The 7 Levels of Awareness in Becoming a Professional Photographer

I have been taking pictures for almost twenty years now and so much has changed over those years. Back in the beginning gas used to cost $1.00, Bill Clinton was president, and I was picking up a camera for the first time. I started out in high school playing with my father’s Nikon FM2 and taking pictures for the school newspaper. Today, I work with a medium format digital back shooting national ad campaigns, magazine articles, and catalogs. Some aspects of how I photograph have stayed unchanged, but a great deal has changed considerably.

I feel I’m similar to many photographers in how I got my start with photography. I began just taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures. I would play around with my father’s camera trying to take pictures I thought might look good. I didn’t really have a motive; I just loved the challenge of making good pictures. By examining my progress over the years, I have come up with a list of levels or stages I feel many photographers go through when becoming professional photographers.

1. Technically Unaware

You are taking pictures without putting any technical thought into them at all. No thought is going into your composition, light, or mood. You’re taking pictures for the purpose of recording a moment, place, or event and likely with a camera phone, or point and shoot camera. Taking pictures is likely something you do out of necessity.

2. Technically Semi-Aware

You start becoming aware of the photographic process. You start thinking that maybe the picture would look better if you did something in particular, like putting the camera in sports mode when taking pictures of sports, or landscape mode for landscapes. Towards the end of this level maybe you start shooting RAW instead of JPEG or buy a new lens other than the one that came with the camera. This is the level most amateurs are at.

3. Technically Aware

You really start thinking about the pictures you’re taking on a technical level. While photographing you think about the rule of thirds, your highlight and shadow detail, quality of light, and more. At this point you are probably using a good DSLR, an off-camera flash, and a few lenses to shoot the pictures that inspire you. If studio photography is your thing, you have a few light heads and soft boxes to modify the light to look how you want it to look. You are comfortable using Photoshop or similar software to edit your pictures and make them look as you want. Maybe at this point you have taken a few photography classes or taken part in a few workshops.

4. Technically Over-Aware / Conceptually Unaware

You are making good technical photos, but you’re so concerned with the technical that you cannot get past that. When on a shoot, you are completely obsessed with what your camera settings are and check the LCD screen way too often to see if you got the shot. There is a chance you are spending way too much time on the Internet researching new gear and commenting on camera review sites. Better gear is necessary to make better photos, even though you already own good gear. You feel the world is holding you back from taking amazing images, but the reality is you’re probably the only one holding yourself back.

5. Conceptually Semi-Aware

You are at the point where you have shot long enough that the technical stuff is pretty much on autopilot. You’re not thinking about the technical stuff as much as you were before, and now you can start thinking about what your pictures are saying. In a given day you are thinking more and taking pictures less. You’re spending very little time looking at new gear and more time looking for inspiration. Your pictures don’t just look beautiful — they also start to have meaning. You come into a shoot with a mental list of the shots you hope to capture and you already know how you’re going to accomplish them.

6. Conceptually Aware

You are making pictures with more sophisticated meaning that are also technically perfect. You have mastered the craft and now most every image you take has meaning or is attempting to show meaning. If you’re doing a lot of commercial work, you’re absolutely giving your opinion on how to approach the shoots you’re doing so that they have the most impact. Clients are hiring not only because you’re a great technical photographer but more because you come to the table with solid opinions on how to make their ideas better.

7. Technical and Conceptual Master

Chances are that now most of the pictures you take are part of something important. You don’t just take pictures to take pictures; you take pictures to tell a story, and that story has depth. Chances are you have been taking pictures now for a very long time. Generally speaking, very few photographers reach this point in their career. It can be hard working as a commercial photographer when you’re in this level because a lot of paid work isn’t intellectually stimulating enough, so you lose interest.

This is the progression my career has taken, and also where I hope my career will end up. Honestly I think I’m currently in the conceptually semi-aware stage of my career in the process of moving to the conceptually aware level. Plenty of photographers are happy staying in the technically aware level since they’re most interested in getting paid while taking beautiful and technically great images than making any dramatic statements. It takes the right combination of drive, talent, and time to make it to the later levels.

