Becoming a Professional Photographer by Taking Shortcuts

Becoming a Professional Photographer by Taking Shortcuts

People will tell you there are no shortcuts, but that is only true if you think a shortcut is a magic "Masterpiece" mode in your camera or a special action in Photoshop.

Going from point A to point B is the ultimate goal. If you have already reached your destination it doesn't matter how short or how long the path has been. You've made it! However, if you are at the beginning of your journey, it's good to know the shortcuts, because there are many other goals to achieve in this life than spending it only on one. The shortcut is the ability to focus only only on the things that truly matter and make a huge difference.

What Makes a Photographer Professional?

It's not the profile picture of a person with a camera covering one of their eyes. It's not the John Doe Photography free Facebook page. It's not the expensive camera. It's not the expensive logo one had paid for. It is the images in their portfolio. If the images look professional it doesn't matter if they have been commissioned, or if the person has a studio or owns a photography business. If one doesn't have a professional looking portfolio nothing else will make them look so. In this article I won't focus on marketing your professionalism, but only on the achieving a higher technical level, so you can create professional-looking images in a hopefully shorter term.

What's the Difference Between a Professional Image and a Non-Professional One?

A professional is capable of creating masterpieces consistently. The non-professional occasionally happens to create a great looking image, but they can hardly repeat the result, blaming gear, lighting conditions, subject behavior, post-processing skills. Judging if an image looks professional is subjective to a certain extent. Most common people think that a professional picture is the one that it's hard for them to create, but only a trained person can. In your journey to being a professional photographer you have to focus only on things that can greatly improve your work and workflow. The ones that make a small difference must be ignored as much as you can.

Girl in a lake

Camera

Buying a more expensive camera won't make your images better. Taking a shortcut with regards to your camera gear is buying a camera that works for the type of visuals you're going for. Resolution won't help you much unless you need to print frequently in large formats. If you are going to use artificial light, don't spend more on a camera that has an extraordinary low-light performance. That's what I did with the purchase of a Canon 40D when I started. This camera had a 10-megapixel crop sensor. It wasn't capable of shooting video. It didn't have a dual card slot. It wasn't a compact mirrorless. It didn't have a great low-light performance (ISO 800 was the usable limit), it wasn't a Sony either (I'm honest).

A family portrait by their piano

Photographed on a Canon 40D with a big large softbox on the right.

Lights

Light is light (unless it's a low-CRI LED). Use lights that work. Use light modifiers that work for your style. Buying a working used Alien Bee can take you a long way than scarcely getting a new Profoto and living from hand to mouth. It's the final images that matter, remember that. In the first four years I used two lights and one big softbox as a modifier. Most of my images were shot with one light using that softbox in different placements.

Young woman walking alone in the forest

Photographed with a big softbox on the left.

Computer and Monitor

Many will tell you that you can't do professional photography on laptops or on laptop monitors. While desktop monitors and desktop workstations provide a great amount of hardware juice, most of today's laptops will do the job for you. If you want to be a little bit more technically precise, get one with a monitor that has an IPS matrix (forgive me my technical ignorance if IPS is already an old technology). You don't need a fast graphic card for still images. You need more RAM and an SSD. Most processors today are plenty enough for image processing. I have been using the same laptop for eight years that had a 256 MB graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, 2,4 GHz i5 processor, and a 300 GB of hard drive (not SSD). Now I'm using almost the same configuration, but with a better graphics card, an SSD, and more RAM, because I'm working with video (yes, on a laptop).

Car chasing scene from my "Tornado Dream" series

The image is a composite assembled in Photoshop Elements.

Post-Processing Software

When I started, I purchased Photoshop Elements which didn't have Curves adjustments, nor did it have masks. Despite that, I was able to work with paying clients. Today I'm working with the full version of Photoshop, but images processed with a cheaper software with less features than the free option GIMP has, are still in my portfolio and you can't guess which is which.

Dog walking - a creative family portrait

Post-Processing Skills

This is subjective, because with today's raw files anyone with good post-processing skills can make a mediocre (to a certain extent) image look good as colors and contrast enhancements. In my case I wanted to get it right in camera, so I didn't spent much time on learning how to do high-end magazine-style retouching or trying to constantly save an in-camera disaster and turn it into a masterpiece. However, I spent a considerable amount of time and money to learn how to make composites, because this is what I sometimes have to do. I've never spent time enhancing the image specifically for Facebook or for Instagram. I just  export a 900 or 1000-pixel image at 72 ppi and publish it on my website and on the social networks. Sure, if I make it according to online tutorials it will (maybe) look better, but won't make a dramatic difference and it wouldn't be worth it.

