Three Phases of Developing Creativity

Moonset at Sunrise / Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

In the first chapter of Galen Rowell’s great book, Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, he talks about the three phases of developing creativity. Ever since reading this, I’ve noticed how often it applies to any “creative” hobby I start. I’ve also noticed other people go through these same phases. So, I thought it’d be interesting to share them, and see what other people think.

Anyway, here are the phases that Rowell talked about, and a summary of how I interpreted them:

#1 – Curiosity

The first phase is all about satisfying your curiosity about photography, so in this phase you’re likely to take photographs of just about everything. This is when you learn all about your camera and how to change those three settings (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) to produce the image you’re looking for. You might perform a lot of little experiments in this phase just to see how your camera works and what happens when you change one little thing.

In this phase, it’s also common to try and reproduce other photographs you see. Some photographers believe this is wrong, but I think it’s perfectly fine and perhaps even necessary to truly build a unique vision (just as long as you don’t claim any creative credit to the image). This is the same thing that happens to anyone who starts playing an instrument: the first thing you want to learn how to play is your favorite songs, and then after you master all of those, that’s when you slowly start creating your own songs.

At the end of this phase, Rowell points out that your collection of photos will resemble an “unstructured visual curiosity.”

#2 – Organization

In the second phase, you start organizing that “unstructured” collection of images from phase one. You start seeing patterns in your images, and start developing a unique vision. In this phase, you’ll realize things like, “wow, I really have a lot of close-up photos!” And, those realizations help you see where your vision is naturally taking you.

#3 – Visualization

In the words of Galen Rowell, “High-level creativity begins at state three, when a person intimately familiar with the known organizational relationships in stage two uses his mind’s eye to visualize a previously unseen pattern in the sciences or the arts.” Basically, that means you start visualizing images that are not a part of your collection yet, and then you set out to create those images.

Once you get to this visualization phase, you’ll probably start thinking of ideas for images at completely random moments. You might be walking down the street to pick up some eggs at the store, and all of a sudden you think of a great image composed of your favorite flower in front of a very specific background.

When you start visualizing images like this, that’s how you know you’ve reached true creativity.

What do you think?

Have you gone through similar phases? Is there another phase of creative development that you think is missing? If so, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below! Thanks 🙂

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.


  1. These stages are very true to me. In stage three now I see a subject on the landscape and look for the opportunity to capture an active part of nature within that landscape.For example a moon is the day time. Then anticipate a bird or plane to cross its path. A bent over tree becomes a frame waiting for an animal to walk in to it. A fish floundering on the surface of a river is a target for a gull, pelican or other fish to feed on and for me to capture it. Enjoyed the post, it helps I think to relive the process that led me to where I am at now. Perhaps discovering something I missed.

  2. Uwe Hoffmann says:

    Step #4 Experimentation
    such as with infrared, night-sky photography, tilt-shift lenses, HDR, or graphics programs such as some contained in the Topaz bundle, panoramic images via stitching programs, or taken with a motor driven platform, underwater photography, or photography from remote controlled platforms. The list is endless, there is no need to get bored; mastery of landscapes, or wildlife doesn’t hand me the stars automatically. Just as much as a photo is a document of our time, photography in its essence is all about capturing your vision of a subject and ambient light.

  3. Steve;

    All steps also happened to me but in a slightly different way: instead of the step 3, it was actually the step 1 in a higher level where my understanding about Photography got clearer and better. Then, I took step 2 again but higher above and re-discovered more things.

    It then continued with Step 1 and 2 over and over. Now, I consider myself better than before but still light years behind you, for instance. Maybe, one day, I will get there.

    Now, taking only the steps 1 and 2 for granted, if you look closely, you are going to see that Step 1 is experimentation and work, whereas Step 2 is its feedback where you realize to your inner self what you did, where you are and where are you going in Photography. If you spiral up this process and after a number of such iterations, you would eventually consider yourself a good Photographer.



  4. I forgot to mention that whenever we take a picture (experimentation and work), don’t we check the result before proceeding to the next one (feedback)? If needed, we make some adjustments take a picture again.



  5. I don’t think I really used the 3 points above at all, but then I was an artist and a designer in my youth (40 years ago).
    In retirement I found my eyesight was no longer good enough to start painting again. If it had been good, I probably would have taken up Botannical illustration as a hobby in retirement.

    I think the best way to describe my hobby is that I use a DSLR to ‘paint’.

    I’m forever looking around for flower, birds & more recently, animals. I create ‘pictures’ through the lens, take the photo and then when I download it onto the computer, I edit or tweak my errors where I didn’t quite capture the way I wanted the final image to appear.

    Just like a painter stands back after finishing the canvas & inspects his/her painting.

    The Artist in me stands back from the computer screen, then decides if the final image is ‘balanced’, has enough light & shade or needs a bit of touching up (editing), just as the artist within me did when painting many years ago.

    Learning the settings & how to use them has been the last step and I’m still working on that. I can’t see well enough to review the image on the LCD screen while I’m outdoors, so inevitably, I take a lot of photos, hoping that one of them is the right creation which I visulize in my mind. I’m getting better at judging the light & changing the settings (ISO, aperture, shutterspeed etc)

    I never took photos of ‘just about everything’. I wanted to create images (or paintings) of flower close-ups and bought the best macro lens first (to go with the lightest camera body).

    After a few months, I got fed up with the breeze/wind spoiling my flower shots & starting shooting birds in the vicinity. Then in frustration (of course), I went out and bought a good all round lens in the18-200mm, as my Macro lens couldn’t capture distant birds. I could only afford one more lens, so I read dozens (or hundreds) of reviews to arrive at the decision of purchasing the 18-200mm.

    To this day, it’s all about ‘painting’ a picture (using a camera). I’d like to try some more landscapes though – don’t have much chance to do so living in the inner city & having no car.

    A friend (who is not artistic) once said that I took a good photo right from day one. Not quite accurate, but I have improved quicker than some beginners – I had to learn that a camera does not work the same way as a paintbrush. There is more involved in learning how the camera settings work (than dabbing a brush into some paint).

    Due to my poor eyesight, I will never be a ‘Great’ photographer, but I think I might soon be a good photographer.

    I might do a Photography course this year and learn how to ‘paint’ landscapes & portraits.

  6. I’ve been through these phases , and still working on them . At 61 and still working a day job it’s hard to do all that I want .

  7. Uwe Hoffmann says:

    Actually, Celso if you want to add “feedback” as a step it should probably be labeled “evaluation & assessment” if you perform it yourself; unless you submit all your work to a photo-blog for “feedback” which I would find tedious and cumbersome. I tend to reserve “feedback” for those shots where I think I might have touched upon something new, unusual, or something that can benefit all of us, even the experienced.

  8. Uwe:

    I agree with you that probably a third step could be added:

    1: Curiosity;
    2. Organization;
    3. Feedback.

    And the cycle proceeds in a higher level until we get to the point where we could be consider ourselves outstanding photographers.

    Since the speed of each cycle and the number of cycles can vary from person to person, there are some of us that would never get there, if you know what I mean…


  9. Hi Steve.
    I don’t really use the above techniques but I think there is some value to mentioning them here. However I guess you could say that we all do this to some degree or another.
    I think the process of improving your vision is an ongoing one. The amount and rate at which you grow this vision will ultimately determine how good of a photographer you become. Yes you have to know the technical aspects of using your camera and software and you should know some basic rules of composition but after that it’s up to you.
    Personally I would recommend the following:
    1) join a serious camera club if you are relatively new to photography. I had a conversation with someone who I invited to join our club in Niagara Falls. His response was “Why should I Pay $40 to do something I can do on my own?” I had to shake my head. When you are serious and compete with others in your hobby or profession you will get better, Kim Mitchell a rock band artist turned radio announcer has a segment on his show called `Damn! Why didn`t I write that! I say the same thing every week at the club in our competitions. (substituting shoot for write) I started a bright and early Saturday morning shoot where others can join me from any club or just if they see my post in our facebook group. One of the good points of getting out and shooting with fellow photographers is to pick up techniques and vision from everyone. You are not stealing that vision but garnering ideas from everywhere. If your fellow photographer says `hey look at that tree in the fog` and you didn’t see it you can still shoot it with your own vision.
    2) Immerse yourself in your work. I am either viewing, reading or blogging about photography in my spare time. I try to shoot every day, in fact I started a 15 minute a day challenge for my fellow club members but I thing I am the only one that is still in it. It really is tough to shoot that often but if you don’t shoot you’ll never reach your full potential.
    And lastly and I guess art of the immersion process is I review others work online. I used to hate bird photography because I didn`t get what people saw in shooting them. Yes they can be beautiful but I wasn`t seeing great photographs. Then one day on flickr and wow I viewed one person’s work and it was breath taking. So spending some idle time reviewing what’s out there can help immensely.

  10. I entirely agree with Jan in both items!

    After I joined the RAPhotoClub here in Ottawa, I became more aware of what is going on and I improved my quality as I am constantly and ‘in secrecy” trying to beat other member’s work. Evidently, this is not possible because there are many good guys there but this challenges me to higher levels instead of flat levels of quality.


  11. Great points, Jan! I’m currently not part of any camera club, but I’ve been thinking about starting a PhotoNaturalist meetup in the San Diego area. You’re helping to convince me to move forward on that idea 🙂

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