|Wildflowers at sunset, Lake Tahoe, California.
What separates the photos that clients will purchase as prints or for licensing from the zillions of photos taken daily by everyone with a smartphone? I’ve created a list of what I think are a few important distinctions that separate a professional-quality photograph from a snapshot. I’ve developed this list over years of working with licensing clients and fine-art buyers, and gathering an understanding of what they’re looking for when purchasing images. I also know from teaching photography workshops that many of the items on this list are skills that take time and expertise to be developed. So while everyone these days can take a picture, actually producing professional-quality images that others value takes a certain level of expertise and requires more than being in the right place at the right time. Whether you’re shooting with your DSLR set up on a tripod or you’re using your iPhone to take a picture and post to Instagram, you can use some or all of these tips to set your images apart from the sea of imagery that inundates all of us on a daily basis.
Get Proper Depth Of Field In Your Images. This is the number-one issue I see during critique sessions at my workshops. It’s not easy to master or control depth of field in a photograph. You should have a clear idea of what areas in your image will be in focus and out of focus with a given aperture. For landscape work, especially, I primarily use the aperture-priority setting so I can control depth of field. Often, in landscape photographs, we’ll have a prominent foreground element closer to the lens and also a grand vista in the background. The challenge is to get all the parts of the image in focus. It’s not always just a matter of dialing in a small aperture on the camera, since the issue of diffraction at smaller apertures can dramatically affect image quality.
Understanding depth of field requires an understanding of the relationship between aperture settings, lens focal length and hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is defined as the focus distance that places the furthest edge of a depth of field at infinity. So, if hyperfocal distance is 10 feet, everything from 10 feet to infinity will appear in focus. In addition, focus also extends in front of the hyperfocal point at a ratio of one-half the hyperfocal distance so, in reality, everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity will appear sharp. With a hyperfocal distance of 10 feet, everything from 5 feet to infinity will appear in acceptable focus (although it won’t necessarily be tack-sharp throughout). So, practically, in order to maximize depth of field, you should focus on the hyperfocal distance, which will include the foreground element in the in-focus area, while still maintaining infinite depth of field at the far horizon.
I also bracket focus points and apertures during a photo shoot to make sure I have many frames of a scene to choose from and all parts of a scene in focus. With bracketed focus points, it’s possible to stack multiple frames to achieve unlimited depth of field using Helicon Focus software or Photoshop.
It’s All About The Light. We’re usually beholden to the “magic hours” at sunrise and sunset to get our most dramatic images. It’s a rare scene that can make a dramatic landscape image in the middle of the day, but even a more mundane landscape can become a magical scene with the right lighting and interesting clouds. We rarely get great shots when it’s convenient. As an old ski coach told me once (said with a Norwegian accent), “If you want to be good, you have to put a little effort into it.” I remind myself of this saying when I would rather not have to get up at 4 a.m. in the summer to get the first light on the wildflowers. I’ve seen countless dramatic landscapes under harsh, contrasty midday light, and have many of these photos that just take up space on my hard drives, never to be used again. It’s the shots I’ve taken in the fleeting seconds of magic hour that have the most impact. There are always time pressures during magic hour—you have to work quickly to properly expose difficult lighting conditions, sometimes in difficult weather. I feel that I always run out of time as the sun sets. The key is doing some pre-scouting of a location before the magic hour to be ready.
Make Dramatic Compositions. What separates a photograph from a snapshot is often the sense of depth in the image. It’s easy to take snapshots because you point and shoot with no consideration of depth of field. A photograph requires artistic intent to compose an image that feels three-dimensional. This is usually done by finding an interesting foreground that will lead the eye into a dramatic background. Often, I’ll scout a location for interesting foregrounds, such as rocks or reflections in a body of water, interesting foliage or colorful fallen leaves. Use of standard compositional rules such as the Rule of Thirds and leading lines can make a big difference in your picture quality. Another fact that we nature photographers have to deal with is that nature is messy. All those branches, twigs and weeds everywhere can be very distracting. A big challenge, especially with the tighter compositions, is to simplify the scene and boil the subject down to its essence by eliminating distracting elements.
Maximize Dynamic Range And Resolution. Modern digital cameras can capture a large dynamic range of light to dark tonalities. This is data in the image file that can be extracted during processing of the RAW file in your image-editing software. Learn how to maximize the color tones and dynamic range by mastering your image-editing software. I think being a photographer now requires being somewhat of a computer geek in order to make the most of your image files. Always maximize the resolution of your photography by shooting at the highest-quality setting of your camera. If you get an amazing shot that you want to make into a print, you need a lot of pixels, even to get to a 16×20-inch print. I’ve seen in my workshops that some people are unsure of what the highest-quality setting is on their camera, how to set it to aperture priority and how to set the focus points, so become an expert in how your camera operates to make the most of the dynamic range and resolution of your files. It’s a good idea to download your camera manual to your smartphone and iPad and read it.
Be A Ruthless Editor Of Your Work. There’s no need to post every image you take online. I know only a very small percentage of the shots I’ve taken are worth showing to others. Develop the skill to pick out your best work to show on your website or in your portfolio book, and store the other images away on your hard drives. I’ve seen many websites that will show 10 views of a scene that was maybe worth showing once in a vertical composition and once in a horizontal composition. Most of the time you should only show a scene once, and if you get a better shot of it, then retire the old one from your site and portfolio. I know I can become attached to an image because it was hard to get, but eventually you have to be honest about the quality of the image on its own. Don’t rely on others to edit for you since this skill is part of developing an artist’s eye and sensibility. Over time, you may find that you develop a distinct style of photography that’s evident throughout your body of work.
Final Thoughts. Mastering these five steps is really a never-ending process. I feel I’m working on improving my skills in these areas constantly. As technology evolves, so must our learning curve and our ability to adapt. By improving in these five areas, ultimately, we can better express what we see because, as the artist Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Elizabeth Carmel is one of the world’s premiere landscape photographers. She and her husband Olof Carmel own and operate two art galleries in California, their Napa Valley Art Gallery in Calistoga and their Truckee Art Gallery . You can get more information about her landscape photographs to buy,landscape photography workshops and books at ElizabethCarmel.com and TheCarmelGallery.com. For more information about her Video Art, visit VistaChannel.tv. Her Video Art DVDS are available to purchase on her website.