Thursday, August 30, 2007

From enthusiast to professional photographer

A surprising number of photography enthusiasts do not have a clue about the absolute basics. Some of them are taking on commercial work and thinking of becoming professional. It's frightening.

These days it seems like just about everyone wants to become a professional photographer. Thanks to outstanding modern Digital SLR technology, the ability to delete poor images and 'fix' others in Photoshop many enthusiasts believe they can produce professional results without having to learn and understand basic concepts.

What's more the Internet provides a ready made audience of their peers and upload and share community websites ensure they receive a steady stream of praise for their efforts.

All of this helps give them a false sense of confidence in their ability to be a professional photographer. I'm not saying the enthusiast without basic knowledge can't take a good picture but there's a world of difference between going out and capturing something on your own terms, and producing consistent high quality commercial work – day in and day out.

Here are some of the basics all serious photographers should know:

  • What is the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO?
  • What is mid-grey, what does it look like and why is it important for measuring exposure?
  • What is depth of field and how do you control it?
  • How do you quickly work out the shutter speed that is safe for hand held photography? (Don't say when you see the little white hand on the LCD display!)
  • How do you set the hyperfocal distance on your lens? What is it used for?
  • What are the shutter speeds you need to set on your camera with different lenses and different distances to subject to either stop or show subject movement?
  • What is over exposure and what is underexposure and what do they look like?
  • What size file do you need to be able to print different size images at a high enough quality?
  • What is DPI and how does it affect print quality?

There are many basic things you need to know. The above is just an indication. If you can't answer any of the above questions then I recommend finding out as soon as possible. There are thousands of books and websites that can give you the answers, so there's no point in me spelling it all out again here.

Most people have an intuitive grasp of composition but you need to know a lot more than that and it doesn't stop with just knowing the rule of thirds either.

Professional photography is a craft. It has to be learned. A photography enthusiast takes pictures that please themselves, their family, a tame audience on a photo sharing website and they may even sell to the odd magazine editor. However to be a professional photographer you need to take pictures for your customers, when they want them, how they want with a zillion things to take into consideration, from format to where text will be placed, following branding guidelines etc. Nothing is left to chance. Every element and aspect has to be carefully considered and controlled to ensure the image communicates with the audience.

The professional social photographer, doing portraits and weddings may not have to achieve as much technically (the layman is generally more easily satisfied than the professional photography buyer). But in my opinion being entrusted to capture an image which has emotional importance for your customer is a huge responsibility. Being paid and trusted to document important moments in people's lives should not be taken lightly. If you do not know your craft inside out, never mind just grasping the basics, allowing someone to hire you as a professional photographer is reckless and unethical.

I work mostly in corporate communications and besides professional photography I also provide consultancy on photography, hire photographers and buy images from stock libraries. So I operate on both sides, buying and selling photography. Believe me it is hard enough to find a really good professional photographer. It's also difficult to find an image that fits perfectly with a company's brand and communication requirements – yes even though there are billions of images to choose from.

As in any profession commercial photographers vary from poor, to mediocre to brilliant. If photography is your passion and you want to turn pro then I presume you would want to be up there on the higher end of the scale. Compare your work to the very best commercial and social photographers – the adverts you see in glossy magazines, fashion pictures, photography books and the images by recognised masters of photography. Be honest. Can you compete? Do you really want to compete on that level? Do you think you could get the same result, not just once in a while but every working day?

So before the enthusiast thinks of turning pro they had better take a long hard look at the mountain that needs to be climbed; the hard work, the dedication, the knowledge, the talent, the ethics, organisational ability, attention to detail, dedication, communication skills and drive that it will take to be a photographer worthy of being called professional.



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