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Beginner, Pro, or Photography Master? Find Out Where You Are

Beginner, Pro, or Photography Master? Find Out Where You Are

There are many people out there who call themselves photographers. Probably most of them are able to take decent images, a few are professionals, and hardly anyone is a master of the art. Where do you put yourself?

Photography From the Start to the… End?

When I started out photography, I always thought: “I’ve got a camera, I shoot great pictures.” It took me a while to find out, I didn’t. People in a photography group on Facebook had to tell me. I first felt a little offended. Of course – criticism always hurts a bit. Later on, I began seeing the negative comments as a way to improve. Not all of the comments of course, but most of them. Today, I am far from being a master. There is so much to learn and do. I earn money by taking pictures and teaching it to others, but when I scroll through the galleries and websites, I find so much inspirational work far above my level. I guess one can never say: “I have finished learning photography.”

There are typologies for everything and everyone. Sometimes, they are senseless, often entertaining and rarely, they are useful. The following typology can be read as a guide for growing photographers. Finding out about your stage in learning photography can help you solve essential questions and get to the next level. It's not just about locating yourself but also about self-criticism and improvement.

Beginner: Just a Person With a Camera


You just bought your new camera. It’s an entry level DSLR, because you don’t know what mirrorless is, yet. DSLR sounds cool, looks professional, and it’s what everyone else bought. Welcome! You are enthusiastic and you are interested in photography. That’s the best condition for a steep learning curve. But beware: You tend to overestimate yourself. Even though you develop your first ideas, work with perspective, and shoot really nice images every now and then – it’s just luck. You share your images online, find them amazing and get a few likes from friends. You feel like photography could be your profession, already.

Challenges and Solutions

Modern cameras do a lot of work for you. Even your phone is able to shoot nice images. Sometimes, the light is great and the subject fits. You should not rely on that. If you rest at this stage, you will soon put your camera back to the shelf or sell it. You won’t develop. Reading articles on this website already helps you understanding what you do.

Read basic tutorials, get some photography books or book a course. Take care that it's focussed on beginners, because that’s what you are. Don’t overestimate yourself and try to be humble. Post your images into photography groups (not Instagram, but groups of real photographers) and ask for advice. Don’t take the comments as an offense, even though they might be hard to digest. Use them to improve. Ask questions and accept that photography is not just talent. It’s a craft.

I bought my first DSLR for a 6-week journey back in 2012. By luck, I got some decent snapshots.

Advanced: “I Just Shoot Manual Mode”


You’re on the right way. Discovering basics like the exposure triangle, the rule of thirds, and the differences between a wide-angle and a tele-lens, you grew some solid knowledge about photography. You heard about Ansel Adams for the first time and love to shoot portraits wide open. Because a few friends have seen the nice images on your website, you’re even asked if you could shoot their portraits. You do it for free, in your small DIY studio. Image by image you improve. You worked hard and you are proud about that. Spending a lot of time on trying out the sliders in Lightroom — which you just bought — makes you feel like a pro.

Challenges and Solutions

You're doing well. Be careful that you stay humble. At this stage, photographers often still overestimate their skills. Just because you’re able to properly expose an image doesn’t mean you could go full-time professional. Keep in mind that you will still make many mistakes. Review your work. Let others take a look at it and learn from that. And don’t buy too much gear, when you don’t know where you’re going. How many lenses have I bought and sold, because I thought they’d improve my photography? Take a look at other people’s work and get inspiration for your first projects. Try different forms of photography and find out why you love it.

When I started reading books and articles about photography, I spend a lot of time learning basics like the exposure-triangle and simple composition.

Skilled:They Say It’s Amazing, You Say It’s Okay


The rule of thirds bores you and you went back to semi-automatic modes, because you want to focus more on what happens in front of the lens than what’s going on inside of your camera? Perfect. You got it. “The photographer makes the image, not the camera,” is what you think when people tell you: “Your camera makes nice images.” Stay cool. How should they know? They show you their new iPhone images from the overexposed sunset and try to compete. Remember when you were a beginner? Don’t be impolite; try to help them. You're at a stage, where others recognize that you are the person for the pictures. You already started thinking about earning some money by taking images. Now, that you tend to show symptoms of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), it's making money more important. After all, it must be gear that limits you and makes you feel incompetent when you look at other photographers’ images.

Challenges and Solutions

As a skilled photographer, you will face many challenges. There is a reason for that: You learned how to critically look at your images. By checking out your idols’ work, reading a lot about photography and talking to others, you learned what good photography is about. It’s not just 85mm and f/1.8. Neither 20mm and f/11. It’s light and composition, feeling, and colors. You become a little insecure, because you see the struggle ahead of you. When people approach you to shoot their images, you are hesitant, because you know about the responsibility. A wedding shouldn’t be shot by a beginner. There is no second chance (well, okay, I know what you’re thinking). Be aware that you stay within your limits, but also challenge yourself every now and then.

Soon, I started shooting TFPs and tried different light-setups in my DIY student-dorm-studio

Pro: That Won't Be for Free Though


Your services are demanded. People approach you and ask if you can take their images, they wouldn’t even dare to ask for free services. Of course, someone will always ask you to work for exposure, but you just laugh about that. You’ve got better things to do. The only exceptions are social and private projects or favors to really good friends, if you find the time. People will send you requests, and you will work on an eye-to-eye level with your customers. Becoming more self-confident in negotiating about your work, you will accept good jobs and reject the bad ones. When you work with people, they will tell you, how great your service was — even before they see the images. The camera in your hand is no foreign body anymore. You can adjust the settings without looking, completely intuitively and focus on what’s happening around you.

