What makes a Good Photographer
It’s not just about the equipment you have. It’s about how you use that equipment and what kind of person you are. You can be an amazing photographer with nothing but your phone camera if you know how to compose a shot and get in close enough to capture all the details.
We’re going to take a look at what makes a good photographer stand out from the rest.
A good photographer is someone who has a passion for creating images, knows how to communicate well with others, and is always looking for new ways to improve themselves as an artist. They’re creative thinkers who aren’t afraid of trying something different or taking on new challenges because they love what they do so much! And when they see something amazing happening around them, they don’t hesitate to take pictures of it before it passes by forever.
Everyone should study photography at least once in their lives – even if only through apps like Instagram or Snapchat! Because sometimes all it takes is one good photo taken at just the right moment to change everything…and remind us why we’re here on this earth doing what we do every day!
So embrace your inner photographer – whether it’s with your iPhone, DSLR or Mirrorless camera – because life’s too short not to enjoy every single second of it!
Let’s start with the most important thing of all. Technique. I’ve seen advice that you only need study the minimum technique to create a great photograph. I couldn’t disagree more. If you want to be able to take beautiful and meaningful photos every time you pick up your camera, whatever the conditions, you need good technique. Without it, you’ll hit the nail on the head occasionally but you won’t be able to rise to the occasion reliably. This is probably one of the principal differentiators separating a professional photographer from a hobbyist.
You don’t necessarily need an expensive camera. There are three things that you have to know about in order to get out of Auto mode and control the look and feel of a photograph. Good Photographers understand the relationship between these things and can make intelligent choices that will result in better photos!
It’s all about the light reaching the sensor and the angles that it makes through the lens.
In a digital camera, ISO controls the sensitivity of the sensor to light. The base ISO in Canon cameras is 100. As you boost the ISO you are artificially boosting the sensitivity of the sensor. This tends to introduce artefacts such as noise into the image, so a good rule of thumb is to use the lowest ISO that is compatible with exposure.
Simplistically, if you are shooting at twilight, a low ISO will require a longer exposure to get enough light into the camera to create a clear image.
Aperture is measured in f stops and describes the size of the opening in the lens that allows light to reach the sensor. A wide aperture would be a low number such as f/2.8 a narrow aperture would be f/22. Good photographers know that a wide aperture reduces the depth of field as well as allowing more light through.
A simple example – if you are shooting a photograph of a person against a busy background, you risk losing the sense of separation that tells the viewer what the subject of the photo is. One solution used by a good photographer is to use a wide aperture, throwing the background out of focus.
Exposure is measured by shutter speed. The length of time the shutter is open for. A short exposure lets less light in and freezes action, a long exposure lets more light in at the expense of blurring objects that are moving in the frame.
The Exposure Aperture ISO triangle
Visualise this as controlling the amount of light reaching the sensor and factor in an awareness of the effect of each of these controls. A good photographer is able to make creative decisions based on the combination of these three things.
There are many examples.
- Creating the milky effect on water is done via long exposure.
- Throwing a distracting background out of focus is done by using a wide aperture
- Creating a crisp, sharp landscape photograph is done by using a narrow aperture and boosting the ISO to compensate for the reduced amount of light.
Good photos are made by combining these three things creatively. A great example is that of blue hour photography where there are bright lights. You don’t want the lights to burn into the image, but you do need to see the detail in the shadows, a simple long exposure will burn the lights. Boosting the ISO will allow you to reduce the amount of “burn” so that you get a good photograph.
It is not necessary to create images in manual mode all of the time, there are modes you can use that make your life easier while still allowing you to exercise your creativity. You’re simply allowing the camera to make some decisions automatically.
The main modes available to digital photographers are:
- Program Mode
- Aperture Priority
- Shutter Priority
Program mode is basically “point and shoot”. The camera makes up its own mind about all settings other than ISO and produces an image that it considers to be well exposed.
Aperture Priority allows the photographer to set the aperture and the ISO. This gives you control over the depth of field in a given situation.
Shutter Priority sets the shutter speed and flexes the Aperture to create the right exposure.
Manual Mode allows the photographer to control all three elements of the triangle.
Of the three, Aperture Priority is useful to an experienced photographer as it offers the most control over the shot. Commonly used in Landscape photography where the depth of field is all important.
Shutter priority can be useful in sports photography where for example you want to blur just enough to give the impression of a racing car travelling at speed.
Lighting technique doesn’t just refer to studio photography. Light sources are the key to good photographs. A good landscape photographer waits for the light to strike the landscape in a way that pulls the viewer’s eye into the photograph and reveals the story of that land.
