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11 Photo Lessons Every Pro Learned the Hard Way

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Avoid making an embarrassing or expensive photographic mistake with these top tips from the pros. We spoke to professional photographers in a number of different genres and put together the common pitfalls that plagued them all.

Photo lessons 1: Download images and format cards straight after a shoot

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It’s annoying enough when you fill a memory card mid-shoot and have to change to another, but if you reach into your bag and realise that you don’t have a single empty card, you’ll really be kicking yourself.

It also doesn’t impress a model or client if you waste their time while you scroll through your images looking for duff shots that you can delete to create space.

Save yourself the hurt, and download your images straight after every shoot.

Then format the card so it’s ready to be used as soon as you need it.

Photo lessons 2: Shoot raw files

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There may be loads of occasions when the JPEG results that you get straight from your camera are exactly what you want, but you can bet your last bean that it’ll be a crucial shot that has the wrong exposure and/or white balance.

If you’ve shot a raw file you’ll be able to produce a much better image than you ever will with a JPEG.

Don’t chance it, shoot raw files whenever possible.

Photo lessons 3: Work around a baby’s routine

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Photographing babies can be very rewarding, but it will be a frustrating nightmare if you don’t bear in mind the little one’s normal routine.

If you planned to get shots of the bambino’s big eyes looking into the camera and he or she is fast asleep, wait until they wake up naturally and have been fed / changed / winded etc. Any other action will result in ear-piercing cries and lots of tears.

Conversely, if the baby is wide-awake and you want shots of them asleep, you’ll just have to wait until his or her usual nap time.

That’s how it goes with babies.

Photo lessons 4: Use fast lenses

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Lenses with large maximum apertures are expensive for a reason; they let lots of light in and allow you to use shutter speeds that will freeze movement and camera shake even when it’s quite dark.

Even if your camera has a very high maximum sensitivity setting, if you’re shooting sport or music gigs in low light there really is no substitute.

In these situations using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 rather than f/2.8 can result in soft, blurry and unusable shots instead of pin-sharp images with bags of detail.

There’s also usually a dramatic impact on the camera’s ability to focus the lens.

If you don’t shoot moving subjects in low light on a frequent basis and you fancy giving it a go, consider hiring a fast lens for the day, it may not cost as much as you think.

Photo lessons 5: Modeling lights get hot

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Most studio flash heads have a modelling light that allows you to see where the flash will fall on the subject.

This allows you to position the lights to give the perfect balance of illumination and shadow.

The only problem is that these high-powered bulbs often get very hot after a few minutes use.

Unless you’re photographing delicate flowers or an elaborate design made from chocolate, it’s not usually a major issue for the subject, but you need to be careful when fitting light modifiers (softboxes etc) or packing the lights away.

Avoid touching the bulb with anything that is likely to burn or melt until it has cooled for a few moments.

Photo lessons 6: Take spare cameras and lenses to weddings

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If you’ve been commissioned to photograph a wedding, the bride and groom will show you absolutely no sympathy if you stop shooting half-way through because you’ve dropped your lens or your camera has seized up.

In fact they are likely to get pretty upset about it.

They’ve spent a fortune on their big day and they expect you to continue shooting whatever happens. Reshoots are not an option.

The moral is, if you’re photographing a one off event, make sure that you have back-up equipment with you.

Photo lessons 7: Find wedding shoot locations in advance

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Sticking with the subject of wedding photography, all good pros scout the location before the big day — preferably at the same time as the ceremony to find the best light and shooting locations in advance.

Even if the forecast is for fine weather it’s sensible to find alternative locations in case the sun is too strong, the wind whips up or a freak hailstorm starts.

Being prepared in this way will give you confidence, allowing you to concentrate on getting the composition, poses and exposure right.

You’ll also look much more professional than if you’re wandering around looking for a good location with the bride and groom trailing behind you.

Photo lessons 8: Buy a good tripod

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A decent tripod doesn’t cost the earth these days and it’s a worthwhile investment if you want to make the best use of all those pixels on your camera’s sensor.

However, don’t rush into the decision about which model to buy.

Think about what type of photography you will mainly be using it for, where you will use it and how you will transport it.

If you’re looking for a tripod to use at home or in the studio then it can be big and heavy because you don’t need to carry it far.

