How to Recognise Quality Photography – Even if you know nothing about photography

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One of the things I hear very often in professional circles is that many people don’t know what to look for in a quality photograph. When searching for a car to purchase, I ask my mechanic’s opinion on what vehicle will be the best and not give me any trouble. As a professional photographer with over 18 years experience I would love to help you to learn how to spot great photography and how to avoid not-so-great photography with just a few easy pointers. Here they are:

1. Excellent Composition.

An image must be artistically pleasant to look at, this includes balance and the use of compositional rules. Eg: the golden ratio, the rule of thirds, harmonious triangles etc. Knowing that a photographer has had the forethought to place their subject and every other aspect of an image into a balanced and aesthetically pleasing composition is the first marker of a good photographer and great images.


Notice how these compositions lead your eyes to the subject and direct a viewers gaze exactly where the photographer thinks it should go? That’s exactly what great composition does.

2. Sharpness and Blur Within an Image

Have you ever heard the term ‘Bokeh’ (pronounced Boke-ay). It’s a Japanese word that means blur. In photographic terms it refers to the delicious shapes of blur in the background or foreground of an image – whilst your subject is in perfect focus.
Achieving Bokeh is relatively easy for anyone with a good quality camera and lens, ensuring that their subject is perfectly in focus and has ‘sharpness’ where needed requires a lot more skill.
Spotting excellent Bokeh images is easy with these two questions: A. Is the subject of the photo sharp enough that I can see detail in their eyes when I zoom in? and B. Is the background or foreground lovely and blurry?
This creates an effect that draws your attention to the subject of the photo.
Here are some examples of the bokeh full image and the sharpness of the subject’s facial features zoomed right in. If your eyes aren’t sharp in your photos, then you need a new photographer!

Also notice the soft texture of the subjects’ skin whilst retaining the details. An excellent photographer will not leave you looking like a snapchat filter.

3. Is There Beautiful Light?

What the heck is beautiful light? Beautiful light is light that has sufficient contrast, brightness, softness and direction.
Light that comes from the front of your face is almost always the most beautiful light. Softness means that there are no harsh lines and shadows that detract from the beauty of your face.
Soft light also means that the skin texture on your face is not too ‘grungy’ and unflattered. It takes a trained eye to see beautiful light in a photograph, but all of the above close-ups are excellent examples of soft, beautiful, contrasty light. Here are some more.

Can you see how flattering the light is on each subject, how the light also falls nicely on the part of the image that is important and how there is sufficient contrast to make the image punchy?

4. Emotion and Storytelling

Great images make you feel and great images tell a story. Good photographers know how to have fun all while getting that story (in Oh Tilly’s case, your brand story).
When you look at an image, ask yourself what you feel and what story is going on in it.

Each of these images have either got a great story to tell or some strong emotion to share, some have both. What do your brand images make your audience feel and think?

5. Attention to Detail.

The devil is in the details, and in your case the sales. Details can make or break a photo.
Has your photographer left clutter in the background? Have they made sure that every last detail in your image is perfect? These are important markers of good photography, you don’t want something in your brand photos taking your audiences attention away from the story you’re trying to tell them.

6. Skillful and Tasteful Editing.

Snapchat filters need not apply. Good editing is about removing unwanted blemishes (and distractions that could not be removed during the shoot), adjusting colour and contrast and making sure that the final image is a beautiful work of art.
‘Skin softening’ is not something that professional photographers should be doing, if captured correctly your skin will have texture but not grungy harsh texture. Editing should remove blemishes and ‘soften’ wrinkles (not remove them completely).
If skin in a photo looks like plastic then it may be poorly edited. (keep in mind sometimes with Bokeh skin will be out of focus even when eyes are sharp this is not the same as plastic editing and can be difficult to tell apart without a high resolution copy of an image).
Image credit to Curology on Unplash.
Please note how the subject doesn’t look younger, she doesn’t look like a different person, her wrinkles are even still visible and skin texture remains. It’s just a more flattering image after retouching. Also note that I would never use harsh light in an image like this and the example was the easiest to show how minimal editing can make a great impact. The previous images are all great examples of gentle retouching too.

Editing also includes contrast, light and colour toning within an image. Professional photographers shoot in RAW mode, meaning digital images come from the camera unprocessed and need attention just like in the darkroom in the old days. Sharpness, white balance, colour, tones, contrast etc must be adjusted properly to deliver a quality finished image.
Here you can see the tones have been corrected, colours adjusted etc to create a professional finished image.

Recap: Ask the following SIX questions when trying to determine if images are of the best professional quality:
1. Does the image have great composition? Is your eye drawn to the important part of the image? Is there balance and flow throughout the image? Is it pleasing to look at?
2. Is everything unecessarily sharp? Is the subject in focus and the background blurred to help create separation so you know what the subject of the image is meant to be?
3. Is the light flattering to the subject? Are there harsh shadows that make the subject look less than their best? Is there a beautiful light story?
4. Do you feel something when you look at the image? Or does it convey a story to you? If you feel nothing and get no story from the image it’s not really doing it’s job!
5. Are there distracting items in the back/foreground? Are there distracting colours going on? Has your photographer failed to remind the subject to remove their bulging phone from their pocket or left a big ugly green bin in the background? Look for attention to detail.
6. Has the image been edited in a tasteful and skillful way? Does the subject’s skin look like plastic? Do their eyes glow like they’ve recently fallen into a vat of radioactive waste? The images should look like what they look like to the human eye and skin should always have texture.

So there you have it; a few hints to help you look for professionalism in photography, there are a thousand more points to consider but it would take forever to explain every detail. Now you can practice your skills in recognising excellent quality photographs and be on the look out for a great photographer! 



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