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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

5 Steps To More Professional Photographs

Try these tips to get photos that will stand out from the crowd

Wildflowers at sunset, Lake Tahoe, California.

What separates the photos that clients will purchase as prints or for licensing from the zillions of photos taken daily by everyone with a smartphone? I've created a list of what I think are a few important distinctions that separate a professional-quality photograph from a snapshot. I've developed this list over years of working with licensing clients and fine-art buyers, and gathering an understanding of what they're looking for when purchasing images. I also know from teaching photography workshops that many of the items on this list are skills that take time and expertise to be developed. So while everyone these days can take a picture, actually producing professional-quality images that others value takes a certain level of expertise and requires more than being in the right place at the right time. Whether you're shooting with your DSLR set up on a tripod or you're using your iPhone to take a picture and post to Instagram, you can use some or all of these tips to set your images apart from the sea of imagery that inundates all of us on a daily basis.

Get Proper Depth Of Field In Your Images. This is the number-one issue I see during critique sessions at my workshops. It's not easy to master or control depth of field in a photograph. You should have a clear idea of what areas in your image will be in focus and out of focus with a given aperture. For landscape work, especially, I primarily use the aperture-priority setting so I can control depth of field. Often, in landscape photographs, we'll have a prominent foreground element closer to the lens and also a grand vista in the background. The challenge is to get all the parts of the image in focus. It's not always just a matter of dialing in a small aperture on the camera, since the issue of diffraction at smaller apertures can dramatically affect image quality.

Understanding depth of field requires an understanding of the relationship between aperture settings, lens focal length and hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is defined as the focus distance that places the furthest edge of a depth of field at infinity. So, if hyperfocal distance is 10 feet, everything from 10 feet to infinity will appear in focus. In addition, focus also extends in front of the hyperfocal point at a ratio of one-half the hyperfocal distance so, in reality, everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity will appear sharp. With a hyperfocal distance of 10 feet, everything from 5 feet to infinity will appear in acceptable focus (although it won't necessarily be tack-sharp throughout). So, practically, in order to maximize depth of field, you should focus on the hyperfocal distance, which will include the foreground element in the in-focus area, while still maintaining infinite depth of field at the far horizon.

I also bracket focus points and apertures during a photo shoot to make sure I have many frames of a scene to choose from and all parts of a scene in focus. With bracketed focus points, it's possible to stack multiple frames to achieve unlimited depth of field using Helicon Focus software or Photoshop.

It's All About The Light. We're usually beholden to the "magic hours" at sunrise and sunset to get our most dramatic images. It's a rare scene that can make a dramatic landscape image in the middle of the day, but even a more mundane landscape can become a magical scene with the right lighting and interesting clouds. We rarely get great shots when it's convenient. As an old ski coach told me once (said with a Norwegian accent), "If you want to be good, you have to put a little effort into it." I remind myself of this saying when I would rather not have to get up at 4 a.m. in the summer to get the first light on the wildflowers. I've seen countless dramatic landscapes under harsh, contrasty midday light, and have many of these photos that just take up space on my hard drives, never to be used again. It's the shots I've taken in the fleeting seconds of magic hour that have the most impact. There are always time pressures during magic hour—you have to work quickly to properly expose difficult lighting conditions, sometimes in difficult weather. I feel that I always run out of time as the sun sets. The key is doing some pre-scouting of a location before the magic hour to be ready.


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