Imagine that you’re baking dessert for a party. It’s your special recipe: the one everyone asks for. You make it from scratch, of course, never looking at the recipe that you committed to memory so long ago. Sugar, beaten eggs, sift in the flour… you’re crafting something delicious from basic elements. Now you’re at the party and everyone is gushing about your dessert. The flavor! The texture! But most of all you’re being asked, “what kind of oven do you have? It makes great cakes!”
That’s pretty much how a photographer feels when people look at their photos and say, “your camera takes great pictures.”
Of course it’s not the camera that takes great photos, any more than it’s the oven that makes a great dessert. Ovens and cameras are just tools that make our jobs easier. Yes, better equipment does make a difference. I wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on cameras and lenses if it didn’t. However, you must understand the camera to take advantage of all it can offer. Just because you’re using a professional camera does not mean you are producing professional images.
It’s all about what you know: the technicalities of photography. You have to determine just the right type and direction of light, position your models to take advantage of that light and create a pleasing composition, utilize the correct camera settings (aperture, ISO, etc.) and work with your models to make them feel comfortable. And that’s just the first half! After the photo shoot there is still post-processing to be done.
I decided to do a little experiment. I used my friend’s daughter as my model and brought my brother with me for a mini session. Not at a garden or the beach, but at Houlihan’s Restaurant situated right in the middle of the mall parking lot. (I figured a little challenge never hurt anyone.) I set my camera to auto (well, technically it’s program mode — but it’s the closest my camera comes to auto), handed it over to my brother and sent him off with my model for 10 minutes to see what he could do. When they came back, it was my turn (using my camera on manual, of course). Same camera, same location, same model. The only difference was the person using the camera.
I was anxious to get home and look through them. These are all straight out of the camera, with no processing. You’ll see that there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into the first set; my brother pretty much stuck the poor girl in front of different trees and snapped away. The exposure isn’t perfect, the color is off in some and the composition is boring.
And just because your session is over, that doesn’t mean the photographer’s work is. Far from it, actually. I carefully go through each image and select the very best. From there, I process each one carefully. Sharpening, smoothing, dodging, burning, cloning, layering… you name it! Most of the images from this session look pretty good right out of the camera, but you can see how just a little processing gives them a bit more “oomph”. :)
Even turning a color image into black and white is more complex than it seems. Sure, there is an auto black and white feature in Photoshop, but let’s take a look at the difference of the results between doing that and the way I normally do it. See the difference? The one on the left is very flat and dull-looking. The one on the right has greater depth; there’s a wider range of shades from darkest black to whitest white.
Professional photographers spend so much of our time researching, learning and networking. We have a tendency to live, eat and breathe photography. For instance, even when I’m taking a drive out to visit family, I’m always looking out the window, scanning the horizon, taking mental notes of great places to hold a photo session. And if I happen to drive past a wheat field at sunset? It takes every ounce of willpower not to drag my hungry, tired kids out of the car for an impromptu photo shoot. Professional photographers put all of their passion and knowledge into every wedding, graduation, birthday and family photo session. If expensive tools were all it took, producing great images would be a piece of cake. Amazingly delicious cake, of course.