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Understanding the photography pyramid


When I teach workshops I often mention that learning the skills required to be a good photographer is like building a pyramid. Like the pyramid, education requires a strong foundation to build upon. Without that foundation you can not build upwards or the whole structure falls down around your head.

With photography I divide this pyramid into three levels in which each successive level is built upon the one below it. Each level in turn contains many building blocks that help expand and strengthen the structure.

As you can see in the illustration at right, each level is centered around a specific element of photography. The base level is the camera and as it moves up in levels it expands to your subject and then finally your art. Let's take a closer look at each level.

Level One: This is the base level, the foundation. It is the part of a photographer's education that is tackled first. Typically it revolves around the camera but, depending on the level of photography you wish to explore, it can include any ancillary equipment such as lenses, flashes, filters and studio equipment. For the newbie, it revolves around what button does what. You then evolve and move up to how each button affects the other and soon you are tackling such concepts as metering, exposure compensation and the rule of thirds. The faster you become comfortable with this level the quicker you can move on to the next.

Level Two: Now that you know how to handle the equipment you can now explore outwards a little and deal with the subject. Composition and depth of field are usually addressed early on since these concepts are introduced in level one. However, at this level you are less involved in how to achieve it and more on the why you want to achieve it. You explore posing people, arranging (styling) objects, or framing scenery and backgrounds. You also start seeing light differently and how it interacts with your subject. The goal here is to create technically good exposures.

Level Three: The highest level is also the hardest level to attain. This is the level in which master photographers work. The lower levels are a thing of the past and you understand it inside and out. You may even write books about it. The focus of your work has transferred from creating a technically correct image to one that conveys more than the sum of its parts. Here the goal is to create emotional connections with the viewer. It doesn't matter if the subject is a flower, a blender or a public figure, the resulting images tends to be visually strong and complex. At this level you are free of the constraints of fumbling with equipment and subject matter and are able to focus your attention on your art.

If you notice, each level upwards has also expanded outward. The base level is self centered, where your attention focus is within a small circle of awareness. As you gain confidence that circle expands and you start considering the subject more and your equipment a lot less. Finally the top level frees you from an internal view and you can look at your art in the context of your artistic world and how it interacts within that world. It is a long process but with patience, determination and practice, that pyramid can be built.

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