Give Yourself an Honest Portfolio Review

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Over the last year or so, I suspect that I have been asked hundreds of times (thousands?)  to review portfolios of other photographers in my online photography classes, on our Facebook page, and other places.

Portfolio reviews are incredibly important because it allows you to see your work through someone else's eyes who are seeing your work for the first time.  But as I review so many photos, I am constantly brought back to the same 4 or 5 things that most photographers just don't quite realize.

So today, I hope to provide you with the main problems I see in portfolios of other photographers.

I hope that this provides you with perspective that allows you to take a long and honest look at your photos in an effort to improve.  I have done the same and see areas in my own portfolio where I need to improve.

Stage One Photographer

Beginning photographers can easily be spotted because they don't know enough about the technical side of photography to do much with the camera, so they really only concern themselves with the person being photographed.

How to spot a stage one photographer…

  • They consider a photograph “good” when they captured an interesting expression on someone's face, or something random or rare that occurred (like a fire or a UFO).  You can spot this from a mile away, because when looking at their portfolio, the photographer looks over your shoulder and starts explaining things in the picture because he failed to tell the story with the photo.
  • The photos are rarely sharp enough to show fine detail on the photos and all of them are taken from standing height
  • None of the photos show any artistic flair.  The photos would look the same if taken by any person who was standing in the same spot.
  • Almost all of the photographer's portraits are zoomed way out.
  • If the photographer does any post-processing, it is spot color (all black and white except one item in the photo that is color).

Classic Stage One Photographer's Portfolio

Stage Two Photographer

Stage two photographers have gotten lucky a few times, and their pictures have been applauded by friends and family; however, they find themselves caught up in so many little tips and rules of photography that they manage to miss out on the biggest pieces.  For example, they find a beautiful landscape and concern themselves so much with the camera settings that they fail to notice that they are shooting in TERRIBLE lighting, or that the composition is dull.  Soon, they must learn that lighting and composition are more important than anything else.

How to spot a stage two photographer…

  • Some photos in the portfolio are slightly blurry or have other technical issues.  The photog at this stage is still paying so much attention to the subject that he frequently skips over the essentials.
  • Few of the photos in the portfolio have interesting lighting.
  • The photographer is happy with the pictures because they have started to use shallow depth-of-field in their portraits.
  • The photographer might follow the rule of thirds… but ignores the fact that sometimes the most interesting composition does not follow any “rule” per se.
  • The photographer takes out the camera for a picture when he sees an interesting PERSON or LANDSCAPE, but not when the photographer sees interesting lighting, shapes, or compositions.
  • Some of the photos are still taken from too far away, but other photos in the portfolio are zoomed in to the extreme.
  • Their portraits are posed with the subject placed right next to a “really pretty bush.”
  • Their favorite post-processing technique is spot color (all black and white except one piece of the photo in color).

Pictures like these are indicative of a stage two photographer

Stage Three Photographer

By this point, the photographer has started to clue into the fact that lighting is a big deal.  They stop taking landscapes in the middle of the day and at least find shade to shoot portraits to avoid ugly harsh shadows.   Most of their pictures look better than an average person could do, and they are beginning to be known by friends and family as a photographer.

How to spot a stage three photographer…

  • Their best photos are macro shots of flowers.  At some point they need to realize that photos of flowers are EASY.
  • Their photos almost always incorporate good lighting, but they occasionally leave one in there with bad lighting because they really liked the subject, or because they have some sort of “war story” from the shoot that makes them especially fond of the photo.
  • A few of the photos in the portfolio look quite good, but most of them are just “nice.”
  • When the photos are shown to friends or family members, they have said things like, “Wow!  You could sell that!”
  • Stage three photographers are always eyeing the 5D Mark III or D800, and secretly tell themselves that their photos will finally be professional if they just had the right equipment.
  • They have entered the world of Photoshop and post-processing and can do some really neat tricks, but a professional would look at the photos and clearly see the image quality being ruined by untrained hands.  When I look through portfolios, I'm amazed how many pictures are WAY over-sharpened, grainy, or where the colors are all messed up.  This makes it easy to spot a stage three photographer.

These photos are indicative of a stage three photographer

Stage Four Photographer

Stage Four Photographers are just on the cusp of consistently producing professional work, but they still have some baby habits deeply ingrained in their heads.  These photographers are known by most of their family and friends as a “really serious photographer” and have at least considered going pro.  They spend a tremendous amount of time or effort working to get their work noticed by others, but have a tough time drawing as many eyeballs to their work as they would like.

