What Level Are You?

If you'd never ever used a camera before and I handed you one, you'd say you're a beginner, right? Unfortunately, pretty much all of you reading this have used cameras, some for decades. Thus, you don't think you're a beginner.

But exactly what level do you think you're at? 

Unfortunately, you were probably wrong when you answered that question. The vast majority of folk I work with on a one-to-one basis suffer from one of two issues: (1) lack of self-confidence and self esteem; or (2) excess of confidence and esteem, and sometimes arrogance. 

Group #1 is better than they think. Group #2 is worse than they think. There's almost no Group #3 (and no, I'm not in Group #3). 

Worse still, which group you're in varies depending upon what skills we're assessing. I've seen people who have excellent and instinctive compositional and timing skills, but their post processing sucks to high heaven. I've seen others who produce brilliant final pixels of images that, well, I wonder what the picture is of and why they're showing it to me. And this is just at a gross level. As we drill down into the hundreds of skills you need to be a great photographer, we're going to find that some you do well at, some you don't.

For instance, compositionally, you may be really good. Only you're stuck on a single perspective, or a single way of interpreting a scene. As great a photographer as David Muench is, there is also a bit of stuck-on-near-middle-far in much of his work. To some degree, that's good, because it establishes a style. To another degree it's not good, as it lowers the delight in discovering new work from him.

First assignment: Are you Stuck on Something? Browse all your images. Do they start to look and feel the same. Is what you do is take the same photo, just in different places? What are you going to do about that? Or maybe your photos are all over the place, there's no consistency to them at all, certainly no style that's yours. What are you going to do about that?

But let's get back to the headline question for a moment. How many levels are there? 

I make a bit of a joke at times about how I know what level a photographer is on by identifying who they think their "go to" Web site is (or was). It's almost as if you sign up for Photography 101, Photography 201, Photography 301, Composition 101, Composition 201, Gear 101, Gear 201, and so on as you get hooked into a certain Web site. 

Be careful. Those 101 classes/sites are the same as in college: they're trying to hook you into a major! They don't necessarily impart a lot of useful information that will take you to greatness, they cater to getting you excited about the subject (and creating customers for the product). 

So how many levels are there?

In my talks I go all Buddhist on this, and point out that you're on one of the following steps for almost any subject I might bring up:

  1. You're unaware that you're unaware.
  2. You're aware that you're unaware.
  3. You're unaware that you're aware.
  4. You're aware that you're aware.

#1 is naiveté. It defines beginner. #2 is when you become a student and start trying to learn. #3 happens when you begin achieving things but you still don't quite realize that or how you did so. And #4 is where we all want to be. 

I typically assume that most of you reading my material or coming to me for advice are #2. It might surprise you to know that I keep trying to put myself at step #2, as well. Why? Because that's where you learn, and I believe in constant, life-long learning. I can always be better. You can, too. Every time I think I'm at #4, I take the time to challenge that assumption. Indeed, that's one of the reasons why I started writing books at a very early age: I figured out that if I could collect all my knowledge and thoughts in an organized fashion and present that to others, then I had tentatively climbed up to #4 on whatever that subject was.

Often something happened that knocked me back off #4 and I had to start over at #2. My best teachers and my mentors were really good at that ;~). Heck, when it came to writing, my copy editor ex-wife was really good at that. 

Second assignment: Since "awareness" is a prerequisite to managing this assignment, where do you think you're at #2 and where do you think you're at #4 in your photography skills? Some of you might say, for instance, that you've "mastered" exposure. Have you? How did you verify that? Would I agree with you? ;~) The critical part of this assignment is to break down all of photography (planning, gear, while shooting, travel, ingesting, post processing, retrieval, presentation, etc.) into as many sub-components as you can and do an honest assessment of each. And when you have that list, share it with someone else at or above your level and see if they agree. 

You're probably starting to realize that you haven't been diligent and disciplined enough to be able to say with absolute confidence what level you're at. It's a rare person that can, and most of the rest of us get pleasure in knocking those that think they can down off their pedestal, so you don't want to get too cocky or arrogant here. What you want and seek should be confidence that if you need to do X, you know how to do X. 

I don't want you to be not confident, nor do I want you to be over confident. My goal as your instructor is to help you find the things that you aren't doing, that you need to work on and improve, and to verify that you're comfortable and confident at doing the rest. 

Some of confidence comes from practice. 

So the next thing on the agenda is to make sure that you're practicing the things that will lead you to confidence, and to continue practicing the things for which you already have confidence. 

I'll be honest with you: even before COVID-19 hit, I was starting to realize that I'm not shooting enough. To maintain the level I'm at and to reach a higher level, I need to shoot more. You have to practice to keep skills. I actually had plans in place to make this a very travel-rich (because most of my photography categories require this), and thus photography-rich year. Unfortunately: (1) the sports shooting shut down completely; (2) my wildlife shoots are shut down completely; and (3) I can't even travel to other landscape/nature locations I was planning for.  

Thus, I'm in sort of the same situation as you from a behind-the-camera standpoint, though I do have some local options for landscape/nature still available that I'm going to explore. 

The good news is that the self-isolation we're all currently practicing will eventually lift. That means that while we can't set specific dates and locations to practice our photography, we can sit down and imagine what that will be.

So your final assignment for today: When you're able to travel freely again and the things you shoot normally are all available, what are you going to do about that? Do you have a list of things you want to go out and do, and is that list prioritized? Do you have the gear necessary to do that? If you're going to do something elaborate, like time-lapse, or astrophotography stacking, or focus stacking, are you practicing the mechanics and steps of that now?

For the pros: are you still talking to clients and making sure they know that when things lift you're ready to get right back to work? Are you talking about doing more/better/faster for them? Have you let them know there are things you can do that they haven't taken advantage of in the past? Have you reached out to potential new clients and let them know you exist and are interested? Have you figured out what you did well for your clients in the past and what you didn't? I shouldn't have to tell you this, but I'll remind you that the actually "taking of pictures" part of a photography pro's job is not the biggest chunk of their work time. Client relations probably is. You can often keep working on that at a distance. 

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This article has also been posted in Technique/Improving the Photographer, which is what you should link to if you're posting links.

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