How to make these photos more professional


TPF Noob!
Dec 14, 2015
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I recently purchased a Nikon D7200 with a 18-140mm (f3.5-f5.6) lens and I'm eager to learn! I've been playing around, and reading up on all of the different settings. I feel like I have a decent handle on the basics. I usually shoot in Aperture priority, unless I'm photographing moving subjects, in which case, I switch to Shutter Priority. I'm not confident enough yet to switch to Manual!

I've also signed up for a photography class dealing with exposure. I'm curious if anyone has some advice for me on how to take these photos from good to great. The following pictures I took have both been edited in Nikon's Capture One program, mostly just increasing exposure and saturation.

Thoughts on what I could have done differently? The first pic was taken at sunrise, so obviously I didn't have much light. The second one was on a bridge on a cloudy rainy day.

Should I be using flash?

Thanks in advance everyone!


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Both are way out of focus.

It may have been cold when you took them, but she needs to get her hands out of her sleeves.
I don't know much about flash just yet, but I think that's generally used in controlled environments.

But, this is basically what I've come up with not just a list for you, but a reminder for me as well:

1. make sure camera is steady or supported in some way
2. get off of auto mode
3. go with manual focus
4. practice, practice, practice

Manipulating aperture (f/stop), shutter speed and ISO ins't that hard to figure out (f/stop should be somewhere about f/8 or lower if lighting is really bad, ISO should be 100 if possible and shutter speed needs to be adjusted to allow for proper exposure). Most cameras have a 'meter' that tells of the subject will be over or under exposed based on how the ISO, shutter, and f/stop has been set. It might take a little tweaking of the shutter speed, but after a few shots I'm sure you'll get a respectable photo to work on editing. Focusing manually through that little viewfinder is the real challenge, and that's where the practice comes in handy.

So try it again and see what you get. And don't fear using manual mode (Right out of the box I promised to not use Auto until I learned to use manual first). The DSLR is merely a tool which needs an artist to produce great results, treat it like one (aka, have no fear).

Good luck!

Focus needs to be better as Sparky points out. 1 looks like its front focused a bit using a thin depth of field. That could either be an issue with technique (eg focus recomposing with a thin depth of field) or may be a camera issue. Some cameras allow you do dial in a microadjustment to solve the issue (or you can compensate by using a deeper depth of field). 1st looks slightly under exposed on the girl, which often happens in these backlit situations so a bit of fill flash could be used to get a better exposure, or bring it up a bit in post. The boardwalk looks squint so I'd level that too.

Personally for this kind of shot I'd be using a single point AF point and moving it to where one of her eyes (the closest one if you have a choice) is. Modern DSLRs are moe designed to use autofocus than manual focus, but pick the point you want to use
Sunrise on the boat dock, the first shot, has a cute expression, and her hands are posed in a cute way. The jean jacket sticking out on the left side doesn't "read" quite right first I thought it was part of her right's sort of a phantom part of the shot. Her eyes are dark and colorless, lacking sparkle as well...the pop-up flash could rally have helped in this situation,even at a fairly low, fractional power level. Right on top of the camera, direct flash "on-axis" as it is called, gives eye sparkle. Focusing is a bit off.

The second shot has a common beginner's issue: the subject is too low within a horizontally framed shot. Her eyeballs are right at about the mid-level of the frame, and that's too low in this case. The 3:2 aspect cameras are tricky to use sometimes...the frame is wide, but it's not very tall...and when the subject is placed this low, it looks a bit "off". Focus is poor on this shot, and her eyes have what KmH often calls raccoon eyes...again...that pop-up flash could have rescued this shot by eliminating the dark eyes.

I would keep working at your technique, and keep taking photos. If you work at it, you'll be better in a few months, better still in a year, better even in three years.
I don't know much about flash just yet, but I think that's generally used in controlled environments.

Actually, it's used where it's needed depending on the knowledge of the photographer. It doesn't matter if you're in the studio, at an event, or shooting outdoor portraiture in fast changing light. If you need it, you need it.

1. make sure camera is steady or supported in some way
2. get off of auto mode
3. go with manual focus
4. practice, practice, practice

Manual focus isn't always better. That depends on the subject, the situation, the camera settings, and the camera's focusing abilities. I've shot at times where it's too dark for me to focus but a camera with a flash and focus assist light will get the job done perfectly. I've even shot when a camera without a focus assist light would get the job done better than I could. But then I've shot in complete darkness where you can't see if the photo is focused until after the picture is taken so it's a matter of small changes and test shots to get the picture focused in.
Thoughts on what I could have done differently? The first pic was taken at sunrise, so obviously I didn't have much light. The second one was on a bridge on a cloudy rainy day.

Should I be using flash?
In #1 using fill flash would help. I think the focus area missed her face as well. I tried to see where the focus was, but that information is missing in your shots.

