Thinking Like a Pro


Pulling a trap

For a few years now I have been doing a program that I call “Thinking Like a Pro.” Setting aside the obvious jokes about pro photographers and thinking it is a program that encapsulates how I have gone about the business of photography for many years. I think it is one of the best programs I do and perhaps one of the most valuable because it is practical and all about you the photographer. I’ll share the highlights with you here.

So how does a professional photographer go about taking a picture? Does the process start before he or she even gets to the location? What does he or she think about getting ready to take the photograph? What are the overarching principles that he or she follows? Is this any different from how amateurs approach a shot? Curious yet? Here goes.

First, pros only shoot in the best light. If you think about it why would you shoot in any other kind of light? And, no, you can’t create great light in the computer. And, yes, I know what you are thinking- what happens if the light isn’t the best? Pros don’t photograph when the light is bad. Why? Because there is very little we can do with an image of something in average light when there are dozens of pictures of the same subject in great light. If I need it for a specific project I might use a mediocre shot if I am desperate but I will do so hesitantly. I will never share such a shot and I will never send it out for other publications.

Pros choose subjects to photograph based on the quality of the light at the time. In other words, choose your subject based on what is best in the light you have. Amateurs typically

Lobster and glove

decide on the subject to photograph before they even get to a location and then try to force it into whatever the light is at the time they are ready to shoot. This is how you get pretty subjects in less than pretty light. This is how you get less than pretty pictures.

I may really want to do a portrait or a landscape but if the light is strong and direct I won’t. I’ll look for backlit subjects or do reflections both of which are perfect in strong, direct light. If I have a specific shot in mind I won’t bother to go out unless the light is right. Of course, pros also often have the luxury to wait for the light to be the best while amateurs, being contributing members of society, often do not.

Secondly, pros only use the best capture. I use my best technique for every shot I take. I set my camera for the best capture possible. I only photograph the best subjects and I spend a lot of time making sure that there are not any better subjects or situations nearby. When I do find the best subject and situation I choose the best angle, the best tripod placement and the best depth of field to get the shot I want.

All of this is deliberate; I have thought every part of this out to maximize my results, to get the best picture I can possibly get. Try this next time you are our photographing. Imagine me interrupting you just before you are about to push your shutter and asking you these questions-  “Why is your tripod that high, in that position?” “Why are you taking the picture at that angle?” “Are you sure your background is going to be okay? Is it the best background you can find?” “Why are you using that f-stop, that shutter speed, that ISO?” I know, scary, huh?

Bhutanese Grandmother babysitting

The point to these questions is that you should have a very specific answer to each of these questions- “My tripod is this high because any lower I was getting sky and any higher I was missing the front of the subject.” “I am using this f-stop because any smaller made the background stand out too much and any bigger didn’t get enough of my subject in focus.” Everything is deliberate. When it is deliberate it becomes your best (why would you deliberately not do your best?). Shoot your best.

Okay, you have shot your best in the best light now keep only your best. This is one of the hardest things for amateur photographers to do. Amateurs have this amazing ability to justify keeping just about any picture they take- “Ooh, I like the splashing water, I’ll keep it (I cut off the ears and I missed the focus but the splash is great!).” “It’s close to being in focus (I only missed it by a foot or so).”

Here is the test. If you consistently show only one or two of the 20 or 40 or 400 similar images you have of one subject get rid of the rest. Don’t keep images you wouldn’t show anyone. Why? There is a reason you won’t show them to other people- there is something wrong with them!!! Why keep images that you know are flawed?

Don’t keep your second best. If you give your best images 5 stars why are you keeping the ones with 3 stars? If you have a folder of favorites, why are you keeping all those images you haven’t looked at in 2 years? Don’t try to answer these questions you’ll just get yourself into more trouble.