What Matters the Most?

When you look at an image you basically see three things: story, composition, and lighting. If you want to become a professional photographer focus on learning these. They don't depend on your camera's resolution, lens flawlessness, your technique for cleaning skin imperfections, the speed of your computer, the cost of your software, or the brand name of your lights.

Pool game

Story

In the beginning I thought a good picture of a person was good only if the person looked good. Later I found that the beauty of the model is only a small part of the beauty of the image. Looking at the work of photographers such as Gregory Heisler, Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, Art Streiber, and others, I saw more than just nice portraits. I saw a story. Mastering that was and still is the most difficult part of my photography journey. The only way to advance in this area, in my opinion, is by watching more and more photographs. This makes you build a database of ideas and helps you form a certain taste and a vision.

The Lumberman

Composition

Following the classic rules of composition will not make your images outdated. The classic rules are classic, because they are timeless. Many think the only way interesting ideas are born is when breaking the rules. If that's the only option for making a work interesting, it's a shot in the dark. You can make many new and interesting projects by standing on the classic solid ground of composition techniques like the rule of thirds, using guiding lines, balancing the elements in the frame, etc. I still stick to those, because I've seen the master painters using them to create a variety of beautiful masterpieces we adore today.

An image from "The Typist" series

Photographed on a Canon 40D at about 9pm with a lot of lights simulating late afternoon sun.

Lighting

In the beginning I was fascinated by the fact I could illuminate someone with an off-camera flash during a sunny day. That was the first time I found that a professional will not capture every scene as it was, because it might not look pleasing, but they would work on shaping or changing the lighting. I realized that learning how light worked could help me be better at storytelling, because I would not be that much focused on figuring out the technical parts of the photoshoot.

Lyubena Ninova - a Bulgarian pop and jazz singer

The shadows in this portrait are lit by a soft light behind me.

An eye-opener for me was that everything you see with your eyes was lit one way or another. Even If it's the shadow side of an object and it's not absolutely black, it's lit by a light source. That can be a direct or an indirect (reflected) light. It is your judgment to decide what kind of light source illuminates certain areas: big soft ones or small hard lights. Having just one softbox was a great way to learn how light worked. I basically had two light qualities I experimented with: a hard light without the softbox and a soft light with the modifier on. I had to incorporate hardly-controllable natural light sources in my images, because of lack of more lights. Having limitations helps you to be more creative and to come up of solutions.

Runing by the lake

One of my first attempts of trying to make a non-lit-looking image. Used three lights in this one: a key, a kicker, and a fill.

Another important milestone in my journey was learning how to light in a way it didn't look lit. This is much harder and sometimes doesn't look as cool as if you've lit it otherwise. Creating cool lit-looking images has its place in the universe, but when I started to make my images more naturally lit, this forced me to work more on the story in the frame and make the image about the subject and the environment rather than about me and my "cool lighting."

Summary

If you want to be a professional photographer, you have to know what makes a visual touching the senses of the viewer. Learn and master the three basic components of an image: story, composition, and lighting. This is your shortcut. Do not make your journey unnecessary long by focusing on other things that won't make a significant difference to your final image. If you are good at these three components nobody will be able to guess what kind of equipment you used. This will liberate you from being a slave to the tools of the craft, turning you into a master of the craft.

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21 Comments

Edward Blake's picture

I don't wish to detract from what you are saying with respect to the ability to consistently produce high quality images; however, stating the obvious, a "professional" photographer is literally a person who earns an income from their photography (no doubt the IRS would have a more technical definition); that's it. "Professional" is not a synonym for 'quality', 'ability', 'talent', 'skill', or any similar such word. "Professional" literally means 'runs a profit making business'.

To further make the point, there are plenty of talentless hacks who make a living out of photographing children with Santa, or low end real estate, or school photography, or whatever; I mean, the work of these people is truly terrible. We see the work of these people all the time, but nonetheless, they are "professional" photographers, because that is their business.

In any case, I would suggest that a person who is reading this publication and wanting to become a professional photographer already has the requisite image making skills (or at least should), and that a heavy focus on business, accounting, and marketing, would be in order.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The real-world meaning of a "professional" is someone who is sustainable. The term IRS has is for someone taking money for pressing a shutter button today. IRS doesn't care if tomorrow they will have anyone who will pay the "professional" tomorrow, because they want their taxes.

A real professional stands the test of time.

By the way, in the article I made a note that here I'm talking about technical proficiency. You can see my other articles for the business side of the photography. There are at least 5-6 on business. This publication can be also a business lesson interms of areas of focus and control of expenses.

