Photography Skill Levels

In Features by Jim Harmer5 Comments

 

Today, Improve Photography is releasing an innovative way for photographers to get in-depth, professional feedback on their photos.  It's our online portfolio review service, which I've worked extremely hard to make cost effective for all photographers.

As part of each review, we place photographers in one of our 7 skill levels, so the photographer can track his or her progress over time and see the roadmap ahead for how to improve.

The skill levels below are hasty generalizations and I'm sure much of it could be debated at length, but after doing thousands of portfolio reviews for online class students and for photographers who attend my completely free photography workshops, I feel that these skill levels best exemplify the progress that many photographers go through in learning photography… and “progress” is the right word for it.  No one is ever “done” learning photography, and I'm not even close.

The Skill Levels at a Glance

  • Level 1 – The Absolute Beginner: No better than an average non-photographer
  • Level 2 – Novice: Photos that stick out among non-photographers but still exhibit major focus/exposure problems
  • Level 3 – Hobbyist: Some photos are worthy of being printed and hung, but not the entire portfolio.  Some of the photos may rely on easily-captured subjects or gimmicks.  Almost all focus/exposure problems overcome, but compositions are still very loose
  • Level 4 – Competent Photographer: Often photos at the semi-pro level are very good from a technical perspective but lack impact, drama, and creativity.  Other photographers have some excellent work in their portfolio, but not enough excellent work to fill out the entire portfolio.  Similar skill level to many part-time photographers.
  • Level 5 – Skilled Photographer: Independent of whether the photographer is working professionally, the work is on-par with most full-time professional photographers.  The photos are not only properly exposed, sharp, and have decent lighting, they show creativity, drama, and really impact the viewer.  All published photos from a skilled photographer are beautiful, and their portfolio work is jaw-dropping.
  • Level 6 – Artist: Consistently produces work that professional photographers envy and notice, one of the best in a regional area
  • Level 7 – World-class photographer: Produces the level of work that changes trends in the art form and has a lasting impact on the viewer

Level 1 Photography

Level 1 photographers are intimidated by their gear and camera settings, so they often ignore them entirely.  Photos at this stage are subject-centric, meaning they capture a subject that caught the photographer's eye, but the subject is not presented in a way as to produce an interesting photo.  The level 1 photo shows significant technical issues with sharpness and exposure.

  • The photo captures an interesting subject, but is not presented in an interesting way.  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.  I always look at the eyelashes on a person in the photo and see if I can see individual lashes–if I can, it's sharp.
  • All of the photos are taken from the obvious perspective.
  • The photos would look the same if taken by any person who was standing in the same spot.
  • Almost all of the photographer's photos are shot too wide.

There is nothing wrong with being a level 1 photographer.  It's where every photographer started, and where most non-photographers remain.

Examples of a Level 1 Portfolio

Level 2 Photography

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.

  • Some, but not all, of the 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 or none 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.
  • Some of the photos are still taken from too far away, but other photos in the portfolio are zoomed in to the extreme.
  • Often portrait photos are posed with the subject smashed up against a bush or a wall as a background–giving no separation between subject and background.

Level 2 is the most common level for the photographers I work with, and see on flickr.

Pictures like these are indicative of a stage two photographer

Level 3 Photography

Level 3 photography means the photographer has overcome almost all exposure and sharpness issues.  Interesting lighting is used in some of the photos, and poor lighting is rarely used.   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.  This is often where I find photographers starting to do some paid portrait photography work for low-end jobs.

  • The photographer's portfolio contains work better than an average non-photographer, but their best photos are usually of subjects that are easily captured such as a very basic macro photo of a flower.
  • Their photos sometimes incorporate good lighting, but boring lighting often slips into the portfolio.
  • When the photos are shown to friends or family members, they have said things like, “Wow!  You could sell that!”
  • Camera settings are starting to feel more comfortable, but the photographer still makes mistakes with camera settings on occasion
  • Basic editing is done on the computer, but a skilled eye can easily pick out what edits have been done to the picture.
  • Level 3 photographers can feel trapped by their equipment.  “Full frame” becomes an obsession, and often this tricks the photographer into thinking they can't progress in photography until they have the “right gear.”
  • Photos at this level are typical of those which score at 550 or above on Pixoto. Pixoto is certainly not a perfect tool for judging the quality of a photo, but it's the most accurate “score based” system I've seen.

These photos are indicative of a stage three photographer

Level 4 Photography

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.