How to spot a stage four photographer…

  • Most of their photos look good only because they include some interesting style or technique, rather than being a photo that can stand on its own.   Often this means that 90% of the photos have creatively tilted horizons, over-processed HDR photos (which they always describe as a “really subtle HDR effect”), overly vibrant colors, are taken from extreme angles, or are weirdly wide panoramas.  There is nothing WRONG with these techniques, but it is obvious when a photographer is using them as a crutch, because only a few of the photos in the portfolio can stand on their own without one of these techniques.
  • Every photo in their portfolio is quite good and any amateur photographer would be envious.
  • None of the photos in their portfolio have technical problems.  Everything is sharply focused, properly exposed, and most (but not all) of their poor Photoshop habits have gone by the wayside so their image quality is now quite good.
  • They have been asked by people who are NOT family members, friends, or co-workers to shoot an event for them or to buy their photos.
  • The photographer rarely notices it, but a trained eye sees many distracting elements in the photos that take away from the overall picture.

Stage Five Photographers

While these photographers are not all full-time pros, they are capable of consistently producing truly professional-quality work.  People can't take their eyes off the photos they see from these photographers, and people often ask if the image was “Photoshopped” because the post-processing adds interest without creating surrealism.  They recognize that gear is fun to talk about and buy, but find themselves scaling back to just the essentials on many of their shoots.

How to spot a stage five photographer…

  • Every shot in the portfolio has perfect image quality (no graininess or wacko effects added in post-processing) and is shot with perfect technical skill.
  • The photographer is capable of shooting any event and returning with very good pictures that have interesting lighting.
  • The compositions of these photographers are mature and make the photo feel put-together and solid without being too extreme.
  • Each element in the frame is carefully placed and no distracting elements have slipped their way into the frame.  Each item in the photo plays a specific role in the overall composition.
  • The photos are not just “correct” or good, or even really good–they are jaw-droppingly good.
  • The photographer's portraits are not only nice looking, but they actually communicate something about the person being photographed.  They truly “tell a story.”

Stage five photography

Stage Six Photographers

These photographers have grown bored of taking “professional quality” pictures.  It is no longer challenging to go somewhere and create work that is impressive to others.  They find their drive to continue learning photography in challenging themselves with specific techniques and styles.

How to spot a stage six photographer…

  • Their work is no longer “random” with one sports picture, then a wildlife shot, then a landscape, etc.  All of the photos in the portfolio go together and you can spot the photographer's style coming through in the work.
  • The photographers can create art without the crutch of a beautiful subject, even if that is what they choose to take pictures of.
  • They create photography for their enjoyment and the praise of others has at least deadened some.
Want to see samples of work from stage six photographers?  Check out Jeremy Cowart (one of my most respected photogs on the planet right now), Joe McNally, Ansel Adams, and many other amazing photographers.

The Takeaway

I hope that, by posting this, no one feels discouraged in their photography.  Portfolio reviews are not about seeing if you “measure up.”  They are intended to help you along your way in becoming the type of photographer that you want to be.

I hope you take the information from this post–realizing that it is the culmination of reviewing hundreds of portfolios–and decide on at least one thing you can do to become better.

What did you learn from this?  Be honest with yourself and share in the comments below.  I'm anxious to see what struck a chord with you.


  1. Wow… I knew I needed work… Good information, albeit a bit discouraging. I seem to have elements up to level 4. Someday, maybe… practice, practice, practice!

  2. Truth. Sometimes it hurts, but is essential to growing as a person and a photographer. By the classification here, I am a level 4 photographer. I found it hard not to at least chuckle as I read in detail almost about how my photography has changed and evolved in the last 7 years. While somewhat disappointed by the fact that I am not a level 5-6, I do appreciate the honesty here. I have been recently working on the interesting lighting and lines and shapes. It is hard not to be trapped in the vibrant over colorization of photos…as that seems to be a trendy fad right now. But I taking this article as a good thing, because it means I am continuing to grow and mature in my photographic skills.

  3. Very true! I’m like Melicia, as I saw many things that have changed over the past few years. I’d have to say that I have elements of level three and four. Of course, I’d love to be a level five or six. But I’m not there yet. I appreciate the honesty though. Very helpful!

  4. Author

    Don’t get discouraged! The point of the article is to show photographers how far they have come and also some tips on where to improve!

  5. Wow I must be a level six because I don’t care what anyone else thinks about my work! Hah! I wish that were true. I’m addicted to getting Likes.

  6. I am SO stage three, although I already understand about flowers and haven’t learned much about post-processing. I’ll keep practicing and learning. Stage four, here I come!!

  7. I’m definitely a Stage Three photographer but am working hard to improve. I did find this article encouraging… I have come so far from my Stage One days!

  8. I would like to think I’m a level five, but when I think about my dislike of event photography I drop myself back down to a four. I truly HATE event photography. Put me on the streets of Africa, or have me do a portrait session and I’m in my element. I would truly like to get to level six. I know I have a good eye and I know I can create stunning, albiet traditionally edited images, I don’t edit much, but I still am concerned with what my clients will think of the images I captured of them. I have shot enough to realize that I can capture who they truly are, don’t ask me how, but I hear it quite often from them and their friends. To get to a level six means I trust in my eye and talent. It’s when I think about it too much that I fail to capture their story and that’s truly my job. I’m a visual storyteller. I love it!!!

