“Professional” photos—or at least, professional-quality photos—are everywhere, from Instagram posts and website ads to magazines and billboards. It’s impossible to go a day without seeing some impressively stunning images.
If you’ve ever tried to take similar photos, however, you might have been disappointed to find that you came up short. Even applying filters, using paid Photoshop presets, or buying a dedicated camera can only get you so far. So, let’s explore some of what goes into professional-level photography.
How It’s Shot
While “Photoshopping” or image editing often gets the credit, a huge amount of the work is done “in camera”—or while the photo is being shot on location.
The Camera Counts
The best cameras for most hobbyists cost a few hundred dollars. They give you significantly more control and much better photos than your smartphone, but they’re still designed to be accessible and affordable. You can shoot exceptional images with them, but they have some limits.
Which camera the photographer uses doesn’t always make a difference. However, there are some situations where multi-thousand dollar processional cameras are required to get the shot:
- Professional sports photographers use cameras that can capture dozens of photos per second so that they don’t have to time their shot perfectly in order to capture the touchdown catch.
- A lot of magazine and fashion photos are shot using medium format cameras. These have larger sensors that give them a unique look that’s hard to otherwise replicate.
- Most professionals use a full-frame camera. While the difference isn’t as extreme as with a medium format camera, the images do look slightly different to those shot with a crop sensor camera or a smartphone, in some circumstances.
Lenses Make All the Difference
Lenses are even more important than cameras for professional photographers. They’re what determine the kind of photos you can shoot. Good lenses cost thousands of dollars and can weigh twice as much as the camera they’re attached to!
In many photos, the lens used is responsible for how they look. A telephoto lets you get super close to any action, wide-angle lenses let you show off a whole location, and portrait lenses blur out a background—that’s something that your smartphone can only do with digital trickery.
Professional flashes aren’t like the small bulb on your smartphone. They’re big and powerful and can be used to imitate natural light. Many images that look like they were shot in a sunny outdoor location were carefully lit by an expert.
And even when pros use sunlight, they understand how to manipulate it so that they get the photos they want.
Another big aspect of photos that’s often overlooked, especially with images for social media, is how staged they are. Who needs a filter when you have a professional makeup artist waiting just off camera? And you don’t have to worry about a restaurant table looking cluttered when every item has been placed just so. Some people go so far as to rent time on grounded private planes.
And even in situations that are obviously staged, like on magazine covers, you might not grasp just how staged they are. For example, most clothes don’t fit the models as well as they appear to: They’re adjusted using safety pins. George Clooney might not be able to raise his arms while posing, but at least his shirt sleeves fall perfectly.
How It’s Edited
With so much work already done in-camera, editing is about enhancing what’s already there, removing any distractions that are problematic, and giving the photos a “look” or style.
“Photoshopping” Is Real
Photoshop has a rough reputation, but it’s rarely used as bluntly as many people assume. Yes, tools like Liquify can totally change the shape of a person, but there are other, subtler ways to do it, too.
Dodging and burning is a technique as old as photography. It’s where different areas of an image are selectively brightened or darkened to change how people see them. It used to be done by hand as photos were developed, but now it can easily be done in most image editors.
Similarly, skin smoothing and blemish removal aren’t new techniques. Fashion and portrait photographers have been using them for decades. Photoshop just makes it a bit easier. And, while some images are obviously highly edited, a small amount of skin adjustment is common in most professional portraits. It’s just done more subtly.
Also, professional makeup artists are incredibly good at their jobs, but any small slips or uneven spots of foundation are cleaned up by image retouchers.
Contrast and Color Grading
Filters, like those built into Instagram, give you some idea of what contrast editing and color grading can do for an image. Professional photographers, however, rarely use pre-built filters. Instead, they make similar kinds of edits to get the exact look that they want.
These are things like:
- increasing the contrast to get a grittier scene or decreasing it to get a dreamier one.
- using a limited color palette with complementary colors to tie everything together or evoke a certain mood.
- sharpening different sections of the image (or adding a vignette) to draw your eye to the most important details.
These kinds of global adjustments can have by far the biggest impact on a photo. It’s why every professional sunset photo looks so perfectly sunset-y, while the ones that you shoot on your smartphone might leave something to be desired.
Compositing Can Be the Key
Many images that you see are actually made from multiple photos that are combined together. It’s a technique called compositing.
Compositing can be used in lots of different ways, such as:
- to shoot incredible group portraits, as the photographer can pose each person individually and then combine all the shots at the end. (Annie Leibovitz is famous for this technique.)
- to add a better sky into a landscape image to make things look more dramatic.
- to add special effects—like lightsabers or the illusion of someone levitating—to an image.
- to overcome the laws of physics and have images that are as sharp and in-focus as possible through the whole frame.
- to use flashes placed super close to the subject and then edit them out of the final image.
And that’s just a small sampling of the ways that I’ve used compositing in the last few years. Some professional photographers shoot all of their subjects in a studio and then digitally add them to a background image that they shot on location—or bought from a stock photo site.
Experience Counts the Most
As much as everything above can make the difference between an amateur’s casual snapshot and a professional’s commercial imagery, there’s another big factor to consider: experience.
Professional photographers aren’t professionals because they’ve bought all the best gear—they’ve bought all the best gear because they’re making enough money through photography that they can justify investing in things that make their job a little easier. Most got their start with basic consumer cameras.get the perfect photo, whether that means standing a few feet over to avoid the ugly sign in the background, ducking into shade to get better light, or just fine-tuning things in an editing app.
The good news, though, is that these skills aren’t too hard to learn. It just takes a bit of time and plenty of practice.