  • Most of the successful photos rely on an unusual technique in order to stand out: extremely wide panoramas, extreme perspectives, gimmicky editing (which the photographers always tell me is “a really subtle effect” but rarely is), creatively tilted horizons, unnaturally vibrant colors, very “flashy” flash portraits, etc.  There is nothing wrong with any of these techniques, but it is obvious when a photo cannot stand on its own and one of these techniques is used as a crutch rather than a tool
  • No photo in their portfolio has bad lighting, but many of the photos just have decent, even lighting.  A few of the best photos exhibit dramatic, beautiful lighting
  • Camera settings are no longer even considered by the photographer–they happen automatically in the photographer's head without any real effort
  • None of the photos in their portfolio have any obvious technical problem.  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 at least one person who is NOT a family member, friend, or co-worker to purchase a photo
  • The photographer rarely notices it, but a trained eye sees many distracting elements in the compositions that take away from the overall picture.  Some of the compositions are too extreme
  • Photos at this level are typical of those which score at 650 or above on Pixoto. Pixoto is certainly not a perfect tool for judging the quality of a photo, but it's the most accurate “score based” system I've seen.  A score of 650 on Pixoto shows a photo that is better than 100 other photos submitted by fellow photographers, as rated by other photographers.

Level 5 Photography

Level 5 Photography is what we usually call “professional quality.”  By “professional” I mean of the quality that a full-time photographer would put in a portfolio.  Whether or not the photographer earns a living from photography is inconsequential.

  • Zero image quality issues show up in the portfolio
  • Compositions feel more mature, and no longer feel as “extreme”, while at the same time being creative
  • Some of the photos in the portfolio may be “lazy”, meaning they may be technically perfect and capture a beautiful person or location, but lack serious thought and creativity
  • Photos at this level are typical of those which score at 700 or above on Pixoto. Pixoto is certainly not a perfect tool for judging the quality of a photo, but it's the most accurate “score based” system I've seen.  A score of 650 on Pixoto shows a photo that is better than 100 other photos submitted by fellow photographers, as rated by other photographers.

Stage five photography

Level 6 Photography

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.

  • Every shot in the portfolio has impeccable image quality (no graininess, sharpness, or exposure issues) 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 a mood.  They truly “tell a story.”
  • Photos at this level are typical of those which score at 735 or above on Pixoto. Pixoto is certainly not a perfect tool for judging the quality of a photo, but it's the most accurate “score based” system I've seen.  A score of 735 on Pixoto shows a photo that is better than 100,000 other photos submitted by fellow photographers, as rated by other photographers.

Level 7 Photography

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.  These are the legendary photographers who make a mark on the art form.

  • Some sense of style seems to develop between the photos
  • The photos change the way the art form is approached by other photographers
  • The photos have a lasting impact on the viewer
  • These 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.

I'm not to this level yet.  I'm working to get there and I'm constantly learning.  Hopefully, someday.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Darin!

    It is now very clear to me what I can improve and I know what to work on now.
    Your review has been very helpful! Not only helpful, it gave me a confidence boost to know that I am on the right track.
    And although I asked for ‘brutally critical’, I really appreciate the positive comments as well!
    You made me laugh! I have seen Beetlejuice a couple of times and I have to say I never thought of Beetlejuice when seeing a Wonderpus… the animal is just too cute! I have a blog on marine life in Bali, should you wish to see more strange and wonderful creatures 🙂
    The landscape picture is taken in Bali, Indonesia. It is probably the most beautiful rice field of the whole island!
    So, thank you very much and I wanted to let you know, I am considering switching over to the dark side as well…. maybe….

    Cheers,

    Greet

  2. Darin,

    Thanks for the great review. You saw details in my images that I missed, and gave me some good ideas. You reinforced the idea of the picture “telling a story” and being absolutely clear on the subject of the photo/story. Very positive and inspiring, while also providing good value and suggestions for improvement.

    Jim

  3. I think that I am a 2, I have been told that I could sell some of my pictures and l have already been asked to photograph a wedding and a couple with a new baby. I declined the wedding job because I am nowhere near shooting something so important. I’m going to shoot the family relatives of a friend, but I think I’m gonna do it for free. just for practice. I have a hard time finding models.

  4. Awesome! Erica your review was great. Thank you for being so clear about all your ideas. I will start working on your input right away. I will re-submit another portfolio review in a couple of months to see if I am heading in the right direction.

  5. Hey Nick! Hugely appreciate you slogging through my review despite your cold (not one sniffle or sneeze), and many thanks for the awesome tips. I’m a little nervous that you rated me at a higher level (pressure is on), but I greatly appreciate the feedback and pointers (as well as the humor). I definitely value your thoughts on the post processing end; I’ve been trying to push beyond my usual comfort zone (the IP presets have helped). I had downloaded one of Steve Arnold’s luminosity tutorials, but I’m still very much a novice in PS, so thanks for those recommendations! Sidebar: Bearded guy = Tough Mudder extreme sport competition (charity event for Help for Heroes)–I spent two days running around the mud, rain, hail, and sun (yep, all in one weekend) across the British countryside chasing after U.S. service members who participate . I get to do this every year, and it’s a blast! Thanks again!!

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