Challenges and Solution

Congratulations. You made it into a business, but beware, there is a lot of competition out there. You have to keep up with technological progress. Don’t get irritated by new trends but don’t ignore them as well. You have to look into the future and evaluate how you can keep up with the rapid development. Current debates in photography evolve around new systems, drones, A.I., mirrorless versus DSLR, or the importance of video. Where do you see potential for yourself and your business? How can you keep up with a new generation of photographers which grew up with the latest technology?

Today, I became one with my camera. I see a situation and intuitively turn my dials, so I can work with the person infront of the camera.

Master: It’s Just a Guess

How do you become a master? Well, I can only guess. Unless you’re Kanye West or Karl Lagerfeld, you won’t give yourself such a supernatural title. A master will be announced by others. You’ve got to inspire and impress the people who are already on top of the scene. Developing projects which stand out from the masses, working on projects which move people, cooperating with professionals from other fields, and making the impossible possible are paths which might lead you to the right direction. If you look at the masters of the past, you’ll find out that they all had one thing in common: They influenced the art and invented their own style. Would Cartier-Bresson stand out from the crowd today? Probably not. Would Ansel Adams’ images be as famous if they were shot today? Maybe, if he had a YouTube channel. All influential artists have to be evaluated by the time in which they created their work. Most of them, were a little ahead of their time and were able to set a milestone with their name on it.

Did You Recognize Yourself?

Whatever category you fit in, there is always the chance to grow. You just have to accept your challenges and take them seriously. Don’t overestimate yourself and ignore your weaknesses. You can improve, if you struggle; it’s practice. Of course, you can also find yourself being stuck between two stages. It will take some time to develop. No one is born a master. But who knows, maybe you will be the next!

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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Perhaps it was intended as humor? The electronics shops here in Tokyo are pushing mirrorless so strong, it’s hard not to know what it is.

Most people I talk to who are thinking of buying their first camera, regardless of their age, end goal, or purpose, tell me they are leaning towards mirrorless based on size and weight alone. Despite being a DSLR user, I encourage them to do so, as well, if that’s what they’re looking for.

2 friends bought dslr's because "pro use these".
Yep, 10 years ago, mirrorless were no match to dslr's.
I guess it's just an exemple to classify beginers, like no real composition knowledge, and basic things like these. IMO that's the first month, and all life long if you don't want to learn.

Yeah, if it was an attempt at humor it's missing something to convey it was a joke. If not, then it's an ignorant statement. Either way, it put me off reading the rest.

I also wondered when his intent when I read that line, but stick with it and it's clear that's just his sense of humour and it's meant as tongue-in-cheek.

I'm pretty sure it should be read for meaning, not literally.
As in "you know DSLR is the buzzword, the first step to pro, though you don't know about other options, or believe bigger=better" kinda thing.
Think Bloom's taxonomy level three.

What would happen if we take the concept of "Professional" and put it to the side? Professional is meaningless when talking about skill level. Then we have beginner, skilled and master. And if you decide to make a living from it you are a "professional". You can be a beginning professional or a skilled professional and along the same lines you can be the same and not making a living. Beginning might just mean you are starting out, maybe on the side, or maybe as someone's assistant? Skilled means you are on your own and honing the skills you have acquired. Master would only be determined in hindsight or in rather exceptional circumstances based on the agreement of your peers.

That leaves us with 3 categories, and a label that your primary source of income is derived from photography.

"Pro" stood out to me as a strange level to add to this list, too. "Pro" seems to be a concept useful to people trying to sell something.

For an alternate list which I suspect is right on the money, see Ken Rockwell's 7 levels of photographer (where pros are level 3, just above "rich amateur" and just below "snapshooter"!) https://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm

Oh Ken... so witty. *sigh*

I purchased my first DSLR this spring (Canon Rebel T7). Mirrorless was not in the budget, and a pro with my camera is still a better shot than I am with a top-shelf mirrorless. That being said, I'm comfortable saying I've got one foot in the "beginnet" camp, and one in the "advanced". I still have a ton to learn, and still am very critical of my own shots, even my best shots still could have been done better. Better gear would help in challenging situations but I know I have to learn to shoot within the limits of my current gear before investing too much more in hardware. Perhaps some online courses or local workshops would be a better spend right now

Hi Andrew, you're absolutely right. You can make huge progress with the camera you have before hardware becomes a limiting factor. I'm pretty sure the mirrorless comment was satirical as it's a pretty sensitive subject amongst photography fans. Enjoy the gear you have, use it often, learn, and progress. :-)

I upgraded my camera but then went on several courses to learn how to use it. I take my camera with me every day - I'm an amateur, but buying good lenses has been key to improving my photography. I can thoroughly recommend courses linked to the camera you use. I have now bought a better full frame camera and it has paid off as I enjoy my photography far more.

I’ll happily be a beginner, I can work my camera with my eyes shut but working the camera isn’t even scratching the surface imo.


You lost me with that "mirrorless" remark. Look, mirrorless cameras are simply a different technology. If you know what you're doing you can take great images using any model of camera. Oh by the way, mirrorless cameras have been around for decades... every point and shoot and every phone camera ever made has been mirrorless. It's only mirrorless ILCs that are new to the market.

"There are many people out there who call themselves photographers"
For me it is the exact opposite, when people ask: "Oh, are you a photographer ?" I usually answer: "Not really, I'm just taking picture". To be a photographer sounds like it is a job to me.