On Selecting a
Professional Photographer
by Sarah Fox

INTRODUCTION: The term "professional" is a lofty one, and it implies a lot. It implies a higher standard of excellence. It implies skill, authority, and experience. However, these days "professional" could mean just about anything. Anyone who accepts money in exchange for photographic services is, by definition, a professional, and the term is usually used just that loosely in photography. I find myself competing among a vast herd of such people, and it is honestly hard to drool without hitting a "professional" photographer. In fact it's estimated that 100 people enter into the profession each and every day in the United States alone! That's a lot of people wielding cameras!

As there is no shortage of professional photographers willing to do work for you, it is a very daunting job to figure out how to cull out that one professional who is going to do the best job for you. The purpose of this article is to help you to figure that out.

At this point, you might be thinking, "Aha, this is a sales pitch." Well, it is, and it isn't. It's really more of a candid article about what you can expect to find out there, how to sort the wheat from the chaff (because there's a whole lot of chaff), and then how to select from the grains of wheat you cull out. It is this last issue that's the least obvious. People assume all "good" professionals can competently tackle all aspects of photography. In fact I don't know a single professional anywhere who is competent at all aspects of photography, myself included.

Incidentally, I do realize I will be discussing some specialties of photography about which I have only casual experience. It is my hope that my photographer colleagues (who will occasionally stumble across this page) will contact me with any suggestions about what they feel is important in their own specialties.

IT'S RAINING PHOTOGRAPHERS! To understand the state of the photographic profession, one must first understand the dynamics that got us here: With the onslaught of digital photography (a very welcome technological leap that I embrace), good and user-friendly equipment is commonplace. Everyone owns a Digital SLR, and everyone is now impressed with what they can do photographically. Just like too many people think they can sing (and you KNOW whom I mean on any given Karaoke night), now too many people think they're brilliant photographers. It's the Ashton Kutcher (a.k.a. "annoying Nikon guy") phenomenon: "Booyah!" Of course it's also easy to upload digital pics to the computer, and there is no shortage of software that will digest the images in some sort of way to turn out something pleasing or interesting. The user simply has to push around the sliders until the computer does something brilliant for them. With these sorts of successes, it's not surprising that a lot of people get the notion to enter into the exciting and lucrative (that's a joke) world of professional photography.

Now while this populist digital revolution has been going on, there have been a lot of professionals and advanced amateurs from the pre-digital age who have made similarly impressive advances in their work. Amongst the sea of Ashtons shouting "booyah," there's a quiet minority of photographers -- the serious ones -- who are quietly pushing the envelope of photography far beyond anything they've done before. They don't really get noticed much. What I'm trying to say is that we all have made advancements in the craft, both novice and advanced alike. The experienced photographers (whether amateur or pro) will almost always do the better work, though. That's because they understand light, color, optics, etc. at a level that novices don't.

In with the sea of Ashtons has come a lowering of our standards. Professional photography used to be fairly expensive, but now that good results (not great ones) are within reach of the masses, we have learned to settle for less. Even if we're not able to get acceptable results out of our own cameras, there's probably an Ashton down the street with a D40 who will shoot pics for us pretty cheaply for the gas money. This movement has even ushered in certain strange fads, such as conspicuously and intentionally "bad" images meant to look casual and amateurish, tilty shots (meant to be artsy and cool), and so forth. This is all brilliant from a marketing standpoint. After all, if bad photography can be deemed good, that opens up the playing field to any Ashton with a camera. There is simply no need to pay a good photographer lots of money to take a good picture if what you really want is a bad one. Instead, pay the artsy Ashton kid with the D40 much less and get the results you prefer. If bad photographs are what you want, you should shop by price alone. (Note: I'm not trying to be condescending here.) Sincerely, stop reading. I'm not the right photographer for you. Look for someone much cheaper.

WHEAT FROM CHAFFE If you're wanting to hire someone to take "good" photographs (i.e. not necessarily trendy and cool, but solid and technically proficient, then your first job is to cull a handful of experienced local photographers from the endless sea of Ashtons. Remember, "professional" doesn't mean "good." "Good" comes from a different standard and includes many amateurs I know who do work on par with the best I've seen. (Of course they aren't for hire.) It likewise does not include many professionals whose work is frankly abysmal. While there are many exceptions to these rules, I think I'd offer the following guidelines:

First of all, size up the person's experience. Experience counts; there's no way around it. No matter how sophisticated cameras or computers are, they're still just dumb machines. The human mind, equipped with a wealth of experience, can make better decisions than a machine, albeit maybe not at lightning fast speeds. You can get your base experience either throughout a lifetime as a self-taught photographic enthusiast (my own experience), or in a formal program (culminating in a degree in photography). If you're considering someone young, he or she had better have that degree, because there probably isn't enough "lifetime" to amount to much. A degree in photography is a pretty good stamp of approval signifying that someone has basic competence in the field. That doesn't mean they're a good photographer, but we're only culling for now.

