Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos


Becoming a Professional Photographer

A lot of people nowadays have great aspirations to become a professional photographer. They just picked up some professional equipment, they got themselves a professional website, they had a professional logo designed by a professional graphic designer, they have professional business cards all ready to go and, most importantly, they already have some paid gigs under their professional belt.

Well, if they are getting paid to take pictures, then they must be a professional photographer, right? Sure. No doubt about it. Because if you look under "professional" in the New Oxford American Dictionary, one entry is as follows:

(of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime

So, yes, they are technically a professional photographer. Technically. But most people seem to overlook another entry you'll find under "professional" in the dictionary. It's a definition that I think says much more about a person. It's a title one must earn through hard work, practice and patience. It's not something one earns with a cleared check. It's the definition we should all strive for over the latter:

having or showing the skill appropriate to a professional person; competent or skillful

Having or showing the skill appropriate to a professional. Competent. Skillful.

These are the things every photographer should strive for. Not just the ones looking to make a buck with their photography - everyone. We should all strive to be competent and skillful. Whether you collect payment for applying these skills is irrelevant. Family pictures, travel shots, party pictures...doesn't matter. If you are competent and skillful, you will enjoy photography and you will have great pictures to show for it.

If you do want to make money from your photography; great! There's never been a better time than now to do it. The sky is the limit and you can create a successful photography business faster than ever before. But don't be just another paid amateur. Be competent. Have the skills appropriate to a professional photographer. Know how to operate your camera with your eyes closed, be able to rattle off the shutter speed that will lighten your exposure by 2 stops, know exactly what depth of field you need, don't ever forget that a smaller f-number is a larger aperture.

Be competent. Be skillful. Be professional.

Regardless of what your financial goals are in photography. Earn the title. Earn it through training, experimenting and tons and tons of practice. Collect payment or don't. But never stop striving to be professional.

Why Other People’s Pictures Are Better

Ahh, so peaceful...oh, except for the shirtless guys fishing to my right and the stretch of houses and volley ball net behind me.

There are so many great photographers out there. Thanks to digital cameras, the Internet, lots of resources for learning, great books, online tutorials, etc, etc, it's a piece of cake to find excellent photography. And I'm talking all types of photography - landscapes, wildlife, portraits, commercial - whatever. Just browse around Flickr for any length of time and you're bound to find some really fantastic work.

Now if you're anything like me, seeing all this great work out there can sometimes be discouraging. I've stumbled upon other photographer's sites only to leave feeling like I'm nothing but a small-time beginner. I'm not going to lie, I've wasted entire days stuck all up in my head thinking about how great someone else's work is compared to mine. Even photographers I admire, seeing their success in the art and business of photography has caused me some serious upset, self-doubt and sadness. The first time I saw Peter Lik's brother practically had to talk me down from the proverbial ledge so I wouldn't just give up and find another career - and that was within the past year!

Sound crazy?

I know, I know. I'm sounding like a big, self-pitying baby right now. Self-deprecation is not an admirable trait and doesn't do anyone any good, but I'm trying to make a point here. The point is, there's always someone better than you. And I don't mean they're actually better than you, I mean you will always think there is someone better than you. No matter how great your work is, no matter how much success you have, you'll always find someone with better pictures, more success, a more impressive publication list, a better resume, blah, blah, blah.

The grass is always greener...

Well, there's a reason other people's pictures look better to you even though they aren't necessarily any better than yours. I isolated this reason after hundreds of hours wasted ruminating over someone else's "better" pictures. Now that I know it, I try to remind myself every time I start to get this way. Here it is...

When you look at your pictures, there's no mystery. There's no mystique. There's no "wow" factor...not to you anyway. That's because you were there when you took the shot. You saw the half-naked tourist just out of frame that was rubbing sun-tan lotion all over himself. You could smell the trash can 10 feet away. You just finished a 2-hour long drive in heavy traffic to get there. Your stomach was growling. You know there was a Ranger Station just a few hundred feet to your left.

But when you look at a landscape from Peter Lik or Galen Rowell or David Muench, you see a magical land of color and light where there isn't a sign of civilization for a hundred miles in any direction. You get a tangible emotional response and you can almost feel the peacefulness in the landscape. The picture is just...*sigh*...magical.

Little do you know, they also had a few annoying tourists 5 feet to their left, there was a highway right behind their back and the roar of a generator from a nearby RV was blaring the entire shoot. But you didn't experience any of that, so the picture is untainted. Their picture might not even be any better than yours, but they just did a hell of a good job hiding anything that would kill the mood and the true communication of the photo.

You see what I'm getting at?

So that's the real problem: To you, there's no magic in your shots because you were there. There's nothing new and no mystery. But everyone else's photos are filled with mystery, wonder, magic and newness. As a result, you'll think their picture is better - even if yours is just as good.

There's a real life experiment you can do that will prove this theory. All you need to do is find some amazing magical shot that really blows you away, find out where it was taken, then go check out the location sometime. Walk around, hang out...then when you get back home, look at that picture again. Trust me, it won't have the same impact it did before. It will still be an amazing picture and you'll be impressed by how well the photographer captured the location, but the mystery will be gone. You'll know what was just out of frame.