Pros are ruthless editors. I go through and delete every image that is technically flawed or artistically lacking- every last one. Then I identify my best ones and delete all the rest. I will shoot 1200 images in a morning out on a lobster boat but I will keep 15 and that is a good day. If I get better ones the next time I go out then those that I have bested are gone. Bye-bye, see you later. No emotional attachment, just results, just the best results. Why keep images that are inferior? What will you possibly do with them? Nothing. Say ‘hasta la vista’ and hit delete.

Okay, you are shooting in the best light possible, using your best technique and editing so you are only keeping your best images- is that it? Is this all there is to ‘thinking like a pro’? Nope, sorry, this is just the easy stuff.

Bhutanese lady in the sun

The two main characteristics that distinguish how professional photographers think about photography are that pros photograph purposely and they photograph stories.

When I am going out to photograph I have a pretty clear idea of the shot or shots I am looking for. I am not just going out to a pretty location and seeing what I can find. Nor am I going out to a meadow to photograph the flower that strikes my photography fancy. I am going out to get a picture of lobstermen unloading their catch or of the cows coming home or of Bhutanese children playing. Sometimes I get distracted and find something else as compelling but I will always make sure I get what I first intended before I switch over to something else.

Of course, there are lots of times when my intentions are just that and when I get to my location it is obvious that the shots I wanted are not going to happen. In this case I see if there is another image or two I can get that I need. If I can’t think of any image that is possible to get under the circumstances that are presented to me then I leave. Or I eat an ice cream cone. Then I leave. Leaving is easier to take with double chunk fudge in my tummy.

Hugh reading in barn

Being shut out happens all the time. The lobster boats left early, the cows came in already, its raining so no children are playing outside, what started as a cloudy day has turned into a bright sunny day, etc. So I reevaluate and try to figure out if there is some other opportunity for photography. If not, such is life.

What I am basing my needs upon is a mental (sometimes written) shooting list. A shooting list is a list of all the images I think I am going to need. This is based on the images I already have and the images I know I will need. A shooting list keeps me from shooting the same things over and over again in the long term and in the short term.

The long term I check on my computer whenever I am reviewing my images- ‘Okay, I have enough pictures of cows in the pasture but I have very little of Roger milking’, for instance. Reviewing my images allows me to find the holes in my coverage and identify what I have plenty of. The short term occurs while I am shooting- ‘Okay, I have nailed this shot, its time to move on or try something different’. This type of review prevents me from shooting 300 portraits of the same person or 45 images of the same flower.

Be purposeful, it is the best way I know to get your best images. Equally important, it is the best way to get your greatest variety images.

I keep bringing up the idea of need- what exactly is this need? To what purpose is being purposeful? The answer is the most significant ‘thinking’ a pro does and it is the main difference between professionals and amateur photographers in my mind. Professional photographers think not about a single image at a time or even a collection of single images but instead think about a collection of related images, better called stories.

Pros photograph stories because they are much, much easier to sell and the process of concentrating on a single theme or area of focus leads the pro to images that no one else has. I photograph stories because in the process of doing so I am lead deeper into the creative process and my photography becomes far more interesting and compelling to me. Shooting a story is exciting but it is also fun, at least once you get the hang of it.

When you are shooting stories you know what images you have and what images you need every time you review your collected images. This makes you pick your next photo location by need rather than whimsy and it makes you pick your subjects much more carefully. Taken together it makes your photography purposeful- you are working toward something, there is a reason you are out taking pictures.

Photographing stories is the only kind of photography I do now. I no longer try to out-pretty everyone- trying to get an even prettier shot of the same subjects that I have shooting for years and that everyone has been as well. What’s the point? Photograph a story, pick an area of concentration, it is so much more rewarding.


So there you have it. Thinking like a pro means shooting in the best light, with the best technique, keeping only the best, being deliberate and purposeful and most importantly, shooting stories. And, oh, by the way, you don’t have to be a professional photographer to do all this; you just have to be dedicated to getting the best out of your photography. Think about it.