  9. Wow maybe I completely missed the point of the article but it seems to me all this did was praise the “level 5” photographers and mock and tear down anyone below that. I’m all for honesty as long as its constructive and helpful, but I didn’t feel like I gained one thing from this other than I’m somewhere between 3-4 and am doing x, x, and x wrong. How about some tips on how to fix those things? Anything constructive to help me get past the level I’m at? There’s so much negativity in this field, do we really need another article full of mocking the amateur on their journey to bettering themselves?

    1. Author

      @Kaitlin – I’m sorry you read the article in such a negative way. It certainly was not intended to be such. However, I believe you did in fact miss the point of the article. You said it didn’t contain any information on how to improve. Isn’t part of knowing how to improve, knowing what needs to be fixed? In fact, that’s the toughest thing for photographers to learn.

  10. Think this was fabulous. Why be discouraged? I’m a level 3 and proud of it! It means I have come a fair way and have so much more to aspire to. I think people want to go from zero to hero in 5secs and forget we all have to start at the bottom and work our way up – with hard work and lots of practice. Thank you Jim for the honesty. If you can’t take this article, how will you handle the critiquing in the real world??

  11. I think this is a great article, and very helpful. I was able to judge my work from your clear descriptions which is something I’ve been wanting to do. Ive also been looking for ways to improve. everyone can always use some tips to get better! Thank you!

  12. Good article! It helped me identify my stage (somewhere between 3 and 4, I think) and see what sorts of things I need to work on, big picture wise. I enjoyed the unique take on this subject!

  13. Thanks for this. I enjoyed reading it. I believe I am somewhere between 2 and 3 but hoping after your 30-day course to be much improved. I have a lot to think about now in terms of where I need to focus my attention.

  14. This is a very helpful article. As to the negative response, Improve Photography has provived countless tips and tricks for all of us to learn from. You can’t say everything in one article. This article was helpful in setting some goals for the next stage.

  15. I think the article is good and very insightful. I think I would put myself at a stage 3 with maybe a roll over into a stage 4 on some points. I find your tips and articles to be very helpful in so many ways. Before I stumbled upon Improvephotography I didn’t think about light or composition. In just a short time I have learned more about my camera and how to work it technically then I thought was possible. Now one I pick up my camera I think about what I am going to shoot and what I want it to look like. What kind of light, the setting, how to make it the best it can be and how to also tell the story. Thank you Jim for all of your help and inspiration. I now know exactly where I want to go with my photography with clear concise goals in mind all because of your help and the great resources that you provide with

  16. A definite Stage 1 with occasional forays into Stage 2. I upgraded to my first advanced point and shoot (a Canon PowerShot G12) a few weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, I found your blog through Pinterest. I have no aspirations to shoot for anyone but myself, but I am having a blast and learning so much from your blog. I’m still digesting the basic lesson on ISO, shutter speed and aperture, so I suspect it will take me a while to outgrow this camera. Thank you so much!

  17. Brutally honest assessments are difficult to achieve of ones own work. You’ve really nailed the breakdown and thinking that’s required to ‘stand back’ from our images and attempt to review them as an onlooker, and not the person who was there with the camera in his or her hand. Note that I did not say ‘the photographer’. To me it’s as much about intent as it is just being there. Thank you.

  18. I found myself smiling as I recognized my own achievements at each leg of the journey, up to where I currently reside in Stage 4. It’s quite interesting to see that most of us follow the same path. I really enjoyed reading this article, thank you!

  19. This is great! Thanks so much for posting this…it’s very helpful. I think for the most part I’m a stage 3, though I have the occasional stage 2 slightly blurry shot that I include because I still love it, and I don’t like over-processing my photos, so I’ve got a little of stage 4 in me as well. Overall, though, I think I’m around a 3 right now. I like to look at myself critically, and this is helpful to know WHAT to look for.

  20. I agree with Kaitlin, I was expecting to find more information on how to *improve* the issues and not just labeling them. I am a photography student and I have seen plenty of photos that are in fact blurry, lacking perfect composition and with less than ideal lighting. But within these photos I have also seen amazing examples depicting strong human emotion, exposing critical social and political issues and portraying gripping narratives. Their work is more like what you would call a “stage 6” photographer, because the most important part of the photo is the message and not just the technical qualities or praise that it receives. I have seen many technically perfect photos that are not memorable at all and communicate nothing more than “I know how to take a perfect photo.”
    While reading this article I did actually find that it had a discouraging tone, further emphasized by the comment in the last paragraph about hoping that it not be discouraging. I don’t think this would have even been mentioned if it didn’t actually meet this characteristic. Everyone has something that they can improve upon, and it would be far more constructive to see examples of how these problems can be fixed instead of just figuring out which arbitrary category of “inexperience” one fits into.

  21. I absolutely love this article.

    I think it’s a generalization but a very good one.