If, however, you plan on making long expeditions on foot to remote shooting locations you may want something a bit smaller and lighter.

Small and light tripods are fairly easy to find, but it also needs to be strong and rigid to hold your camera still in strong wind and this can bump the cost up.

Don’t stint or you’ll end up having soft images and have to buy a second (better) tripod.

If you want to use your tripod on the beach, perhaps even with the legs in the sea on some occasions, then consider investing in a model that is designed to survive harsh conditions and has seals to keep the salt water out of the joints.

It won’t be cheap, but it may be the only tripod you ever need to buy.

Photo lessons 9: Master flash

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Many enthusiast photographers are nervous about using flash in their photographs, but it can really set your images apart from the masses.

Professional social and event photographers use fill-in flash because it brings subjects to life, injecting colour and sparkle – and that increases sales or the likelihood of being hired again.

If you’ve got an event coming up that you want to photograph, get practising with your flash in advance so that you’ll be confident about how to use it on the day.

Photo lessons 10: Check all images at 100%

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Failure to check images thoroughly can lead to expensive mistakes that are only revealed when you open the packaging of the 20×16-inch acrylic print you ordered.

To ensure you’ve spotted out all dust marks and checked every part of an image, view it at 100% on screen and use guides to divide it into screen sized sections that you check methodically.

Photo lessons 11: Weatherproof your kit

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Unless the manufacturer states that the camera and lens you are using are weather-proof, you can safely assume that they are not. Don’t take chances with your kit as even a small amount of rain (or sand) can cause major problems that mean your camera has to take a trip to the service centre.

There are specialist weatherproofing kits available, but a clear plastic bag can be pressed into service with the addition of a rubber band around the opening to hold it tight on the end of the lens.


About the author: Several PhotoVenture contributors helped shape this post. PhotoVenture is a photography blog for everything post-capture — improving photos, image management, sharing and more. You can keep up with their articles by following them on Facebook and Twitter. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • whoopn

    12. Show UP when you said you would. In fact, be early, your fees are expensive, show your clients you are more professional than anyone else (this is especially true at weddings).

    13. Buy a ton of memory cards, running out of something as relatively inexpensive as memory is unacceptable, you should own enough to take ~5000 shots.

    14. Clarity is more often more important than anything else, make sure your photos are sharp sharp sharp or your clients will wonder what the difference between your huge camera and their point and shoot is. (Keep in mind here that the correct amount of sharpness is also important, babies don’t need to be as sharp). The key here is ensuring your gear works as intended. Have you done autofocus fine-tuning? If not then you should.

    15. Don’t over edit your photos! People are paying you for photos of themselves, friends, family, pets, not your art projects. Photos are not necessarily art, many times I will bring my camera to a friends wedding and shoot for fun, hardly edit them at all and the bride will like my photos better than the photographer they chose. Your photos serve a purpose, to show the people, places, and events of that day while capturing the emotions of the most important moments (you could argue that’s an art but that isn’t what I’m writing about here). Too often I see people, kids, etc with no skin tone (stark white skin), no skin texture, and weird lighting.

    16. Last one, I swear! Calibrate your monitor! And don’t edit on a crappy laptop screen (note: there are some that are amazing, but know your gear, a cheap dell laptop’s screen will not compare to a similar model year Macbook or Vaio). Remember that your photos will be judged quite often on an iPhone’s screen, so grab an iPod or iPad to judge them there as well. Print isn’t necessarily where your customers will judge your photos. Of course there are limits to all of this, and there is a “good enough” point.

    Sorry that was long winded, many of those are pet peeves of mine and mistakes that I’ve learned from.

  • cacamilis

    great tips! Is calibrating easy enough? I find it hard to calibrate especially when loads of people are viewing the photos on different screens and as for printing, all printers seem to print different, what do pro’s do?

  • Zos Xavius

    Calibrate your monitor for D50 which is what most print shops use for viewing on their screens. Alternatively the standard for photographic work is D65. The best you can do is provide an image off a well calibrated monitor. There’s nothing at all you can do about what equipment people will use to view your images. Like the original poster said, you should maybe look at your images on a smartphone and see how they hold up there. Also the problem with laptop screens is that they don’t cover nearly enough of the RGB gamut and also generally have weak contrast so it will be very hard to get good black levels out of them. You can always buy a larger monitor just for proofing and use both at the same time.