Professional landscape photographers will scout a location before arranging a shoot, calculate the position of the sun and choose a day that offers the kind of hard or soft light they want to capture.
This is really no different to studio photography except that in landscape photography you have to wait for the light. The sun is your source, the clouds offer diffraction. In the studio, you can sculpt the light any way you like using artificial lights, reflectors to bounce the light where you need it and flags to block the light where you don’t.
Processing is as vital to modern photography as it was back in the days of chemical processing. In fact, a lot of the terminology such as Dodging and Burning comes from that photo lab tradition.
Digital Photography generates hundreds of images where film photographers used to make each print matter. Today we can experiment with compositions and light without financial penalty, Cards can be reformatted, images can be culled.
A good photographer approaches processing in two stages. The first is cataloguing and culling the pictures. This is called Library Management, the second is Processing the pictures. A third might be Printing.
Adobe Lightroom is the king of Image Library management. It includes the Adobe Raw Processor and some photographers never need to go beyond this stage.
There are competitors. Notably, DxO’s PhotoLab combines a better RAW processor with a slightly less powerful image management capability.
Backup is vitally important. Check out my article Backup Strategy for Photographers
Adobe Photoshop rules the roost for sophisticated image manipulation. It is a steep learning curve, best approached on a need to know basis and together with Lightroom completes a full-featured capability enough to satisfy most professional photographers.
That being said, many studio photographers, including me, use Capture One in the studio because it has a superior RAW processor, better tethering capability and enables you to add RAW corrections on the fly.
The other contenders in this space include DxO with the Nik Collection adding powerful tools to the PhotoLab workflow and Affinity Photo.
Of course, all the technical skills in the world won’t make you a great photographer. Mastering technique will give you the ability to recognise and capture those amazing shots, time after time. The qualities that make a good photographer great are mostly human qualities.
Human qualities are the secret sauce that makes good photographers great. There is no recipe, everyone possesses at least some of the qualities we’re about to look at in varying degrees, most can be cultivated. The mix that you have will determine the type of photography that you will find easiest to excel in.
These are what I consider to be essential photographer qualities.
You have to be interested enough to want to devour the history of photography, study the subject exhaustively and revel in collecting high-quality photography books. Photography is a demanding and expensive activity and the good photographer eats, sleeps and dreams it.
The best images tell a story. Whether that’s in combination or within a single frame, the ability to see and tell the story are fundamental to all great photography.
A good photographer will look for stories. It’s the stories that separate snapshots from a good image. It’s easy to see this as a prerequisite for street photography and documentary photography, but landscapes too have a story that lasts for thousands of years.
Many photographers forget about the story, a flick through Instagram should be enough to convince you of that. For me, the story or even the representation of emotion is the difference between a good photo and a great photograph.
Understanding what other people are feeling is an essential quality for portrait photographers, but it is also the quality that helps us to recognise the stories in a composition that will resonate with other people.
It’s this quality that enables great advertising photographers to come up with stunning work that grabs our attention. It’s the quality that enables a good portrait photographer to evoke all the right emotions in the pose of the model and ultimately the viewer.
Creativity and Imagination
When we create a good photo, we often have an idea of the type of image we are looking for. This is about creativity and imagination. A good photographer will have an idea that they want to turn into an image. The art of producing good photography is often a combination of technical skill, creativity and imagination.
Examples of this are unusual angles of familiar objects. Mixing and matching influences from different genres. One of my best shots this year was a picture of the chefs from a restaurant I had been commissioned to photograph.
Instead of the standard shots of chefs working in the kitchen, I got them to pose like rappers, arms folded, staring moodily into a wide-angle lens. I took the shot from a low angle to make them look more imposing and processed it in black and white with dark shadows and a moody atmosphere.
The result was an attention-grabbing image that broke all the rules for restaurant photography.
Eye for Detail
I’ve never met a successful photographer who didn’t possess a sharp eye for detail. In landscape photography a good photograph can be about waiting for clouds to move, people to move into or out of the frame. In product photography, it’s about the minute movement of the components of a composition to make sure that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the right place in the photograph and that nothing in the image distracts from the object being sold.
Patience is probably the defining quality across all photographic disciplines that enables a good photographer. Good photography is about preparation, time and the will to go again if things don’t work out. Creating a good photo is about creating the space and the time to take photographs in, to get in the zone without distraction. Many photographers lack patience and it most often manifests in their photography as a composition being not quite right.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you can have all the technique and equipment in the world and still make poor photographs. The thing that separates the amateur from the professional photographer is the ability of the professional to reliably get the shot, regardless of conditions. This is all about decision making based on experience.