Edward Blake's picture

Actually, the "real world meaning" of "professional" is a person who is engaged in a "profession". Note that the word "professional" does not appear to be a legal term of art. Strictly the question revolves around what is considered to be a 'business', and that is statutorily prescribed; accordingly, it is necessary to refer to the tax codes and superordinate statute to glean the correct definition. From the IRS website (I really cannot be bothered digging into the statute):

"The term trade or business generally includes any activity carried on for the production of income from selling goods or performing services. It is not limited to integrated aggregates of assets, activities, and goodwill that comprise businesses for purposes of certain other provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. Activities of producing or distributing goods or performing services from which gross income is derived do not lose their identity as trades or businesses merely because they are carried on within a larger framework of other activities that may, or may not, be related to the organization's exempt purposes."

The fundamental point of my post stands.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

If someone gets kicked out on their second day of work this makes them a professional for a day, because they had that profession (just a label) for a day. The real world meaning of a professionalist is a craftsman. The emptied-out meaning of "professionalist" today means someone in an environment that looks like to be a profession. An actor pretending to be a aviation mechanic and kicked out the next day is also a professionalist, but just for a day.

This article discusses the practical meaning of a professionalist, not the legal term that is mainly intended to be used for the purpose of taxation. A kicked-out worker will have to pay taxes regardless of the fact they couldn't do their job. If they got paid, they are a "professional" and they have to pay.

Edward Blake's picture

Hey, if you want to play pissing contest with a bunch of dictionaries, that's absolutely fine, we can do that. But you may want to check your ego.

My central point holds.

Pro tip: getting sucked into meaningless arguments on the Internet is NOT "professional".

Lets start with this (you know, since you are determined to have a stupid argument):

professional
/prəˈfɛʃ(ə)n(ə)l/

adjective

1.
relating to or belonging to a profession.
"young professional people"
synonyms: white-collar, executive, non-manual
"people in professional occupations"

2.
engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as an amateur.
"a professional boxer"
synonyms: paid, salaried, non-amateur, full-time
"a professional tennis player"

noun

1.
a person engaged or qualified in a profession.
"professionals such as lawyers and surveyors"
synonyms: white-collar worker, professional worker, office worker
"affluent young professionals"

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The fake professional will pay their taxes to the IRS. This doesn't make them professional. The article clearly states that a professional is the one who does their job professionally. If you want, go on the streets and make a poll and ask people "Do you think a bad or a fake photographer is a professionalist?" They will tell you "No." Then you can try with the "dictionary argument" with them and see what the reaction will be.

The article is about real-world professionalism, not words without a practical groundbase. As I said, an actor with a camera who accidently pressed the shutter and got paid will be called a professionalist by the IRS and by the dictionary, because the dictionary ommits the paradigms of time, relationships, sustainability. The dictionary just says "engaged in a specified activity." This includes the fake professionals too, because they are engaged without actually getting the job done. A professional is the one who gets the job done, not the one that has been engaged with that. These dictionary meanings of a "professional" include the fake professionals. This is not what the article talks about. Please, keep the discussion within the context.

Study the real meaning of the words from the old dictionaries and your common sense, or ask someone on the street.

Edward Blake's picture

Yes, I was right, you are absolutely determined to have a stupid argument, totally avoiding the central point I was making. This is where you just make up the definition of words. But sure, let's just ask the man in the street.

I'm assuming that you don't realize that in any legal action, when the definitions of common English words are in question, that dictionaries (plural) will be referred to.

Congratulations, you now look like a complete dick. That's very professional of you.

The simple fact is that being a "professional" has nothing to do with any of those words you seem to view as being synonyms for "professional". The point is empirically demonstrated by the existence of a bunch of talentless hacks, who also happen to be working photographers.

No wonder your whole profession is disintegrating. This is where we see idiots who make videos which say things like 'I didn't realise I needed a contract'.

I note that you keep using the word "professionalist". Well done, you can't even get that right.

PS. The dictionary doesn't "just say".

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm glad that you reached to the point you have no other arguments but to start cursing which shows how much you are able to follow a discussion. Let the readers judge by themselves who is the professional here.

If you go and look up the word "profession" where "professional" comes from you will see that a professional is one that is determined, who makes a vow (which was something quite serious back in the day... not sure today... ), professes that they are capable of doing a certain craft and they do it. Today you think this is belittled to merely looking engaged in a certain area. This is what a normal dictionary would say and it says it if you look it up in the right dictionary that gives you the whole picture.

Words are understood by their etimology what I just explained for that paticular word. The etimology does the best explanation, because it can be understood by anyone.