But do you want to know the good news about all this? Most everyone you show your picture to wasn't there when you took the shot, so they're going to see a magical land of color and light in your images. They're going to be blown away by your shots even though you're just "a pretty good photographer." They'll be enthralled by the mystery and emotion of it all. Just don't tell them about the ugly stuff you framed out - it takes away the magic. Simply be happy you did your job well.

Now don't get me wrong...of course there are some better photographers out there and of course some other people's work is better than yours. But more often than not, it's just this phenomenon going on. The hard part is reminding yourself of this so you don't start invalidating your own success.

You took a great picture. Just understand that you can't possibly get the same response out of it you'd like to get. But don't worry - other people will.

Why I Don’t Do HDR

I sometimes get asked about HDR (high dynamic range) images. Those who haven't browsed my website extensively will ask if I do HDR. Many will assume I do HDR or some sort of variation on it. Those who know me a little better will ask why I don't do HDR. Whatever the case, I thought I'd post this entry to lay out my thoughts on HDR.

First things first: I don't do HDR. I've never done an HDR. None of my images on my blog or website are HDR, nor have they ever set foot in Photoshop. I never airbrush, combine, dodge, burn or heavily alter my images. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I'll tell you that I make very minor adjustments to my digital files in order to get them to more closely resemble the film I used to use - Fuji Velvia. I'll also tweak the white balance on the RAW file because I don't like to think about white balance when I'm out in the field. And, of course, I'll straighten crooked horizons.

Now that that's all cleared up, let me tell you why I don't do HDR.

1. Time

HDR images take too long. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you HDR guys have some Photoshop plugin that does it in a snap, but that's still more time than zero minutes of no HDR. Also, you are spending more time in the field bracketing exposures, loading the files in your computer, opening multiple files, processing them, blah, blah, blah. Besides, the auto-HDR plugins aren't perfect and you usually have to spend a decent amount of time tweaking it/correcting it so that it looks "good."

2. Look

To me, HDR images are hideous. I can usually spot them a mile away...then I'll get a taste of vomit in the back of my throat. I know, those weird halos around trees are absolutely gorgeous, but they scream Photoshop.

3. Skill

I know I'm going to offend a few people with this, but don't worry, you don't have to agree with me (no angry letters, please)...

I feel HDR, for the most part, is a tool used by bad photographers to make up for a lack of skill behind the camera. These people are great (I'm using that term loosely) with Photoshop, but don't know squat about photography. Yep, you need HDR if you shoot at the wrong times, under ugly light, don't know how to manually meter, don't know how to use split ND filters, don't understand your camera's limits, don't know how to use those limits to your advantage, don't know what makes a great picture great, can't use light to your advantage and/or just haven't practiced enough. If you learn to be a photographer and not a graphic designer, you'll get better results without the need for HDR.

4. Contrast

Let me say something that I hope the entire world, especially camera manufacturers, will one day understand: a limited dynamic range is a good thing! Photography is an art form, and like any art form, it doesn't simply document the world perfectly so that others can see it exactly as it is. The limited dynamic range of our camera is a tool to create art that represents the world differently than we see it in real life. Photographs that capture the scene EXACTLY as it was are boring and unimportant. Constantly battling our camera's limited dynamic range is a battle no one should want to win. This contrast we get from our camera's limited range is partly what makes photography a beautiful art form. Just stop shooting in the middle of the day when the contrast is too strong - the light is ugly then anyway.

5. History

The old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind when I think of HDR. If you were to take all the best photographs ever taken in the history of the human race, I'd bet less than 0.0000000001% are HDR. All the gorgeous photographs taken by Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, etc. etc. utilized nothing more than a piece of film and what they could put on their lenses. Thank God they never had HDR because their pictures wouldn't be nearly as dramatic. Yeah, HDR is new and that might be part of it, but the contrast and limited dynamic range in all these iconic photos are partly what makes them gorgeous.

6. Auto-Tune

Ever hear of Auto-Tune? It's that annoying sound effect hip-hop artists have been using on their voice lately that makes them sound kind of robotic. It was cool at first, but then we all realized it's just ugly. Well, HDR is the auto-tune of photography. It's new, people with no taste think it's awesome, it's been overdone and, really, it's just way worse than the old way of doing things - with skill and practice.

7. Split NDs

Learn to use Split NDs on your landscapes (or better yet, hire me to teach you 😉 ). They take 5 minutes of work in the field and will negate the need for HDR. Plus, you'll get the added satisfaction of getting the image perfect in the camera without spending an hour and a half combining multiple images later. Oh, and they look way better than an HDR image.

Before you start writing a long-winded rebuttal, understand that I'm not looking for a debate. These are just the reasons why I don't do HDR and why I don't like HDR. I'm sure there are some exceptions to my arguments and I'm sure there are a few awesome HDRs out there. If you do HDR, cool. Have fun. I'll stick to my split ND filters. And we can still be friends...we don't have to agree on everything 😀