Design a site like this with
Get started

Stretching Benner’s box

I’m back to talking about how we learn to be better photographers. I have seen loads of resources that will tell you how apertures and shutter speeds work (guilty) but not how to get beyond them. Knowing how the tools work is a necessary part of getting better, but doesn’t confer goodness in itself. You do need to be a master of the tools, but that won’t make you a master of the craft.

We could tell people to go off and get 10,000 hours of practice, but effort without reflection is just effort. You could just end-up being good at changing the settings on your camera. A brief aside – I was listening to a podcast (name withheld to avoid blame) with the hosts discussing cameras. Nowt new there then. Except they were describing them in terms of how nicely they worked. This one had a smooth film advance; that one had a nice finger grip. This is cameras as jewellery and nothing to do with photography. What chance does anyone have of improving their art if the lesson is that you need a ‘nice’ camera? How does a beginner feel if their camera is not on the approved list? </rant> Let’s dismiss it as camera porn.

The reasons for my thinking about this are that I helped teach a basic Photoshop course a few summers back, plus I get told by people that they would like to know more about how to do photography and want to get better at it.

Turns out that there was another skilled profession that used to be thought of as only needing a bit of craft skill. And then someone described the stages of transition from novice to expert and recognised that these people spent more time in critical situations and applied an equal amount of expertise as their previously-thought masters. Meet nursing, and Pat Benner.

What Benner described (based on the work of the brace of Dreyfuses) was the stages in development from ‘follow the master’ to ‘be the master’ (Zen and the art of professional development – my new book will be out in the Autumn). The model describes what can be expected of a person at a certain level and how they would demonstrate their expertise. If I rework these to refer to photography, this is what you get:


  • Beginner with no experience
  • Taught general rules to help perform tasks
  • Rules are context-free, independent of specific cases, and applied universally
  • Rule-governed behavior is limited and inflexible
  • Example behaviour is “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.”

Advanced beginner

  • Demonstrates acceptable performance
  • Has gained prior experience in actual situations and can recognise recurring meaningful components
  • Principles, based on experiences, begin to be formulated to guide actions


  • Typically someone with 2-3 years experience in the same area or in similar day-to-day situations
  • More aware of long-term goals
  • Gains perspective from planning own actions based on conscious, abstract, and analytical thinking which helps to achieve greater efficiency and organisation


  • Perceives and understands situations as whole parts
  • More holistic understanding improves decision-making
  • Learned from experiences what to expect in certain situations and how to modify plans


  • No longer relies on rigid principles, rules, or guidelines to connect situations and determine actions
  • Much more background of experience
  • Has intuitive grasp of photographic situations
  • Performance is now fluid, flexible, and highly-proficient

The different levels of skills reflect changes in three aspects of performance:

  1. Movement from relying on abstract principles to using past concrete experiences to guide actions
  2. Change in the learner’s perception of situations as whole parts rather than in separate pieces
  3. Passage from a detached observer to an involved performer – no longer outside the situation but now actively engaged in participation

These are all well known in education. There has been much research and argument both for and against Benner, but in general these are the stages by which we progress from beginner to guru.

This is all very well, but where’s the box? Meet Dunning and Kruger. Their theory and research says that we are all incompetent to some degree. What changes is our actual level of competence and our self-awareness of how much we know within the total space of what can be known. Basically, people with less competence in a subject tend to over-estimate their actual competence. As competence grows, one tends to become more aware of how there is that you don’t know. This helps explain why people feel like imposters. It also explains why people who know just a little about something can speak with great certainty, while experts are aware of all the uncertainties and so speak with more hesitancy. Take comfort in this – if you have ever been criticised by someone who seems absolutely set in their opinion and convinced of their correctness, they probably know less than they think. Just be aware, before you call them an eejit, that your box is only slightly bigger than theirs.


So there’s the box: it’s the bounding box around what we know, within the space of what is available to know. Benner provides the framework for expanding the box. Indeed, Benner provides a method for recognising what stage of expertise you might be at, so that you don’t get trapped into thinking you already know everything.

And the title? Stolen with pride from a senior nurse and educator in health sciences who used it in a lecture to nurses.

Why should you be interested in this? You just want to take pictures, right? If you want to get better at it, then learning how to learn is an important part of learning.

Shoot back
Curiosity never ends

Enough! My box in this area is so small it approaches the Planck limit (really; no false modesty). Get out and take some pictures, but be mindful of what you are doing and what results you got. You could be stretching your own box.


Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

One thought on “Stretching Benner’s box”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: