How to Take Professional Pictures

Kate Miller-Wilson
happy couple with camera

Taking your photos from so-so to pro is about more than just the type of camera you own or your experience level. It's about focusing on the qualities that make a professional shot really shine and trying to create those elements in your own work. Pro-level photography takes practice, but there are a few steps you can take to improve your image making instantly.

1. Start With the Best Gear You Have

Taking the best picture starts with using your best camera and lens. If that's your phone or a point-and-shoot, that's okay. You don't need to run out and buy a new DSLR right away. However, if you already have a DSLR, it's time to break it out. Think of your camera equipment like an artist's paints and brushes. You can make gorgeous art with anything, but it helps to use the best tools you have.

In the case of a DSLR, this usually means the camera body and the lenses. If all you have so far is a kit lens, you can make astounding images with that. However, if you have some prime or fixed focal length lenses or higher end zooms, go for those.

2. Get to Know Your Camera

getting to know your camera

Having great gear gets you part of the way to pro, but you really need to know your camera inside and out to be able to use it well. Take time to practice shooting in a variety of situations and using different settings.

Read Your Manual

A camera manual may not be the most fascinating reading out there, but it's important for learning the features of your camera. Take some time to at least skim to learn the features and settings. Are there different options for focusing? How about viewing an image before you shoot it? Learn what your camera can really do.

Take It off Auto Mode

It may seem intimidating, but take your camera out of auto mode. In auto mode, the camera makes the creative choices for you. Putting your camera in one of the manual modes, such as aperture priority, shutter priority, or full manual, lets you have creative control.

Play With Settings

Try changing things around. Worried about getting confused? Don't be. Most modern cameras allow you to revert to the factory settings at any time. This frees you to play with the way your camera focuses and meters the light, the number of shots it takes at a time, and much more. Experimenting with these options lets you learn what helps you shoot the best photos you can.

3. Identify Your Focal Point

One main difference between amateur and professional looking photos is that the pro shots always have a clear focal point. Instead of taking a shot of the entire room at a birthday party or the entire view from a scenic outlook, professionals decide on one specific aspect of the scene to be the main idea of the image. At a birthday party, it could be the child blowing out the candles. In a landscape shot, it may be a gorgeous tree. In a portrait, it's usually the eyes. You can absolutely include more of the scene, but know where you really want the viewer to look.

4. Use Rules of Composition to Direct the Viewer

Once you know your focal point, use rules of composition to direct your viewer to that part of the scene. Think of these rules like subtle arrows pointing in the direction of your focal point. These are a few of the most common.

Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a way of looking at the frame you are using to compose your shot. Basically, you need to divide the frame equally into thirds using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. You will be left with a simple grid of nine boxes. If you place your point of interest at the intersection of these lines, or along them, your shot will be more visually appealing. Many digital cameras have a setting that projects the rule of thirds grid onto the LCD screen to help you compose your shots. Check your owner's manual to see if your camera offers this feature.

Leading Lines

Basically a subconscious "look at this!" for your viewer, a leading line is any line that leads the eye to the focal point of your image. They are especially powerful coming from the corners of the frame. For example, you might want to take a photo of a person standing on a dirt road. If you compose the shot so the edges of the road come from the two bottom corners of the image, those lines will lead right to the person. Someone looking at that photo will know right where to look.

Frames

No, that doesn't mean picture frames like you hang on the wall. Instead, it means natural frames in a scene. These can be windows, doorways, arches, tunnels, or even curving trees or rock formations. Place your subject inside the frame to make it stand out in your photo.

5. Look for the Light

outdoor light

The word "photography" originally meant "drawing with light," and light is no less important to the art today. In fact, finding the right light is one of the biggest things that gives professional photographers an edge. Any time you are preparing to take a photo, look carefully at the direction and intensity of the light. There are lots of different kinds of light, but these are a few you are likely to encounter.

Bright Sun

Bright sunlight, such as you typically see in the middle of the day, can be a real challenge for photographers of any level. With practice, you can find ways to make this light work creatively; however, you can also work around it. If you can, consider moving into the shade of a tree or building and directing your subject toward the light. This allows the light to illuminate the features without creating dark shadows.

Magic Hour

Photographers have long worshipped the hour just after dawn and the hour just before sunset as magic hours. Something beautiful happens with the light at these times. It's softer, warmer, and more inviting. People look better, hillsides come alive, and buildings are cast in interesting shadows with exceptional lighting. If you can shoot at this time of day, you're already part of the way to a pro shot.

Cloudy Days

Cloudy weather may be a bummer if you're looking to get a tan, but it's a gift to photographers. The sky acts like a huge diffuser for the light, keeping it from being to harsh or casting odd shadows. However, it's important to note light still has a direction on cloudy days. If you shoot against that direction, instead of with it to the side, you risk having your subject appear dark and featureless.

Windows

Many people overlook windows when thinking about taking photos inside a house or building, but this is actually one of the easiest types of light to work with. It's directional light, just like at the magic hour, but it's available any time of day and in any weather. Depending on how you angle your camera in relation to the window, you can create anything from a silhouette to a bright high key shot. Experiment to discover what you enjoy.

6. Know How You'll Edit

Shooting a photograph and editing it are two different things, but it helps to know how you plan to edit while you're still taking the shot. This can help give your images the pro edge because it allows you to envision the finished product as you're making it. Is this going to be a black and white photo? If so, you may want to include extra texture and high contrast elements. Is this going to be a soft, dreamy shot? Maybe you want a background that is pastel-colored.

photo editing

Additionally, it's wise to give some thought to your file type. You have to select this before you push the shutter button. Are you experienced at editing in Lightroom or Photoshop? Then it pays to shoot RAW, basically giving you access to all the data the camera collects for your image. On the other hand, if you don't have a lot of editing experience but want a nice shot right out of the camera, it's better to choose a high quality .jpeg file. This lets the camera choose the information that is likely to give you the best image right away.

More Helpful Tips for Pro Images

Ready to take things to the next level? Keep the following tips in mind the next time you are behind the lens:

Turn the Flash Off Inside

This might sound counterintuitive, but don't knock it until you've tried it. The best way to suck the life out of an interesting indoor shot it to wash out all the depth and detail with a powerful flash. The on-camera flash blasts the subject with light from straight ahead and instantly gives your image an amateur look.

Instead of letting your camera fire the flash whenever it feels like it, try this:

  1. Set your camera to aperture priority and turn off the flash. If you can adjust your aperture and shutter speed manually, do so.
  2. Experiment by setting the aperture as wide as it can go, which will let in the most amount of light.
  3. Set the ISO for your image as high as it needs to be to get a proper exposure and keep your shutter speed above 1/125 second or whatever shutter speed you desire. Higher ISO numbers can make your image "noisy" or grainy on some cameras, but in general, this is preferable to the blasted-out flash look.
  4. Take a shot and see if you like the results. You can always take one with flash, too and compare them side by side later.

Blur the Background

A blurred background can isolate your subject and give your image an instant professional look. Getting this impressive effect uses exactly the same process as taking a shot in aperture priority without flash. Simply open your camera's aperture as wide as you can while keeping the important parts of your image in focus. Keep in mind that a wider aperture means less of your image is in focus, so it's essential you focus on the proper part of the scene. This is almost always the focal point you want the viewer to notice.

Focus on Focus

Nothing gives away an amateur shot like missing focus. In a portrait, the eyes should be sharp. In a landscape shot, the focal point needs to be crisp. It just makes sense. Whatever you want the viewer to be focusing on needs to be visible and detailed.

However, this can be easier said than done. Depending on how and what you're shooting, it can take a lot of practice. Factors like a wide aperture or a moving subject can make it more challenging. Take some time to play around with your camera's focus settings and see what is the most helpful for you.

Fill the Frame

The old photography adage of "filling the frame" is a great way to make your shots look polished. Basically, it means you should only include things in the photo that need to be there, avoiding extra space and "stuff" around your subject. Use your zoom or position yourself so everything in your image is there for a reason.

Avoid Awkward Crops

awkward cropping

One of the big no-nos in photography is unintentionally cutting off part of something in a way that makes the viewer uncomfortable. Unless it's done with purpose, this is another thing that can make your shots look less professional. For example, avoid cutting off the feet of your subject in a full-length portrait. In a photo of a car, don't cut off part of the wheels. In a landscape shot, don't leave half a tree hanging at the edge of the frame. Whenever possible, just try to show the whole thing or cut things off in a way that makes sense.

Notice the Background

In this age of digital editing, it's easy to fix some distracting elements in the background of a photo. However, you can save time and make your photos look polished by thinking about the background before you shoot. Is there a tree that will look like it's growing out of someone's head? Move over so that's not happening. Is there a telephone line cutting up your landscape shot? Try another angle.

Don't Just Stand There

Once you reach your subject, try something other than just standing there and taking the photo. Switch to landscape mode, kneel down, climb a tree, stand on a bench, or hold the camera over your head. Do something to put the shot in a more unique perspective. This gives your image instant appeal.

Keep Shooting for Pro Results

You can read all the tips and apply everything you know when you go to take your next shot, but the single biggest thing you can do to take professional-looking photos is practice. Shoot constantly, every week or even every day. You will be amazed at how quickly you improve.

How to Take Professional Pictures