Taking Your Photography To The Next Level
By: George Barr
Part One of a Three Part Series
Photographers go through stages of development, and while we don’t all follow the same path, an understanding of our current level of skill, creativity and artisty is, I think, an important exercise. If we know where we are and we have an idea of where we want to be, it becomes a lot easier to determine the path from here to there and to take steps to get us there. Most of us have never given much thought to where we are in terms of skill, creativity and artistry, and even if we did, are not necessarily good judges of our own skills and levels so this is not a trivial process. While gradually and continuously striving to improve does in the end result in progress, I propose that we find a better and perhaps more direct route to becoming better photographic artists.
So, how do you assess your current level? What are the levels? Do all photographers go through the same levels in the same sequence? Is it a sequential process or can you skip steps and go back to a previous level? All good questions!
Even if you do understand your level, does that automatically imply you will move to the next level or is there some magic involved, or heaven forbid, some sweat equity to moving on? I hope to answer these questions in a series of articles, starting with this first article on discussing what are the different levels, in the second article discussing how to assess which level is yours, and in the third now to use this information to move to the next level.
Before describing the various levels, let me make clear that in fact I don't think this is a linear sequence from neophyte to grand old master, not for an individual photographer and certainly not for all. Depending on how you come into photography there can be huge differences in the sequence of steps, and at any point steps can be skipped only to be visited later on. That said though, here's a breakdown of the steps photographers often go through.
Rather than define levels by the equipment you use (which has more to do with style, habits, budget and the desire for toys, I will instead look at the quality of images you produce. Perhaps this doesn't address the photographer who only publishes to the web and never makes prints, but let's define their level by the kind of prints they are able to make (even if they don't normally make them).
Measuring Print Quality
Quality of prints can be measured in two basic ways, by the technical quality and the aesthetic quality. I think these two levels definitely do not go hand in hand. I am therefore going to describe them separately and fully anticipate that any photographer is likely to find himself at different positions down the two lists.
Right, time to make the lists. Let's start with the list that is almost certainly going to be the easier, that of defining one's technical level. Note that it's possible to be at two different levels of technical ability at the same time since they sometimes describe different technical issues.
Level 1 Technical
4X6 drugstore prints are frequently flawed. Many are blurred, others are underexposed, horizons aren't level, heads are cut off, trees stick out of people's heads, prints look muddy or soot and chalk. People and mountains look miniscule. These are the kind of images which even beginners recognize as flawed. In a set of 20 prints, 12 – 15 are rejected by the photographer as duds. It’s actually hard to be this bad in the age of auto focus and auto exposure but some find a way.
Level 2 Technical
Drug store prints are starting to look technically ok if not great. Self made 8X10 prints however show technical flaws – poor focussing, camera movement, colour balance issues, contrast problems. The photographer is sometimes disappointed in the results and other photographers spot the flaws easily. Any print adjustments made are not helpful.
Level 3 Technical
The prints look o.k. to your friends, you are starting to garner some nice comments, but when someone with experience looks at them, they note highlights that are blocked or muddy, shadows that are either solid black or unrelieved gray. Prints often show sharpening artifacts or colour saturation that is 'over the top'. Print controls are applied with a ‘six inch brush’ and the images show it. There remain small issues of sharpness and resolution.
Level 4 Technical
The prints are basically o.k.– focused, camera steady, overall right tonality, yet don't have that rich three dimensional look that expert prints seem to have. It's getting harder to describe the defects but when viewed next to good prints, definitely lack a certain something. Highlights are still not rich, shadows lack depth. Local print manipulation is fairly effective although sometimes too much or too little. They are adequate for a photo album but not to hang on the wall.
Level 5 Technical
8X10 prints look terrific and can't be criticized on a technical basis. There are some presentation issues – high gloss plastic prints, unattractive borders, borderless prints, prints too large for the equipment used to make them. Photographers at this level often insist on printing larger than the image can bear, relying on trick uprezing and sharpening algorithms to save them – they don’t!
Level 6 Technical
There's nothing to criticize about either the image itself or its presentation. Print manipulation is competent and invisible. Prints show subtleties and have depth. Tones are rich and absolutely nothing is overdone. Unfortunately that just leaves the aesthetic issues, a much more challenging problem to solve.