It’s important to be aware of where you are in your career in order to continue to improve. The pictures you will shoot in the future will likely be better than the pictures you are shooting today as long as you continue to strive to make them better. When I look back at work I did ten years ago I am surprised at what I thought was great work at the time. As a photographer your perspective and ability to see images for what they are changes dramatically over time. Professional photography is a life-long endeavor and not one that can be mastered overnight. What level do you think you’re at?

About the author: Steve Giralt is a NYC-based photographer who was selected in 2005 by PDN magazine as one of 30 emerging photographers to watch. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

Image credit: El Sube by Monkey Mash Button, Studio Setup Shot by adamrhoades, Summit of Coriscao (2234m) by alvarolg

  • Danny San Diego

    This is truly fantastic. I’ve long felt frustrated with photographers who ONLY obsess over the technical while never really showcasing any vision with their images. It’s not meant to minimize the importance of having a sound technical foundation, but as you’ve stated being over aware can be a problem. Missing the forest through the trees :)

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • K in Seattle

    This is great though, personally, I feel that focusing exclusively on digital is missing an important component in building one’s skills. I learned so much more about the nature of light and it’s relationship to making images by using film than I ever did using a digital camera and it was by using much more cumbersome, slow, unforgiving cameras that I was able to really ratchet up my technical proficiency and start making (not just taking) worthwhile images.

  • Lolo

    Wow i really enjoyed this article…Like you I started photography for my school newspaper…at that time we had to use black and white film…and develop it ourselves. However, I stopped for awhile and now have recently started it again. I find I’m between 5 & 6. You gave me a few things to think about! Great article!

  • Tam Nguyen Photography

    Agreed. I find myself between 5 & 6 as well.

  • Antonio Carrasco

    Number 4 is where most people seem to get stuck.

  • Charlie

    I really enjoyed and feel that I have left with something, not just read an article and moved on, but was actually able to take something from the article and apply it. Nicely done

  • Danny San Diego

    I keep hearing this and feel there is something more to it. I own a holga and sadly that is the only film camera I have. I’ve been giving serious though to investing in an old nikon and / or a medium format camera. I love the idea of the medium itself slowing me way down. Although even with digital I make a conscious effort to be very mindful each time I press the shutter.

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    I feel like a 4.5, browsing eBay and gear reviews while silently cursing myself for not doing more conceptual work. This is good encouragement to stop saying “If only I had X, Y & Z I could do this…”

  • Casey Grimley

    Great article. I’m sitting about a 2. I really enjoy photography but I just use a point and shoot and my phone. Eventually I’ll get a nice DSLR and move up the awareness list.

  • Radovan Rasho Pavlic

    Surprisingly, I kinda fit to No. 5, according to the described symptoms…flattering, actually…

  • Bob

    This list may be the way some people learn, but don’t let yourself be boxed in by this linear, boxed-in learning. That may have worked for the author, but it’s not for everyone.
    You can progress down both paths (Conceptual and Technical) at the same time. Or just pick the one that appeals to you more. Or just pick up your camera and go shoot things that you love and care about.

  • Sum_it

    Its kind of interesting to think back and mentally track the progress of my own photography career. I remember when I’d obsess over DOF/aperture or extremely wide angle lenses for landscape photography. I guess in a way, its a lot like discovering the body of a new partner, new and exciting! Now I’m a lot more calm about these things; I don’t crave to buy the 5D mark III because the II does just fine for what I do. Time is a wonderful thing.

  • ChristianRudman

    I did this exact thing with a Mamiya RB67. Great fully manual all mechanical medium format camera that really slows the process down but isn’t as cumbersome as a LF camera. MF cameras are cheap nowadays for stuff that used to be really high end professional gear. I am learning a lot about making each individual shot count and really putting thought into how I’m shooting it rather than just shooting and worrying about it later. Nothing teaches like the loss of money.

