Lately I've been getting a lot of questions about how to take professional looking photographs. While I'm always happy to answer individual questions, this particular question comes up every day, and the subject is fairly complex, so it's easier to answer here on my blog. Here is an email I got yesterday:
Hopeful Amateur: I've been following your photos since you first started posting to Flickr, and it has inspired me to watch you grow from an amateur to a full time professional. I want to be a professional photographer, but most of my photos look like snapshots. How do you get that professional look?
First, you should evaluate whether or not you really want to pursue photography professionally. The median annual wage of a professional photographer in America is only $26,170, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you have a really keen business sense and you can beat out 90% of the photographers competing for the best wages, you can expect to earn about $56,640. Only a tiny percent of photographers command six-figure salaries. In order to succeed, you need to be as passionate about business as you are about photography. Being a better photographer is no guarantee. Much of it is about being connected, building a brand and developing a solid, professional reputation with the photo buyers in your market. If you still want to go pro, read on!
I have already addressed the mechanics of artistic photography in a post titled, The Art of Portrait Photography, however, the first two keys in that article are worth repeating here.
The first key is light. Light is everything, because light is what you are recording on the sensor. Light can make a subject look dull and boring, or make it pop off the page. Light can tell stories, and express moods. Light can highlight your subject, or hide it in shadow.
The second key is concept. Web developers have a saying: "Content is King!" It applies equally to photography. From Amanda Sosa Stone's blog:
"[...] while I know production is VERY IMPORTANT, in the mindset of a creative director, art director or a very open art buyer - CONCEPT does RULE. A good image could be a good image[...] but if the concept is not there...it gets lost very easily. Remember: You are speaking to creative people who are constantly on the search for an amazing award winning concept and you have to be that person/photographer who can execute it (and hopefully understand it)."
You can practice until the cows come home and master the technical aspects of photography, but in order to develop a mastery of concept, a photographer has to think creatively, and maintain the ability to solve analytical problems. The trouble is that our brains are wired so that we can usually do one or the other well, but generally not both. This presents a daunting challenge for photographers.
Betty Edwards wrote an influential book on this subject titled, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence). In the book, she goes into a great deal of detail about the difference between thinking with the creative right side of your brain, and thinking with the analytical left side of your brain. Here are some of the properties of each:
- Verbal - The ability to communicate your vision to others.
- Analytic - Being able to solve technical problems.
- Abstract - The ability to use symbols and numbers to solve problems that relate to physical things.
- Temporal - Keeping track of time and sequence.
- Rational - Solving problems based on reason and facts.
- Logical - The ability to infer solutions based on related facts.
- Nonverbal - Thinking visually, rather than with words.
- Synthetic - Putting things together to form wholes.
- Concrete - Seeing things as they are, being "in the moment".
- Analogic - Seeking similarities and metaphoric relationships.
- Nontemporal - Timeless.
- Nonrational - Not over-thinking things.
- Spatial - Seeing how objects relate to each other in the frame.
- Intuitive - Making leaps of insight based on instinct.
- Holistic - Seeing over-all patterns and structures. The ability to look at the environment and visualize a great photograph.
Photography is inherently technical. We're using digital equipment with a bunch of buttons and dials to record light, and obviously, we must be good at things like understanding how to freeze motion with faster shutter speeds, or how to create blurry backgrounds and Depth of Field with aperture settings and focal distance. Unfortunately, the technical side of photography can sometimes hinder the creative process. Thinking technically, it's easy to create images like this one:
Technically, it's not bad, but the image falls flat. It simply isn't very creative. A good photographer needs to be able to see deeper into his or her subjects and communicate a mood in the same way that a storyteller does. Here is the same subject, photographed using a more creative approach:
Technically, I just turned off the flash and recomposed the image, but what really happened between one photo and the next was that the analytical side of my brain got out of the way so that the creative side could step in and create. The ability for both sides of your brain to get along, and cooperate harmoniously is the key that will unlock your potential to create really strong, professional quality images.
In order to create that harmony, you need to exercise both sides of your brain. Your creative side needs down time to survive. You need to be able to stop thinking, and concentrate instead on feeling, enjoyment, relaxation. A post on Rob Haggart's blog reminded me of how important it is to me to sit down at my piano before each photo shoot. I use the time to get into a creative zone. Before each photo shoot, you should take some time to just relax. Don't do anything important. Maybe pull out a pencil and doodle. Sit down and have a bite to eat (slowly). Breathe.
You also need to develop a mastery of your camera's technical operations in order to unleash your creative potential. It absolutely must become second nature so that your technical thinking doesn't get in the way of your creative vision. It doesn't matter if you're using an expensive camera, or a $100 point and shoot. Just make sure the camera has these three settings:
Gives you full control of your aperture and shutter speed.
Gives you aperture control. The camera chooses the shutter speed that will give you a proper exposure.
Lets you control the shutter speed. The camera selects the aperture that will give you a good exposure.
I shoot exclusively in these three modes, and if you want to learn how to use your camera, you should, too. True, it can be daunting at first, but the best way to learn is to take off the training wheels and start pedaling! Practice as much as you can. If you're serious about learning photography, train yourself to take some photos every day. Start working on your portfolio right now. In addition to learning how to use your camera properly, you'll also start yourself on a journey of self discovery that will help you define your style and photographic niche.
Shoot What You Love!
Learning who you are as a photographer, what you like to shoot, and how you like to shoot it, is the first and most important step you can take into the world of professional photography. Learn what you love, shoot what you love, and then figure out how to make money shooting subjects you're passionate about. You don't have to shoot weddings for a living if you don't like dealing with in-laws. No matter what the subject is, chances are there's a market for it somewhere. The more you shoot, the quicker you'll discover what you're really passionate about, and if you're passionate about something, chances are you'll find a way to translate that passion into great photos!
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