What is the major difference between a snapshot and a professional portrait? Well, the photos below were both taken at the same location, with the same pose, just moments apart. The difference is pretty dramatic, but let’s break it down into it’s components and discuss what goes into a professional portrait.
As if it weren’t totally obvious, the photo on the left is the snapshot of my setup with this sweet couple on location, and the photo on the right is my final image I presented them with. Essentially, the first photo is what the average person will get when they take a photo on their smartphone. So what are the ingredients that went into the final image, and why are the results so vastly different?
1. Angle and Perspective
The first thing I think about when I compose a portrait is where I want to be in relation to my models. Do I want to be above, below, or at eye level? What do I want and not want in the background? How can I use the environment to frame them simply by where my camera is angled and positioned? The first step to setting up a portrait is to anticipate all of this and know exactly where to stand (or sit, or lay down, or which tree to climb).
2. Depth of field
The depth of field is paramount to creating a portrait, because you can use it to accentuate your surroundings or to make them blur into oblivion. There are times when each side of the extreme is appropriate, but for portraits I find it very important to strike a balance and make a decision about which details in the photo I want sharp. For this portrait, you can tell they are surrounded by water, trees, and rocks, but they aren’t the forefront of the image–the couple and their connection are.
Notice how the first photo is washed out, with little to no detail in either the dark or light areas of the photo? That’s because I’ve allowed my smartphone camera to take control of exposing the image. Smartphones may be smart, but luckily I am smarter! My image made use of my complete control over the exposure by dialing in the exact settings to do that moment justice. As a result, detail and richness are maintained in all areas of the photo.
When I create portraits for my clients, I don’t just hover and wait for a moment where they look my way and smile. And I definitely don’t ask them to say “cheese”. A well-loved portrait for years to come is one that shows a glimpse of who those people are to each other. So for this reason, I encourage my couples to be authentic, relax, and to have fun, while at the same time guiding them into a basic position that I know will look great in a portrait. The best portraits are ones with a genuine connection–whether it’s between the client and the camera, or two people in love. A snapshot often misses out on connection and falls flat as a result.
With an everyday snapshot, you may be tempted to throw an instagram filter on the image to give it something “extra”. With a professional portrait, that something “extra” involves months or years of practice in the art of photo retouching. Just like creating the image on location was more than a click of a button, the work after the image is more than a single click. I spend anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour on a single image in dedicated editing software before it’s ready for viewing. Straight out of the camera, photos don’t often look the way we envision, and it takes a lot of effort and experience to create the best possible portrait for clients, not just a passible one.
Photographers don’t just have “fancy cameras”. It’s true that we do have more technically sophisticated cameras than a smartphone, but buying a professional camera does not replace the need to hire a photographer. In addition to the camera, photographers invest thousands of dollars in off-camera lighting, remotes, stands, lenses (especially lenses), subscriptions and editing software, computers and tablets, domain space, design, workshops, light modifiers, and so much more. If you aren’t prepared to spend thousands on equipment and years on education but you want the best possible portrait, without a doubt you need a photographer!
So find a photographer that you love, and invest in their vision and their entire experience. Everyone may have a camera, but not everyone can create a professional portrait. That being said, I hope you can take some of these components and apply it yourself to make your photos just a bit better.
Did you learn something from this comparison? Did you find anything surprising? What else would you like to learn? Leave a comment below!