Why So Many “Professional” Photos Look So Bad!

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Folio Lovers Ridge 300x198 Why So Many Professional Photos Look So Bad!by Gavin Seim (rev 03/14): I’m seeing so many bad photos posted as professional these days. People are trusting us with their time, dignity and money as they are photographed looking awkward, uncomfortable and often downright foolish. I am genuinely embarrassed. Not only for my industry, but for people and their families. They look ridiculous.

I’ve realized why these poor images are often even worse than snapshots: A snapshot is not pretending to be something artistic, creative, or edgy. It’s role is simply to be a memory, and it fulfills that role quite well.

I post this to remind those with experience to make sure we’re offering quality to our our clients. We are supposed to produce art they will want to keep, but I see and endless stream of bad images. Sometimes so-called professional images are so bad that a child could do better. People are pointing cameras and thinking they will do the work for them.

We cannot simply pull ideas for posing, lighting and composition out of thin air, with no aesthetic understanding of our subject. That is like builders throwing hammers at a pile of wood and expecting a mansion to appear. I see mothers who look fat, babies who look like Oompa Loompas, kids who look angry and dads who look like slobs because someone who was poor at their craft propped them up like badly drawn cartoon characters.

I love helping people learn. I’m not posting this to be hurtful, just to be real. It’s important that we’re honest with ourselves and clients. A doctor does not open their practice until they’re trained. A carpenter that opens a home improvement business without knowing how to improve homes is doomed to failure. Digital has not made great photography easier. It’s only made taking pictures easier.

These days it’s not easy, no matter how much experience you have. But some the best advice I can give to people starting out is don’t become a professional photographer until you are professional level. Having that camera means nothing. I’m not defining exactly when you become experienced enough. For most of us, it takes years, just like it does to become a doctor, a carpenter or just about anything else. You learn the basics first. Then it becomes your job and you keep learning.

This applies to all fields. A person should not be in business until they can make the product they claim they can. They should not have a website with prices offering services they are not qualified to give. They should not claim the title of those who spend years and decades mastering a craft, when they have no experience in that craft. There are different levels of professionalism and we don’t need to be perfect to go pro. But we do need to actually be photographers before we call ourselves photographers. We need to know the fundamentals of how to make quality images of whatever our subject might be.

If you don’t know the difference between f16, ISO800 or 1/160th, if have no idea how to light a 3:1 ratio or how to key strobes for a blue sky at noon, if you don’t know how to make your subject sharp enough for a thirty inch print, how to pose a woman so she feels beautiful and a man so he feels strong, if you don’t know what to do with the clutter in the background or how to compensate your exposure value, chances are you’re not ready to be a photographer professionally – There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. You’re learning and that’s just fine. Keep at it. If you want to call yourself a photographer, take the time to learn how first.

You don’t start as a photographer. You start learning to become one – Gavin Seim

Further Reading…

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  • http://cjmgrafx.com Joe

    Gavin – You make me laugh, I love the truth and sincerity in your posts. We need more people in the industry like you.

    I used to be a hobbyist (with an associates degree in commercial art) shooting mainly nature and youth sports, but after taking a huge pay cut a few years ago, turned my photography into a part-time job to make some extra money. It is not easy by any means, it really is hard work. I don’t think most people realize that. Unfortunately more pay cuts followed (the only blessing is it wasn’t a layoff like so many of my friends received), so I had to pick up some extra PT jobs and photography takes a back seat to the immediate income they provide.

    I remember driving into work one morning in 2008 or 2009 after a lot of layoffs, people losing their homes, etc. I was listening to this Wall Street minute segment on the radio and about drove my car off the road. This supposed expert on making money was telling people how to pick up side jobs to make extra money. One of her comments was “if you own a camera, start hiring yourself out to take pictures. You may know someone needing family portraits or wedding photos”.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I would never discourage someone from trying to make money with their camera, especially if they love photography, but what she was telling people was a bad example. No one is jumping right in to those types of photography just because “they own a camera”. For example, still to this day, if someone asks me to shoot weddings, I refer them to someone I know that specializes in weddings.

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Well said Joe. Nothing is easy and no business should be undertaken without a plan and experience.