Older, non-degreed photographers like me have to be scrutinized more carefully. After all, I know countless older people who have never been able to take a good picture and never will. Years of experience are only meaningful if they're good years. Someone has to have been a lifelong enthusiast to have achieved any mastery of the art. They have to have cared enough to have sought out advanced knowledge. There are many telltale signs of a life-long enthusiast, which could form the basis of an interview: Lifelong enthusiasts have almost all done darkroom work, shot slides, and taken a few workshops along the way. They've owned an SLR camera from an early age. If you ask them how many cameras they own, they can only estimate the number. If you ask them how many lenses they use with their current outfit, they have to take a few moments to count or may use the word "approximately." Enthusiasts know how to use manual camera settings. They can work a light meter, even if they don't do it often. They can rattle off all the conventional aperture numbers from f/1.4 through f/22, at least in full stops. They can look at a photograph and tell you how it was lighted. They can tell you something (maybe not everything) about how film works. They've probably invented several unique doodads and miscellaneous techniques along the way.

You can mentally award these sorts of people "honorary degrees" in photography. In all likelihood, they might even know more than the kid fresh out of college with a real degree. It's worth mentioning that some of the non-degreed, older photographers like me have entered into photography as a late-in-life career. You should ask these people what they did previously. If it was something technical (e.g. science and engineering,) then you can give them lots of bonus points for being lifelong technical geeks.

After you've satisfied yourself that a person might actually have enough experience to be a good photographer, probe a bit further. There are a lot of novices in pro clothing out there. Here are a few tell-tale things to look for. These are not all the important things, but they are pretty easy to spot:

  • Beginners use entry level DSLRs, such as the Nikon D40 or Canon XSi. These cameras are made of plastic. They take perfectly good images, but they are novice-friendly and expert-hostile devices that no experienced photographer would want to use. They are also rather slow and have lousy viewfinders. Most novice "professional" photographers use these sorts of cameras. Experienced photographers will use at least "pro-sumer" cameras like my Canon 5D and 40D, and if they do a high volume business, they will probably have the sturdier pro bodies like the Canon 1Ds Mark III (although many pros will shun these cameras because of their size and weight). The point is this: Anyone with the cheapest camera is probably a beginner.
  • Ask to see the photographer's camera. It should be set to M, Av, Tv, or C. If it's set to P (program mode), the green rectangle (another program mode), or any little picture icon, that means the camera is smarter than the photographer. Run!
  • Ask whether they shoot film or digital. Film photographers generall know what they're doing, as all the newbies go straight to digital. If they shoot digital, like me, ask whether they shoot jpeg or RAW format. All serious digital photographers who know what they're doing shoot RAW, perhaps unless they're doing crank-and-grind work like event photography.
  • Ask what white balance settings they like to use. If they don't know what white balance is, run. If they say they use auto white balance, you should probably check them off your list. If they say they use daylight, tungsten, fluorescent, etc. (depending on shooting environment), you should feel much more confident. If they take a custom white balance, then you're talking to a very thorough and careful photographer. If they explain that it doesn't matter what white balance they use because they adjust in postprocessing, that answer is probably every bit as good. (My own answer would be that I use the tungsten/daylight/fluorescent/etc. presets per shooting situation, but that it doesn't matter, because I correct in post anyway.)
  • Ask the photographer if he/she uses flash for indoor photography. The answer will probably be "yes," but a lot of good photography is also done in natural light. Then ask what sort of flash he/she uses. If it's the camera's internal flash, run. If it's a speedlite mounted to the hotshoe on top of the camera, then ask how they soften the light. "By bouncing" and "with a mini-softbox" are both acceptable answers. "Huh?" is an unacceptable answer. That said, on-shoe lighting is pretty amateurish for anything but shooting events. The best response of all is that all the lighting is off-shoe (i.e. away from the camera). If you want to probe further, ask what sorts of modifiers the photographer uses. If you get a minute or two of terms like softboxes, umbrellas, scrims, gobos, reflectors, snoots, blah, blah, blah, then you've probably found someone pretty good. However, a lot of very good work is with done with off-shoe light judiciously bounced off of interior surfaces (and none of the previous list of modifiers).

NOW THAT YOU'VE FOUND WHEAT: Congratulations! If you've found a photographer who has satisfied all the above criteria, you've probably turned away 10 or 20 others. Your inclination will be to hire that person. However, you're not finished. What you might not realize is that photography is an extraordinarily vast and technically complicated art. No single photographer has ever mastered all there is to master or known all there is to know, and no single photographer ever will. Finding a good photographer is like finding a good writer. The writer could be an investigative journalist, a novelist, a poet, or a technical writer. You certainly don't want to commission a poem from a technical writer! You might simply want to ask the photographer for a candid assessment of his or her ability to do whatever it is you want done. You might get a good answer. You might even get a referral to another photographer who would better meet your needs. (If so, take it to heart!) However, the photographer might also say, "Sure, I can do that," even when he or she can't do it well. The reason is that photography is a very lean profession right now. There are so many low priced novices scarfing up all the available work that it's becoming increasingly difficult to carve out a living. Anyway, as best as I can summarize, here's what you might want to find in a few photographic specialties:

