How to Shoot (and Think) Like a Professional Photographer

At this point, your only excuse for being a lousy photographer is… you.

Sung Han

With every new camera and smartphone thrust onto the market, our collective potential to be amazing photographers kicks up a notch. Sensors can produce exquisitely rich and detailed images, there’s a fantastic lens for every application imaginable and cameras come ready for everything from sports to portraits to landscapes. In fact, at this point your only excuse for being a lousy photographer is… you.

So what about the photography itself? Is all that gear adding up to better images? For many, yes — capable equipment allows them to stretch creativity to new limits. But others still struggle with the art and craft of photography. Some don’t naturally have a good eye, while others just haven’t sat down and really thought much about what they’re doing or how to be better.

They can do it, though. One of the most important things people can do to improve their shooting is to learn to think like a professional photographer. How? Start with grasping a few distinctions about gear and the act of shooting that pros know on an instinctive level. Below are a few guiding lights developed both in my own practice and from studying the work of vastly more experienced shooters.

Rule #1: There are snapshots and there are photographs

If you see a remarkable scene before you, what do you do? Reach for your phone or camera and take a picture? Sure, but how many do you take? And from how many different perspectives? What settings do you use? How do you compose the photo? What do you place in the foreground and background? What angle do you shoot from — high, low, left, right?

A single photo taken at eye level without considering the multitude of alternative options is a snapshot. When you weigh all the possibilities and make active decisions about composition and exposure, you have a much better chance of creating a true photograph: something that reflects actual intent and even makes a statement or achieves something special. Can a snapshot be a photograph? Absolutely — sometimes through luck and sometimes purely by virtue of the fact that you have a good eye, and instinctively captured the best composition possible in a given scenario. But the best photos have a degree of thought and intent behind them. It’s the reason why 10,000 people may post photos from the Olympics but only a handful are truly great photos.

Rule #2: A great view is not necessarily a great photo

When you’re on a road trip someplace epic, you might see tons of scenic-view stops and many fellow travelers taking pictures of a stunning landscape. For the most part they’ll be awesome because the scene itself is so fantastic, but they won’t be special. To get the most out of a scene, time of day, weather conditions and lens choices play a huge part in how impactful a photo is. Wide-angle shots may convey vastness, but a tight telephoto can often be far more dramatic, compressing foreground and background into a stunningly dense sliver of the landscape before you. Similarly, wide-angle shots of an Italian city from a clocktower will look nice, but a narrower shot straight down to the rooftops will make the image intriguing and personal. So take the big shots, but then try something different.

Rule #3: Light is everything

One basic tenet of photography is to shoot at golden hour — the period around sunrise or sunset when the light is low and the angles more oblique. It’s familiar because it’s true. If you’re serious about your shooting, you need to be out there when everyone else is having breakfast or dinner. If you can’t control the light or the timing of your shot, use tricks like bokeh (background or foreground blurring, achieved via aperture adjustments) to minimize the impact of direct lighting, or work on your composition because as you’ll see next, composition is everything else.

The difference between a photograph (left) and a snapshot (right)? It's mostly about consideration.

Rule #4: Composition is everything else

If you just raise your camera and fire every time you see something worth capturing, all your shots will look the same. Paying attention to composition — foreground objects, how you fill the frame, where the light lands and doesn’t, what you include, what you exclude — is absolutely the heart of photography. Every photo lives or dies by how it’s framed and filled — that’s composition. It’s what determines whether or not you have a truly good photographic eye.

Rule #5: Cameras are tools, not Holy Grails

People love to say that today’s shooters are obsessed with gear, not photography itself. That’s not entirely true, of course — there are as many who love and obsess over the equipment as there are those who obsess over the craft, with tons of overlap in both directions. Sure, there’s going to be camera-envy everywhere, and many of the new features being trotted out really are highly compelling. Further, photographers are naturally going to be interested in the technology behind their craft, and noobs can use that technology as a stepping-stone to greater success. But unless we have unlimited budgets and storage space, we need to be selective about where we put our equipment money — what brand ecosystem we buy into, what lens choices we make, what accessories.

Ultimately, though, when evaluating a new gear purchase, the question is what it will truly do for you, and whether you’ll actually use it for that purpose. If you’re confident, buy it and use the hell out of it. If you’re uncertain, remember that every $3,000 you spend on gear is one less epic trip to Grand Teton National Park, or the Dolomites, or Iceland for some great photography. In the end, you probably don’t need nearly as much gear as you think to make amazing photos. But you do need the right gear.

Rule #6: Still, good tools are important

Another thing people love to say in the same vein is that “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.” That’s absolutely true — up to a point. I’m a huge enthusiast of smartphone photography, but the truth is that 95 percent of the images on my website were captured with professional gear — a full-frame sensor and extremely high-quality glass. Partially that’s because the kinds of shooting I do exist mostly on the edge of camera capabilities — low light, for instance — but mostly it’s because I just get far better results from professional gear. The resolution is higher, the dynamic range better and there’s infinitely more flexibility in terms of lens choices and RAW-photo editing after the fact. I’ve said it before: The day the sideline shooters at the Super Bowl are all wielding iPhones is the day I sell my pro gear. That’s probably not going to happen.

Rule #7: Secondary benefits can have major impacts

When choosing lenses, we usually think of their primary function — field of view defined by the focal length, light grasp as determined by aperture, etc. But knowing and taking advantage of secondary benefits in your lenses will push you to another level. For instance, for me the key benefit of a telephoto lens isn’t magnification — a 42-megapixel sensor allows you to “magnify” pretty nicely while editing — but rather, it’s compression. Telephoto lenses, especially long ones in the 200mm to 400mm range, bring foreground and background much closer together, allowing you to fill the frame in a much more dramatic fashion than wide-angle lens that’s just cropped in.

Rule #8: Shooting RAW gives you total control

Most cameras can save files as either compressed JPGs or uncompressed RAW photos. Most people assume that JPGs are only compressed, but the truth is that they’re also processed to a certain degree, generating results you may not actually intend, and confusing you when you’re trying to dial in your exposure on the fly. The only real benefit of shooting JPG is that it makes files smaller, saving space on your card and making it easier to transfer the images across devices. If you really care about your photography, you shoot RAW or at the very least JPG+RAW, just in case you need to dig into an image to really get the most out of it.

Rule #9: Readiness wins the day

Where do you keep your camera when you’re out exploring? In a camera bag? Take it out. Keep it strapped on, configured for the conditions around you or at the least on “auto,” and ditch the lens cap. I’ve captured more moments than I’ve missed because I stay ready. I’m not weird about it — stalking around with my camera up to my face — but I’m always ready for any of the random curveballs life has a way of throwing at you. Of course there are many brilliant photographers who don’t maintain constant vigilance, but if you’re out to capture moments you absolutely need to be ready for them.

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