You know the feeling.
You've just taken a bunch of shots and excitedly uploaded them to the computer, but looking at them on the screen you feel a bit deflated.
You know that something isn't quite right, but you can't quite put your finger on what's missing - and you have no idea what to do about it!
We've all been there (and still can be!)
When you feel your images are a bit "meh", the chances are you are missing a key component from them. Getting great, artistic, professional looking images is a puzzle - there are lots of different ingredients and factors that go into any one image, and the more of these factors that are right, the more "wow" your image is!
Simple maths 😀
So, today, I'm going to teach you four things that you can do right now that will instantly help make your images look a lot more professional.
Ready? Let's go!
#1 Think Light First, Location Second
I'm going to give you a mantra to have in your head at all times - light first, location second. Just keep that drumming in your head every time you pick your camera up to your eye and you will instantly have a great basis for any photograph.
When taking a photo, the first thing to think about is where the light is in relation to your subject, and how you can best make use of that light.
There are lots of ways to light a subject (from behind, from the front, from the side and so on) but which to use depends on what you want the scene to look like, and what type of light you are working with. The possibilities are endless! Move around your subject - does shooting from a different angle make the light more interesting? Is there an angle where it is most flattering to your subject?
The biggest tip about finding good light is simply to use your eyes. If your subject is squinting at you or has hot spots over them (areas where bright sun is hitting them) then the image is not going to be flattering when you take the image - no matter how good those photoshop actions are! Ditto if your subject is in darkness with no light reaching them.
Light is a HUGE subject (and a whole module in my Auto to Awesome course) but to start with, just think: if it doesn't look good to your naked eye, it ain't going to look good on camera.
Some tips to get you started though: Until you are a lot more confident with how to meter for correct exposure, avoid sunny days, especially around noon. It's much harder to get a decent photograph at that time, just because of the position of the sun in the sky (overhead = bad)
If you are shooting at that time, try to use open shade instead - you can read all about how to find and use open shade for more flattering images right here.
Cloudy days are far easier to work with when starting out, just because the sun is diffused by clouds giving a softer light. That said, still try to avoid midday, as the sun will still have some direction and you won't get the most flattering light then, even if it is diffused.
Oh, and if you really want wow factor images, get yourself out taking pictures when the sun is coming up or going down - around one hour before sunset and one hour after sunrise is best. I've spoken before about how I rarely make that time of day unless it's winter, but the light is super-gorgeous then, and you can light your subject in a variety of ways.
#2 Use Your Aperture Wisely
You can add a really professional touch to your images simply by choosing the correct aperture for the scene you are trying to capture. There are two mistakes that beginners or intermediates use when selecting an aperture, so let me go through them now.
The first mistake is that you are using too small an aperture (too big an F number) when photographing a single person or subject. This gives you a larger area in focus, but also tends to give your images a "snapshot" look to them. That's because your camera will often use a smaller-than-you-need aperture on AUTO because, as it doesn't know whether you are photographing a group of people, a landscape or a single person, it goes for a middle ground.
So, it has an AUTO look about it.
The second mistake is going too far the other way, and using too large an aperture for what you are photographing , and end up only getting a teeny tiny area of the scene in focus. This is absolutely great if your focus is absolutely spot on (and I personally love the look of an image with a really shallow depth of field) but it's not so great if you miss focus, even by a fraction.
Plus, If you are photographing a person, even if you focus on the right area, the shallow depth of field could mean that you end up with only one eye in focus!
Make sure that you leave enough wiggle room by using a slightly smaller aperture, unless you are supremely confident with your focus and are happy about where and how to focus.
In short, choose your aperture so that you can get some "bokeh" - in other words a blurred area behind your subject, as this helps give some separation between the background and the subject, but make sure you have everything you need in focus.
(Note - this is general advice, there are times when you want everything in the frame to be sharp, for example a landscape, so always tailor your aperture to what you are photographing and the result you want! We REAAAALLLY go deep into Aperture and Depth of Field in Auto to Awesome so check that out if you are feeling a wee bit confused about the whole thing!)
As a totally general non-specific rule, for one person, using an aperture of somewhere around F2.8 or F3.2 is usually a good bet.
If you struggle to know which settings to use when, then do make sure you download my free manual mode cheat sheet, which gives you suggested settings for a variety of shooting situations in one handy dandy printable.
#3 Pay attention to your surroundings
The next thing that can make a huge difference to your images is making a visual sweep of the frame and making sure there are no distractions or anything pulling the eye from your subject. If there is, take a moment or two to quickly move it out of the way, or try using a different angle so you block it out completely.
Despite being vigilant when photographing, there are bound to be times when you look back at your images after you have uploaded it to your computer and realise that you have missed something. Providing whatever it is is not merging with your subject, it's usually pretty easy to remove it in processing. Which brings me neatly to:
#4 Edit Your Photos
Most professional photographers will do at least some degree of editing to their images: in fact, I personally can't think of a single one that doesn't (there will be, for sure, I just can't think of any!)
So, a good way to make sure your images look professional is to do some degree of editing on them.
It doesn't need to be fancy, just a check of the white balance and exposure, noise reduction and sharpening, and adding a little contrast and saturation can do wonders for an image, particularly if you shoot in RAW. You can read about 5 simple ways to enhance your photos in Lightroom if you need a little help here.
Taking the time to make sure that the image looks good on screen and in print is just another little extra thing that most photographers will do to "polish" their images.
If you don't currently have processing software to edit your images, I recommend that you get your hands on some. You can get RAW processing software for free from Nikon and Canon, but for paid software you can't go wrong with the products from Adobe - Lightroom, Elements or Photoshop are all fantastic pieces of software (Confused about which one is best for you? Read this) and will give your images that last bit of polish to make them really shine!
And if you want to know more about how to create amazing, professional grade images, go check out my program Auto to Awesome. Does what it says on the tin 😀
Finally, don't forget to download your free manual settings cheat sheet before you go!