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How to Judge a Photographer on Their Work

written by: Annette Pope•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/20/2011

In these days of “everyone with a camera claims to be a professional photographer”, it's hard to discern who actually does deserves that title, and your money. While personal tastes differ, learning how to judge a photographer on their work can save you time, money and frustration in the end.

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    Professional photographers” are everywhere these days, as every Sammy Snapshooter with a consumer level DSLR—those cameras with interchangeable lenses—decides to make “a little extra money” by shooting weddings and the like. With all this competition, choosing one for your wedding, family portrait or other portraiture needs seems like the proverbial “needle in a haystack”. How do you tell an actual professional photographer from a “weekend shooter wannabe”? The key, my friends, is all in the images.

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    All Photographers are NOT Created Equal

    Photography is a creative profession, and as such, no two photographers are going to produce the exact same images, regardless of their career status. Even if two photographers use the exact same equipment, their level of expertise, knowledge and creative vision are going to differ, producing very different imagery. Learning how to judge a photographer on their work requires more than liking a photographer's style, it entails actually examining the images for amateurish, distracting and unappealing details.

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    Learn to Tell the Difference Between a “Good” Photo and a “Great” One

    Anyone can take a “good” image, and people can generally tell the difference between a “good” image and a “bad” one. The real problem stems from the fact that many people cannot tell the difference between a “good” image and a “great” one. There is more to a picture than making sure everything in the frame is in focus. Numerous, seemingly unimportant factors can produce undesirable results, and prevent a “good” photo from becoming “great”.

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    Flash Use

    A flash is an important piece of photography equipment, but it must be used properly to produce good results. When looking at a photographer's portfolio, watch for images that show excessive use of direct flash. You've no doubt seen examples of direct flash—these pictures are usually of washed out subjects and dark backgrounds, or show hard, dark shadows behind very brightly lit objects. Flash use has its place in photography, but large numbers of photos with direct flash are the mark of an amateur.

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    The typical school of thought for photo composition is to stand your subject in the middle of the frame and click. While there is nothing wrong with this, per se, it makes for some boring images. A professional photographer should compose an image that shows more than just Aunt Margaret staring at the camera and smiling smack dab in the middle of the picture. In the same vein, there shouldn't be too much going on, either. You should have some idea of what's going on, and what the focus of the image is. Too many people, too much action and too many details become confusing and overwhelm the eye.

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    A professional photographer must take all elements into consideration when framing and composing an image, and that includes the background. It's all well and good to see the adorable bridal couple sharing a loving kiss but look behind them. Is the background distracting? Is there something undesirable back there, like Uncle Joe mooning the camera? Sometimes an unattractive background can't be helped, but if there are a lot of images with questionable or distracting backgrounds, it could be a sign that the photographer isn't really paying attention.

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    A photo's focus can be taken two ways—the literal clarity of the image, and the main focal point of the image. Look for both in your photographer's portfolio. Images should be in focus, with an obvious focal point. A soft focus enhancement can be used, sparingly, to promote a specific emotion in an image, but a lot of images with this “enhancement”, regardless of subject, may indicate that it's being used as a cover for bad photography. You should also be able to tell who the main focus of the image is, without too much concentration. If you're having a hard time figuring out if you should be looking at Aunt Marie who's sitting in the chair or Cousin Jimmy blowing out his birthday candles, that's a poorly framed image with no focal subject.

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    Photography is not an all or nothing, one-size-fits-all thing, so a photographer's pictures shouldn't all look alike either. There should be a variety of different angles, focal lengths and styles in your photographer's portfolio, showing versatility and creativity. The same composition, from the same angle, in the same style as all the others in their portfolio doesn't showcase their creative eye, it just proves they can stand still and work a shutter button.

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    When you learn how to judge a photographer on their work you can save yourself much frustration and disappointment by eliminating those who don't offer the great images you expect. The prevalence of websites and online portfolios can help narrow your list of potential photographers quickly, without having to spend time or money driving around and meeting with every so-called professional you find.

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    Professional Photographer Patrick Pope of Patrick Pope Photography –