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Q. What Is The Aspiring Photographer’s Problem?

A. Not enough time in the Learning Zone


“A good photograph is one that communicates a fact,

touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it.

It is, in a word, effective.”

Irving Penn


High-risk performance zones

We spend much of our lives in a high-risk performance zone, we are doing what we normally do to make a great picture. In order to improve any photographic skill, for some of the time we need a low risk learning zone. We cannot learn or improve the performance of the skills or knowledge at the same time as doing them.

Improvement and performance of the photo skills are separate but linked functions.


The performance element

To make improvement effective, the performance element needs to be put to one side for a while. Once in the learning zone, there are real opportunities to master techniques without the pressure of getting the shot absolutely right first time.

Learning Zones 

The goal of the Learning zone is an improvement, concentrating what you have not mastered yet, deliberate practice, mistakes are expected and corrected through feedback, the outcome is growth and future self-expression.

A safe place to try

The intended output of the two zones are completely different and should not be confused.

When you are continually in the photographer performance zone your ability to learn, grow and ultimately express yourself stagnates due to a lack of influence and training.

In the learning zone, you are in safe place to fill your learning gaps in a structured way through deliberate practice and feedback.

Effective Learning and Performance Zones 

Learning and Performance Zones – an overview 

The most effective people and teams in any domain do something we can all emulate. They go through life deliberately alternating between two zones: the learning zone and the performance zone. In our case the performance zone is the photography zone.

The learning zone is where our goal is to improve our performance. We do activities designed for improvement, concentrating on what we haven’t mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them.



Learning ZonePerformance Zone
GoalImproveDo as best we can
Activities forImprovementExecution
Concentrate onHasn’t mastered yetHave mastered
Mistakes to beExpectedMinimized
BenefitGrowth and future performanceImmediate performance

This is very different from what we normally do when we’re in our performance or photography zone. There our goal is to do as best as we can, to execute the repeated practice in the learning zone. In our performance zone we concentrate on what we have already mastered and try to minimise mistakes.

The table opposite describes the pro’ and cons of the Learning and Performance Zones

learning zone

“Your first 10,000 pictures (film negatives) are the worst.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

In the photography performance zone skill attainment usually plateaus. Agreed best practice to enhance CameraWork skills is to make regular visits to the Learning Zone.

learning zone

Hitting the shutter button

many thousands of times

(without constructive feedback)

does not help


We do not improve as photographer because we are constantly in the photographer zone pressing the shutter release button. It is highly recommended that you dedicate your time and effort to the learning zone as the accepted best practice to improve your photo skills and knowledge.



In the learning zone shortfalls of artistic awareness and technical competence are identified, embedding skill exercises are used to build skills and knowledge. The range of embedding skills exercises are designed to be just beyond your current level of attainment, so mistakes will happen. Consistent and accurate feedback is given at the time to help rectify errors in technique and thinking. This leads to significant improvement with a far better outcome than extended time pressing the shutter button over and over again.

learning zone


Learning Zone Photographer Zone
Aim To make your best, betterDoing the best you can with what you know
Activities for Skill embedding exercises designed for learning, growing and self – expression Accomplishment
Concentrate on Artistic and technical topics that have not been mastered – yet Skills and knowledge that have already been mastered
Mistakes to be Expected and welcomed Minimized
BenefitsEnlarged growth, future performance and self-expressionImmediate performance, restricted future growth and self-expression

Best Practice – frequently switching into the effective Learning Zone 

Just focusing on taking pictures in the photographer zone is not a great way to improve the range of necessary skills to be a rounded expressive photographer. The best photographers will consistently spend time in the learning zone to build their skill base. 

They read to extend their knowledge, consult with other photography experts, try out new strategies, seek feedback and reflect on the new ways of thinking and doing. 

For example, the best chess players spend time not playing chess, which would be their performance zone, but they try to predict the moves grand masters made and analysing them. 

Zone Switching 

The way to become a better photographer is to switch between the learning and photographer (doing) zones, in well-balanced proportions. The amount time you spend in the learning zone will be for you to decide.

How can we spend more time in a low risk Learning Zone?

1 Believe that you are a talented photographer with a growth mind-set

2 Have the passion and purpose to expend your time and effort improving your achievements

3 Have ideas about what and how you want to improve your photographic practice

4 Choose low risk environments to learn within for example reading books, on-line videos, courses, workshops and masterclasses

When you are in a high risk environment, for example, you have driven for two hours before dawn to capture the sunrise in your favourite bay when the light, weather and tide look to be right. You will want everything to go right from the moment you step out of the car. You cannot afford not to get the shots you have planned in your head for so long. The picture will be your entry to the Landscape Photographer of the year competition. Now is not the time to be wondering how to use ND graduated filters and whether your camera does time-lapse capture or not. The light and tide will be constantly changing there may only be a small window opportunity when all the constituent elements are in the correct place.

learning zone

Creating a low risk Learning Zone

1 Find a mentor or a trusted friend to give you honest feedback

2 Set a regular date and time to read, watch on-line videos, or take an on-line course

3 When editing your pictures straight after a shoot, review what went well and what did not go so well and make notes. You are in the learning zone when you observe, reflect and adjust your photographic practice.

learning zone

Real confidence as a photographer comes from making solid improvements to your artistic awareness and technical skills in the learning zone. Confidence grows enabling you to fully express yourself as an expressive photographer when you spend more time exploring, asking, listening, experimenting, reflecting, striving and becoming. You will be well on the way to unconscious competence in the picture taking and making workflow when you are sure of what you know and that you can use your knowledge at will in an appropriate situation.


When you get clear in your mind when is the right time to learn and when to perform as a photographer, your best photographs will become even better.

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Learning Zone

Best Practice – Switching into the Learning Zone



You only take and make the pictures you already recognise