    Interestingly, if you work hard and love photography with all your heart – there’s nothing stopping you to achieve the so called Stage Five.

    Stage Six… wow, these guys are more than photographers. It’s not anymore about aperture or whether it’s 5D mkIII or an iPhone (look at Jeremy Cowart – so inspiring).
    It’s all about the way they look at the world, and are able to use photography so that others can see it too.

  22. Very interesting article and very accurate. I’m in between 3 and 4 right now personally, but practice and learning will advance my portfolio level. Having a clearcut guide to the progression is actually helpful in highlighting what I need to focus on improving.

    For the couple negative comments, I would say that negativity only reflects poorly on you. Only you know how to improve your photography to develop your skills. There is no tried and true way besides practice and accepting critiques from others.

  23. Nice! I have definitely evolved over the years and still have room to improve, but I’ve never thought of breaking that progress out into stages. Genius. I really like the specific examples listed for each stage… some of them will definitely make some people cringe, but they are very useful for identifying what stage you are at. Great work putting this together.

  24. I’m most definitely sitting on the edge of stage three, quickly approaching stage four. As much as this article stepped on my toes just a bit and put me in my place, I’m happy with where I’ve gotten. I certainly don’t plan to stay there long, but with all that I’m working with (and not working with), I’m pretty impressed if I do say so myself. This post just served to remind me once again that the world of photography is vast and far deeper than I’ve ventured thus far, so the adventure continues. I have so much to look forward to and so much to learn. The journey is too immensely intriguing to quit now.

  25. @April Remember, rules are meant to be broken, but you must know why the rules are there in the first place and only then can you break them in a way that empowers your image. It is very true that some blurry images are powerful. Everything boils down to the story of the image. Was the blurry image on purpose or a happy accident? If it was a happy accident, it is not a level 6 photographer. It was a just a happy accident, not something you could re-create through a skill level and knowing what you wanted to capture. And please keep in mind that this is only one article that Jim has posted. Please do not take this as the only representation of what he is accomplishing on his site. I have been shooting for over 27-years and I have learned some exciting stuff from him. Explore his site and I promise your skills will imporve. Listen to other photographers, read the critiques, submit your photos for critique (Yes, I know it’s hard, but it will help you grow.) and make your own comments. Jim is building a community here to help each other grow.

    BTW, thanks Jim for your site. The community you are growning excites me. I love to learn and I love to teach and mentor and this is a great venue. Keep up the good work!

  26. Stage 3.5 and proud of it, slowly but surely making my way up. I think this was very helpful Jim, nice to see where I am at, where I have been and where I have yet to go.

  27. Interesting article. Proud to be stage 3 – elements of 4 on a good day. I knew i had a long way to go but i am amazing at how far i have

  28. Fantastic piece. I think Im somewhere between stage 3 and 4…. Perseverance is the key.

  29. Hey Jim,

    Interesting piece. loved reading it.

    As a photographer, personally, photography has always been an expression and a language.

    What one expresses using this language is far more important than the knowledge of the language itself. Every language has its vocabulary n grammar, but even with that knowledge, not all can write.


  30. Thank you, Jim. This is a must read for any photographer, regardless of level.

    I found myself on the cusp of level three with strong forays into four. Of the three Fs of photography, I never got into shooting flowers, but I very recently decided that my true passions are fashion and food, fashion being my first love and both definitely in need of interesting lighting, even if it’s flat lighting on an all-white seamless.

    From our article, I finally learned where I stand and what I need yo do to go fully into level four and beyond.

    Thank you very much for this article.

  31. I’m a 4 but without the Post Processing crutch issues. I certainly could come up with a different criteria for a few of the levels but you were close in my book. As someone who has recently begun to sell, show and professionally prepare their work 100% in house I understand the frustrations and anxieties of plateaus in regards to artistic flow.

  32. I was just analyzing my photography recently and am pleasantly surprised to read this and realize that I am a stage 6 photographer. I just could not figure out why I kept going back to the same places for weeks on end trying to get that elusive “perfect shot” in a not so perfect environment(s). I can honestly state that this is one of the best articles that I have read on the subject and I can see my progress through the various stages after photographing for almost 40 years, 24 of these years as a serious practitioner.

  33. I found this quite a negative article too, I’m afraid, though I understand what you are attempting to do is quite tricky without coming across in a negative way. Should we be categorising people at all? – would it be better to just highlight common mistakes in portfolios? I don’t know. I certainly would never encourage others to review others’ portfolios and to decide e.g. “oh you’re a level 2” as this might lead to snobbishness/arrogance. But I can see it perhaps more useful in self assessment. You could have avoided levels altogether and just given a progression line with typical traits or things to check posed as questions along the path “Do you have images that aren’t quite sharp?” etc.

    That said, there are many useful hints and things to check in your article that has hopefully made people go back and review their own portfolios… self criticism is so important.

