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How to tell the Amateur Photographers from the Professionals

Author: Ben Reeves
He is a travel writer and photojournalist working in Phuket. Originally from the UK, he arrived in Thailand by way of Oman.
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Professional Photographer Techniques – Pot vs. Kettle

I am not going to try to pretend that I am the perfect photographer. I am painfully aware of my shortcomings; the aspects of this extremely broad and varied art which still escape me. I’ve made many of the following mistakes myself, in the past, and there are probably more than 10 things which I do which bug other snappers. These are just the things which I see amateurs doing and which get up my nose. One thing you may note about my list for professional photographer techniques is that I get bugged by surprisingly petty things. In truth, this list was not easy to compile because I am not the sort of person who gets easily annoyed. This is almost just a selection of the practical lessons of photography which I learnt or was taught and which seem really obvious to me, but seem not to have occurred to most amateurs.

1. Big Cameras with Bundle Lens

When I was first buying my camera gear, my pro-snapper sister told me that it is vastly more important to have good lenses than an expensive camera body because the lens is where the magic happens. At least a couple of times, people I know have asked me for advice on buying their first SLR and I gave the same wisdom.professional photographer techniquesOn both occasions, they came back with an expensive camera body and the crappy lens it came bundled with because “it was a good deal”. Of course it was a good deal! Those bundle lenses are worthless! I’ll go into exactly why in a different post, because it is quite a big topic, but the simple fact with photography is that, if it is really cheap, there’s probably a good reason.

2. Using the Built-in Flash

I had a fascinating discussion with the guy at the camera shop when I was buying my first flash-gun. He was telling me that a good one would illuminate the whole shop, from the counter to the door (about 15-20m away), but the standard built-in flash will reach only a few metres, if you’re lucky.

This never stops people trying to take a picture of a big hall or a beach scene at night without any additional hardware. Do they really think that a tiny little flash like that will light up hundreds of metres of sand and create a perfectly-lit shot? I’ve even seen people optimistically using the minute smartphone flashes for the same purpose! I use my built-in flash so rarely, it has become jammed and won’t deploy!

3. Big Camera on Full Auto

If you take a photography course in Bangkok, you will come away with a suite of complex techniques to achieve stunning results with even the most basic DSLR. Some modern systems can replicate a few of them, such as blurring the background, but it still frustrates me when people have spent hundreds of thousands of baht on what is, for them, an over-sized point-and-shoot camera. If you’re not going to learn to use it properly, why did you spend that much money?

professional photographer techniques

4. Turning Every Picture Black & White

I recently found the profile of someone who called themselves a model photographer on Facebook, where they turned literally every photo monochrome – even their selfies! Yes, the stark contrasts created by using black-and-white settings can add a lot of mood to an otherwise emotionless image, but it is one of the most grossly over-applied and misused techniques. The saturation slider is not an ‘artsy’ setting and removing colour will often also remove any depth and life the picture once had.

5. Using the Neck Strap

professional photographer techniques
Professional photographer techniques include not replacing the neck strap on your camera entirely to use it as a shoulder strap, like that of a handbag. The reason? Good lenses are pretty weighty, making your camera gear front-heavy. That leaves the bottom edge of the camera body digging into your ribs. Add the fact that it’s bouncing around a lot while you’re moving and it gets surprisingly painful pretty quickly.

6. Stealing the Shot

This one ties in to my post about events photography last week. A good way to learn is to talk to other photographers and watch how they operate. The fastest way to alienate yourself with a pro covering an event is to try to take a picture of a group at the same time they are.

professional photographer techniques

The reason for this is that they want all of the eyes in the shot looking at their lens in order to create the best possible picture. If people are looking out of shot – at your camera – it ruins it. Just wait a couple of seconds until they’re done, then jump in saying “can I take one too?”. I’ve seen pros get understandably snappy at people who try to usurp their shot.

7. Using the Live Preview

There’s nothing strictly wrong with using the live preview mode on an SLR to see the picture on the back screen. There are some cases where it is extremely helpful, but you really will not be taken seriously as a photographer if you do it with every shot. That’s why one of our professional photographer techniques is simply to use the viewfinder.professional photographer techniques

Think about it: would you take a photographer seriously if he showed up using his smartphone or a budget point-and-shoot? Even if you’re wielding a professional-grade camera, holding it at arm’s length while you frame the shot just looks daft.

8. Red-Eye Reduction

The idea of an automatic system, which will stop your flash photography subjects from looking like the children of a coupling between an alien and Lucifer, sounds fantastic. The only problem is that it doesn’t actually work.

Red-eye reduction sends out a first flash of light to close the subject’s pupils, reducing the reflection of light off the retina, which is what creates the red colour. However, you will still get some red-eye and, more often than not, a lot of pictures of people squinting, rubbing away the glare or looking away, thinking the shot was taken on the first flash. Proper flashguns don’t even have this setting.

9. Big Camera = Photographer

I can’t deny that I got some of my early breaks in photography because I have a big camera. The editor of the student newspaper at my university even said he made me Pictures Editor for exactly that reason, which indirectly led to my first full-time media job. However, there is a lot more to it than just owning a big lump of hardware. It is about knowing how to use professional photographer techniques.professional photographer techniques

I once read that the best camera in the world is whatever you have with you at the time, which is entirely true. Some really outstanding photos have been taken with second-rate smartphones or the much-maligned point-and-shoots by people who knew how to create epic shots. It is that knowledge which makes you a photographer, not a big camera.

10. Big Camera, Never Used

You’ve probably noticed that a lot of these points are based around my ire at people with big cameras. I’ll admit that this is, at least partially, sour grapes. Like with any profession or hobby where the gear is expensive, you would always love the top-shelf stuff, but can rarely afford it. It therefore frustrates me to see people who can afford it, but can’t use it.

What bugs me far more is the people who can afford it, but won’t use it. Yes, camera equipment is very expensive and should naturally be treated with a lot of care, but it is not as fragile as you might think. I still have and sometimes use my first Canon camera body, which has been blasted with sand and heat in the Omani desert, showered in freezing rain north of the Arctic circle and dropped at least twice, yet it still keeps clicking.

My biggest regrets in photography come from the times when my fear of damaging or destroying my gear prevented me from using it. I have missed out on some really fantastic photos as a result. Keeping your camera for ‘Sunday Best’ is a waste.professional photographer techniques


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