The Four Stages of Photographic Competence

In a previous post, Five Reasons Why You’ll Always Suck at Photography, I talked about some of the things that could be holding you back from really excelling at your art. Here, I’m going to take a look at the stages of competence you typically go through when trying to actively learn a new skill and how you can identify where you are in your stage of learning photography (or anything come to that).

In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the conscious competence learning model, relate to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. From Wikipedia, the four stages of competence are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence. The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence. Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence. The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence. The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

There is sometimes another effect at play when it comes to assessing one’s competence called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is where people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. For a far better explanation see this video by John Cleese.

So how does all this apply to becoming better at photography?

As a way of mapping the four stages of competence I’ve captured them on a quadrant matrix, often used in business for identifying what is important when making strategic decisions. In each quadrant I’ve added five attributes that for me help clarify the key criteria for being at that stage of conscious competence. More importantly, by seeing how these criteria change (going clockwise from bottom left to bottom right) you can begin to understand what you need to do to advance through the stages of photographic competence.


In many ways these competencies map to the stages of creative evolution defined by Ming Thein and which I discuss here. I like the above chart because it clearly enables you to identify where you are on your photographic journey and thus begin to think about how to improve yourself and get to the next stage.

An interesting observation on the above is that usually, when this sort of chart is applied to business decision making, the goal is to get to the upper right quadrant i.e. being high/high in whatever criteria is being assessed. In this case however high competence but low consciousness is the goal. That is to say you are good at what you do, so good in fact you don’t have to consciously think about it. This sounds about right to me and in fact reinforces another view of mine. That is that our obsession with buying new equipment is not only a waste of money when it comes to making better photographs but is actually more detrimental than just to your bank balance because you will never actually master what you have. In other words you will never become unconsciously competent because you’ll never truly master how to use your gear.

Psychologists like to posit additional stages to this conscious competence learning model including a fifth one of complacency, when the person continues to practise the skill which has become automatic and second nature, but, over time, allows bad habits to form.

I guess like it or not we can all be guilty of complacency whatever stage of competence we believe we are operating at.

Given these four (or five) stages what can you do to actively move around the scale to become a more unconsciously-competent photographer? You can probably guess a fair few of these but that’s something I’m going to look at in a future post.

2 Replies to “The Four Stages of Photographic Competence”

  1. andybeel says:

    Hi Peter an excellent and detailed post, a many after my own heart, thank you. Andy Beel FRPS

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