    I think the key thing about HDR & post processing at level 5+ is about *how* they are used… I agree these are commonly overused and overcooked such that photos are about the effect, not the subject. However, I think the important thing as one progresses is that these tools can be used but should not be visible as such, or if they are visibly used, it is in the right context to do so. Knowing when to use it like that is what differentiates many skilled artists from others.

    But good too see suggestions on improvement anyway.

  34. I put myself in the level two category. My summation of the article… The first three-ish stages are dealing with the more technical. After that it’s being an artist and having the technical down as a strong foundation. Learning the technical aspect of photography is easier (not necessarily easy) than learning art because there are no how to lessons in art. I would love to be a stage 6 some day. Stage 6 photogs are able to put their left brain and right brain together to get outstanding results. that’s why I love photography. I am my own worst critic and I approve of this article.

  35. I thought this was wonderful. I started with P&S cameras, moved on to a fully manual film camera, and now own a DSLR. I definitely have more skills than most people I know personally, but I would by no means call myself a professional. This confirms what I already know when looking at my own work with a photographer’s eye. I’m at stage 3-4. I have some great stage 5 ideas, but I do not yet have the skills and/or resources to carry them out. I have friends/family that love to praise my work and they wonder why I don’t think my photographs are as good as they do. This article explains precisely why. It explains why my photo of a flower (guilty!) is awesome, but somehow not nearly as great as other photos of flowers. 🙂

  36. Having read this more closely, some aspects of the article do concern me.

    Given that this article is just an interesting starting point for considering one’s skills, and not dogma … I put myself between four and five.

    However, I do not in any way believe that this statement of No. 4 applies to me: “Most of their photos look good only because they include some interesting style or technique, rather than being a photo that can stand on its own. Often this means that 90% of the photos have creatively tilted horizons, over-processed HDR photos (which they always describe as a “really subtle HDR effect”), overly vibrant colors, are taken from extreme angles, or are weirdly wide panoramas. There is nothing WRONG with these techniques, but it is obvious when a photographer is using them as a crutch, because only a few of the photos in the portfolio can stand on their own without one of these techniques.”

    Oddly, the paragraph right after that statement almost contradicts it: “Every photo in their portfolio is quite good and any amateur photographer would be envious.”

    So which is it? In the context of Stage 4, is the work “quite good” or not able to “stand on its own”? It can’t be both.

    There’s one other thing in the article that bugs me, from No. 3: “Their best photos are macro shots of flowers. At some point they need to realize that photos of flowers are EASY.”

    Great photos of flowers are not EASY. At least not the way I strive to capture the beauty of flowers. In Texas, I live for spring, when the bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and Indian blankets cover the fields. In fact, I take wildflower photos because one, I love wildflowers and two, they challenge me to do something different. In any batch of flower photos I shoot, I stop editing when the only ones left look like the ones I’ve already done. So I think that your statement about flowers really comes across as unnecessarily demeaning.

    Still, it was a good, thought-provoking article.

  37. Jim, thanks so much for this article. I didn’t find it negative at all — but rather helpful. In fact, I was recently considering asking a professional to give me some ideas/critique on my current portfolio, but your article has given me exactly what I need to take the next steps forward! Definitely appreciate all your time, efforts, and support for those of us striving to improve =) Love reading your articles! One of the best sites for photography tips I’ve found over the last couple years.

  38. Absolutely excellent article. Anyone who thought it stepped on their toes is a pansy! Hah! Struggling to see where I belong would like to think a 3, but probably more like a two. Thrilled I found this site today, it is top notch. Keep up the good work and ALWAYS ignore those naysayers. We all need to know where we’re at so we can have a vision of where we want to go (if we want to improve that is). One must have a realistic viewpoint of their abilities in order to improve. Thanks for sharing. I totally agree with the stages, very apt description of the rungs of the ladder one must climb. Again, many thanks!

  39. Wow, that was brutal to read. But truth is truth and I guess I will never get any better if I don’t know the truth. I would say I’m a Stage 3 but it’s good to know I can still climb up the ladder. This was absolutely a great article, those who were offended, felt that way because sometimes it’s hard to look inside one’s self and realize you have an issue. Hope I make it to the last Stage. 🙂

  40. Wow, that was brutal to read. But truth is truth and I guess I will never get any better if I don’t know the truth. I would say I’m a Stage 3 but it’s good to know I can still climb up the ladder. This was absolutely a great article, those who were offended, felt that way because sometimes it’s hard to look inside one’s self and realize you have an issue. Hope I make it to the last Stage.

