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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What does a professional photographer do?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he made an interesting comment. We were talking about the business of photography (he's not a photographer or involved in the industry at all) and he made the remark that it must be hard to sell services as a professional when cameras are so good these days that anybody can take a fantastic photo. Ouch.

But you know what? Cameras are really good these days. Fast autofocus, brilliant exposure metering and even the ability to change things up in post-processing afterwards if you want. So what is it exactly that a professional does differently if the taking of the photograph is so easy?

Firstly there's the illusion that it is easy. In the right light, if you're in the right position and there's a nice moment in front of you then everyone's chances of getting a nice picture are pretty even. No questions about it. If we're both standing in front of Uluru (Ayers Rock) during a beautiful sunset we're going to come away with something pretty special.

But what happens for the 99% of the time when the conditions aren't co-operating? What happens when you have to shoot a portrait of somebody outside in the middle of the day? The professional will know to put up a scrim to soften the light. They'll know to break out the lighting to fill in the shadows, and the optimum position to put that light for the nicest effect. They'll also know what to do to the background exposure to create a spectacular effect. And they'll know how to do it every time no matter what the weather is doing. Oh and they'll also know to get on fabulously no matter how much of a bad mood the portrait subject is in and to get legally binding model releases signed so you don't find yourself getting sued down the track!

OK so maybe a deep knowledge of lighting is something that can help separate a pro, but what about those who only use natural light. Let's take a travel assignment. The professional will, before they even leave, have ascertained what direction things are facing. Why? Because if you need to use natural light, and we know that sunrise and sunset are the best times of the day, then you want to know what you need to photograph at what time of the day. East facing buildings are a morning shot, west facing buildings are an evening shot. But the professional will also be on Google Earth checking out if there are any impediments to the sun meaning you need to be there later or earlier than usual. For example here in Cairns the sun goes down behind the mountains at about 5pm. No point finding out that the sun sets at 6.30pm only to find out that everything has been in shadow for the past hour and a half. Research is a huge part of what a professional photographer does.

The professional also knows why they're photographing what they are - the significance of an event, action or object. Take a couple of photographers at the Sumo. One has never been before and just snaps away willy nilly, getting some great action shots. The professional who has done his research is concentrating on the details everybody else misses. The ceremony of purification as the wrestlers throw salt into the ring. The wince of pain as the grand champion bends down on the knee he hurt in training the previous week. Background knowledge is as much, if not more, important as the images themselves. If you know the significance of certain things the photos themselves have more meaning.

The same goes for portraits. I did a series of portraits for James Cook University where we photographed people in various fields of study including Conflict Resolution, Terrorism, Turtle Rehabilitation and Pub Management! Try illustrating some of those in a single image.

Take the Terrorism shoot for instance. I had an idea for a dark, brooding portrait. I had to make sure that the image didn't allude to any particular nationality or religious inclination and I didn't want it to be bright and airy. So we chose to photograph her in her office - at least that was how she described where she worked. Turns out it was a 50cm by 50cm boring grey cubicle in the corner of a tiny room filled with other boring grey cubicles! A visual nightmare. This is when the professional's experience comes into play. When knowledge of your equipment is good enough to be able to cope with any difficulty thrown at you. People with less experience might just throw their hands up in frustration.

And the other differentiating factors come after the shoot is finished. Can the amateur be trusted to have triple copies and back ups of everything they shoot in case of hard drive failure? Can they provide low res jpegs for selection purposes on a password-protected website (so your competitors can't accidentally see them)? Will they invoice on time and in the format that Accounts Payable needs to process it promptyly, or will it require a telephone call or two to sort things out?

So yes, whilst I agree that the advancement of technology has made taking good pictures a lot easier - particularly in the perfect situation - I think when using a professional photographer is absolutely vital is the other 99% of the time. In other words when the shit is hitting the fan and you need someone with the experience to get through with a smile, a laugh and great images no matter what the world throws at you. That's what a professional photographer does.

Oh, the image above was taken on the Japanese island of Okinawa. A tropical paradise famous for its world class beaches, beautiful aqua skies and water sports. Only the week I was there it rained the whole time and the sun never came out once! No point telling your editor the weather is terrible. You need to change tack and find a different angle to your coverage. Anything less would be totally unprofessional.