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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.


Picture story

We – blogs, podcasts, websites – spend too much time talking about the gear and not enough about what we bought the gear for: the pictures. So here is a picture and the story behind it.

This is my dad. Was my dad. It’s not a great scan, but that’s not the point. My dad worked a lot with his hands. He was an electrician and later a maintenance guy in a large supermarket. In between he built everything we had, including (with a group) the house we lived in. I never saw my dad without some sort of injury to his hands. He would have a black fingernail, or cuts and a gashed knuckle. Shaking hands was like being power-sanded.

Later in his retirement he got sick, partly possibly due to the asbestos he was exposed to – it used to be sprayed onto the steelwork in large buildings to make them more fireproof. But he was a tough old bird and the lung damage was just a thing. He coped with more diseases then would kill a brown dog and had more come-backs than a prog-rock band. His nickname was Lazarus. This weekend would have been his birthday.

But that’s not the story. The story is a very simple one: this is my dad and these are his hands. He made stuff, he mended stuff and he held together a family.

Strong hands.

Hoppy birdy

One year of blogging. Slightly more than one post a week. What do I think of it so far? More to the point, what does my reader think of it so far?

The ideas keep coming, which is good. I have tried to avoid repeating myself, even though I do (repeatedly). I have mostly avoided talking technogabble about lenses or cameras. Mainly because I can’t review anything I don’t already own, and what I own is generally cheap and well-worn. Besides, camera reviews, at least the earnest ones that try to do a proper job, are boring. I have talked a lot about film, but I do shoot a lot of film. Besides, I am a film-using photographer.

How am I doing with my resolutions? I’ve taken some pictures of people that made me smile. Oddly, I have even taken some landscapes that other people like. I have even taken some that I like. I don’t intend to make a career out of it though – that’s landscapes, not taking pleasing photographs.

Duck Race 2019

Still haven’t found a good hat. Or rather, I have, but the rest of the world disagrees. In this case the world is wrong.

I did say I was going to sell-off some old kit and get the Kiev fixed. A quote to repair it is less than the cost of a replacement camera body from fleabay. Still more than I was hoping to spend though. No worries, I thought, sell something to cover the cost. The obvious sacrifice is a Yashicamat TLR. Given that I don’t shoot that much medium format, why not repair the camera that has a range of lenses and drop the other one?Except the TLR is the original pre-124g model from around 1957. Same lens etc but no meter. I found one on fleabay and watched it to get an idea of prices. It went for £40. There does come a point where it feels there is no point in selling something. If only I’d bought a Leica back when they were piled in camera shop junk bins for 50p*. If only I didn’t keep breaking stuff.

Perhaps a bigger question is why I am still blogging and not podcasting? After all, the analogue/ grain/ film podcasts are popping up like mushrooms (and developing a growing tendency to interview each other in an audible caucus race). Because writing suits me better than talking. I like to start with an idea and develop it (even if it looks like I don’t). I like to be able to show pictures with the words. I like being able to work in the small gaps between other things. If I had a podcast I would have to devote the same period of time each week to recording it. As a writer I can have several ideas in development and maintain a list of scheduled posts for a few weeks ahead. If one article takes me three months to write that’s fine – I can release it when it’s ready. Plus the writing makes me happy. And after all, dear reader, I am doing this as much for me as for you. For me it’s therapy – it quells those inner voices that say I should give up or just use a camera phone (and the ones that say I should kill again….). After reading this stuff you may want therapy too. Meet you at the pub.

Burning down the house

The main thing though is that I am learning from this. I could say that I’m growing, but that’s the pies. I’ve shown more of my pictures to more people in the last year than in probably all of the preceding ones. I’ve written regularly. One day there is a faint hope that I will finish the thriller I started writing, but in the odd few times I have even looked at it I can see that my writing has improved. No, really. Imagine what it used to be like.

So, what’s next?

More mutterings about photography, obviously. I’m like a lot of people in that while it’s important to me, it’s not the biggest thing in my life. I don’t have to earn a living from it, which is just as well if you believe that it’s one of the 25 worst jobs. That has to be worst-paid; I can think of far worse jobs.