When a professional composes a landscape it’s about what position to take up, what to include and what to leave out. Similarly in the choice of lens and, in processing, having a view of what the photograph should look like and the knowledge of how to get there.
Obviously, people skills are important in wedding photography and portrait photography. Photographing people is a people skill in itself. What even some professional photographers forget is that people skills enable access. A good documentary photographer gets the shot by being invisible. A good sports photographer has to be ringside or trackside. You get those opportunities by building good relationships.
An example of this occurred when I was asked to photograph a ballet class for women over the age of sixty. I knew immediately that the presence of a male photographer would be a problem so I arranged the shoot over a period of several weeks with the intention of gaining their trust and earning access to women who might have felt vulnerable and self-conscious.
In stark contrast, the local paper had learned about these classes and sent a fellow photographer to cover a session. He will remain nameless, but he erupted into the hall with all the sensitivity of a bull mastiff, barking orders, disrupting the routines and posed the ladies in the most cliched arrangements possible. His visit lasted about fifteen minutes, was all about him rather than the ladies and as far as I am aware the photographs never saw the light of day.
Without communication skills, even the most well-equipped photographer will struggle. The business of obtaining clients, networking, marketing depends on communication skills. They are not just desirable, they are an essential quality.
Ambition tempered with humility is a great quality to have. Making it in photography is tough, to succeed requires massive effort and motivation. Motivation is fed by ambition, but naked ambition is terribly unattractive.
One thing I have learned in my career is that you will be more successful with other people’s help.
Another story, I was a member of Brighton & Hove Camera Club for many years and a feature of the club was the regular competitions where work was critiqued by a judge. A new member from the local art college submitted a photograph that definitely had technical merit. It was well lit, well exposed, but also cliched and possibly even trite. The judge awarded it a bronze. At which point the student noisily left the building protesting that he’d got a first-class degree.
My point is that my own experience in that camera club was wholly positive. I had a degree in Photography from the London College of Printing, but enough self-awareness to realise that after a hiatus of over ten years, I had a long way to catch up. I didn’t lack ambition, I opened my first commercial photography studio only a couple of years later but that ambition was tempered with an awareness that the situation had much to offer me. I became a much better photographer as a result.
Following on from the last point. Photography is a lonesome occupation at times. But it is also a community. In the world of IT, there is an ethical standard of behaviour that encourages people ot behave ethically and professionally. They don’t always meet the standards that are expected, but the message is clear.
A good photographer doesn’t need to criticise other photographers. This type of behaviour demeans the profession and reflects badly on the individual. Photography is also a community so it’s worth putting the effort in to help other people, share knowledge and be the encouraging person in the room. My motto on social media is that if I can’t add positively to a discussion I don’t comment.
Interestingly, this attitude has brought me a lot. more work than it has lost me. If customers trust you to do right by them, you have a much better situation than if you won the business by undermining the competition. It does happen, but don’t be that person.
Ok, so you have. the technical chops and the winning personality – why are you not more successful?
Business skills are often a problem for the creative mind. Depending as they so often do on repeatable predictable processes they can be hard to embrace. But embrace them you must.
Here’s a reality check – in 2020 there were 88,000 photographers practising in a professional capacity in the UK. The market is expected to decline by 33.3% in 2021 as a result of Covid-19 and Brexit. It has been in negative growth since 2016 and is declining faster than any other part of the Professional, Scientific and Technical Activities sector. Stats from Ibis World.
Don’t let that put you off, if you have a passion for photography, find a way to pursue it. If you want to be a professional photographer though, you’re going to need some business skills.
I’ve made most of the mistakes I talk about in this section so learn from my experience!
When I talk about budgeting I mean the cost of running your business. Including cameras, lenses, computers, marketing, website, everything that is a cost to the business.
I used to work for IBM as a consultant and for the last five years of that time I sunk every spare penny I earned into photographic equipment that I researched in enormous detail before buying. The result of that investment has been that the only things I’ve had to buy in the last five years are one computer, one camera, a drone, a 360° camera and a couple of bags. That has helped me to stay profitable.
Professional photography relies on sales. The phone won’t ring of its own accord. But if it does, you need to be sales savvy to land the client. I was hopeless at this I don’t mind admitting. But the pain of losing business to people I saw as less capable spurred me into addressing it.
People don’t buy equipment. They buy something to hang on their wall, add to a marketing campaign or illustrate a presentation. Most of the opportunity for the latter is taken by stock photography agencies. So photographers have had to get clever about what they are selling. A portrait photographer sells an experience for example.
Sales depend on marketing. Marketing is a full time occupation that most professional photographers spend the majority of their time doing. The skills you need fall into three categories.
Everyone loathes networking. To network successfully you need a project for people to be interested in.