  41. I’d say the guy is a bit pretentious – flower shota are easy? Well, when you decide what it is about the flower you wish to highlight, maybe it’s unique structure, it’s vibrant colour or perhaps it’s translucent petals, then when you are able to get the lighting and composition arranged so that it shows the subject off to it’s best advantage AND get the dof just right so you are able to bring attention to the flowers most interesting feature THEN you can take a good shot of a flower…do all that consistently well and then flower shots are easy my friend!!
    You could just as well say landscapes are easy, coz all you do is find a pretty view, find a tree or rock or boat maybe for some foreground interest, decide wether you want to concentrate on the earth or the sky, throw in a leading line or two, unpack your lunch, put your ar*e to anchor and stare at the prettty view till the light comes good!! Right?
    Anything is easy when you are good at it. There I’m done and off my soap box now 🙂

  42. WoW great post. I read before knowing how many stages of photographers there were and could pin-point me exactly! I’m a stage 4, still having much to learn. Thank you for giving me a few things to start that learning process with.

  43. Thank you for doing this post!!!!! it has really helped!!!!

    I was wondering if you could do a portfolio review for me?
    I’m not a pro or anything near to a stage one photographer, I just take photos because I like TRYING to capturing Gods AMAZING creation!!!! which is almost impossible, no one can perfectly capture Gods creation.


  44. I’m still at stage three. Honestly though, I’m not trying to be a professional photographer but I _had_ to up my photo quality to get decent shots of the clothing I make for my blog. I’d like to get to level four, that would be good.

  45. I’m afraid I’m a stage 3 moving her way into 4. I know you need the “technical” bit to really advance in photography but I’m much more of a creative at heart. Any tips on getting to the desired stages?

  46. If I’m completely honest I’d say I was a stage 3 who sometimes on a really good day just about edges into stage 4 but on a bad day slips back to stage 2, but I aspire to be a stage 6.

  47. Im a solid upper 3 sometimes 4 . Whole post stabbed me in yhe heart hard makes me come to grips with the fact I’m chasing an unattainable goal of being published in any form of print, because I work and have a busy life can’t dedicate the time needed to ever achieve my goal. Maybe I should stick to point and shoots

  48. Great read! This article and another site I’ve been visiting has really helped me see where I am and need to go. Just crossed into a 3 and sometimes still pull a 2 🙂

  49. I think I’m between a stage Two and Three! I have so much work to do! Really working on lighting now (:

  50. Thank you! Some of the harshest criticisms I’ve received, while heartbreaking at first, have been the very thing that has pushed me to constantly learn and improve.

  51. I absolutely loved your article and categorizing. It was easy to see where I am right now, but more importantly, for me anyway, was where I was in April. I’m not interested in becoming a professional photographer but who wouldn’t wish to have the skills of one.

    I know that it doesn’t matter what camera you use but when I went from an 8 megapixel Canon to an 18, the pictures had the possibility to be much crisper. Notice I said…had the possibility. I realize that it’s still in the hands of the photographer. Right now I’m struggling with light and once in awhile…focus which for me is too slow of a shutter speed.

    Anyway…thanks for this. Every “amateur” photographer should read this. I love criticism if it’s constructive and not mean spirited, which yours certainly wasn’t (mean spirited:)

  52. Love it!!!! Love your sense of humor! I would have to say stage two and three! Now I better stop reading and get out an practice!!!!

  53. Well, being honest, i think I would rate a 2.9 in this scale. If i could just get rid of that ubiquitous rule of thirds… XD.

    But it’s truly satisfying to realize how much I have learned and improved, reading the lower stages, and remembering how long it took me to overcome my limitations.

    Great article, Jim!

  54. I so enjoyed reading this! I see my skills as a 3 in this article and I look forward to climbing higher! While it may have made me cringe to see things I did as a 1 and 2, I needed the honesty of your critical eye. Thanks for helping me on my way to being a better photographer!

  55. Wow. I’m a stage 3 — to a “T”. I think that this is an interesting post, good work!

  56. Interesting read. I would have to say that I’m a stage 2. Time to get out and practice!

  57. I am a stage 3 and the article was nice. I think some others out there need to read it as it is eye opening. Thank you!

  58. I’ve been wondering about this for awhile now, what a great post. Thank you very much.

  59. I think I’m a 3… Definitely the part about “if I just had a better camera.” I think I’m going to run this past some other people and see where they think I am.

  60. I was almost taking this seriously … until I saw the link to Pinterest. Nooooo!

  61. Thank you for sharing your insight. I’m feeling encouraged to be where I am and looking forward to moving ahead.

  62. I think I have made a few of the stages, not sure where I’m really at. I have had people tell me ( You should be Selling your photos).
    I get a great confidence boost and then start going through my thousands of pics and then don’t see what anyone sees in them.
    I know what I like to shoot and some people think I’m crazy but most shots are shot from the hip. I don’t go out and intentionally shoot any one thing, I always carry my camera and if there is a shot I like I take it….for better or worse. I always tell myself, shoot it if it doesn’t work at least you tried, but it’s a terrible feeling if you don’t and kick yourself for not attempting.

