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Amateur vs Professional part I

July 2, 2009

This is likely to become something of a recurring theme here. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes the difference between an amateur snapshot and a more professional photograph. Bear in mind that, in this context, I’m defining professional on the basis of quality and not so much on whether one makes his living from photography.

Given that I teach photography workshops and my whole bent is on trying to help people take more satisfying photos, it’s important for me to understand and be able to communicate things like this.

One of the things that comes to mind is the use of light. This is a complex and subtle issue that I doubt I can cover all in one post. At its broadest, I would say that amateurs most often take the path of least effort. That is to say, whatever light is available is what gets used. When the light gets low, out comes the on-camera flash.

To be sure, many professionals also use available light but they are more deliberate about it. At the very least they are conscious of it. Some who create more professional images — sports, wildlife and the like — have no ability to control the light. What they can and do control in that situation is the relative orientation between themselves, their subject and the primary light source. Others — for instance portrait and wedding photographers — may use available light but “place” their subjects in the most flattering position within that light. Or augment it with reflectors.

Then of course there are studio photographers, who exercise almost maniacal control over their light. Some even go so far as to work in a room with no windows and turn off ordinary room lights so that there is no light in the picture over which they do not have control.

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