  • Pierre Bourgault

    I never clear cards right after a shoot. I only clear cards from a wedding once the images are done, backed up (three times) and sent to the client. I keep originals on cards as long as I can, and just ensure I have enough cards to cover whatever else I’m shooting.

    I have a mental check list of things I do before I shoot… check and sync time on cameras, check batteries, check and THEN format cards, check camera settings before starting/

  • Lukas Prochazka

    8.1- Check if tripods legs are tight enought, I almost drought my canon 60D on loose tripod. Now I always make sure they are tighten before I use it.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    I wouldn’t say that number 4 needs to be on the list, using an f/1.2 lens just to get extra light is an old usage, there’s no need for that anymore, new sensors are incredible (assuming you’re using a 2012> camera), shooting at iso3200+ in darker environments at f/5.6 is not going to cause you any problems at all and you’re more likely to get more shots in focus than shooting at f/1.2

  • http://www.OrianaPhotography.com/ Oriana Photography

    Great tips! I think I’ve picked up all of these along the way, though it sure wouldn’t hurt to have taken them to heart earlier. #10 is a good tip I haven’t seen listed before. Alternatively, I’ll sometimes do a test print on my regular printer, before ordering high quality prints for clients — just seeing on paper can sometimes help spot any blemishes differently than on screen.

  • Joey Duncan

    Well put.

  • Joe Pepersack

    Faster glass = more creative options. No amount of ISO wizardry is going to duplicate the look of a fast prime lens shot wide open.

    If you think faster lenses are just about getting more light, you have much to learn. If you’re not getting the focus you want at a wide aperture, the problem lies in your technique, not the lens.

  • http://andrew-richardson.net/ Andrew Richardson

    #12 – Set your camera to not release the shutter unless there is a card in the body. Nothing is worse than (thinking) you’re firing of hundreds of killer shots, only to realize that you never put a card in.

  • Akira

    Did you actually read the post, or just look at the headings? The post makes the argument that the benefit of a wide lens is specifically the low-light capabilities.

  • RW

    “Lenses with large maximum apertures are expensive for a reason; they
    let lots of light in and allow you to use shutter speeds that will
    freeze movement and camera shake even when it’s quite dark.”

    That’s why they are useful, not why they are expensive. They cost more than lenses with smaller maximum apertures because the wider the maximum aperture the better the optical quality has to be to avoid unpleasant distortions at the edges of the field of view.

  • Mike

    Every pro had to learn to, “work around a baby’s routine”??? Are you sure about that?

  • whoopn

    Not dogging camera companies or anything but what cameras allow this? My Nikon says “err” and doesn’t allow anything to happen without a card. Maybe it can allow it and I’ve been lucky…now I’m worried I might do this :)

    Almost as bad as shooting with the lens cap on!

  • whoopn

    Agreed, not everyone shoots babies. Perhaps this should’ve been worded as “Work around your subject’s schedules/routine” or “Be flexible”

    A wise man once said “those who are flexible will not be bent out of shape”

  • http://andrew-richardson.net/ Andrew Richardson

    Every Canon I have ever owned has this turned off by default (I think that’s true, definitely true for any non-1D series body).

  • cwarnercarey

    My Nikon D600 has a menu setting to allow shutter release without a card in the camera. You can shoot a frame and view it on the monitor–it’s called “demo mode”.

  • David Worthington

    Best piece of advice I got when I bought my first camera was get a normal prime. I did that, and got two variable zooms too. Still have the prime and 15 others now but those variable aperture zooms are long gone. For the novice or hobbyist slow glass is fine, but if you’re serious about learning photography you need to understand what those f stops and Isos really do. Focus is a whole other conversation.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    the article doesn’t mention anything about the aesthetics of narrow depth of field or utilising a lens wide open for creative purposes – which is why my comment only addresses what they spoke about in the article.

