{photography} FAQ3 : What should a paying photography client know about a technically accurate photograph?

What is considered a technically accurate photograph is a tricky question because the more in depth you learn photography, the more factors exist that influence a photograph’s technical accuracy.  As a paying client though, you should know whether you are purchasing quality images and if your photographer did their job!  So, what exactly is a technically accurate photograph?

A technically accurate photograph in its most basic assessment should have proper white balance, be sharp on the image’s primary object of interest (your baby’s eyes should be in focus in her portrait for example), be properly exposed (not too bright or dark), effectively use available or the absence of light to compose.  I will briefly elaborate on each factor without being too technical in the hopes that a layperson or normal client can easily understand.

  • White balance.  Photographs capture light and how light reflects or creates color.  Light has color.  Daylight tends to be warm (more yellow) and light in the shade or late afternoon tends to be cooler (more blue).  Indoor lighting is often warm (very yellow).  Certain cameras also produce images with a stronger green or red overall color (aka tint).  A photographer needs to know how to adjust their camera for these different temperatures of light and camera imbalances to produce an image that does not have color cast.  Whites should appear white in the photograph unless there is some creative reason for the color cast. For instance, a white T-shirt being worn during a beach sunset would have a yellow tint in real life as it reflects the sun’s golden rays.  However, a white T-shirt being worn inside your home at night should probably appear white and not yellow.  Achieving proper white balance by eye (not relying on software calibration) takes many years of experience and is almost a lost art now but it can be done!

Left: White Balance is too warm/yellow and green Right: Adjusted White Balance

Left: White Balance is too cool/blue Right: Adjusted White Balance

  • Focus.  The primary object of interest in your photograph should be in focus to tell the image’s emotive story.  If a photographer wanted to capture the moment of when a baby suddenly smiled at his stuffed animal but the baby’s face is blurry, then the story is somewhat lost. Where should the viewer’s eyes go?  If the foot is in focus instead, what story is the photographer trying to tell?  Portrait photography is about capturing the person’s unique physique in some creative way.  If the person is out of focus without any creative reason for doing so, this defeats the purpose of trying to capture the person’s physique.  Sometimes there are creative reasons to use blur (bokeh) such as to capture motion, convey a feeling, create depth but in general a good photographer should be able to nail focus well when needed.

Left: Main object of interest is out of focus Right: Audience can see the primary subject of the story (airplane) is in focus outside

  • Proper Exposure.  There is a limit to every camera’s dynamic range, which is (without being super technical) the ability for the camera to capture seamless information in a scene’s shadows and highlights.  Generally, the darkest area of an image should not be completely black for an amount more than needed to tell the image’s story.  If an image is overly dark, it is underexposed.  Likewise, the brightest area of an image should not be completely white for an amount more than needed to tell the image’s story.  If an image is overly bright, it is overexposed.  A professional photographer should absolutely understand their camera well enough to be able to adjust for proper exposure, their camera’s dynamic range in order to effectively convey their image’s story.

The image on the left is so dark that information about this little girl’s messy summer hair and her surroundings is lost. The image on the right is dark but the detail of the little girl’s hair is preserved as well as the surrounding summer grass.

The left picture is too bright (aka overexposed) and the attention on the flowers is lost. The right picture preserves all the flower petal details and the image’s focus on the flowers is preserved.

  • Sculpting with Light in Composition. Light is very important in photography because it can create depth and give life to objects.  A keen photographer can see light and use it to give life to their photographs.  If you were a client and wanted glamour portraits taken, your photographer needs to know how to avoid using harsh lighting because that creates dark shadows and can make the client look old, masculine, dramatic.  At the same time, your professional photographer should know how to use light to flatter your face and make you look younger!

These two pictures were taken just moments of each other as the sun was passing through a cloud. The sun was covered up in the picture on the left so the result is a very flat looking building. The sun shone through in the picture on the right and illuminates the rooms inside the building and gives dimension to the building by creating depth.

Conclusion. A technically accurate image should have proper white balance, be properly exposed, have focus nailed on the primary subject and composed well.  These are the very basics of a technically accurate image.  However, every genre of photography has their own technical standards.  For instance, in newborn photography, a baby in the bum up pose should have their feet on the back leg placed on the top of the feet on the front leg.  If you want to know more about proper posing and technical standards for the genre of photography you are interested in, you have every right to ask your photographer and expect a reasonable answer.  As a paying client, you also have the right to expect quality images.  If you understand the basics of what is considered a technically accurate image, then this knowledge will help you in selecting the right photographer for you!