More part-formed opinions and shallow commentary. More innocent joy at simple things like being in focus. Probably breaking more stuff. We’re off diving again soon, so there will be plenty of opportunities for destroying cameras and taking fuzzy pictures of green things in green fog.

More to the point, I am free and able to enjoy photography. Yay!

* Turns out I did, but was too stupid to realise. I bought what I thought was a damaged lens and was happy to use it as it was. It was only when I came to write about it that I looked a bit more carefully at the damage and realised it was an intentional design feature. So the cheap experiment turns out to be worth perhaps one hundred times what I paid for it. I should have bought a lottery ticket at the same time.

Taking it from the streets

I live in a very touristy place, so there are probably more pictures of me as background than there are of me in the family album. These will all be accidental though – shots of the side of my head as I walk through their picture. There are so many snappers that I usually don’t even try to walk behind the photographer. I used to, but there are too many of them. I’m still not mean enough to photobomb people’s selfies in front of the usual church/ old building/ old street though.

So how would I feel if someone asked to take my picture? The answer would usually be no.

If we don’t know each other, I can think of no reason why anyone would want a picture of me. Granted, if I was doing something interesting there might be a reason, but the reason would be the thing that I am doing and not my dashing good looks. I’ve got a good face for radio and the only reason I can think of that you would want my portrait is as a warning to children about the perils of loose drink and strong women.

Likewise, I don’t see myself as a street photographer. I have and will continue to take pictures of friends, family and colleagues. The same with people doing things. I love taking pictures of sports, but I don’t think I like people enough to want pictures of anyone I don’t know. There is also the privacy thing: much as I would not want to be photographed, I believe I should apply the same rules to other people.


So that mostly breaks the idea of street photography for me. That’s the second one off my list. If I’m not careful I’ll end up taking pictures of flowers with fuzzy backgrounds and lusting after lenses with better aberrations. (Too late.) So how do I reconcile the conflicting desires to take more pictures of people but not take pictures of people I don’t know?

Family, friends, colleagues – not only no problem, but I like to take pictures of them. I’m a normal friendly chap, after all. Primarily what drives me though is activity. I have found that trying to get someone to sit for a portrait is awkward for both of us. But if you are doing something, I’m right there and I’ll get your expression. Most recently it was my mum giving a running commentary on the neighbours while washing dishes. I’ll not show it here because she’s not happy with her hair. But it’s so typical of her that I’m glad I have it.

Simon King has written a good description of his approach to street photography. I love his shots that have the odd juxtapositions and humour and I hope I would have taken them too. But to stop someone in the street because I like the way they look or dress? Not my thing at all. But that’s just me – I have no valid opinion on what’s right or wrong here. I can explain how I feel and what I do, but in this my opinion caries less weight than someone who actually does do street photography.

So what I will actually do is to carry on taking pictures of people I know and very definitely taking pictures of people doing things. But actual ‘in the street’ photography I will probably confine to the occasional odd thing that makes me smile. More straight than street.

Laffin Bob

Do I worry that I’m missing-out on a photographic essential? No: there’s plenty left for me to enjoy. I’m also not part of the APS or large format revivals so I’m content to be off the pace. More hip replacement than hipster – that’s me.

Your mileage may vary, as they used to say.

Owed to joy

It happens sometimes. Not every time, but often enough that the pleasure compensates the pain.

I opened the developing tank and unspooled the film to hang it up to dry. It was shot under varying conditions with a simple meterless camera. All the frames look consistently exposed. A good start.

Then I scanned them, and a little song started in my heart. One frame was an experiment based on something I heard on the Studio C41 podcast. They were talking about large format photography and exposure, and it relates exactly to what I have been thinking about. The point of the discussion was to meter and expose for the shadows and let the film latitude and a compensating developer take care of the highlights. Basically – overexpose.