  63. You left out one point…not sure which level it would be, but “You must have a really great camera!” Has to fit SOMEWHERE. Somebody made this comment to me about fireworks photos. NOT a family member, either. I see bits of myself in the first 4 levels, but I don’t fit completely into any of them. LOL. Guess that’s a good thing. And I don’t think a new camera would help my photography, but I’m darn sure a little “L” glass would. 😉

  64. Jim,
    Excellent article! Discouraged? Hell no! Feeling challenged to take it up to the next level. Thankyou very much for the very helpful (FREE FOR ALL) knowledge. You Rock!

  65. You have some type of script running on this page that freezes it up and makes it almost unusable.

    It did this on two differnt PCs using IE and Firefox.

    I think the article may be good but I’m not willing to put up with the script issues to find out.

  66. Follow up on the script issue.
    I sent eh link to my home and there was no issues.
    It was most likely a security program running within the firewall of my company.

  67. Nice article! I feel like I’m currently between a stage 3 and stage 4, give or take. Hopefully I can move on past those at some point.

  68. Excellent article, what a great way to gauge your current skill level…and target areas to improve…Thanks.

  69. Its seems I am always searching for stage 5, and I feel I am between 3 and 4. I haven’t found my niche “signature” style yet. I think that is why most of us shoot everything, moving or not, evaluate, then shoot more. For me I have hundreds of people that like my work because it does cover so many interests. The one thing I think about this article is that is makes you think about where you are, and realize how these stages actually make sense. I have found for me that each time I upgraded my equipment, mainly my lenses, my work became increasingly better. Better in clarity, color, lighting, and it gave me more confidence to try advanced techniques. I do appreciate your putting forth the effort on this article. I have to ask: when did you cruise through each stage and how long did it take to get to where you are. Oh, and don’t give the standard lawyer answer.

  70. I would add that those at levels 2-3 have free websites, and level 4’s have a real one. That goes for email addresses too. Only recently would I consider myself a level 4, except for a real website which I am currently working on. Hopefully by Aug….

  71. Oh, and I always take time to smell the flowers and I hope I never tire of trying to capture interesting, swoon-able photographs of them.

  72. Really quite insightful. The early categories seem specific and actionable and I like how they were defined. The more advanced categories (in particular 5 and 6) however are described only by vague adjectives. That is not to say that these categories and photographers do not exist. They clearly do. It is just that much of what defines them in your categories are quantitative rather than qualitative terms. Too bad. I was looking for easy pointers.

  73. Based on this, I’m a level one and a half. On my better days.

  74. I would rate myself four . . . I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but I hope I am.

  75. Thank you for your article. I found it truly inspiring. The reason for this is that I find, in this day and age, anyone with a camera has become a “photographer”. I think we can only call ourselves professional when we are willing to criticize our own work. I have seen many over-saturated photos and remember the days when that was me. Now my post processing is much more subtle. That is how we learn. That is how we grow. Only then do we become truly professional.

  76. Jim, last summer I got my first camera that was NOT a point and shoot kodak. Rule of thirds? Depth of field? F-stop? Aperture? What the heck is that??? OMG… the manual was 400+ pages! Never mind… turned on the camera, selected “auto” and started snapping… however my pictures looked the same as with the kodak. Guess what? It’s not the camera that makes a great photo… it’s the photographer.

    So I set upon a journey to learn “how.” I have progressed from bad level one to level three and half and still learning. I can look at other photos and see what’s good and bad and I look at my own with a very critical eye. Not because it’s bad, but because I want to see what I can improve. Ok… some of them are bad, but I’m still learning! LOL. But no more auto mode for me… the camera stays on M all of the time. It’s second nature to just adjust with the toggles now.

    Maybe in a year I can claim level five if I’m lucky, if not well I’m having fun and getting some pretty decent photos now.

    1. I am so glad someone else said its not the camera its the photographer!! I have been saying that for a while now!

  77. I don’t find this article negative at all. Constructive criticism may be hard to take for some but I am operating under no pretenses and understand fully that I am always learning as a photographer regardless of the stage I exemplify. Taking better and more “educated” photographs is and will always be a goal of mine and I appreciate this site for it’s unassuming approach to teaching and learning from others. Thanks Jim and company, keep up the good work!

  78. I was encouraged by this. It helped me see where i’m at and encouraged me to press on. I’m def a 3 (although I have never shot a flower). I’ve avoided buying PS because I want to focus on capturing a photo in the camera rather than depending on PS to make the picture.

  79. I am a solid 3. But I do look at my work very critically, and try not to post stuff that is bad… And it doesn’t matter how much I love the subject- if it’s out of focus, I don’t show it. I do not care for taking pictures of flowers, lol. I don’t think I ever went through the flower phase. I really do appreciate this article.

  80. Refreshing. Much to ponder. I know where I sit on your scale on the basis of my own path and especially in the last 2 steps which I find harder to grasp ie I’m not there now. Its difficult to get accurate critique from my peers

  81. Hmmm, I wonder if a PJ could progress beyond stage five. All those darn random pictures of sports, fires, lightning, landscapes and people.
    AS a PJ, my portfolio has to show range, not just one style, or method, i have to show that I am capable of handling just about anything, at any time, in any weather.