So, a professional photographer is someone who is determined, made vow, knowledgeable, capable of doing the work that has to be done in a way they assure their position and determination in the society.

My answer is not towards you, because I see you are not willing to participate in a constructive discussion. I'm writing for the readers of the comments.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

To paraphrase my grandpop "...never argue with a lawyer, you both get dirty and the lawyer enjoys it."
I'll go out on a limb in suggesting that Mr Blake is an attorney. Mostly since he used the word "superordinate". If not, I apologize. :)

I have been a photographer for 40 years...never took a vow.
Has every photo been a masterpiece? I wish. And if a photographer claims every photo they take is a masterpiece, they are either lying or don't know the meaning of the word masterpiece.

Edward Blake's picture

Well, if I am, I'm clearly not a US tax lawyer; if I was I would have realised that the US tax code is the superordinate statute.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yeah, I saw Mr Blake is looking down at photographers as a whole and even knows better than me how my business is going and how "I damaged my brand" by saying a professional has to do a great job, while the dictionaries Mr Blake cited said professionals had to be merely engaged a certain area. My clients usually expect the old dictionary reality than the "engagement" explanation. I may not like the new dictionaries (I like the old ones though), but my clients don't like them either (in the real sense, not in verbal equilibristics which is a good thing only when it matches the reality we live in).

Edward Blake's picture

I'm not the one who a) making an idiot of myself, and b) is damaging my brand.

And let's be abundantly clear here, you are not seeking a constructive discussion; you have been intent upon avoiding the central point at every turn; inferentially, because your ego is delicate and requires defending. I directly infer this by the fact that I have literally stated that wasn't the point I'm making with every EVERY SINGLE RESPONSE to you, but no, you had to plug on.

Pop quiz: what do you call it when someone wilfully misrepresents their interlocutor's position in an effort to invalidate their argument?

But you think I belittled you? You're the guy who tried to school me in English and concurrently manufactured the word "professionalist".

But sure, I started "cursing" because I said "you look like a dick". Seriously, are you an idiot? You have gone to extra lengths to manufacture an argument, and apparently I'm the one with issues.

Now, your ridiculous attempt at manufacturing a pointless argument aside, my core point STILL remains. There are a hell of a lot of talentless hacks making a full-time living out of photography.

PS. Just to be abundantly clear, I clearly stated in my original post that I was being loose with the way I was defining 'professional', and I would have thought that it would be clear to anyone with a modicum of English comprehension and intelligence what I was saying and the point I was endeavouring to make (I wasn't seeking to argue the meaning of the word "professional"). But then, I gave you the benefit of the doubt, but you wilfully ignored my repeated statements that you were trying to argue a point that I wasn't making.

Nowhere have you even recognised my core point about a large number of full-time working photographers who produce absolutely nothing more than cookie cutter rubbish.

You have no idea who I am, you have no idea who might be in my network, and you have no regard to the impact that your petty provocations have upon your brand. Yeah, you're heaps pro.

As your transparent appeal to the majority, in the the form of "...let the readers judge...", my brand is in no way attached to this profile (indeed, there is no overlap between the audience here and my clientele), and so I can't suffer any reputational damage by choosing not to ignore your stupidity.

Mike Robinson's picture

From the OED

II. Senses relating to professional occupation.
7.

a. An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. Also occasionally as mass noun: occupations of this kind.
In early use applied spec. to the professions of law, the Church, and medicine, and sometimes extended also to the military profession.

a1425 Dialogue Reason & Adversity (Cambr.) (1968) 25 (MED) Plato was taken of þefes, sold & so mad þral..for he was a philosophore, he was betere þan his biȝere, A gentil professioun þat made þe seruaunt more þenne his lord.

Edward Blake's picture

FYI, for the sake of interpretaion, you don't get to cherrypick.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I don't think that was the point of the article. I am pretty sure profit making is in not the definition, getting paid usually is but not profit.
To be honest I don't care if people call themselves professional photographers or not.
I have not called myself a "professional photographer" in a looonnngggg time.
But to the IRS I am 541920

Edward Blake's picture

I would suggest that the IRS will frame the question around the definition of what is a business. Needless to say, you will not pay tax if you are taking a loss. That notwithstanding, my point stands.

Rifki Syahputra's picture

...and attitude / ethics :)

Tihomir, thanks for the informative article!

Understanding this is your opinion, as any article is an opinion, I appreciate your perspective and feel it’s good advice to be aware of.

Much appreciated!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I appreciate that Jonathan.

Please, can you kindly share the system you use?
I am looking for an alternative to Mac Book pros as they don't stand for a long time.
Thanks

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm with the same, but today Windows is up to par. Macs are not that of an advantage anymore.