I had exposed for the shadow cast by a sunlit willow tree and the scan shows loads of detail in the shadows and luminous highlights. You can colour me happy. I’m not a great fan of landscapes, but I had been shooting some while we were in Anglesey. Those pictures made me happy too – black wiggly trees on white sand. This is what it’s all about. As the man said “I enjoy photography because it makes me sad and I hate the outcome, said no one ever”.

Willow, Monk Stray

At the end of the roll were a few frames I had shot with a new lens. New to me: it was made in the seventies. A couple of shots of stuff at infinity and a few taken as close as I could get and showing plenty of background. Very interesting, and another wee thrill for my jaded senses. The out of focus areas look rather interesting, and very different to the lens I used for the willow tree and landscapes. So interesting, that I want to see what it will do to colours. So onto the digital camera it goes, so that I can get immediate feedback.

Moor Monkton woods

Very interesting again. Very smooth backgrounds when close, tending towards a bit of swirly when further away. I need to try this on some portraits as the vignetting looks ideal. Plus it made me play with the digital SLR, which has been a bit neglected of late. I remembered that it has a feature of being able to take multiple exposures and merge them into a single shot, adjusting the total exposure. So I got the manual out and had a go. So that’s a new trick in the bag for when the right time comes along. The camera is an older generation digital, so suffers from noise when you use high ISO. So what I’m thinking is to shoot night skies by combining a series of longer exposures at lower ISO. This might also average-out the noise.

Happiness: enjoying what you have done and being excited to do more. Yay!

So, knowing that I used to be Beaker in a former life, this is how I interpret the title of this post. Enjoy.

Thrifty fifties

Gotta love a standard lens. Not too hard to get good performance out of, and there used to be one attached to every changeable-lens camera that was sold. There’s a lot of them about and they can be reasonably priced.

I have been using a wide-aperture standard lens that I got from a charity shop. It was a bit of a punt, as the rear element looked like it was chipped at the edge. But if you imagine that the lens throws a cone of light at the film plane to cover a rectangular frame, the damage was lined-up with the long edge of the film. I hoped that this would put any problems well outside the actual area captured by the film. I also painted the chipped area with black paint. It was worth a try, and how else am I going to get an f1.2 lens for the price of a coffee?


It renders nicely, and the out of focus areas are busy but interesting. (Eek! I’m turning into a bokeh monster)


It can get a bit too busy if there are highlights in the background though.


The chip in the lens is a bit odd though. There is no damage to the lens from being dropped and the design of the lens almost means there has to be a cutaway in the rear element to clear the aperture-operating pin. If anyone else has one of these (Tomioka Auto Yashinon 55mm 1:1.2) do let me know what a good one looks like. And yes, I know this lens uses radioactive glass. It’s an alpha emitter, so stopped by a lens cap.

I’ve also got an Industar 50-2. This is a weird little Soviet pancake lens that came with a Praktica as a rear cap. The maximum aperture is f3.5, but it renders backrounds really smoothly.

Now those are eyelashes

This cost the equivalent of a couple of fancy coffees. Probably less, because I don’t drink CostaBucks so I don’t really know what they cost. It vignettes a bit when wide open, but that adds to the results when I use it as a portrait lens on a crop-sensor digital camera (making it equivalent to a 75mm).

I’ve also got a Helios-44 which does the swirly background thing if you get close.


I’d also like to point out that my versions of these lenses seem to break the golden rules of lens-buying. What we are told is that scratches on the front element are OK, but don’t buy anything that has damage to the rear element. Avoid lenses with fungus – except the Industar 50-2 had spider’s webs instead. And if you buy a Helios-44, get one where you can turn the focus ring. Mine is so stiff it unscrews the lens rather than focusing.

Don’t care though – they cost peanuts and I enjoy using them because of the results.


So I got curious enough to go and find what my ‘chipped’ lens looks like, and it appears that the cropped rear element is a real thing and was made that way. I can only think it must have put other people (than this chancer) off, which is why it was cheap.


I have just found what these f1.2 lenses sell for. Eek! This is very far from a thrifty fifty. So, do I sell it to fund some other work, or keep it to continue playing with?

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