  • Sum_it

    there is beauty in everything. You can see it, feel it, experience it, and
    enjoy it as an individual. However, in order to capture that beauty in a
    meaningful way and convey it through the medium of photography, it takes an
    artist; an artist who is both technically and conceptually aware. No one
    approaches such level of mastery without dedication, wisdom, and practice.

  • Steven Alan

    I’m a 7 for sure…

  • Dee

    I’m at # 4. But I’m getting past it.

  • Mrbeard

    for me, the technical stuff is the nuisance bit i struggle with to do the conceptual ideas i fill notepads with, up to 3 is correct bit it splits for a 4-7a and 4-7b with the words technical and conceptual swapped (i think)

  • Erik Tande

    Cool article! I’m very much a 4.

  • John Wilmot, Rochester

    I agree with you, Christian, and have loved shooting MF over the years, but I will say that nothing has made me reflect upon the art of photography or improve my skills quite like making the daunting switch to LF a year ago. Now I wonder what I was thinking not switching earlier. It’s heavy, clumsy, expensive (though the cameras themselves certainly are not these days) and often very frustrating for one reason or another, but the feeling of accomplishment walking away from a shot with your gear packed up, and then again when you get your film back from the lab is absolutely immense. At $7-$8 a shot you’re neither taking unnecessary chances or being anything but completely thorough, and I especially like not needing to shoot through a whole roll before getting film developed. Now I even love shlepping a tripod everywhere; it’s a burden but think of all those shutter speeds you’re freeing up.

  • Ranger 9

    Golly, Zenmaster Steve, I hope you didn’t sprain a shoulder patting yourself on the back for being on the brink of reaching the highest possible level of photography.

    (But what if there’s an eighth level, or a ninth level, or a 47th level, of which you’re not yet enlightened enough even to be aware? Nah, not possible…)

  • Reji Berrouet

    I feel like I’m between 4 & 5. My goal is 6. I can hit 6 and be very happy.

  • ninpou_kobanashi

    I agree, with this, but scale I think is not linear and looks more like this in terms of skill level:


  • mike stanway

    i’m somewhere between 3.5 and 4.7…dammit…

  • Andre

    I’m a 5.6 right now ;)

  • Dorothea Kettler

    Like the most of you here, I’m too stuck somewhere betweet 5 and 6.

  • Rick Bennett

    Fascinating article, but I tend to think of technical and conceptual as two dimensions, kinda like x and y on a graph, and people will progress as their needs and interests propel them.

    My only real quibble is with the title of the article–it should be “The 7 Levels of Awareness in Becoming an Accomplished Photographer”. High technical and conceptual ability says nothing about your ability to get paid to do it.

  • Lisa_M

    Great article. I can certainly relate. Hope maybe you can start shooting & writing. Now that would be awesome eh?

  • James Dyas Davidson

    Great article. Somewhere in there you need: Budgeting Aware, Marketing Aware, Social Media Aware, Family and Friends Aware, Remembering ‘Life’ Aware. :-)

  • Kekoah

    Funny, I haven’t explored the same level order. I was a Junior Art Director in advertising when I started photography – I had a lot of ideas, I could draw what I wanted to get but didn’t know how to realise them technically because what I wanted was complicated, (kind of like long exposure work of Alexey Titarenko), and I only knew basic – analog – photography rules I learnt at University, so I read a lot of books and finally bought a digital camera.

  • NancyP

    Amateur here. I am f/2.8 or thereabouts. The shooting basics are there, thanks to growing up with an all-manual film SLR, but the post-processing is currently confined to basic Lightroom.

  • NancyP

    Shooting LF is certainly on my “bucket list”, although I would need to have a good comfortable darkroom (not a temporarily converted half-bath) and either a 4×5 enlarger or an 8×10 camera and contact prints. I love the smell of acetic acid (stop) in the morning…