How to Look Like a Professional Photographer (online)

A few ideas to suppress the amateur inside of us.

It sounds like a joke.

350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook per day. This is more than 240,000 photos per minute. In the time it’s taken me to write this sentence, more photos have been snapped, tagged, posted, liked, and shared than I’ve taken in my entire life.

20 kilobytes the web will never get back.

You and I know that all of these photos are throwaway moments. Lighthearted reflections on whatever dumb shit we’re up to at the moment. Hey! It’s bacon! It’s my feet! It’s a sailboat! Happy Monday! Happy Friday! Beer! Sunrise! Sunset! and so on.

On the flip side, there’s a slim percentage of professional photographers who make a living shooting people, food, fashion, and art. They offer online stores, prints, and slideshows. The quality of the work is evidenced by artistic resonance and storytelling.

flower (3).jpg

In the middle is us. We’re amateurs with the best intentions, and professionals of the worst quality (no offense to the savants among us). You and I are in the swath of moderately talented folks with decent equipment and a fast internet connection.

We are drawn by iridescent flower petals, perfectly round things on weathered wooden tables, and people doing things besides walking. Self-styled street photographers slowly generating simulacra of every city on earth.

So here’s what I’ve got for you

Looking like a professional photographer means shooting better photos, and being more selective with what you share (for starters). These ideas and examples will help you do that.

Feel free to add your own notes as you go. Your experiences are welcome!

Pre-visualize your shots

Think of your brain as a scratch pad. If you can anticipate what your final photo will look like, you can spend that precious moment snapping the photo you want instead of spraying and praying that something comes out.

It may help to ask yourself “what am I taking a photo of”. Is it a squirrel, or is it shape of the tree that the squirrel’s sitting on? In your mind’s eye, we've been able to chew through two completely different photos in a fraction of a second rather than futzing with the camera settings and guessing.

Get closer than you think

When you’re starting to exercise your abilities as a photographer, I’m a firm believer in isolating your subjects. Giving them too much space doesn’t usually complement them, and tends to dilute things.

Here’s an example of this concept in action using a couple of photos I shot last weekend. Some folks and I were passing by a pasture, and I poked my camera through the fence to snap these. The subject of the first photo is the cow with a green tag 71 hanging from her ear.

My subject was the cow with the green tag hanging from her ear. It’s sharp, softly-lit, and there’s nice texture on the fur. The subject isn’t really the one cow, but rather a bland wall of cows.

In the second photo, I’ve managed to isolate a subject much better. Feels much more cow-ey.

See the cow. Smell the cow. Be the cow. Moo.

Find a rare perspective

This is more of a tool for creating visually interesting work. People have a tendency to take photos while standing up straight with the camera level. Your photos are being viewed from a perspective that many of us experience every waking moment of the day.

Introduce some variety by finding the visual road less traveled! Here are some examples.

Photo by Ronn aka “Blue” Aldaman
Photo by Ben Newton

Imagine you’re a cat or a bird. Imagine you’re a bug. Imagine you’re the omelette you’re about to bite or the weathervane twisting around in a storm.

Get really close, and get really far away. Force your subject (or the space around it) to reveal itself.

Shoot keepsakes, capture stories

A friend of mine went on a Mediterranean cruise, camera in tow. He visited Barcelona, the French Riviera, ancient Roman ruins, Greek hot springs, Turkish civilization, and Italian eateries.

I shot this replica statue of David at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy

He returned after 3 weeks with a few thousand photos, and to his dismay, most of them were bland, lifeless junk.

Here’s why: the subjects were too iconic to tell a story.

What I mean is, when you’re photographing the Duomo in Florence, or sneaking a pic of Michelangelo’s David, you’re basically taking a crappier version of a well-documented subject. The narcissism of travel photography is a powerful distraction.

That friend was me, by the way. It was a long, expensive way to find out that celebrities and landmarks don’t carry any more weight than a tree or a bush or a person. You still have to do the work to tell a good story.

This one tells a better story, no renaissance sculptors required:

shot in Barcelona

Consider perspective and scale

This is a concept that I’m still practicing. Here’s a blog post on National Geographic that explains these notions better than I could.

A sharp photo is better than a bright one

The first wedding I ever shot had a “no flash photography” ceremony in an old stone church with tiny windows.

Every single photo of the ceremony was unusable.

That was many years ago now, and I’m back on speaking terms with my friend and her mother (the bride). I’ve shot a few weddings a year since, and it’s become a mantra. A sharp photo is better than a bright one.

Why? Because in post-production (photo editing) you can bring up the exposure on a very dark photo, but you can’t un-blur a very blurry photo.

If you want your photos darker, turn the compensation into the negative. If you want them brighter, turn it into the positive.

The secret is something called exposure compensation.

If you shoot your photos at -1.0 or -2.0, you’re basically taking out a loan on available light so that your camera can take faster photos.

I’ll let someone else explain the holy trinity of photography if you’re not acquainted. It may shed some light (no pun intended) on how this trick will help.

Here’s a photo shot using this technique. The sun had set, and the room was lit with candles and Christmas lights. The conditions were bleak, even with an f/1.4 lens.

1/125 sec
50 mm
ISO 2000
To learn about f-stops and ISO speeds, check this guide out.

Edit Conservatively

There is a line here, and when people cross it, they cross it hard. Here are some mind-numbing examples of over-edited photos. Consider this the what not to do section.

Muddy HDR. Here are some details on getting HDR technique right.
There’s so much lens flare being added here, the result ends up being more edit than photo.
The vignette on this photo is really heavy-handed. It’s easy to overdo this. Especially when you’ve been editing photos for 3 hours.

Things can go south quickly, so stick to the basics. Tweak your exposure and contrast. If you blew something out, RAW highlights might be recoverable. Lose the sepia filters and lens flares alone until you get the basics under wraps.

Pick one.

Quantity will never make up for quality (no matter how hard you click the upload button). You’re bound to take a series of similar photos, and if you’re not thoughtful, you might end up posting a whole bunch of them. I plucked this screenshot from Flickr to demonstrate.

There were 20 more like these.

If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a simplified version of my workflow. It helps prune down several hundred photos to a manageable few for processing.

  1. Delete/hide the obviously bad photos (blurry, mushy, weird, lame, bland, etc.)
  2. Highlight the photos you really like. Like, the ones that would get a total stranger thinking “wow, this is great.”
  3. Edit.
  4. Share

What happens if you only have a couple of good shots out of a few hundred photos? You live and you learn. You did your best, now move on. No need to post your B+ photos. Which leads me to my last point:

Share Your Best Work

It’s hard to differentiate between your best work, and the best work. One is the best you’ve got, and the other causes self-esteem issues. In this case, we’re talking about your lifetime body of work, which is continuously improving.

This is about being conservative with your selections, and grouping your best takes into a larger narrative. Which photos mean a lot to you and convey that meaning?

This is where things get more open-ended. You can share an album, or a blog post, or make prints and mail them. Any way you like.

I’ve expressed this by posting 50 of my best photos of all time. I feel like these tell a story about my range as a photographer, and where I’ve been as a person.

I’m on Flickr, Instagram, and 500px. Where can I find you?