The 5 Skill Levels

Found on Flickr, Photographed by Nicole Lee

I love cheese. Seriously, I really really enjoy cheese, I even believe that sometimes a cheese plate is just as delicious as chocolate for dessert. Let me tell you what I know about cheese (stay with me, their is a point here) I know that they are always sorry when they say, "say when" at Olive Garden and typically decide to cut me off before I actually said, "when". I also know that I love aged, nutty cheeses most and that fresh parmesan that you grade yourself in the only way to go... And thats become much easier since getting my cool cheese grater doo-hickey last Christmas. I know a little more about cheese than that, but it's not going to impress you very much! Now my brother-in-law, Dan... He loves cheese too, he's a cheese connoisseur and the two of us always get caught in the cheese section if we have to run into the grocery store (in fact they rarely let us go in together anymore) and we can seriously waste some time in that fabulous cheese shop in Leavenworth, WA while the rest of the family just shrugs their shoulders at us. He tells me all about the different types, he pronounces the names properly and he knows what pairs nicely with what. He knows cheese... At the very least, he knows cheese much more than I do. Now last time we went to The Cheesemonger Shop in Leavenworth, we talked with Dave Hableton (he owns the shop) and while Dan wowed me with his pronunciation, Dave took it one step further and wowed us with the story behind each cheese - telling us of it's origin and how it was made, describing the aging process and more. Dave in a cheese expert and he should be! So we have me; the cheese novice... Dan, the cheese proficienaddo and Dave, the cheese expert. Now let me help try to turn this into actually having something to do with photography. 

Each of us has a different skill level when it comes to our camera, light, composition, posing, editing and so much more. Some have mastered all of their craft, others are just beginning while most of us are somewhere in the middle. We are all working to progress with in our craft. I love to see things, I don't like broad umbrella statements. I like to know exactly where I fit in the puzzle, which is why I find the Dreyfus model intriguing and thought you might too. I have a love/hate relationship with being able to track exactly where my progress is at. I love it because it allows me to recognize exactly where there is room for improvement. I hate it because it can often leave me feeling discouraged. But discouragement was never a reason to ignore opportunity for self assessed improvement and so I asses and than listen to my post on how to bounce back from the funk I just put myself in. ;) 

This model is of course applicable to any subject but I would like to examine the model in terms of photography. 

Two brothers, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus deveoped an idea on the various levels of skill in the early 80s with the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Their model breaks down the journey to mastery in five discrete stages, outlining what’s necessary to improve at each of them. Let's each take a self reflective look... 

The 5 Skill Levels

1. Novices

The main goal of novices is to accomplish immediate tasks. Since they have little or no previous experience, they’re usually insecure and are focused only on having their first successes. Novices need clear rules and unambiguous instructions, and to concentrate on following them strictly. As such, they commonly don’t feel responsible for anything other than correctly following what was passed to them (“I’m just following orders!”).
To improve, novices usually need close monitoring to bring their actions as close as possible to achieve what is expected by adhering to the rules.

2. Advanced Beginners

Advanced beginners still operate following rules, but they’re able to apply them not only on the exact situations that they were intended for, but also on similar contexts. The once-rigid rules become more like guidelines. Advanced beginners try new things out, but still have difficulty troubleshooting problems. Just like novices, they’re still focused on completing tasks — they don’t want lengthy theorizing and don’t have much interest in the big picture.
To improve, advanced beginners need to gain experience dealing with real situations, preferably in limited and controlled situations (with much of the ‘real-world complexity’ filtered out).

3. Competent

As the rules and guidelines become prohibitively complex, practitioners begin organizing and sorting them by relevance, forming conceptual models. Competent practitioners can troubleshoot problems, and will work based on deliberate planning and past experience. They are willing to make decisions and to accept responsibility for their outcomes.
To improve, competent practitioners need exposure to a wide variety of typical, real-world, ‘whole’ situations. By dealing with those, they better grasp the connections between the isolated conceptual models they already use.

4. Proficient

Proficient practitioners create not only conceptual models, but a conceptual framework around their whole skill. They want the big picture, and become frustrated with oversimplified information. They’re conscious of their performance and can adjust their behaviors accordingly. They can also use and adapt others’ experiences, as well as grasp and applymaxims — which require much more sophisticated interpretation than mere rules or guidelines (as they’re much more generic and context-dependent).
To advance to the fifth and last level, proficient practitioners need even more practice — lots of it. And, as much as possible, they should practice without being hindered by policies or guidelines. The intuition of the expert starts with a vast pool of practical knowledge, and that can only be developed by experimenting freely.

5. Experts

The hallmark of experts is intuition: they just do what works — no explicit analysis or planning is involved. While proficient practitioners can intuitively identify problems, experts can go and intuitively solve them. They tap into their vast pool of knowledge and effortlessly identify patterns, applying solutions in context. Although experts are amazingly intuitive, they are usually rather inarticulate in explaining how they arrived at a conclusion.
Although technically this is the last stage in the model, experts never cease to practice and evolve in subtle ways, incorporating rarer and exceptional cases in their knowledge pool.

Here are the questions that I would like to raise to you... 
1. Take a good honest look, where do you feel you are today? 
2. Where would you like to be in 1 year? 
3. Between the scale of 1-5 given above, where do you believe a photographer should be to justifiably call  themselves professional? 


  1. Great post! It really helped me analyze where I am.

  2. Love that post (even the cheese part =) )!!! I have been wondering about how to rate where I am. This gives me a bench mark. As far as when someone should be able to call themselves a pro.... #3 to start out but quickly moving to #4. I do want to hear what everyone else has to say about that.

  3. Thanks for the 'chart'. It really is helpful to evaluate my progress.

    Personally, I think most 'pros' should be around 3.5. But I wouldn't hire a wedding photographer who was less than a 4+. Maybe it's a sliding scale?

  4. This is so wonderful. And I think on the scale, professional should be at least at 3, but STRIVING to get to 4 or 5. Not settling, I think, is the best guideline.