In #2 the white balance looks off. You can turn on the focus area indicator for each of these shots to see where your camera focused, and just looking at the photograph, I am guessing the focus area was not on your subject's face.
Very gentle, intelligent looking girl. I like the poses you chose as they add drama and reality to her youth. I agree on the focus but it doesn't kill the photo', just more dramatic looking if in sharp focus. Don't be afraid of on camera flash for fill, it works great in those situations. I also like the fact you used center weighted metering in the first one. I also like your leading lines in the second one. You could crop some on the 2nd but it will probably goof up the look you were after. I tried a few different crops and did not like them.

Shots like this (2nd one) work well with single point focus AFS, you used AFC which is for moving subjects. Pressing the shutter down half way you will see a single focus square, place that on the eye until it locks / beeps (you will see a solid circle in lower left of view finder when it locks), while still holding the shutter half way down compose subject in frame and then press shutter button all the way down. In in AFS you can also move those focus squares around. You may have done some of this but your shutter fired at 1/15th and if hand holding, it more than likely will look like this, even with a VR lens. You have to be real steady at that speed. I can't do it, I miss every time at those shutter speeds unless on a tripod. Other's can do it, or so they say but not me.

Pretty good guide
Autofocus guide

Video explaining focus mode in simple way and very thorough.
"I've also signed up for a photography class dealing with exposure. I'm curious if anyone has some advice for me on how to take these photos from good to great."

How to take these specific photos from "good" to "great" is now a matter of software.

The photos have been taken and there is little you can do to change the actual image from the camera without resorting to software. Depending on how you see the process of photography as it relates to digital imaging ( and photographic imagining), you are faced now with either the greatest benefit or the most significant detriment to your process as a photographer.

The "greatest benefit" school of thought is that your digital image is never a completed product. Using more powerful software can continue to alter and shape the image in ways which had previously been difficult, if not impossible, to manage with analog film. It is now only a matter of what you choose to do to refine the existing image that matters.

Head to you tube and browse the videos for a very common piece of software such as PhotoShop or Lightroom. It shouldn't take long before you get the idea the image in its most basic form - as taken from your camera and presented as a RAW data file on your computer monitor - is merely a recipe card for how to bake a cake. The RAW file and the image it presents will tell you whether you are going to create an angel food cake or a devil's food cake or a bundt cake. Taking your shots in particular, you would want to mix portraits with landscapes and work with both to create a whole product.

Notice how the software can reshape the individual bits of your image and turn "blah" into "bingo!". Software will allow you to correct many of the issues with exposure on both a global and a discrete level. Colors can be remixed with software and subjects can be made to show more luminance and more vibrance. So on and so on. That is what you can do with an existing file. This is all you can do with your existing files.

The "detrimental" side to this is found in several issues. First, the most powerful software is often the more expensive software. That means your investment in photographic gear does not stop with a camera and a lens. Nor does your learning process cease once you have aperture and shutter priority under your belt.

The more powerful the software, the more there is to learn and to master. The more powerful the software, the longer it will take for most people to gain an upper hand over the software. As with your camera, you will be on a continual learning curve. Your image is never completely baked and frosted, ready to serve, but rather ready for another go in the oven in six month's or six year's time. Just as with your camera, what you do today will not be as complete or as "professional" as what you may do tomorrow.

That, though, is all you can do with these particular photos. They are finished as far as what you can do without software.

Making your photos "more professional" begins with patience. No one starts off by taking professional grade photos. No one.

Owning more expensive gear does not automatically make your shots more professional. Learning how best to control the equipment you have is your first step toward turning out better images today than you did yesterday. As with the learning process of imaging software, what you turn out today is unlikely to be as good as what you may turn out in six month's or one year's time.

"Professional"? AAA ball is much better than college ball but it is in no way the same quality as professional ball. Strive for what you can attain and don't worry about the rest. Professionals do this for a living and their investments are paid for by their production. Unless you intend to do this as a life's work, do what most other hobbyists do. Which is, accepting you do not have the money invested in gear and time and assistants, etc. to turn out "professional" quality photographs. And that advancing your skills will require time and experience.

Take these shots and hold onto them. You cannot now do anything with these images that doesn't require software.

Be patient and learn. Learn mostly by doing. Strive to make every shot better than the last. Never take just one shot and assume it is the shot and there are no other or no better shots which can be taken.

If you wish to improve your photography, there are multiple paths to achieve that goal. They have been widely covered in the archives of the forum. Read those archives. They will be more helpful than a critique of one or two shots.

As you can see, many people will present many ideas for how they would have taken your one shot. Learn from others but develop your own skills and, possibly, even, your own style of photography.

Unless you are going to digitally manipulate these images with software, set these shots aside. Come back to them in six months and after one year's time and notice what you feel you could have or would have done differently after you have gained some experience with your camera, your models/subjects posing/positioning, your photographic imagination and your eye for an image.