    Otherwise, a good read. 🙂

  82. I have been reading your website for the past few days and really enjoy it. This is the first post I have to disagree with. I am FAR FAR from pro but I do know one thing, photography and art is very subjective.

    What you call over sharp or over saturated might be perfect in another persons eyes.

    I have read a lot of books on photography. Some of the work I love, some I wonder how on earth did you ever make it? Obviously it’s subjective. If we all liked the same look then we wouldn’t need different lenses, photoshop, and all the other things we use to manipulate photographs.

    HDR is a perfect example. Some people hate it, some people love it. Personally I do not like most HDR that is over done but some of it that is over done I do like.

    Another thing I notice about most photographers is they break every single rule they make. Why is this? It’s because rules are meant to be broken and that is the look they are going for. If all the pictures looked the same, photography would be boring. Keep up the good work!

  83. Jim:

    This definition/characteristic of the Stage 6 photographer is spot on:

    ‘Their work is no longer “random” with one sports picture, then a wildlife shot, then a landscape, etc. All of the photos in the portfolio go together and you can spot the photographer’s style coming through in the work.’

    Sadly most of us never get to that sublime stage where we just do one thing, over and over and better and better. Photography is like art or music — we recognise Mozart whenever we hear him because he had a “style”. Same for Rembrandt. Adams, Halsman, Newman, Mapplethorpe, Brandt, Haskins, Cartier-Bresson — all did one thing and did it to perfection. And, interestingly, when they departed from their one thing the result was usually banal.

  84. Looks like the author is a “rules” photographer. Rule of thirds. sunny 16 rule. Everything must be sharp and exposed a certain way. Landscapes must be taken at certain hours. Shadows must be managed in portraits a certain way.

    Maybe stage 7 is that you stop taking boring perfect photos, throw the stupid rules out the window, and do something interesting.

  85. I’m leaving 3, going into 4… with lots of practice and learning I’ll be in 5 in one more year 😉 At this moment I don’t even feel capable to become a 6.

  86. I found your article to be very interesting. I believe I’m between level 3 and 4. I would love to be on level 5 heading to 6. Once I get my DSLR I know for a fact my pictures will be greater than what I do now with a mirror lesson camera. Thank you

  87. Really good article! Thank you for “quantifying” some of these levels/steps for us. It’s often hard, but so important, to be honest about our skills and the level at which we operate. We need to be proud of the pictures we are taking but also realistic about their objective quality, which will help us identify the areas where we need to improve to get to the next level. Thanks for helping lay that out for us!

  88. I’m a level three. I’ve only had my DSLR since 2012 so I think that’s fair. One stage per year?

  89. I think the biggest thing that stuck out to me from this article, that I will definitely try to work on, is backing off the Photoshop and Lightroom for a while, and just try to get a picture to be good by itself. I’ve only had my DSLR for 1 year (and it’s only a Canon T3 with a 50mm 1.4 lens), but I’ve been practicing Photoshop since 2011 with my old point and shoot pictures. It’s habit for me to “just take some pictures” and then make them look better in PS.

    Also hoping to take a class or two soon! 🙂

  90. This feels harsh… I think only because none of us want to admit that we aren’t as great as we’d like to be. I think I’d rate myself as a stage 3 and cross my fingers someone would consider me a stage 4. The key is to always grow and thrive to be better. One thing I love about your site (and podcast) is I can go back and re-read or re-listen as I grow into new stages. Always coming away with something different than the last time I listened to the podcast or read the blog post.

    Thanks for all that you do – no matter what stage I am, was or will be – I owe a lot of what I have learned to you and am very thankful for that!

  91. In photography portfolio the most important part is the placement of the images in right place and in right angel. I am fully agree with all your tips you have mentioned here.

  92. Your writing is absolutely stunning for me because I haven’t any interest about photography. But now I think it’s time to start my journey with photograph. Thank you so much for writing these unique steps for us. I know it’s hard to start, but I have desire to develop my skills 1 stage every year.

  93. I’m dabbling still in level 3 and sliding into level 4. I’m my own worst critic it’s true!! My friends and family have told me they loved my photos, but I have more recently gotten nice comments and requests to do portraits and weddings for people I don’t know that like my photos to! So instead of completely doubting myself, I’ve taken the compliments as a great boost of confidence and trying new things, and techniques along with studying and learning more. I love photography way to much to give up!! There’s only up from here and I’m determined to make a go at this for my career hopefully soon. Best of luck to everyone out there trying!!!

  94. Very helpful article. I’m not sure why some people find it upsetting. I appear to be between levels 3 and 4 and am thrilled to have a usable scale with which to critique my skill level. Relying on the praise of friends and relatives is neither realistic nor helpful; unless they are highly skilled themselves, they will almost always think everything you do is wonderful. We learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes – but only if we are able to honestly appraise ourselves and recognize where we need to improve.

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