  • Mary Lou Guinn

    I could not agree with you more! Purchasing a nice camera with a ton of megapixels, features and sold at Costco doesn’t make you a professional – it only makes someone a camera owner. I encourage everyone who wants to pursue the career choice to get educated as well. I appreciate your candor!


  • Louise

    I quote:
    “babies who look orange”

    Think you better remove this one from your Flickr then! You’ve been caught – and guilty!


    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Hmm. That’s actually a very old ISO test image of my son that I posted as an example from the MK2 when it came out. In truth that flesh tones, while perhaps slightly over saturated are not orange and the colors are fairly normal for the light that’s in play there. Time to break out your color checker.

      Next time you hunt for faults in my work, try a little harder. I have certainly made bad images before and I sure you can find a better example than this one ;)


  • Louise

    Nah your wrong. I’ve just color munki’d my monitor and its still very orange … very over saturated. I must say this now. – I have been reading through some of your posts on your website and you aren’t very endearing. If someone happens to have an opposing comment you shoot them down will very nasty come-backs. Just reading the comments on lightroom competition winner – you are very flagrant, professing to be open minded. To keep people coming back here you must keep positive and professional and not argumentative.

    Oh and admit for once you may be wrong. for example… yes Louise…that is an old image and you are probably right it is a little orange!!

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      You are entitled to your opinion. Thanks for taking the time to comment… Gav

  • http://walstonphoto.com Royce Walston

    Gavin, I’m not sure ranting about the quality of work out there will do much good. It will certainly draw viewers and traffic. Photography is an industry with low barrier to entry, we have all experienced that. But unlike medicine, and law, photography offers the opportunity for the client to see the potential outcome before making the purchase. If the client does not ask to see one’s work, and books a session, then that is a consumer issue.

    This is art, it is creative. There is a wide range of abilities. There is a wide range of commerce and business that can come from that. You seem to be trying to put an achievement level on when someone can charge for work, when they can call them-self a photographer. You don’t get to make that call, the customer does.

  • http://www.photographybyjeremyberkson.co Jeremy

    Mr. Seim,
    Thank you for this write-up. I agree wholeheartedly. The camera doesn’t ‘make’ the photographer. It is only an extension of the creative or not so creative genius behind the camera. I see ‘snapshots’ all the time of people horribly posed and lit, with tangency everywhere. I’m not saying I am any better than your average Joe, but I am saying that certain things need to be addressed in the field and during post. I love reading your posts and emulating your style among others in this industry. And I hope to one day take a workshop with you and get some face time. Til then, kudos on all your sharing and skill.
    Jeremy (an emerging ‘professional’)

  • Don

    Well done and written.

    BTW, that photo of your baby does not look orange to me. Slightly saturated, yes.

  • http://ninabeheim.com nina beheim


    This is why I went the extra steps to get my CPP from PPA. When folks ask what is “CPP”, I can explain the knowledge test, and more so, the grueling portfolio review to ensure I can supply the appropriate image for requirements, e.g. closed loop, open loop, 3:1 ratio, etc. I took my test when you had to know both film AND digital. Best move I’ve made in a long time.

  • Rebecca Behrent

    Some of the comments here are very old . . . but, here goes. Owning the best camera does not make you a great photographer any more than owning paint brushes and canvas will make you a great artist. You have to learn to see. You have to understand why something moves you, while something else doesn’t. You need to understand some art and design principles – what makes a good composition, how color works, etc.. What are you saying through your photos that’s new and interesting? Are you just repeating the same old cliches you’ve seen somewhere else? What new insight(s) do you have to offer about a subject? Why is it worth the time for me to take a look at an image you’ve produced? Most people taking photos, or painting something, don’t really think about WHY they are making a photo or painting something. Something may be “pretty” – but if you’ve nothing to offer beyond “pretty”, most of the time you will create a mediocre piece. That’s because “pretty” is pretty common! There are a million “pretty” photos out there that fail to stir emotions in people because they have nothing new to say. “Pretty” is not enough to carry a work 99% of the time. There’s got to be something beyond that which conveys such a new concept, or stirs such emotion or thought, that the piece is elevated beyond the common to new ground. It is then that you have something truly new and creative.