Three Legs of Mastery

posted in: Photography, The Art of Seeing | 1

tracks in the snow

I stumbled on a photography book recently that I was able to borrow. It’s called The Photographer’s Coach: Helping you achieve success in your photography, by Robin Whalley.

Instead of focusing on teaching techniques, Whalley digs into the development of mastery based upon a framework that he suggests can help you to progress and understand how to improve your photography.

I was intrigued by Whalley’s framework because it speaks to some of the questions I have had about moving forward as an artist.

Plein-air painter

Life Mastery, Not Just Photography Mastery

As I read Whalley’s ideas, it occurred to me that these areas can apply to any area of life you are trying to master, whether it be a creative art, personal mastery, or career mastery.

Whalley’s framework is based on 3 interlocking areas of growth—

  1. Inspiration
  2. Skills
  3. Vision

Whalley maintains that all three areas contribute towards building mastery and one cannot achieve mastery without paying attention to all three. According to Whalley it’s not the strongest area that limits your growth as a photographer, but your weakest area. That is where you must place your attention and effort if you are to grow.

At first I didn’t agree with the idea of focusing on your weakest area as the most important contributor to building mastery. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that we too often focus on skills alone when inspiration and vision are equally important.


Inspiration is your internal motivation for making photographs (or whatever art or whatever you create). It depends upon what inspires you and what brings you joy.

Skills are the technical building blocks that allow you to create. For photographers, these include composition, understanding how to use your tools (camera, light, lenses, software).

Vision is the unique way that you see the world. No two people see things the same way. Each photographer will have their own way of creating and sharing the image with others. By building a strong vision those with similar sensibilities see your vision and connect with your work.

There is one more piece that is critical that Whalley didn’t mention. That is discipline. Without the discipline to work consistently on growing all three areas, you will not develop mastery.

For me to find the discipline to practice long hours at something, I need to be doing something that fills me with joy, that I find endlessly challenging and fascinating, and that gives me regular feedback on how I’m doing. Photography is that thing for me.

jump for joy

Express Your Unique Point of View

What struck me about these three interlocking areas of growth is that 2 of the 3 areas depend upon growing and expressing your unique self and motivations. Yet far too often, I see photographers or other artists focusing solely on building their skills.

“If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” – Jay Maisel

Here are some of my own ideas about how to better express your unique point of view:

  1. Notice what brings you joy in your daily life. If you cannot think of anything, think about things that brought you joy as a child. (For me it was making things, flower gardens, and trees.)
  2. Develop a practice of doing at least one thing each day that brings you joy. Over time, think about how those things which bring you joy can inspire your work.
  3. As much as is possible, don’t do things because you “should” do them. Learn to say “No” to activities that don’t bring you joy.
  4. Try new things. Explore. Pay attention to your own unique joy signals and anti-joy signs.
  5. Travel by yourself to someplace new. Notice what captures your attention? What draws you in? What repels you?
  6. Notice when fear stops you from doing something you are drawn to. Can you feel the fear and do it anyway?
  7. Be kind and compassionate with yourself on the journey. There is no one right way.

 Do the Work

When I first began I copied the work of others I admired. I tried lots of different kinds of photography and I focused primarily on growing my skills. The more experience I gain, the more I find myself developing a vision or voice of my own.

“Allow yourself to lose your way.” – Jay Maisel

Here are some of my favorite ideas from Whalley’s book for building mastery (you may need to translate from photography into the field that lights you up):

  1. Make a list of times you have felt highly motivated and inspired to take photographs. Think about the rare times when it seemed that the stars aligned and  you felt totally immersed in what you were doing. What was the source of your inspiration? Are there common themes that you see?
  2. Create a portfolio by selecting 20 of your past images that you like the most. Print them at 5″x4″ or a similar size. Lay them out together or better yet, pin the images to a board that is hung where you see it regularly. When you look at all of the images together do they look like a body of work? Are there common themes that come through? Make notes on why you like each image so much and why you included it.  Update the portfolio every 6 to 12 months by replacing images with new images you like better.
  3. Create a list of photographers whose work you admire. Research their work to find as many example images as possible that inspire you. What is it about the images that inspire you? What do they have in common? What can you learn from their work?
  4. Start an inspiration file by creating a Pinterest board of photographs you find inspiring. Spend time reviewing the file and analyze them to understand why you like them. What can you learn about your own inspiration from these images?
  5. Make a practice of creating some images just for yourself. Ignore the views of others and listen to your own internal voice. Break all the rules of composition if you must.
  6. Create a series of 10 images that form a small body of work. Pick a subject or location that speaks to you. As you shoot, notice any flashes of inspiration. Spend time developing your vision for each image.

Building mastery is a life-long journey. May you find joy all along the way.

May you walk in beauty.

lone leaf

prairie flowers

impressionist flowers



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