    I guess your reading technique needs some work.

    oh, and no matter how good your technique is, in darker conditions all cameras AF systems can miss a shot or two – so if you’re at 5.6 instead of 1.2 you’re more likely to get a usable shot.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    I’m not really talking about variable aperture zoom lenses or what’s novice or pro. I’m simply stating a fact regarding what the article talks about – using a large/fast aperture lens to capture more light in darker conditions. No one buys fast lenses for that purpose anymore, back when digital was new and iso performance was bad and definitely when everyone was shooting film and you couldn’t change iso/asa for a whole roll, but that use for fast lenses is basically gone and they’re used primarily for style choices, narrow depth of field, portrait work etc. But the article talks about shooting gigs, you don’t need a fast prime to shoot gigs, I would never use a prime in that situation because it’s so limiting.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    I think @joepepersack:disqus’s point is that the given explanation and is an insufficient one. And @adamlunatone:disqus’s comment also misses critical points of using fast glass. Shooting slow glass at ISO 3200 is not going to give you the clarity, low noise, color quality or fine texture that shooting at f/2 / ISO 400 or lower. Its also telling that Joe is addressing the question in an objective professional manner, and Adam immediately goes to an ad hominem attack.

    And no, Adam. in darker conditions, a fast lens which allows more light into the sensor will focus much faster and more accurately than a slower lens. There’s that pesky physics for you… :)

  • Vin Weathermon

    When you shoot tethered you do not want it to be hung up without a card.

  • David Worthington

    Assuming I have my camera’s AF set up right for the given conditions and subject I often need the wider aperture so my camera gets the AF input it needs.

  • Vin Weathermon

    Paragraph one says ” We spoke to professional photographers in a number of different genres and put together the common pitfalls that plagued them all.” I assume one of the genres was infant portraiture. In fact if all you were shooting was automobiles you would not need to know much of what has been posted here.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    sorry but what kind of clarity are you going to get if most of the image is out of focus with a hairs breadth in focus? shooting gigs I can’t imagine that would be very useful, not to mention you probably won’t get your images used if you can’t recognise any band members.

  • Fuzztographer

    I dunno, these all seem like fairly obvious things to any competent photographer that, if you had to learn them the hard way, you’re probably not as much of a pro as you thought.

  • Liz Clayman

    @fuzztographer my thoughts exactly

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Depth of field relies on so much more than just aperture. Choice of focal length, distance to subject are both just as important as aperture.

    Clarity also comes from direction, contrast and quality of light.

    Faster lenses also have larger and higher quality optics. If you had an understanding of lens design, you’d know that a fast lens (f/1.4-2.8) shot at 5.6 will ALWAYS outperform 5.6 maximum aperture lens. Again, physics.

    I’ve shot professionally for nearly thirty years, and probably 80% of my work in sports, music, reportage and documentary were shot between f/1.4 and f/4. Even when I shoot at higher apertures, I’ll always choose the fastest glass with larger optics. They are just better tools.

    Impactful imagery comes from mastery of good tools and the ability to evoke an emotional response from your audience.

  • seasankoa

    These are amateurish mistakes made my amateurs not by TRUE professionals.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    you’re right in all respects, i’m still going to hold with my point that a fast prime isn’t necessary or even all that useful for gig photography – personally I would never use a prime for a gig unless it was on a back-up body, a prime is too limiting, you’re going to get a greater variety of shots from, for example, an 24-105 f/4 than you will from a 50 /1.2. I just think that the advice given here sometimes is often bad, almost useless some times. Simply mentioning using a fast lens to get more light and not mentioning other uses for fast lenses is bad advice, in my opinion.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    that’s where chimping could come in handy ;) you always get a message at the bottom of the screen while previewing the shot after it’s been taken telling you that there is no card in the camera (true for Canon at least) – unless you have the preview turned off that is

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Fair enough, but if you are a pro (the article seems to be trying to address newer ‘pros’), you are likely carrying a 24-70 f/2.8 and a 70-200 f/2.8 and maybe a couple of really fast primes for good measure.

    I’ll also agree that often the advice articles on here is pretty shortsighted. cheers!

  • David Worthington

    Not a single professional started out that way. They all either learned these things themselves or had someone tell them.

  • http://twitter.com/a_w_young a_w_young

    They were mistakes made by amateurs on their way to becoming something better.

    I’m an amateur just starting out, most of these are mistakes I wouldn’t make but a couple of them I might otherwise have compromised on ;)

  • KhunPapa

    12. DO NOT FORGET THE SPARED BATTERIES, FULLY CHARGED.

    It’s worse than half-filled memory card. Nowaday, you may finding stores that sell memory card within 5 km radius. But it’s absolutely no-no for battery. Even you have the very, very good luck in your every steps, the newly bought battery will have alomost no power stored.

