Cameras have certainly evolved from their Polaroid and film only days. Point and shoot cameras now exist that not only shoot high-resolution video, but also offer users the opportunity to control some of the camera’s functions with manual settings. And, for the serious shutterbugs among you, quality dSLRs have become increasingly more affordable putting fancy camera’s into the hands of a lot more people. Good photography though has much less to do with the camera(s) being used and lots more to do with the person operating them. Remember, these days any two-year old with a bit of luck and Mom’s cell phone can take a picture. There is however more, much more in fact, to capturing a quality image.
David Bush, former photo-journalist and author of countless photography books says,”if you’re a more experienced photo enthusiast, you already know not to shoot into the sun unless you want to produce a silhouette and wouldn’t think of using your camera’s built-in flash from the last row in the balcony to capture a photo of Bono pacing the state at a U2 concert. You know how to hold the camera steady in dim light and how to make a background less prominent by throwing it out of focus. You understand terms like lens flare, motion blur, and grain and may have more than one inkling about things like solarization, halftones, mezzotints, or unsharp masking” (Bush, 2008). These are things that, no matter how fabulous your camera is, can impact the results you achieve with it. Good photographers understand things like basic composition, choosing lenses, and using selective focus. They know how to use their camera’s manual settings and prefer them to the auto or pre-programmed settings. They make the camera work for them, they don’t work for the camera. Bush (2008) says “I view technology as just another tool to help me get the images I see in my mind’s eye.” So, while just about anyone can create a photograph, not everyone is a photographer.
If you want formal captures of any kind from school pictures to special events and everything in between, you may want to consider hiring someone who identifies themselves as a photographer and not just a shutterbug. A good photographer, someone who genuinely loves capturing and creating quality images, can take great photos with just about any camera because they are fluent in photography not camera. They know how to line up shots to produce a pleasing composition, they understand that lens choice is an important part of the process, they know what areas of the composition to emphasize and which areas to throw out of focus to create a better image. No, these people needn’t have a degree in photography or even umpteen years of experience to be successful. I believe they simply need passion and a good eye and recommend you make sure your photographer has both before hiring them.
You’re probably thinking “well I can tell from their portfolio that they have a good eye but I have no idea how to decide if they have passion or not.” I believe passionate people completely absorb themselves in whatever it is they have passion for. You can ask your potential photographer some basic questions that will quickly decide whether they are your basic shutterbug with a fancy camera or a passionate photographer committed to creating captures that will be treasured for generations. Aside from the usual questions like what do you charge, is editing included or extra, and how soon till I get my prints, there are some other things you should ask before letting anyone photograph you. Knowing what I do now, here are the questions I will ask before ever hiring anyone to take pictures of me or my family and I believe these questions matter a lot more than how long someone has been “doing photography”.
1. Do you shoot in RAW? RAW format varies from camera to camera and requires special software to process. It is preferential to shooting in JPEG or other settings because information from the original capture is stored allowing it to be processed externally to create an optimized image. By shooting in RAW, a photographer can manipulate the image without any compression or quality loss resulting in a better product. I shoot in RAW and here’s why:
If the under-exposed image were a JPEG and I were to attempt editing it to produce the result achieved with one-touch editing in RAW, chances are the image would be very grainy. This is called noise in digital photography and is a result of compression issues and low-light. Imagine if you will, an original printed document or flyer. That document is then photocopied and the photocopy copied and that copy photocopied and on and on until the document you get has muddied text that is difficult to read with what looks like streaks and smears of ink in varying places. The same thing happens in digital imagery. The RAW file would be the original document which can be edited as the need arises repeatedly without altering the quality.
2. Do you shoot in manual or pre-programmed/automatic settings? While great captures can certainly be made using a camera’s automatic settings, I believe the best tell-tale sign of a good photographer is how comfortable they are with the manual settings. Manual settings give a photographer complete control over the light and focus of an image. It requires the photographer to know how cameras work with light and focal points. In short, it requires a photographer know about things like shutter speed and aperture. While capturing some shots of a wedding reception recently, I had one of the subjects in the photo ask me how I was able to take a photo in the dim light (it was about 8ish in the evening) without the flash…my response was “because I’m a photographer, it’s what I do.” Here is the image that was taken during this conversation, shot with manual settings. Certainly doesn’t look like you’d think for 8pm-ish huh?
3. Do your shoot indoors or outdoors or both? I know this seems like a pretty silly question, but it really does make a difference. Photographers (and especially shutterbugs) who shoot exclusively outdoors may have limited venues and times of year they work. Additionally, they may not understand key photography components like lighting and rely too heavily on the available natural light (which means they most likely shoot in the pre-programmed/auto modes). If a photographer shoots both indoors and out, you may want to follow-up with asking “do you have or use a speedlite, studio lighting and reflectors.” In my experience, these things dramatically improve the quality of a low-light shoot. Photographers (remember those with passion and a good eye) will have studio lighting and reflectors available for low-light conditions. They will also shoot with manual settings to control the light and may even use a tripod and remote trigger to eliminate camera shake. I can shoot indoors or out, have complete studio lighting, a speedlite with diffuser, 5 different color reflectors and more than 20 different background options to choose from.
There are countless other questions you could ask, but these three are deal-breakers for me. As a graphic designer, I know all about the quality issues that arise from compression (and shooting in JPEG mode causes compression immediately) and most of the time those issues aren’t good. Each time a JPEG is “re-saved” a little more compression takes place and eventually an unusable image will result. Another benefit I have by shooting in RAW is that the original file format (in my case it’s a .cr2 file) is stored safely on my hard drive so that a photo can be edited repeatedly without any compression/data loss which results in a clearer image every time. The way a photographer shoots is critical to me. When attending Fish Fest recently I noticed the “official photographer” shooting with his pop-up flash in low-light with a kit lens and it almost made me sick to my stomach. I would absolutely pay more to hire a photographer comfortable with their manual settings over a shutterbug (or even photographer) who shoots primary in the pre-programmed/auto modes. And of course, I’ve already explained why knowing if the photographer shoots indoors or out or both is important.
I think a photographer with 20 years experience who only shoots outdoors using the auto setting of his or her camera, despite having more experience, is not as talented (in my opinion) as a newbie photographer who shoots with manual settings indoors or out. After asking these questions I’ve mentioned, I would then take a look at the photographer’s portfolio and decide from there. If a photographer shoots in RAW, knows about aperture , shutter speed, bokeh (background blur) and camera shake and is as comfortable indoors in low-light as they are outdoors in natural light AND they have produced images I like, they will undoubtedly earn my business. I am such a photographer and look forward to capturing your special moments be they big or small.