What It Takes to Be a Competent Photographer

Suppose you've been taking pretty good photographs with a point-and-shoot camera, but you want more. You want to get a digital single-lens-reflex camera and learn how to use it well. What's involved?

That's what I was wondering in February 2008 when I bought my DSLR. Here are some suggestions for anyone who's starting out down the same path.

I'll start with my rough, idiosyncratic view of what matters in digital photography—and how much it matters:

Equipment: 5%
Technical knowledge: 10%
Processing:  15%
Composition: 70%


Acquiring adequate equipment is the easiest part. That's because the photographic gear available today is—for the most part—very good. I think there's a widespread tendency to exaggerate the significance of differences in gear. It's easy to get the impression from some photography magazines that being a good photographer consists mostly of buying the new Tamron 10-500 lens with fuel injection and automatic goof correction.

I started with entry-level equipment: a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, a Canon 17-85 kit lens, a mediocre tripod, and a cable release. Three years later, I've added several lenses and filters, but otherwise my basic package of gear remains unchanged. My entry-level camera is still capable of taking better photographs than I am. Occasionally I bump up against my camera's limits, but not often. I'll get better gear if what I have ever starts holding me back in a significant way, or if I ever win the lottery. Neither has happened yet.

The first photograph of mine that won any kind of award was taken with the poorest lens I've ever used—a second-hand Canon telephoto lens that was old, cheap, slow and soft. Happily, I finally replaced it. For all of its shortcomings, though, that lens could still take a good photograph when I did my job.

If you can afford the best equipment, buy it. Just don't think it will make you a good photographer. If we can't take good photographs with today's entry-level gear, we probably won't take good photographs with expensive gear, either. 

Technical Knowledge

There's a certain amount of technical knowledge we have to have to be good photographers, particularly with regard to exposure. I was slow to learn the technical side of photography. It wasn't as much fun as the other aspects of photography, and technical subjects don't come easily to me.

But the technical side isn't hard. We have to learn it sooner or later, and sooner is much better. I wasted some excellent photographic opportunities because I hadn't mastered such fundamentals as exposure and depth of field.

When I first got my DSLR, I was shooting JPEGs with the camera set to auto-everything. We can get some decent shots with such an "auto" approach, under average conditions. But conditions aren't always average. The next photograph was taken a few weeks ago at Arizona Falls in Phoenix, under very low light.  The shot required a 2.5-second exposure. I'm not sure that I could have gotten even a tolerable photograph with an automatic mode. I'm quite sure that I couldn't have gotten one I liked.

The only difficult thing about taking this photograph was that I was surrounded by rushing water with no restroom nearby.

Innumerable books explain the technical aspects of photography. I found Tom Ang's books helpful. Get some good books, and read and study them. Most of the books I read were borrowed from the public library or purchased at a used bookstore. Classes would probably be a good idea. I wish I'd taken some.

I recommend reading and studying the camera's instruction manual. It's amazing how many people don't. We really do need to know what those dials and buttons do.


I know one photographer who has much more talent for photography than I do. His finished images are often not what they ought to be, though. That's because he doesn't like processing, and he won't learn more than the rudiments.

Processing isn't primarily about inserting strange effects into our photographs. It's mostly about maximizing the quality of the photographs we take. Processing won't make a bad photograph good. It can make a good photograph all that it should be. Who wants to work hard to get a good image, and then settle for third-rate processing?

Processing involves more than skill. It also requires judgment and restraint. If I look at a photograph that purports to be realistic and find myself immediately thinking about the processing, that photograph won't work for me. I view that as bad processing. The judgment and restraint that keep us from overdoing our processing come from practice and experience.

I've previously shared my thoughts about software. Adobe Lightroom is much easier to learn than layers-based programs. I wish I'd started with it.


It's hard to overstate the importance of composition. Without an interesting subject and a good composition, a photograph will be nothing, no matter how good our gear is or our skills are. Edward Weston, who knew how to compose a photograph, could have taken good photographs with a cell phone.

There's a lot more to learning composition than understanding the Suggestion of Thirds. (I don't view it as a rule, but it's often a good suggestion.) I've never read an entirely satisfactory book about composition. Probably the best I've read is Michael Freeman's The Photographer's Eye.

As I studied books about composition, I wondered at times whether the concepts being discussed were really useful to photographers in the field. I think they are. Those concepts become embedded in our minds as compositional templates. In the field, we then recognize when a particular arrangement of visual elements produces dynamic diagonal lines, enhances perspective, or creates visual balance.  

The following photograph of a lake near Show Low, Arizona, incorporates a very common and almost formulaic approach to composition. It probably wouldn't have occurred to me to compose the shot in this manner, though, if I hadn't read about the approach.

I recommend reading as much about composition as you can tolerate. Then go out with your camera and practice what you've read.   

Photographs are about light. We need to become sensitive to its variations. Scenes can vary enormously depending on the time of day and the weather conditions. There are a number of helpful books devoted to the subject of light, including Jim Zuckerman's Techniques of Natural Light Photography.

Be deliberate about composition. Spend plenty of time choosing the precise place from which to take a photograph. Then study and refine what's in the viewfinder. Use a tripod as much as you can. It's a nuisance because it slows you down, but slowing down is desirable. We're more likely to be careful about composition when we're using a tripod. We'll take fewer photographs, but we'll probably take more photographs that are worth keeping.

Other Suggestions

Get advice and criticism. I owe a lot to two fine photographers who patiently explained all that I was doing wrong in my early attempts, and how I could do better. Once you've acquired some basic competence, offer your photographs for critique on an internet forum. Tell people you want criticism—and mean it. Having our egos stroked won't help us learn. Criticism can.

Practice. My wife wishes I'd spend less time practicing photography and more time on home repairs, but I think our place looks fine.

I've been addressing what it takes to be competent.  What it takes to be good is a different question. If I knew the answer to that one, I'd probably take good photographs a lot more consistently than I do.  I suspect that being good requires all that competence requires, plus imagination, diligence, experience and a willingness to take risks. And, of course, one of those vests with a lot of pockets.

That's my two cents' worth. I'd be interested in hearing from readers who have other views.

Don Peters' photographs can be found at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/

Discussion 5

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Don, very good article.  Couldn't agree more.  The composition, the art side of it, is the hardest to learn for most of us and the most important.

It might be time to pick up around the house a little though.  I'm just saying.

 Don, good piece with lots of good advice.  Dragging myself up out of horrid snapshots to finally get a couple of decent images took all of what you mentioned.  I found that looking at other photographer's images and seeing the what, how, where, when of the image helps as well.  Posting mine for critiques on sites such as photo.net helps as well.  Finally, when I got a decent camera body, I read the manual, front to back.  I was amazed at all that it could do to help me.

Finally, I tend to agree with Leroy that the house could use a bit of tidying up.


Leroy AZ, GF Kremer, thanks for the comments.  And I'll give some thought to the possibility of sweeping the house.... 

Excellent!!!  Very insightful.  I appreciate it Don.  This is the type of information that a rookie photographer can grow with...especially one with a Canon Digital Rebel XT budget.  Thanks.  Brian

Critic away people...I've got tons to learn:

I believe you know what you are talking about.  I feel that I need help composing my shots.  Consistancy is what I'm after.