    13. DO NOT FORGET THE ABOVE 12 LESSONS.

    This is the most important lesson of all importantness!

  • Andy

    >shooting at iso3200+ in darker environments at f/5.6 is not going to cause you any problems at all

    Except for all of the noise and lack of dynamic range. You first.

  • Johnny

    I learned from experience that calibrating a monitor is a waste of time. Unless you want your monitor to match your printer (which requires additional software). Think about it. 95% of computer users leave their monitors on its default settings. When you calibrate your monitor, you become the odd man out. I’ve calibrated my monitor with my X-rite i1 display pro multiple times, and the display was always too dark compared to every other monitor I checked (my laptop, my sons computer, my computer at work). The only benefit I see is when you want a printout to match your display, which as I mentioned, will require additional hardware/software. The i1 only does displays.

  • Laurent van der Spek

    I can’t imagine why someone would, in case of a wedding shoot, not print their photograph’s. I don’t see either why a customer bunch of crappy screens are setting the standards for you. I would stay at my own, higher, standards instead of lowering them.

  • MKLIO

    using center colums on theri tripods….. what great experts….

  • http://www.fotodavidpop.com David Pop

    I don’t have a single print from my own wedding… only digital… I don’t see the point of having an album, or other printed photos
    I understand there are many people that like to own printed photos (old people mostly), but that is not the rule nor the majority

  • CrackerJacker

    Easy answer: Retailers don’t want to have to put cards (and attendant loss prevention measures) in every camera they have on display in order for the drooling masses to be able to test fire the cameras.

  • CrackerJacker

    Depends on what you shoot. I shoot in situations that are often low-light and I do not have the option of a flash. I need fast glass PLUS the improved ISO performance of newer cameras to do my work. I would never consider a lens for my work that was slower than f/2.8.

  • Scott

    If you like the images from your wedding why wouldn’t you want prints and/or an album?

    Why let your images fade away in your computer where no one will ever enjoy them again unless the purposely go looking for them?

    If your wife is like most I’m betting she’d love to see some prints from the wedding hung on her walls and an album to show to friends and family.

  • Daniel Price

    Buzzfeed-esque

  • Andy

    Adam:

    The difference between say, F 1.8 and F 1.4 is two thirds of a stop. In practical terms this means a 25 per cent different in ISO. This means less noise and more dynamic range.

    If you’re worried that shots are basically impossible at that F stop, it’s clear that you’ve never tried a lens like that. I assure you that it is, and people make those shots all day long, seven days a week. Your worry is theoretical at best and says more about the operator than anything else. Besides, that’s what being a professional means.

  • Me

    Since you’re so convinced — without even trying — that it is impossible why don’t you step aside and let those of us who are actually doing it, to get on with it.

  • Nate Opgenorth

    Your wife okay with you not having prints on the wall! I mean come on at least put a few 5×7’s and an 8×10 or two up! Kind of strange to walk into a sterile house belonging to a married couple….just sayin’

  • whoopn

    I haven’t seen it be cost effective for a couple to see 100+ shots in print rather than in digital first. Typically they will want SOME prints but not all of them. That is a lot of money out of your pocket.

    The reason you calibrate your monitor is to make sure that IT isn’t the odd one out and that you get a “what you see is what you get” result when you are editing. While it is true that it may not matter if someone is looking at your photos on the worst monitor ever made, at least when they look at them on a decent portable (iDevice, Nexus Device, Samsung tablet/phone) you can rest easily knowing they’ll basically look the way you intended.

    Its true you don’t have control but this gives you a hope of at least a little bit of control over what your clients see.

  • Nate Opgenorth

    In addition to what others have said I would like to add more…ISO3200 on an APS-C camera is resonably dirty, its all in the eye of the beholder but personally I don’t like going over 1000-1250 unless I absolutely have to and prefer under 640…I don’t want to spend half my time in Lightroom and Photoshop balancing detail, colored high ISO noise, and plastic faces from noise reduction…if you shoot at cleaner ISO’s you spend less time on the computer and you have more potential to make better prints and if needed larger ones without it looking like colored confetti…of course wedding’s are not my prime example of giant prints but you never know.

  • Nate Opgenorth

    You aren’t born a professional, no one is…