Today I got to thinking about the challenges that professional photographers face every day. What is so different about what I do from the all of the upstarts out there with a camera? After all, lots of people can make good pictures, right? You know, this is true. There are a lot of people out there making good pictures. Calling oneself a professional does not always make a professional. There are professional photographers out there with studios who don't make great images. There are a lot who don't have studios who are fantastic photographers and are reluctant to call themselves professionals. The issue is not the studio. When I moved locations, I gave up my small in-home studio. The space, was nothing to write home about, but not having it now makes things harder, to be sure. There is definitely a demand for studio photography, and I know how to do that. However, the demand right now seems so much higher for quality photography on location. Not everyone can do that successfully. How many amateurs go out on location and make images for people? What differentiates them from a professional who does the same? There is no simple answer to that question. The answers range from business practice, to capture to post-production work. So much goes into making great images for people, but what seems to scream the loudest to me when I look at the images of amateur photographers is a lack of knowlege of how to control light, add light into or overpower the natural light on location. Coming in second is attention to detail and post-production work. I have a lot of things to say about all of these, but today, I will focus mostly on retouching.
Most people, if they take 1000 pictures, are going to come out with a few keepers. Professional photographers shouldn't need to take 1000 pictures to get a good one. What 1 year old can make it through that kind of photo shoot without bursting into tears in a fit of exhaustion? In the days of film, photogs couldn't afford to make a thousand images so they had to learn to do things right in the camera. If you want to know if the photographer knows what she is doing, ask her a few questions about exposure or lighting while she is working. She should be able to answer them with more complexity than you can.
It occurred to me today, as I finished editing a photo of a couple, that one of my jobs is to make people look good and keep them looking like themselves in a natural way. In addition, I shouldn't have to do extensive retouching and corrections in post-production if I am doing a good job in-camera. I love it when people look at a retouched image and don't notice that it has been retouched. They think that is just how they look. Then, when they look at the original, they can't believe the difference. In my opinion, that is the hallmark of a professional.
I have posted an example here of a couple that I recently finished post-production work on. The image was captured last summer, but they recently asked me to prepare the image for an order. I had a great time capturing images of this family, as their children are now grown and their youngest child had just graduated. They wanted some family images before everyone went in their own direction. It seems a lot families reach this point; a sort of end of an era. Towards the end of the shoot, I asked the couple if they would like me to make a few images of just the two of them. Many parents don't think about having an image made of just them. They are so often thinking about their children. They seemed a bit surprised and then thought "why not?"
The image on the left is the RAW, unedited image. Ask your photographer about RAW images. If she looks at you like a deer in the headlights, it is a good sign that she is not a professional. This RAW image is uncompressed. It has none of the color and tonal enhancements of a JPEG image. It is just information captured directly in the sensor; A proof if you will. It isn't a bad capture. It was taken at ISO 200 at 50mm with an exposure of f 5.6 @ 1/80th of a second, and lit off-camera with an umbrella. Yes, an umbrella outside in broad daylight. The umbrella light provided soft, even lighting and enabled me to shoot in the shadows without the graininess of a low-light exposure.
The retouched image, at right, has been white balanced and enhancements have been made to the tonal range of the image, its brightness, as well as the color. Slight changes have been made to skin tone and softening of a few age related skin issues. A softening of the background leaves was achieved both at capture, as well as in post-production and a subtle dark vignette applied to the outside edges to draw attention in towards the center. A partial reflection of the umbrella in the glasses has been removed as well. This is a standard retouch, and while I can do all sorts of trendy things with this image, I would rather it stand the test of time. The result is an image that presents the couple looking good in a way that looks natural.
Good retouching is no secret, but it does take sensitivity, practice and moderation. A professionally retouched image should not scream "I have been retouched!"