Here is a question I often get from beginners and more advanced students alike: “How can I make my photos look more professional?” No matter what learning stage you’re at, it’s hard to resist the temptation to compare your photos to photos shot by pros—whether they are professional portrait photographers or professional magazine photographers who produce material for National Geographic and other photo-heavy publications.
Just about everyone would like to shoot photos that look like they belong in a magazine, but not all of us know exactly how to get that done. We may chalk it up to just not having the right equipment: “I need an expensive DSLR,” you might decide, or, “I need a really expensive lens.” But the truth is that equipment can only take you so far, and you can take truly professional quality images with something as simple as a smartphone. Read on to find out how.
One of the best ways to develop a sense for what makes a professional-quality image is to look at professional quality-images. I often recommend Flickr as a source for studying other people's work, but perhaps an even better idea is to review the websites and portfolios of professional photographers, particularly people you admire. First, identify the genre in which you would like to achieve more professional-looking images. Then spend some time really studying the images of those photographers you admire. What do they all have in common? Are these things that you could apply easily enough to your own work? If not, what are some other ways that you could achieve professional-quality results? What is the photographer’s style and how could you develop your own style? These are all questions that you will need to answer before you can reasonably expect your images to start looking like the pros’.
Fill the frame
One of the number one steps that professional photographers take to really create compelling images is filling the frame. This also happens to be one of the biggest mistakes that beginners make. We seem to have an inborn desire to include as much of a scene as possible whenever we take a picture, and that is a desire we need to fight against. Let's take portraits as an example—how many times have you shot photos of your kids or other family members and just not been that happy with the results? If you look at some of the photos you thought were going be wonderful and just didn't turn out that way I think you'll find a common thread. In many cases it could just be that you didn't fill the frame. For example, that picture of your child playing in the park is full of other distractions. There are other kids in the background, there's a trashcan nearby, there are some parked cars in the distance. None of these extra elements is adding anything to the composition, and they are in fact distracting from your subject. That is one of the reasons why that photo may turn out to just not be very compelling—because your subject has been lost among all the visual clutter.
The simple solution to this problem is to just zoom in. Remember if you're using a smartphone or a camera with digital zoom, it's better to zoom with your feet—that is, walk towards your subject and fill the frame without using the zoom capabilities of your camera. If you're using a DSLR or another camera with optical zoom, it's okay to use your zoom lens to get closer—aim for filling the entire frame with your subject’s face or head and shoulders, unless you have a very compelling reason to shoot the person from head to toe.
An exception to this rule is if you’re shooting an environmental portrait and you need to include some context. Context can be very important for environmental photos because the goal of an environmental photo is to show your viewer how your subject is interacting or existing within a certain context. So for that type of photo it's always important to zoom out a little bit and show your viewer your subject’s surroundings, but the same rules do apply to the extent that you don't want to include any clutter in the background or objects that are not a part of the story you're trying to tell.
Find beautiful light
One of the most obvious differences between professional quality photographs and snapshots is in the light. A lot of beginners fall into this trap for the very simple reason that people tend to take photographs at the wrong time of the day, or in the wrong lighting situations.
Now, you may be asking, “What is the right time of day?” Well, that has to do with the direction of the light. When the sun is directly overhead, it doesn't have as much atmosphere to shine through, so it is much brighter. And bright sun creates blown out areas and shadows that are an impenetrable black. This can create the dreaded raccoon-eyed portrait subject, and can also have more subtle effects such as obscuring detail. To avoid this problem, try shooting photographs very early in the day (an hour after sunrise) or very late in the day (an hour before sunset). We call this “the golden hour” because of the quality of the light—it’s soft and even and literally has a golden quality to it. You'll find that if you aim for taking most of your photographs at this time of day you will end up with much better photographs overall.
Now what if you're out shooting photographs and it's mid day, and there really isn't any way you'd be able to capture the same images if you waited until sunset? Now you have to start thinking about ways that you can improve the lighting situation that you're stuck with. For example, if you're shooting portraits you can use fill flash to help fill in some of those impenetrable black shadows. You can also move your subjects into better light such as open shade (note, avoid dappled shade such as what you get underneath a tree because that can provide for uneven lighting). You can also use a reflector or a diffuser to bounce light into the shadows or to diffuse the sun before it even arrives at your subject. These are all very good and reliable ways that you can make even those midday photographs look more professional.
Seeking out interesting light is another way that you can make your images look more professional—try backlighting your subject and taking advantage of lens flare and veiling glare, which is that low-contrast look that is so popular in portraiture today. You can also use dramatic lighting such as a single bright light on one side of a person’s face and darkness on the other. Anytime you use light that varies significantly from that standard, average midday lighting, you're going to create an interesting photo.
Develop a sense of style
This is actually one of the hardest things for beginning photographers to wrap their minds around. Professional photos look professional because they have a sense of style. A photographer who has a very strong style is someone whose work you can identify regardless of whether or not their name is attached to the image. Think for a moment about Ansel Adams, the famous landscape photographer of the 1900s. Most people who are familiar with Ansel Adams’ work can pick out one of his images from a selection of a similar photos, simply because his style was so well defined. I'm sure there are plenty of modern photographers and maybe even those you follow on Flickr who also have very distinguished styles. When you look at your Flickr feed and notice new images, do you have a pretty good idea of whose photo stream they belong to before you even click on them? If so, that's because that photographer has a very well-developed sense of style.
So how do you define your own sense of style? Well, that is the $64,000 question. The actions that each individual photographer takes in order to create a sense of style can be quite subtle, and it could be as simple as always waiting for a certain type of light, having a strong sense of politics and shooting everything through that political veil, or even just applying certain stylistic changes to each photograph in post-processing. For example, you could shoot all of your photographs using a high ISO. You’ll get an image that has a lot of noise and looks gritty and photojournalistic, and if you convert all of your photos to black and white using the same desaturation procedure, then all of your photos are going to have the same basic style. You could also add a little saturation tweak to give your photos a sense of you, but remember that your goal is not to create a set of photos that look exactly the same, but rather a set of photos that appear to have been shot by the same person.
If you are still a beginner, remember that reaching this point in your photography takes a lot of time, skill and practice. Most of us are not going to achieve professional quality images right away—it's a skill we develop over time and with lots of practice. So my final piece of advice for you is to spend a lot of time taking pictures. The more you practice, the more time you spend examining your work and asking yourself questions about how you might be able to make your photos better, the closer you will be to having a portfolio full of professional-quality images.
- Study the work of pros you admire
- Fill the frame
- Find beautiful light
- Golden hour
- Use fill flash and reflectors
- Use backlighting
- Develop a style
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