What Level Are You At?

The photographer and blogger Ming Thein wrote a wonderful post back in November 2012 about the creative evolution of a photographer. He identifies four stages (actually five if you include the pre stage) that photographers typically advance through as they improve their technical as well as creative skills. In many ways these stages remind me of the levels of the so called capability maturity model (CMM) used as a way to measure an organisations ability to effectively develop software. I see the stages identified by Thein as a way of assessing your creative photographic ‘maturity’. The stages, with my added names in brackets (I prefer names to numbers), are:

  • Pre Stage (The Casual Photographer) – This is the stage most of the population are at. They are not really photographers as such. They just happen to own a camera and use it to take pictures of their kids, their holidays or their friends weddings. Their cameras only come out very occasionally and they wouldn’t consider taking a picture of anything that isn’t particularly personal to them in some way.
  • First Stage (The Intentional Photographer) – This stage is so called because you have made an intentional choice to make a photograph outside the normal environment that most people in the first category operate in. You would go somewhere to specifically take a photograph rather than just to record an event. Although photographers at this level may make a conscious choice to embark on an outing whose sole purpose is to take photographs, it is very much a case ‘of shoot what you see’, and only photographing a subject if it’s obvious (usually a nice scene or building or maybe an attempt at some form of wildlife photography).
  • Second Stage (The Conscious Photographer) – Now you are not only going somewhere with the intentional purpose of making a photograph you are aware of some ‘idea’ you are trying to capture. You’re starting to get some sense of observation and trying to capture that in the image and will have some of the basic ideas of composition. What you lack at this stage however is all (you have some) of the technical ability to create the idea you had in mind, certainly in any way that is repeatable.
  • Third Stage (The Visionary Photographer) – You now have the vision in your head of what the final image should look like and have the technical skill to consistently achieve what you envision. The image can communicate its meaning or intention without the help of a caption. What is lacking at this stage is the creative ‘spark’. The image, although technically accomplished, is too safe and lacks originality.
  • Fourth Stage (The Artistic Photographer) – At this stage you not only have all the technical elements of your craft under control but also have the ability to see things in ways others can’t and create truly original works of art. As Thein says: “There are but a small handful of people who ever reach this point; they have the common trait of pushing the boundaries in one or more aspects of the image making process simply because they can imagine and envision things which the majority of the population are unable to.

I like this way of thinking about photographic maturity for several reasons. Firstly, knowing where you are on the maturity scale gives you an impetus for improving and reaching the next stage. Placing yourself on the scale means you can put in place concrete steps for how to move your photography forward and advance through the levels of maturity. Listening to others and looking at the work of those who are higher on the scale is obviously a good way of doing this but is unlikely to take you above stage three. Jumping from the technically adept to the artistic requires something else that most of us can only ever aspire too.

Secondly, although working your way up the maturity scale requires improving technical ability, it does not rely on buying better equipment. This is, of course, exactly as it should be. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who Thein reckons is an example of a fourth stage photographer, predominantly used a 35mm camera with a single 50mm lens that by today’s standards is positively primitive (even if it was a Leica). Look at many of Cartier-Bresson’s most famous photographs, see below for example, and you will see they are often blurred and may contain elements which many today would remove post-processing. Cartier-Bresson famously never cropped his images saying “If it’s not correct it’s not by cropping in the darkroom and making all sorts of tricks that you improve it. If a picture is mediocre, well it remains mediocre. The thing is done, once for all”.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson - Magnum

Behind Saint-Lazare Station, Paris, France 1932. © Henri Cartier-Bresson – Magnum

Next, there is nothing in these levels that says you have to be a professional or an amateur (excluding the pre stage that is). Whilst I would expect that most professionals, as a matter of survival, have advanced to at least the second stage I suspect that many of those in the fourth stage don’t actually make a living at photography, simply because some or all of their work is too ‘out there’ to be commercially viable. This is the kind of stuff that, by it’s very nature, is controversial and often misunderstood .

The next thing to note is that there is nothing about age in all this. Whilst I would expect it takes at least a few years to both learn and practice photography to attain a basic level of technical proficiency no one is saying you have to have laboured away for decades to gradually advance up through the levels. Some people will never advance much beyond stage two throughout their whole life (which, of course, is not a problem) whilst others will seemingly shoot straight to stages three or four with seemingly no effort at all. Check out the work of Alex Lee Johnson (who is in his early 20’s) as an example of someone who I would say is already at the upper stages of level three if not level four.

Finally, I believe these levels apply regardless of which side of the lens you’re on. Many great photographs are collaborations between the photographers, models, makeup artists, stylists and others. The spark of the idea may come from any of these, not just the photographer. A great example of this is the model Jen Brook whose Dreamcatcher Project is a series of images captured as a collaboration between Jen and a group of photographers, stylists and makeup artists who help envision an idea she has had that is made real through a joint creative effort. As further proof that reaching the higher levels of creative maturity does not require huge expense or lots of expensive studio space the below was taken inside in a small room with a handful of twigs and a bunch of dried leaves plus a bit of creative lighting.

Model/Concept: Jen Brook, Photographer: Auri Laukkanen, Hair/Make up: Donna Graham

Of course, you may find all this talk of photographic levels of maturity a complete load of bull**** and that’s fine. If you don’t care what others think of your work and are shooting purely for yourself you may also not care where you are in terms of your photographic maturity. You just enjoy photography for its own sake, whether you are a special occasions snapper or striving to always do something different. I think it is a very rare person that is truly like this however (Vivian Maier was one such person). Most of us seek some form of recognition, whether it be ‘likes’ on Facebook or complements off family, friends or clients. For those of us like that, understanding our level of artistic maturity and how we can improve must surely be a good thing?

3 thoughts on “What Level Are You At?

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