Every professional photographer does this differently. I’ve seen people donate their services for free to the networking organisation. I’ve seen people claim Unique Selling Point’s that are far from unique and I’ve seen people surround themselves with a clique.
None of these strategies work. The best way to do networking in my view is to have a project to talk about.
We all love social media, don’t we? It’s a great way to obtain clients. It’s a great way to get viewers’ attention and to get your work in front of a large audience. All of my social media leads to my website. That’s what social media is for.
Don’t make the mistake of making social media the centre of your universe. There are multiple reasons for this, but the most compelling is that you don’t own the platform. Remember MySpace? Google+? Don’t be the person who goes down with the ship. When Facebook went down a couple of weeks ago, the photographers who base their entire online presence there were invisible and uncontactable for 24 hours.
Some people are good at writing, others hate it. A successful photographer is good enough at writing to understand that writing copy for a website is a never-ending task!
Social Media is a different animal, but you also have to write proposals, quotes, grant applications and each one has different rules and practices.
Pricing is the thing that brings down most new photographers. The novelty of getting paid for something you love is quickly replaced by imposter syndrome and the fear of not living up to expectations. That is all about emotion and self-image and has no place in a conversation about price.
The price you charge for your photography has to be calculated based on the cost of your business. If you charge less than you spend you will go out of business. Quickly.
A rule of thumb is to calculate your costs over a year and divide by 12 to get a monthly figure. If you’re attracting four clients a month over the entire year ie. 48 jobs, then you need to charge your costs + your profit – which includes food, rent, clothes and every other expense that you can’t deduct from the business. You also need to budget for a new car every five years or so and unforeseen events like illness.
If you can’t balance the books this way, then you don’t have a business, you have a hobby.
Working for nothing
Never ever work for nothing. There is one exception to this rule.
If you need a portfolio to break into a new sector, then approach a couple of people or companies and offer them a free shoot. Do it on your terms and don’t be persuaded to do anything other than what you need for your portfolio.
There are dozens of companies that persistently ask you to do shoots on the cheap. Avoid them, retain your self-respect.
Does a University degree open doors? I have an honours degree in Photography, Film & Television from the London College of Printing. I don’t think I ever tried to use it to open doors. The reality is that higher-level education is important for personal growth and for encouraging critical thinking. But Photography graduates are emerging into a declining industry at a rate far greater than the industry can support.
Many graduates go back into education to study for a Masters degree or even to teach. Some become professional photographers eventually.
Choosing a Course
That being said, choose the course that is most likely to offer opportunities in the industry. London College of Printing and St Martins were the cream of the crop in my day. These days the choice is much wider. There are vocational courses, theoretical courses, fine art courses to choose from. Choose the course that will work best for your personal growth.
Part of the personal growth thing is found in inspirational tutors. At London College of Printing, there were a few people that had outsized effects on the students. The most important thing that was said to me was ‘Don’t worry about developing your own style, you don’t have a choice in the matter, it will come to. you.”
Working as a Photography Assistant
In the old days, the only way to progress as a photographer was to work as an assistant to an established professional photographer. This arrangement enabled graduates to develop their technical skills, but in addition to that, they would learn to watch the photographer and analyse his or her decision-making process. Hard work, badly paid and incredibly useful!
Internet Courses & Workshops
This of course is where we come in! We run residential courses in Spain near Granada, teaching specific techniques around landscape and street photography. Granada is a city like no other, comparatively undiscovered but rich with the possibility of outstanding street photography featuring incredible architecture from the time of the Moors through the middle ages to today.
My team and I provide hands-on tuition helping you to get to a point where you are reliably producing stunning images using all of the capabilities of your camera. A good photograph is created by telling a great story. The streets offer exactly that.
I’m also writing a set of Guides to Photography that will be available free for the rest of 2021. So far I’ve covered infrared photography and 360° Photography. There will be guides on Astrophotography and specific camera and processing techniques coming along soon.
YouTube is a fantastic source of very high-quality resources. If there is a problem at all it is that the tuition is all about technique and technology but you can find pretty much everything you need to know there.
If you’re still with us, (this post has been epic) then congratulations, you probably have what it takes to become a good photographer! You’ve exhibited at least three of the essential photographer qualities. Patience, Stamina and a Hunger for the subject.
This post is part of a series about The Art of Photography
I’ll keep you in the loop with regular monthly updates on Workshops, Courses, Guides & Reviews.
Sign up here and get special prices on all courses and photowalks in 2024
I sometimes use affiliate links in our reviews and instructional material. If you purchase software or hardware through one of these links it won’t cost you any more, but it does help me to offset the costs of creating the content.
Thanks for your support!