Not so long ago cameras were still a luxury item – they were expensive to own, required lots of skill to achieve good results and (depending on how old you are) you either needed good lab skills and a darkroom, or leave your film for a few days at a Chemist for processing. It was still common to call on someone who knew what they were doing – someone trained in the great many skills that photography industry demanded. You called a Photographer and, since their kit was so big, heavy and difficult to move, you usually went to them at their studio for your photos. Back then, art butted heads with science a lot more than it does today and it needed someone who could apply the science of photography in an artistic way. People these days often forget that the photographic process was a science long before the artists took hold of it. The same doesn’t hold true today as thankfully with digital systems, we no longer need to mess around with chemicals in the dark – and no longer have the delay that film processing inherently bought with it.
Compared to today, the average consumer level cameras even just 20 years ago were terrible. They got the job done, but they were so unforgiving to operate and still needed films to be replaced and processed. Results were hit-or-miss. Whilst the camera hardware itself was starting to become more reasonably priced, the photography process was still an expensive one. Even then it was still worthwhile to hire in a Photographer on special occasions to come and document your event as, even with skills, training and experience aside, the quality of professional equipment was far, far superior to what most people owned themselves.
In the last 15 years with the rise digital camera technology, we finally eliminated the need for, and overheads of, film processing. People could happily shoot more than 24 or 36 images at a time. I remember the first time I was given a 36 exposure film and thinking it was huge. People could instantly review what they had just shot and try again without any cost. (And “chimping” was born!) This opened a whole new world and removed the darkroom and processing skills needed.
Early on Digital Cameras were still quite expensive, only affordable to businesses, but as the technology moved along the prices inevitably came down and they soon took up pride of place in most people’s homes. It was also at this point a ripple of concern swept through the Professional Photography industry – if consumer level cameras were becoming better quality, cheaper to buy and easier to operate (not forgetting that users could freely practice without having to reluctantly buy lots of film), what did this mean for Professionals? A lot less bookings for one. Suddenly everyone could be a “photographer” and it seems that many now call themselves such, touting for business in an over-saturated market.
Today digital camera technology is ubiquitous: Every new phone has one built in, and by extension, everyone has one in their pocket. Taking pictures has become increasingly ingrained in todays culture – sites and apps like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Hipstamatic make taking and sharing photos instantaneous. Photography has been embraced more than ever before, and cameras are better than ever. Strangely there is a interesting side-effect to this: people now expect to see hundreds of photos instead of being satisfied with just a handful, and as people are so used to seeing really rubbish imagery online, the perception of quality is so much lower than it used to be. It’s always been weird to me that people happily take and share so many duplicated and blurry images. So if we’re taking more and more of our own photos these days, and strangely, we don’t expect them to be much good, surely this means actually paying a professional photographer, who will deliver a small number of very good photos, seems crazy and at odds with expectation.
The tools of the Professional, including the Digital Single Lens Reflex camera (DSLRs) are becoming cheaper and cheaper, and are now very common with consumers. Automatic metering and focussing settings are incredible. Off the shelf picture quality is fantastic – and all without needing to know anything. Even post-processing effects and adjustments can done in seconds by apps like Instagram. It’s also been said that mobile phone camera technology today is roughly as good as compact cameras from 3 years ago.
With the image quality between consumer and pro level hardware increasingly converging, it’s difficult to see where a Professional photographer can ever fit in.
But they do, and here’s how:
Real professionals use professional level equipment and have access to studio environments. Even though image quality in consumer level kit is undeniably good, it’s not actually the only thing to consider. Higher end kit is faster, more reliable and will give you that little bit extra when you need it most – when you’re in a hurry, when you’re in poor light conditions, when you’re in rubbish weather. Top end lenses actually do give better results. Consumer level kit will always be that little bit slower, more fussy and generally less constructed than it’s professional level counterparts. I shoot with a Canon Professional 5dMkii with a selection of L series, top of the range, lenses. I also carry a backup camera and spares. Real professionals will get the job done and will deliver. Would you leave your important life moments to an amateur? No, because cameras break, batteries die and “Auto” mode doesn’t always cut it.
Professionals can tell the difference between a good and bad photo, and they never hand over a bad one. You can be sure anything that gets delivered is of a sufficient quality or it goes in the bin. If I’m putting my name to it, then it’s something I need to be proud of. Professionals take bad photos occasionally, but the difference is that they understand why it’s bad, how to correct it, do so, and move on. Would you prefer to receive a mixed bag of 400 images to wade through, ranging from terrible to OK, or 50 images ranging from really good to great? Exactly. Even when I’m shooting weddings, knowing that I’m shooting for albums and wall prints, I will deliver around 100 images and can still tell a great story of the day.
Knowledge & Experience
Real photographers are not chancers, they’ve studied and know the craft. They understand the mechanics and physics of light, using it to achieve the results they need to satisfy the customers needs. That also means they know how to construct and model light accordingly. They understand posing, positioning, context, and composition. Every day I read something related to posing, lighting and PhotoShop technique. As a portrait photographer, I find it’s important to know how to use light to flatter my subjects – blast out wrinkles, sculpt features, and even make them appear slimmer. Would you prefer to look older, dumpy, have incredibly deep wrinkles, and look really wide? Of course not.
Creativity & Consistent Style
WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get. A professional who’s been around a while develops their own style and get’s good at it. They know how they will approach a job and inherently stamps their own style on it. It’s this consistent look, feel and approach that makes a professional a better choice. This doesn’t just mean applying the same processing effects in Photoshop, this also means how they direct a shoot and how they might typically light a scene or the make-up they apply. If you look at my studio work, you see that I use a lot of high-key photography – that’s a style I like, it’s white backgrounds, bright lit scenes, and bold punchy colours. I also use a select bag of tried and trusted poses which I choose based on the client’s body type and personality. I also use a black and white that uses rich black tones and bleached delicate white. Would you want someone to shoot your job that doesn’t know how to approach it? What if you’re unsure what their style is? Worse still, what if they couldn’t explain their style to you? No way.
At first glance professional photographers looked like they were doomed to becoming relics, but they are still just as relevant today as they have always been especially at important moments in life, such as weddings. Skills have also changed – for example, we don’t need to know how to develop film these days, but knowing Photoshop and Lightroom is essential. Remember that a great camera doesn’t make a great photographer. Personally I think the ability to connect with your subject, put them at ease, pose them effectively, and light them correctly is what separates a good professional from the rest.
Having shot many people over the years, I’ve learnt a trick or two (or maybe three?). I know what works and what doesn’t. I know how to open people up to give more, to make them relax and feel confident, and importantly, to do it quite quickly. I understand that people are usually scared when they arrive, but I know what to do to make them enjoy the experience. I have a selection of tricks to use to make people laugh, and a bag of poses to call on, and necessary post-production skills to present my clients in the best way they can, and to capture that moment beautifully. It’s not about the camera – that’s just a tool – but to get the most from it, it takes someone that understands the wider context and can join all of the necessary dots together.