Semi-Pro or Do It Yourself?

There is an explosion of “new” photographers entering the profession these days. I see their work often on Facebook and social media. Many of these newer professional photographers have little more than a digital camera and a very basic understanding of photography. Many of them offer a low cost session and “all the files” on a disk for a very low price so you can “print them out yourself.”

We can understand the appeal to many consumers who are attracted to the low prices these “new professionals” can offer. After all, they aren’t burdened with the overhead of a studio, insurance, education etc.  And the appeal of having “all the files” on a disk to print out yourself or share online sounds better than paying for individual prints from a studio, doesn’t it?

But, what are you really getting for your money? A fancy digital camera does not make you a good photographer any more than a stethoscope makes you a doctor. But, the sad thing is, many people do not understand or appreciate what a professional, with years of training and experience, really brings to the table. If you went to a fine restaurant and ordered a meal and they brought you out a bag full of ingredients for you to prepare yourself, do you think it would taste the same as if a 5 star chef cooked it for you?

Here is an image of a lovely young lady I had the honor of photographing lately. I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of the steps that go into making a professional portrait, and perhaps why you would want to hire someone skilled to create it, rather than just a friend with a nice camera.

Shot one is typical of what I see on Facebook and other social media sites more and more. This is an outdoor portrait in a lovely location, and is what you would get out of a modern digital camera set on “A” for automatic or “P” for program mode. It is sharp and well exposed. Today’s cameras are really a marvel of engineering. Even someone who knows nothing about photography could pick up a camera and get an image this good.

But let’s take a closer look… is it really good? There are deep shadows in her eyes, and the light, coming mostly from overhead, is making the pockets under her eyes and cheeks look very dark and strong. “Seeing” light is one of the most difficult things an aspiring photographer needs to learn. Some never learn to do it. Once I discovered how to “see” the light, my world changed. I now am constantly “aware” of light… all the time, everywhere I go, everything I look at, I am conscious of the direction, character, and quality of light all around me. It’s who I am.

So, the first thing I did here was to modify the poor light. The key to this is to make the light flattering, without looking artificial. In this particular case, I added some flash, off camera, to mimic what would have been ideal “natural” light, had it been there. I carefully adjusted the flash output to closely match the ambient lighting so as to keep the image looking balanced and natural. In other instances I may have chosen to use reflectors, scrims (to block the overhead light) or perhaps a combination of all 3. The key here for the photographer is 1st, to realize the light needs to be modified, and 2nd, to be able to control it accurately and quickly.

So, much better. Let’s zoom in and see how modifying the lighting on the subject has opened the deep shadows in her eyes and let us see her beautiful facial features.

But, we still have some problems. The color, while accurate, (she is standing under a tree that is filtering greenish light down from the sky) is hardly flattering. We don’t think of healthy people having bluish-green skin. The camera, on auto setting, will only record what is there. But by carefully adjusting the color settings, we can compensate for the unflattering color cast and produce a beautiful, warm appealing skin tone.

Much, much better… right? Hold on, we’re just getting started. Let’s take a closer look at our new and improved portrait.

Our addition of quality lighting to the subject has had some unintended consequences. Notice the somewhat unflattering shadow from her nose onto her cheek and from her hair onto her neck? Just because these are “natural” doesn’t mean they are good! There are also some messy looking fly away hairs around her head. And, while our subject in this case has a flawless completion, this would now be the time to fix any blemishes and perhaps soften the slight lines under her eyes.

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere!! Are you beginning to see that there should be a LOT more going into a professional photograph than just taking a sharp, clear picture?

Here’s what we’ve got now. Beautiful, right? But we’re still not done.

Our client really wanted to have her outdoor portraits done with some beautiful fall colors. Unfortunately, the area we had to work in hadn’t really started to show the brilliant oranges and yellows we typically think of when we think “Fall”. So, into Adobe Photoshop we go, where with some advanced masking and color manipulations, we can selectively change the green foliage to a more suitable color palette, without altering the skin tone or other colors. Also, our subject here is not in the least bit heavy or overweight. But notice how the loose fitting shirt is blooming out around her waistline and adding some pounds that aren’t there? That won’t do! A little bit of “tucking” of her shirt will give her back her truthful waistline.

Next, I used a technique photographers and painters have been using for centuries, called a “vignette.” Simply put, we often will selectively darken the edges or certain areas of the image in order to focus the viewer’s attention on the subject. Notice how, by slightly darkening the edges of this image, the feeling of depth and dimension is increased and your eye is drawn into the subject? It’s subtle, but important.

Lastly, there are a few distracting elements that were kind of bugging me a little. Minor things, but why not take care of them and make the image “picture perfect”?

So, here we go. Before and after. Most people will see a pretty obvious difference when shown side by side. But most people also would not see much wrong with the “before” image without the “after” image to compare. This is the level of technique and attention to detail that should be the mark of a true professional.

I hope you found this article informative and helpful.

Dennis Kelly

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