Ever since I started my journey in photography, I have been hearing a phrase that continuously bothers me: “That camera takes really nice pictures.” Other photographers reading this may share my frustration, but non-photogs may not understand. There is so much more to photography than just the camera. To attribute all the credit for an image just to the camera is an insult to the person behind the lens. Would you approach a painter, look at their work, and tell them how great their brush is? Would you approach a lead guitarist after a mind melting solo and carry on about their instrument? A camera is merely an artistic tool and there is so much more that goes into a great photograph.
What Makes A Great Photo
Subject and Composition
At the very base of a great image is the subject. However, its not just the subject matter that makes a photo interesting, but the composition as well. A good photographer could take a normally uninteresting subject and make a great picture out of it with good composition. Simple changes in the framing of a subject, angle, and perspective can make all the difference. Good photographers can develop an almost instinctual ability to frame and compose photos. It becomes second nature through thousands of shutter snaps. That doesn’t mean its always subconscious. Sometimes part of photography is framing a shot in several different ways, taking multiple shots in order to choose the best later.
Knowing Your Equipment
There is not test to pass in order to purchase good photography gear. Anyone can go out and drop big bucks on the top of the line DSLR. Top notch equipment can improve the sharpness, clarity, color saturation, and overall quality of your image, but its not going to make every photo great. All that glass and technology is wasted if the person behind it is going to set everything to auto. Top tier DSLRs forgo the auto mode because professionals don’t need it. A real photographer wants to control every aspect of the shooting in order to achieve the best results. They want to choose the shutter speed to either stop motion or let in more light. They want to control the aperture by perhaps setting the f stop wide open to allow in more light, along with creating nicer bokeh(background blur). They want to control the ISO (sensor light sensitivity) to work in conjunction with the previous settings mentioned. Additionally, the photographer wants fine tuned control over focus. They aren’t going to simply let the camera select the focus for them. The photographer will either choose a specific auto focus point/region, or skip it all together in favor of manual focus. Knowing how to use all these settings, and switching them quickly, helps a photographer capture a great shot quickly.
Lighting, Lighting, and Lighting
If you can’t tell already, lighting is important. It can make or break an image. It is probably one of the most difficult aspects of photography to master. Simply using a camera’s onboard flash usually creates less than desired results.
There are 3 main types of lighting that a photographer will consider: natural, studio, and flash. Sometimes, there isn’t a choice. If it is dark, natural light is limited. If you are photographing a wedding, flash may not be allowed. Dragging studio lights around isn’t very practical, and definitely isn’t an option away from power sources. When you can choose, selecting a proper lighting source plays a key role to mood and overall tone of an image.
There is so much to consider when assessing lighting and planning a shot. If using natural light, time of day is key. Outside, cloudy days are ideal. Dawn and dusk produce awesome light, but the mid afternoon sun can cast harsh shadows. Inside, subject positioning in relation to windows and other light sources is important. When using an external flash, the angle of the head or relative position to the subject is critical. Bouncing the flash off the walls, ceiling, or other objects creates softer light. Pulling the flash off camera and lighting the subject from a side angle can help create depth and dimension. The position of studio lights, how far they are from the subject, and whether they use umbrellas, barn doors, or soft boxes are all important to the final output. The smallest detail with lighting can make all the difference.
Everything mentioned up until this point has been about a photo’s capture. Arguably, what happens after the capture can be equally important. Post-processing has opened up many possibilities in this digital photography age. Some post-processing methods are not new and have been around since the development of film. What matters today is how a photo is outputted and what is actually processed. There are 2 ways a photo can be outputted from a camera for post-processing: JPEG and RAW.
When you set a DSLR to output to JPEG, the camera is making assumptions about the image. It is making calculations and setting things like white balance, color balance, and other properties. The camera is actually doing some of the post-processing for you. This may sound great, but its ultimately adjusting this image in a destructive manner. This means that once the file is outputted from the camera to JPEG, you lose fine tuning control over many of the settings. The ability to go into an editing software application, such as Adobe’s Photoshop, exists. However, the changes you make and save to the image are destructive and cannot be reversed.
Outputting to JPEG is common to most people. To professional photographers, it can be seen as an amateur practice. While outputting to JPEG is easier, it is favoring convenience at the loss of creative control.
RAW files do not share the same assumptions and tweaks that automatically come with a camera produced JPEG file. They are simply the raw image data from a camera. Think of these files as the digital equivalent to film negatives.
Outputting to RAW is the preferred method of photography professionals due to the more detailed level of creative control. Using programs like Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, and Adobe Photoshop, a photographer can take their captured images and make them shine. The edits made to RAW files are non-destructive, meaning they can be reversed and changed at any point and time. The sole purpose of the RAW file is for editing. Once edits are complete, JPEGs are generated as the final output for display.
What Goes In Comes Back Out
The role of post-processing is to enhance what come out of a camera. The idea is to start with a good image and make it great. The role of post-processing is not to save bad images. You can certainly compensate for slight underexposures, improper color balance, etc. You can’t change the composition of a photo, make the subject more interesting, or magically take a dark, improperly focused image and make it look like it was shot correctly from the start. Ideally, post-processing should be approached as improving, not fixing.
Photographers can really demonstrate their own creative style during post-processing. Some may choose to do minimal adjustments, while others may spend hours tweaking a photo. The possibilities often seem endless. Colors can be made more vibrant, or more drab. Details can be brought to life with clarity and sharpening. Skin imperfections can be hidden, or “airbrushed”, making your average person look like a magazine model. The final image can be a huge contrast to what came out of the camera originally, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a good starting point.
Tone is in the Fingers
As a stage seasoned guitar player with extensive gear, this concept hits home. Guitar players notoriously become obsessed with their gear and instruments. It can be a sickness really, leading these musicians to think that next piece of equipment is going to make them sound better. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t care and probably can’t even tell. The skills of the guitarist do not change based on the amp or instrument they are using. This is where the phrase “tone is in the fingers” comes from.
The same concept is quite relevant to photography. It is not the camera or lenses that make the photo, but the photographer behind it. An unskilled, self-proclaimed photographer can pick up a $6,000 camera and take crap photos. A truly skilled photographer can produce great results with a point-and-shoot camera, or even a smart phone. Photographers use high end gear because it makes the image quality better, not the overall greatness of their photo. Equipment is never replacement for a photographic eye. The art lies with the artist, and not the tools they use. Better tools can be and often are a catalyst for inspiration, but they will never place creative technique.