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.
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.
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.
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?
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!