So to the aesthetic levels. Again levels are not necessarily in sequence and more than one level can apply.
Level A Aesthetic
Images don't seem to have a point, they don't show things to advantage, they don't capture the peak action or the best pose and are the kind of pictures that only a generous person would complement. It takes no photographic skill or artistic experience to know these don't shine. We're talking the typical snapshot here that disappoints even the photographer and doesn't often make it into an album. The photographer wonders why he bothered to take the picture.
Level B Aesthetic
Images make decent shapshots – as memories of events and people and places they serve well even though they don't excite. No wow factor. The photographer is comfortable showing the prints around to friends who want to know what your holiday was like but he’d not likely take them to other photographers and the images don’t reflect the excitement at the time of taking the image.
Level C Aesthetic
Images do generate admiration by friends but perhaps not photographers or artists. They capture peak action, best poses, dramatic lighting. They begin to show some awareness of composition and are almost good enough for the "New Sarepta Tire And Girdle Company' annual calendar. They have no artistic merit at this point and can be generally described as ‘pretty pictures’.
Level D Aesthetic
Images are starting to show value in and of themselves rather than as a reminder of something or someone special. It's easy to see that some effort has been made to compose the picture in ways that are interesting and that the photographer is being creative. There are elements of the image which don't quite work and it's the kind of image which makes you think that this would have been a great image if only I could reshoot it and fix X and Y. Some of the compositional elements work but not all. The photographer is within a few feet of the right place, a few hours from the right time. The image isn’t strong however and it’s message is not clear. There are elements in the image which distract from it’s power.
Level E Aesthetic
Images are generally admirable and most photographers would react with 'wish I had taken that picture'. Composition is spot on, the subject interesting, the presentation of the subject effective.
The only thing missing is an emotional response to the image. You're inclined to say 'well done' rather than 'oh my god...' or 'wow' or 'that disturbs me', or some kind of emotional expletive. Images are starting to work on more than one level. Composition shows careful attention to detail, things are lined up exactly right in several planes. It takes more than 30 seconds to take in all that the image has to offer.
Level F Aesthetic
These images are very strong – they generate emotional responses. You might not mortgage the house to get one and they don't leave you weak kneed but they are wonderful. Most of us would be delighted to get a handful of images a year into this category. These images show us things we didn't know, they make a point, they illustrate and elucidate. Most of the images of the great photographers fall into this category. Responses to these images are ‘awesome’, ‘right on’, ‘great’, ‘damn that’s good’ and like. it’s possible to spend 20 minutes looking at a single image and still find new things worth seeing, new connections, new messages.
Level G Aesthetic
These are the great images of history – the ones, that make you weep or cry out or swear. These are the handful of images so exceptional that even the best photographers in history have only able to make a few at best. Here lies 'Pepper Number 30', but not many other Edward Weston images, this includes the best of Ansel Adams but not all. It doesn't mean that we mortals can't create an image that fits this category, we’d count ourselves lucky if it happened once. These are the magical images, the ones that glow, that so perfectly get the message across they become icons of photography. They might be 'Migrant Mother' by Dorothea Lange or the Steve McCurry Afghan girl portrait, the 'napalmed girl running' image, Winter Storm Clearing by Ansel Adams, and several Henri Cartier Bresson images.
Finding Your Level
Perhaps by now you have an idea of your level both technically and artistically and if so the next step is to use that information to move on to the next level. Since you can look at the definitions of the two levels, you can quickly get an idea of what it is you need to acquire, practice, learn, improve and generally brush up on. On the other hand, you might be kidding yourself or you may simply not be sure and so next time I’m going to discuss the ways and means to come to an accurate understanding of ‘where you’re at’.
About George Barr
I am a 57 year old family physician. The switch to digital a few years ago was like a light going on – my creativity was unleashed to a degree I'd never had before. It opened the possibilities of colour work after almost 40 years of black and white only. A weekend workshop gave me the courage to show my work and has since led to being published in Lenswork, Black And White and also Black And White Photography Magazine from Britain and Focus magazine in the U.S. My website is http://www.georgebarr.com and my blog is at http://www.georgebarr.blogspot.com.