Train Your Eye to Avoid Hiring a Crappy Photographer

Oct 26, 2023 | FAMILY, Photography Tips | 0 comments

Tips on Choosing a Great (Not Just Good) Portrait Photographer 

These days, if you search for area photographers, you will likely get flooded with results. It seems like anyone with a DSLR camera (which stands for Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera) has started a side hustle or business. While choice isn’t necessarily a bad thing, certain styles of photography will remain professional and classic as opposed to the results you get with just a point-and-shoot camera and heavy editing when your session is over.

So, how do you know what makes a great photo that’s in line with your expectations? Training your eye on good vs. great portrait photography will help you know what to look for in a photographer’s work. Here are some things to consider when it comes to what makes great portrait photography.

Posing Your photographer should be telling you how to stand, where to look, and where to put your hands so that you look the most flattering. If they’re not, find a new photographer. Posing makes all the difference. Arms hanging straight down at sides, straight/stiff legs, heads stacked one right over the other in groups, and creeper hands are never good looks. Notice the difference in posing between the following images. You’ll see lifeless limbs in the first example and warm connection in the next.

Here’s an example of a great standing pose.

Portrait of a family by the lake in Southern WI by Julie Collins Photography
Dead, lifeless eyes Why do I go through the hassle of carrying around a light or paying someone to do it for me? Sparkles people…SPARKLES! Eyes sparkle when light is reflected in them. Also, under eye shadows are common without a light to fill them in, and nobody wants to look like a tired raccoon. Take a look at these two images. The first was taken without my light and the second with. Sparkles make all the difference! If your photographer isn’t lighting up your eyes, it’s time to look elsewhere!
And it’s even more evident in dark eyed people.

White skies and bodies of water Light and airy is very “in” right now, and with that comes blown-out, uninteresting, white skies. Another advantage of using artificial light outdoors (the umbrella you see me using at sessions) is that you are able to balance the light so that you get beautiful, visually interesting skies AND well-lit people, which is the best of both worlds. If your photographer attempts to take a backlit image (for example, people in front of a sunset) and does not use artificial light, they have to choose between exposing for well-lit people (and blowing out the sky to white) or exposing for the beautiful sky (and turning the people very dark).

Take a look at this series of photos to visualize what I mean. The first example is what I see very commonly put out there by most photographers. Why? Because it’s easy (and likely because they don’t know any better). No extra equipment needed here and subject is well lit by natural light but what you get is a blown out, boring white sky with no detail. The second example has the sky well exposed but the subject is clearly underexposed, which is never good. The third example has the best of both worlds, but requires extra equipment (off camera flash) and knowledge of how to do it right.

Series of three photos of senior boy by train car in Oconomowoc demonstrating poor lighting vs. good lighting

Following is an example of the same concept but with water instead of the sky. In the first example you see barely any detail in the water with it mostly being white (blown out) and the sky was gorgeous in person but clearly very lackluster in this first image. No extra light was used in this first photograph.

To see what the sky actually looked like in person take a look at the second image, which was taken using my external light (which looks similar to an umbrella). A million times better!

Senior in high school in front of lake, first example with white skies and water, second example well exposed using external light
Horizons Paying attention to what’s in the background when composing a photograph is one of the first things most people learn when they start getting into photography. A very common “mistake” I see is composing with the horizon hitting through the middle of people’s heads. This is not good composition because it’s distracting.
Oconomowoc photographer shows examples of bad family photography. Family of five in a field

Avoid the trends   We’ve become accustomed to highly filtered and altered photos with everything from selfies to professional sessions, but there is so much beauty in embracing the natural! What happens when filters are applied is a very unrealistic look that completely masks skin tones, texture, and depth. While I’m definitely not opposed to softening/retouching wrinkles, when you completely airbrush your face, it looks super fake and obvious. I actually have an entire post with cringe-worthy trends, and this is one of them!  There’s no denying that trends might be fun. But I wouldn’t trust something as important as my memories to a photographer using popular trends that alters natural skin tones in their images. A great photographer ensures that their work remains timeless so that in 20 years you aren’t looking at your images saying, “Remember when that was in style?”

I have a friend who has a very large image of her wedding photo printed and framed hanging in a not-so-prominent place in her home because she doesn’t like that selective color was used. In the image her flowers are in color while the rest of the image is black and white. It was trendy and I’m sure she loved it at the time…but not anymore!

Professional photographers edit just the right amount so the images still look like real life. Well trained and educated portrait photographers capture their subjects authentically, without excessive or trendy retouching. Look for images where the subjects’ natural features shine through, indicating a photographer’s skill in preserving genuine beauty.

You can see some current popular trends in the first two images below, the first being “dark and moody” (orange oompa-loompa skin tones) and the second being “light and airy” (ghostly white skin and blown out, white skies when present). The third example below demonstrates natural skin tones, and a photograph that looks like real life. Which one will stand the test of time?

Three trendy photography edits demonstrated on image of four year old girl

Consistency in Style  Every great photographer has a style that’s recognizable in all their work, whether they’re photographing a newborn, family, or senior portraits; it should be consistent. Natural light, candid portraits, timeless props, whatever style the photographer is known for, should remain consistent throughout the body of work you’re discovering online. Why is it important? Consistency allows you peace of mind that you’ll be getting what you pay for. If you are drawn to some of the work you see on a photographer’s site, but not all of it, you should be concerned. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be getting exactly what you are imagining when there is inconsistency.  

Expressive Portraits with Storytelling Elements The difference between what makes good vs. great portrait photography is often the subjects’ expressions. A great photographer captures the subject’s personality and emotions, creating portraits that tell a story. You can usually tell if the subject is in a natural pose or if it looks forced and uncomfortable. For example, if siblings are not used to wrapping their arms around each other, and the photographer forces this pose, it won’t come across as genuine.

Continual Improvement It takes years, even decades, to become a great portrait photographer, and it never stops with just learning the functions of the camera. A great portrait photographer commits to lifelong learning and improvement. I don’t claim to know everything, and I make my share of mistakes, too, but I am committed to learning all I can from them. I hope this article helps you, too!

Great Portrait Photographer In Oconomowoc, WI

As a portrait photographer, I go beyond just ‘good’ – I aim for greatness in capturing the cherished moments of your family. Let’s create images that bring you joy every day, transporting you back to those heartwarming moments. Join me for a session where your family’s story comes to life. Contact me today to get started! I can’t wait to hear from you.

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