If you come back to these shots at those times and feel you could not have done any better, fine. You would, though, be the very rarest of photographers if you do not see many of the flaws and coulda'been alternatives in these images for yourself.

You learn photography by experiencing photography. Both your own and that of others. Take your time to learn and you will eventually see where you need to head. But, for now, these shots are done.
As a fellow newbie - here's my best tips based on what I've learned hanging out here.

Practice for focus - look up in the manual how to set your focus point and pick just one. Take a bunch of shots in a row, double check where your set focus point is located. Put it on an eye if possible.

To switch from an auto mode to manual, try this - set it on auto. Press the button half way down to focus, on my camera, which is a canon, just under the picture in the view finder it shows me what settings it's going to take the picture at. Read those numbers, go to manual and input them. Then take a shot, adjust one of the numbers, take another shot. I picked one setting first. For example, shutter speed, change just that without moving yourself or the camera. Take the same shot 5 different times with different speeds. Then look at the pictures. You'll start to get a feel for when and how to adjust that setting. Once you get comfortable with a setting, pick a different one - ISO, appeture, etc. Practice adjusting one at a time and seeing what happens and what you like.

I'm not a fan of the built in camera flash, so my first purchase after my camera, was a flash. I wanted one that I could adjust the angle of the flash so I could bounce the light. I wanted to be able to control how much flash I used on any shot. I think the first shot could have benefited from a fill flash, but not the built in flash if your camera has that.

The other setting I played with first was white balance. If your camera has preset white balance settings you can start with those. You'll be amazed how much of a difference they can make.
RE: software. On a slight focusing miss, like shot #1, you can use Photoshop and select the face outline, and use some Unsharp Masking, or Sharpen, or Smart Sharpen on the face, then Fade that to about 40%, then repeat that twice, or even three additional times, for a total of three, or four gentle sharpening applications. Then, reduce the display size of the photo, and apply the needed level of sharpening and so on to the final image file: the net effect is one of greatly increasing the sharpness of the slightly out of focus face, and you can "rescue" many mis-focused shots of people by using this process of differentially sharpening two areas.

On dark eyes: Lightroom's Iris Enhance tool is pretty useful to lighten up the eyes. I will often also use the Dodge tool on the colored area of the eyeballs, to add a bit of definition and differentiation to the eyes; again, once the photos are shrunken down to normal viewing sizes, this enhancing makes photos look better. I've even gone so far as to paint-on or clone-on fake catchlights onto eyeballs.

There's a lot that software can do.
To add to all the excellent advice in this thread:

To make these more professional, concentrate on three basic things apart from the model itself: composition, background and last but not least light.

Composition: learn how to place your subject in a frame, how to fill the frame with the subject and how to choose the right proportions.

Backgound: learn how to choose a background that enchances the photo, does not distract the viewer, has complimenting color scheme and proper contrast

Light: learn about how to use light, this is the most important: intensity, direction, type, colour. Proper quality light is a must if you want it to look professional.

It is impossible to get a comprehensive advice on these topics on a forum, you need to read a good book or two on the subject. There are lots of good books around, learning basics is easy and very helpful, to master it is more difficult, but at least you will not be wandering in the dark.
Thank you all so much! Seriously, very helpful! Do you think I could benefit from purchasing a speedlight? How hard are they to learn? I've been googling info on them, but I'm curious what everyone's thoughts are? Thanks again!
YES--you could easily benefit from buying a speedlight! Learning to use one has never been easier than it is today, in this, the d-slr age. It's easy to shot a shot, review the LCD and histogram, and determine in about 3 seconds if you need to "add light" or top "subtract light", to optimize the exposure. Because of the histogram/instant review capabilities we now have, even a cheap manual-power-only speedlight can give good results with just a little bit of fine-tuning of exposures.

A LOT of the time outdoors, you will find that a 1/16 to 1/4 power flash pop can do a lot for your photos.

Indoors, a speedlight can open whole new worlds as far as bringing better lighting to many situations.
Yes, I would absolutely recommend getting a speedlight and learning how to use it. For me, a great photographer is one that can get a great shot anywhere, under any conditions. All-natural light photographers are very limited in when and where they take pictures. That doesn't mean that the photos they do get aren't amazing...many are. But they all require a great deal of planning and a little luck. But learning to use a speedlight is one more tool that can help you when the light isn't perfect and you need to get the shot anyway...which, in my experience, is about 90% of the time.

There is definitely a huge learning curve, though, so if you aren't into reading/studying/practicing, it's probably not the right choice. But then photography as a whole probably isn't right for someone like that either! Flash definitely changed my photography more than any new lens ever did, and I think a prime lens and a flash are the first two things a photographer should invest in.

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