images better and open up some creativity. These are people with good jobs, it is just not a priority to them. They want to BE better, but they don’t actually want to GET better.
One of the points made in the book is about how the internet has changed things. It is no longer good enough to be the best artist or gallery in town. People can now search worldwide so you have have to be the best in the world now.
And the difference between the best and number two is enormous. Why would anyone settle for second best? At least with photography the best is a matter of taste, and photo editors have many factors that influence what image fits their needs.
So if you want to win photo contests, publish images, sell stock images, or sell fine art prints, you have got to put in the work to be up there competing with the best in the world, because the competition for all of that is global now. One thing that is worthwhile trying is to do an image search on-line (use 500px or Getty or Corbis) for a subject of which you have a great image. See what the competition is. See where you have to get to. Remember, yours needs to be better than the best one there. In the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs they have a contraption in the swimming pool that they harness a swimmer into and then set it to move at world record speed, just so he knows what that feels like and knows how far she is from swimming that fast. Brilliant.
Everyone has their own way in which they learn the best so there is not one path to get there from here. One thing everybody advises is shoot a lot a lot, and edit mercilessly. Remember, good is no longer good enough, you’re going for great. Maybe it is my humble upbringing, but I still have a hard time trashing a good image just because it isn’t great,even though it is just pixels. I’m too thrifty for my own good.
Another universal recommendation is to look at a lot of good photographs. The Popular and Editor’s Choice galleries on 500px is a good place to do that on a daily basis. Compare those images with what you see on Flickr and you will soon appreciate the difference between good and great.
My favorite illustration in the book shows one stick figure saying “But, what if I fail?” And the other stick figure says, “We all get to laugh at you.”
All of the above images were old chrome slides I pulled and scanned recently. Even back then, five to ten years ago, I could take a decent photograph, I just couldn’t do it as consistently as I can now. I cringe at what I didn’t throw away. But back then I was trying to get to good, not great.
Once you have mastered photography and can consistently take great photographs that everybody loves, then you will hit plateaus with your marketing and need to either work through it, or change direction with something new. It never ends.