The Evolution of the Pro Photographer Through Phases and Crises

The professional growth of a photographer, and therefore the maturity of his or her projects, passes through several phases. Different phases require different skills from the photographer. In each phase the work and the goal of photography change, the maturity of his or her work grows.

Borrowing ideas from Greiner’s growth model (good designers copy, great designers steal), I came up with a model for the evolution of the commercial photographer. Just like Greiner’s famous model, my model has different phases. It also has crisis moments marking the transition from one phase to the next. And I want to say right away that this is a rather subjective model, and I’m sure it’s different for everyone.

Phase 1: Creators

The foundation of photography is creating beautiful images. This is a fundamental skill of any photographer. It’s what is taught in art school. That’s why photographers become photographers, to create beauty. It’s what makes photography appealing. It’s what most people imagine when they think of photography.

The creator uses classic tools and possesses aesthetic skills: color grading, rhythm, form. Further professional growth depends on learning and mastering to create more beautiful things.

Crisis 1: Scale

The first moment of crisis comes when the photographer succeeds. The better the photography gets, the more photo projects he or she can work on. The photographer needs to collaborate with more people and create projects on a larger scale. It requires tools that help to create more complex photography.

This is quite an obstacle for a creator who was taught in art school to work solo on a single project and who has mastered the craft to perfection.

Phase 2: Art Directors

When photographers overcome the obstacles of collaboration and systems thinking, they become art directors. They now work with larger teams of stylists, agencies, and even approach retouching and color grading differently. Further growth will ensure better collaboration and sharpened systems thinking.

Crisis 2: Co-creation

An art director works with stylists, brands, location scouts, magazines, editors, etc. He or she develops beautiful and on-trend projects. Now the final picture has more impact because the scale is bigger. But sometimes the team does their work not according to the assignment, but in the way they want or know how to do it. And that’s where the problems come in…

If the team wants more impact, the next hurdle they have to overcome is establishing the perfect point of interaction. The photographer (AKA art director) needs to become a problem solver, not a picture maker. For the photographer to allow others to participate in his or her process is a big leap.

Phase 3: Connectors

If the photographer can connect to all stakeholders and develop organizational skills, he or she can create much bigger solutions. To establish a dialogue, the photographer must understand the language of the business.

Crisis 3: Crisis of Complexity

Even if you’ve worked it all out, put ideas together in powerful mood boards, you’re faced with the fact that the reality of your idea is too complex to implement. Creating large-scale projects takes a lot of time and money, and in our complex world doesn’t bring enough value. Either the world has changed since TikTok, or it turns out you’ve drifted far into creativity. To solve this problem, the photographer must become a researcher, or better yet, a scientist. Scared?

Phase 4: Scientists

Scientists are able to build, measure, and learn, apply their unique perspective, mindset, and skillset to lift projects to a higher level. Such a hybrid approach of the artistic, combined with analytical thinking, allows them to create even more valuable projects. Visual thinking, ability to create concrete things, creativity, courage, and ability to see connections all contribute to the quality and success of the projects. They no longer do tasks, they create them. Take a look at Nick Knight‘s photography projects, for example.

And that’s when they discover their superpowers, they want more. They want maximum influence: to lead people according to their visions.

Crisis 4: Leadership Crisis

And now the photographer faces the final crisis. It needs to raise his or her leadership status. When the photographer was an art director, he or she was already leading a team. But now the playing field has changed. It is no longer just influencing a team, it is about influencing entire organizations.

It’s not just about learning how to communicate properly like when it was at the “connectors” phase. It’s a step up. It requires understanding how modern designers, brands and entire industries think and work. To break the rules, you have to learn them first.

There is a growing need in business for a new type of leadership based on imagination. A powerful image can be a tremendous force for change.

About the author: Dmitry Ostrovsky (@ostrovsky) is a photographer and editor of the independent editorial board EDITTS (@editts.class), which is the most useful and beautiful blog about contemporary photography on Instagram in Russia and the CIS. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Image credits: Header photo licensed from Depositphotos