  • Wedding Photography: You want someone with not one, but at least two full frame digital or 35mm film cameras, and not one, but two of every sort of lens and flash he or she might use. That's because a backup is necessary in the event of an equipment failure. The person will need fairly fast optics, probably f/2.8 and faster. A good portrait length zoom is very important, for instance a 70-200mm f/2.8. You'll want someone with a studio for the formal shots and possibly someone with an assistant for all of the on-location work. Photography during the reception will be event photography, with a wider zoom and probably with on-shoe lighting and a tiny softbox on the flash. (I would use off-shoe flash, but I'm just different.) Your photographer will need to be confident and assertive and able to direct small gatherings of people. He or she will also need experience with posing people for the formal shots. Be sure to look over examples of the work product to see if you like the photographer's style. Check references too. You really don't want your wedding botched. I'm sure there are other qualifications, but I think these are some of the highlights.
  • Studio portraiture: Lots of people assume this is a technically demanding field. It isn't, at least for 95% of it. The reason is that the studio gets set up according to certain known formulas. The lights go there, there, there and there, with the subject in the middle. Subject smiles, camera trips, and the shoot is done. It's all tried and true -- the same for you as for the prior 500 customers. Often the person snapping your picture doesn't even know how the camera works, beyond turning it on, focusing, shooting, and downloading. If you need a studio portrait, you simply want to see examples of their work and familiarize yourself with their policies. You'll know exactly what you're going to get, because it won't be any different for you than for anyone else. Of course if you want to consider a more creative alternative to studio portraiture, consider what what I offer.
  • Event Photography: This is probably the least demanding photographic specialty, where lots of novices try entering the profession. One needs a DSLR camera of any format, a lens, and a flash. It wouldn't hurt to have a backup camera too, although the consequences of having an equipment failure wouldn't be nearly as dire for a birthday as for a wedding. The better event photographers might have a battery grip and a softbox on the flash. The best event photographers will attempt their lighting off-shoe or via bounce lighting, sometimes with the help of an assistant.
  • Sports Photography: Sports photographers are a special breed. They need very fast cameras with very high maximum frame rates, large buffers, and lots of throughput. A cheap camera is not up to the job. They also need some good telephoto lenses with large maximum apertures and very fast focus. Other than these somewhat specialized items and a good knack for shooting a sport, there's not much more to be said.
  • Architectural Photography: This would include real estate photography. The number of novice hacks doing real estate and architectural photography is utterly astounding. Most of these people brandish compact digital point-and-shoot cameras and run through a building in as little as 15 min, snapping shots with direct, built-in flash. Then they upload their photos to the computer and pass them along without any editing for color correction, tilt, perspective, exposure, or contrast. Their work is very much in demand by realtors, whose margins are perhaps very thin in this economy. Good architectural photography requires quite a lot of very specialized lighting equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. It can be done with a variety of cameras, depending on how the work product is to be used. The most dedicated architectural photographers will use view cameras and tilt/shift lenses; however, this work is also done with 35mm and digital SLR cameras. Any architectural photographer worth his or her salt will have very wide angle lenses and (if an SLR photographer) a full frame camera. When you look at an architectural photographer's sample work, scrutinize it for pleasing, uniform lighting of consistent "warmth" (color). Make sure the shots are level. Check the walls to see that they are straight. Is the perspective corrected, where lines are parallel and perpendicular, rather than converging and diverging? Does the view through the window clash with the lighting of the interior? Can you even see a view? This is one of the most technically challenging specialties in photography if done right. If you want good results, the photographer will really need to know his/her stuff.
  • Commercial Photography: This is a big field all by itself. Its practice ranges everwhere from small studio work (e.g. product items for a catalog) to photography for use in literature and on web sites. As such, it intersects with both architectural photography and studio photography. Most proficient photographers can manage the small studio work for products. It is not too demanding of studio space or equipment. There are some items that are very hard to photograph well, though, including shiny metal, glass, and jewels. Each of these is a small specialty to itself. Product photography for advertising use is still another specialty and often involves more dramatic lighting and special effects. All of this is technically demanding in its own way, and product advertising work often requires a bit of creativity to make the product exciting. On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of commercial photography involves shooting the goings-on of a business, which always involves competent on-location capabilities, we well as some experience in portraiture.

CONCLUSION: I hope some of this information has been useful to you, whether you're considering my photographic services or whether you're just trying to pick between other photographers. I admit this article has gotten rather long, and I feel a bit like Hamlet's Polonius in writing it. I realize there is a frightening sea of people out there with cameras who want to take your money. I guess I'm swimming in that sea too. However, I am more than happy to offer my thoughts on the capabilities of any other photographer if you want to write to me. Obviously if I think I can do a better job, I might tell you so, but you're also welcome to take that with a huge grain of salt!

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