The 3 Levels of a Photographer

December 13, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

If you are like me, you've made some kind of progress in your photography hobby since you first picked up a camera.  I have taken my hobby from a beginner with a 35mm point and shoot, to a hobbyist with a Canon Rebel, to a professional with a real estate photography business, to a part-time professional with gallery quality photos and a few print sales every year.  Over the course of these past few years I've realized there are 3 tiers or echelons of a photographer.  Not just a landscape photographer, but anyone taking pictures of anything; people, cars, puppies, or mountains.

These levels aren't necessarily like steps on a ladder.  You don't have to master one before you can start working on another.  Rather, they are more like the 6 attributes used in D&D (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma).  You can raise the score in each of these "attributes" by gaining experience through actions and activities.  If you take time to learn about editing, you get better at it.  This in turn will affect how you shoot (because you shoot with a specific editing method in mind) and your overall vision for your image.  But for the sake of clarity, I've discussed these skills as ranked from most common to least common (suggesting that the most common skills are the easiest to obtain).

Tier 1: Understanding Camera Functionality

The starting level of any type of photography is figuring out how to point the business end of the camera toward something and which button will take the photo.  This can be an expensive DSLR or a cell phone.  When you take the first picture, BAM, you're a photographer.  This level contains the largest population.  Many people will muddle through this level for months or years before they have a good grasp of it and start to move into the next level.

The things a photographer will learn in this level include the camera basics:

  • Which end do I point at the thing I want to photograph
  • Which end do I look through
  • Which button takes the picture
  • Where does the battery go
  • How to focus and zoom in or out

Moving on to more advanced camera function:

  • How to change the aperture/shutter speed/ISO
  • How to use built in metering like the light meter and focus points
  • How to change white balance
  • How to use different modes: P (for professional!), Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Full Manual
  • Digital horizon or leveling

And finally, the most advanced camera functions (not just how to use them, but when/why to use them):

  • Exposure/Focus warnings
  • Histogram
  • Bracketing
  • Timers
  • Depth of Field
  • Shutter speed

This first level could also include how to use the various bits of gear in harmony with your camera like a tripod, speedlights/strobes, camera straps, lens hoods, filters, and all the other knick knacks we pick up along the way.  Mastering this first level means you not only know HOW to change your aperture, but also WHY you change it given the situation.  Once you move from the HOW to the WHY, I think, generally, you are ready (consciously or subconsciously) for Tier 2.

Tier 2: Understanding Composition and Editing

Now we get into a much smaller group of photographers.  If Tier 1 contains 100% of photographers, the percentage that have made decent progress at this level would probably be less than 50.  The reason for this is because camera functionality is all mechanical: you push this button or move this thing to get this result.  Application of certain concepts (like Depth of Field) that blend into this second level, now become more abstract.  It's easy to learn that 1 + 1 = 2 but it is harder to learn why this shade of purple looks better than this shade of purple.  Have you ever painted a room in your house and you go through like 5 different color samples before you find one that works?  You don't know why this brighter color works, but it just does.  That's what it's like at this level of photography, except you know what does or doesn't work and WHY.

Frozen Fog | Cottonwood Canyon, UtahFrozen Fog | Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Some beginner examples of things a photographer will learn at this level include:

  • Depth of Field (for a little in focus or a lot in focus)
  • Shutter speed (for motion blur or freezing time)
  • Leading lines
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Exposure and luminosity
  • Vignettes

The more complex elements of composition will be:

  • Golden Ratio (I personally think this is nonsense but a lot photographer's swear by it)
  • Lighting (natural or with a flash)
  • Distance from camera to ground
  • Focal length compression
  • Subject placement
  • Distraction elimination
  • Positive and negative space
  • Weather and season
  • White balance, color temperature, hues
  • Levels and curves
  • Exposure blending
  • Sharpness and clarity
  • Saturation

And finally we move into the most complicated and difficult to understand concepts:

  • Color balance and harmony
  • Subject identification
  • Quality, angle, direction, shape, and color/temperature of light
  • Supporting elements (both in what they are and where they are located)
  • Planning and scouting: where and when a good photograph might happen.

I grouped composition and editing in the same tier for two reasons.  First, I think when someone has really got a handle on how to use their camera they begin to make good traction into the world of post-processing.  Second, I think once they stop worrying about making their camera do what they want, they can dedicate more attention to planning and setting up a shot.  This means they know what settings will give them the best result to capture a given scene and they're putting their attention toward figuring how to lead the eye into the photo.  Also, once they have the photo, they are doing some kind of editing on it to really bring it alive.

Dessicated | Southern UtahDessicated | Southern Utah

I like to say that taking a photo gets you halfway there.  The other half is bringing it to life through editing.  The beginning editor will crank up the saturation, clarity, and sharpness and slap that baby on Instagram.  The more experienced editor will make careful selections that bring out the essence of the photo.  It is something they want to print and hang on their wall to look at every day for the next year.

This brings us to our final tier.

Tier 3: Conveying Emotion with Storytelling

From our percentage breakdown, I'd say that less than 10% of photographers will make it this far and consistently produce work that effectively conveys an emotion or tells a story.

Can you believe that it's possible to make someone feel an emotion and tell them an entire story with just 1 photograph?  I know, it blows my mind too.  People who are really good at this are National Geographic photographers.  Every photo tells a story.  They have so much expertise in capturing the emotions of a scene.  Truly they are some of the best photographer's in the world.

This tier isn't just reserved for war-torn families or poached animals in Africa.  Storytelling and emotion can be achieved through senior portraits, maternity photos, landscape photos, weddings (especially weddings), and even real estate or architectural photography.

