To preface this theory I have, you need to know a little about my past. I worked in a local camera store in Cedar Falls, IA for one year. It sees a decent amount of traffic, especially local professionals. I loved talking to anyone that came in. I loved hearing why they take pictures, why they choose the equipment they choose and of course what got them into photography. Having heard a lot of these things, I came up with a pretty simple and accurate theory about professional photographers.
A GOOD professional photographer is made up of three(-ish) things:
1 :: Equipment!
A camera is simply a tool. A tool needs to be sharp and accurate (puns intended). You wouldn’t expect to see a professional auto mechanic using PLAYSKOOL brand tools to perform their tasks. You would hope when you walk into your dentist’s office that you don’t see anything that resembles kitchen utensils and a desk chair from Wal-Mart… if you do, RUN.
Same goes for when you hire a professional photographer! They should be bringing the right tools to a shoot, including the proper cameras, lenses, lighting, and even proper cases to keep their equipement safe. When I worked at the camera store, I used to cringe when a photographer would bring their $3000 camera into the store by the neck strap without a case or anything!
Having the right equipment matters when it comes to getting the shot. This goes for amateur and professionals. Having a fast lens, having wide, standard and telephoto lenses, and having light sources or reflectors can really help make sure that no matter the situation, you can achieve a good shot!
All cameras do the exact same thing. They interpret incoming light into either a digital or film format. There will always be new technology that comes out to help improve upon this process. Some of the improvements we’re seeing in the professional world are insanely high sensor sensitivities (high ISO), improved lens sharpness to keep up with the ever increasing megapixel count of sensors, and even improved native dynamic range to help improve what is actually visible in shadows and highlights.
As a professional, it’s always a good to keep on top of this technology so you can take advantage of the improvements in your work. For me, I love having sharp lenses that can retain their sharpness at f1.4. I use it often in my work to focus on what’s important in the shot and to draw the observers eye in a certain direction. I also am always looking for increased dynamic range as I love to show details in the shadows. Sometimes this requires other equipment like reflectors and lights, but even the cameras themselves can help us to achieve our goal.
Even having the right equipement, properly maintained and calibrated when editing photos is necessary. Editing is a large portion of what gives a feel to a picture, and I promise you, someone using microsoft paint or kidpix (RIP) are not going to be able to achieve the same results as someone using the right software.
A good photographer can take a good picture with a good camera, but a GREAT photographer can take GREAT pictures with a cell phone. This is to say that equipment ISN’T everything, which brings us to the next part…
2 :: Talent/Knowledge
I group these two together because they are similar in how they effect the end result. Talent is simple; we all know someone who can look at a scene and see something totally different in it, whether it’s spotting faces in inanimate things around the house, or if it’s seeing light reflecting on things that you would never think to notice. Talent is that which you cannot teach. Knowledge is, well duh… information inside your brain :)
Someone with talent obviously has a lot more potential to take great photographs, as long as they arm themselves with the right equipment and knowledge. I see a lot of people online taking great pictures, but not knowing how they did it or being able to do it again. They might be the people with great instagram pictures from their iPhones, or a great shot from their point and shoot when it was on auto. Sometimes it’s just knowing where to be, at what time and at what angle to shoot, which is more of a talent/luck thing than it is knowledge. When I travel, I rely more on those things than I do my knowledge. I’m planning a trip to Europe this May, and am TRYING to arm myself with knowledge about each place I’m visiting so I can make best use of my time there.
Knowledge about photography is never-ending. When it comes to photography, anyone interested in it should understand all the basics about what their camera is doing when they hit that shutter button. This is funny for me to talk about since I didn’t go to college for photography, nor did I take any classes on photography. I just read a lot, played around even more and then practiced! Do whatever it takes to understand aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length, sensor size and all of their side effects.
The main thing about knowledge is that it will help you to know what to do in any given situation. When I look at a scene, I run numbers and scenarios through my head and check them up against what my camera’s light meter is telling me. I know I need to be within a certain set of numbers to achieve a worthy photograph, and if my camera is outside of those limits, I need to know what to adjust in order to get the best shot.
Knowledge and talent both are required when it comes to editing photographs as well. Some people can really wrestle an image into a beautiful work of art with some creative editing. Knowing how to do so is what takes the image in your head out through your hands and applying it to the photograph. Hopefully, using the right virtual tools, you can bring a photograph to life, the way you remember taking it.
3 :: Personality
Personality?!? WHAT?! Remember, I’m talking specifically about what makes a good professional photographer here, and specifically those who do anything with a client in front of their lens.
So why is that important? Have you had your picture taken by a stranger before? If yes, then I’m sure you know the horribly awkward feeling. Having the right personality will really make that part suck less for the client. Being able to talk to your clients, both before the day of the event and on the day will help build a real relationship with them. Once you actually have a relationship with someone, you can typically figure out what makes them laugh, or maybe more importantly, know what makes them feel comfortable.
The main way I try to make my clients comfortable is by being completely open about myself. I joke about myself as I make a weird pose to get the right angle (you know that one where you’re shooting from the ground and your butt crack is showing and everyone is fully aware of it)… well there’s a great opportunity to make your clients laugh (at your expense) but to really make you feel more human (which is why they hired you and not a robot, or a tripod, or even a tripod robot). I often comment on cars and motorcycles (mostly because I can’t help it because I love them) but also so if I’m with a guy maybe his interest will pique and he might comment as well and BOOM common ground! Now we can talk about cars (sorry girls) while we go to the next place. Having someone actually want to talk to you about something will make them a lot more willing to do the silly things you’re asking them to do while you’re taking pictures of them. “You want me to look blankly at her ear while she cuddles my shoulder in public?” well, yes actually!
Being honest about your work, your work flow, and your abilities will really make a client feel comfortable with you. I don’t let my clients pay me until they receive the final product. I openly tell them it’s because if I got paid before hand, I would slack off and they would get their pictures much later! Haha, I know, seems weird to tell your client something like that, but again, most of the time they laugh and you can tell they trust you because you’re telling them things like that :)
So to wrap this all up, a great photograph isn’t the result one particular thing. There’s not some magic lens out there that makes your images look fantastic, there isn’t one program that will make everything happen over night. It’s a mixture. Some professional photographers will have one of these things listed above, most have two, and even fewer actually have all three. When someone does have a good balance of all three, their portfolio will really show it. It will shine and stand out from all the other photographers in their area. They are an artsist with the right set of tools and the personality to make people feel comfortable letting them use those tools on them!