In order to move into this echelon of photography you need to understand most/all of the elements we mentioned in the previous 2 tiers (when and how to apply them) and find a way to merge it all together.  Conveying emotion and storytelling with 1 photograph takes a perfect balance of editing, composition, lighting, and camera manipulation.  To achieve this, you'll probably need to have a few years of experience with the following aspects:

  • Pre-visualization
  • Crafting a composition
  • Color harmony
  • Editing


Probably the most important part of telling a story is knowing what that story is, or at least having an outline.  I don't think most of the great stories we've read were 100% planned out before the author wrote them down.  Rather, I think a general concept or outline was visualized and the writing began.  The author lets the story move and breathe as if it was deciding for itself how it wanted to play out.  Visualizing how you want a scene to be composed is the first step to figuring out the story.  Other elements that aide in the emotion are things like location, lighting, season, and editing.

If you want to tell a story of love and loss, you'll need to figure out what kind of scene will tell it in the way you want, how the subject should be posed or framed, and what kind of lighting you need.  Pre-visualization even includes elements such as wardrobe/makeup, facial expressions, body language, atmospheric elements, and props.  Conversely, removing or obscuring any of those elements can add to the story.

Pre-visualizing a landscape image means choosing a subject then discovering how that subject can interact with its surroundings.  Planning for elements like foreground, weather, light, sky, animals, people, seasons (snow, blossoms, or autumn leaves) will help you tell your story.  Alternately, removing or avoiding distractions like people, cars, or weather can help you better tell the story.  Perfection is achieved when nothing else needs to be added or can be removed. House on a Hill | Bountiful Utah TempleHouse on a Hill | Bountiful Utah Temple

Crafting a Composition

Getting the perfect composition is going to be instrumental in telling your story.  Ensuring all the necessary components are added and all the unnecessary components are eliminated or diminished will lead the viewer throughout your story.  Understanding why certain rules (leading lines, the rule of thirds, 1 point compositions, negative space, foreground elements, or subject placement) exist will help you know what to follow and what to break.  It is not merely enough to know they exist.  The expert storyteller knows why you place a subject in the left 3rd of the frame for a certain look and when it is ok to put it smack dab in the middle.

Color Harmony

People perceive a perfect color balance more on the subconscious level.  This is one of those areas where they'd say, "I like this photo but I don't love it.  I'm not sure why."  Understanding what colors work together and why (again with the why) allows you to expand your toolbox when building the perfect image.  Certain color groups look better together.  Opposite color hues only work in certain situations.  Color luminosity and intensity affect the emotional delivery of an image.

There are many different kinds of color harmony such as analogous, complimentary, split complimentary, dyadic, triadic, quadratic, and monochromatic.  For helpful articles on color theory, read these blogs by Ted Gore and Eric Babnik.  Check out the Adobe Color Wheel where you can upload your own photo and analyze different harmonies.


The final touch to any story.  After an author writes a story, she sends it off to her editor to curate her words.  The editor removes distractions, improves clarity, and helps the story flow better.  Every book we've read has gone through some kind of editing.  Why then, would we think that our photos should be treated differently?  

Editing for emotion and storytelling will emphasize specific parts of an image, add or remove light and color, and eliminate distractions.  Editing is what helps bring your photo to life and make it pleasing too look at.  At this level, we are far beyond moving a couple sliders around and punching up the contrast to 100.  Rather, small and deliberate changes are made in order to help the viewer achieve the level of involvement you desire from their viewing experience.  A little brush stroke here, a little dodge and burn there.  Saturate these colors a touch more, shift the hue of these blues just a tiny bit.  Add a splash of warm light right here.  Most of the time, editing a story (photograph) will take many hours, over the course of days or weeks.  As I edit photos, I tend see the image take on a personality of its own as I experiment with exposure, blending, masking, toning, or cropping.  I begin to see what details the story wants to highlight and I help it achieve that.

Monumental Storm |  Winner Best in Show and People's Choice at the 2018 Utah State FairMonumental Storm | Winner Best in Show and People's Choice at the 2018 Utah State Fair

Be careful at this stage so you don't end up banging your head against your keyboard.  Editing will not be sloppy brushstrokes casually applied.  Neither should it be 100 hours of contradictions like making global changes to the highlights, then undoing these changes with the exposure brush, then redoing these changes with dodging/burning, then undoing these changes with a radial brush, then undoing those changes with a vignette.  If you've made it to this level of photography, you should already know when, how, and why to make certain changes.  If you find yourself with an absolute mess of an image with 100 local adjustments or 100 layer copies, you probably don't fully understand effective and deliberate editing.

- - - 

So where do I consider myself in this scale?  I like to think that I've just broken into the 3rd echelon.  2 recent images (that truly developed their own personality) have shown me I'm capable of producing this level of work.  The first image is a photo of the Bountiful Temple I took after being commissioned by my cousin to take the best photo of the temple anyone's ever seen.  The next is a photo of Monument Valley that has won several awards and was the Grand Prize winner in a regional contest.

I feel that I've been able to look at my work over the years with a critical eye and see what works and what doesn't work.  Critiquing the work of other photographer's I admire has helped me to develop my own shooting and editing skills.  I also only publish work (on Facebook or this website) if I think someone would want to buy it.  I'm very selective of the images I take and edit, choosing to only work on those I feel should hang on a wall.  One of the best ways I entered this mindset was to stop publishing entire galleries of the same scene taken from 19 different angles.  Instead, I choose the best ONE and edit that.  This has helped me really narrow down what kind of story I want to tell and what kind of impact I want to make with a photo.  Then I have to make careful editing decisions since this is the only photo I have to work on; I can't make global edits to 9 photos of the same location and call it good.

Where do you find yourself in this scale?  Where do you want to be?  What are you doing to get there?  Send me a message and let me know.  I'd love to talk about your journey.


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