How to shoot photos that look professional

What are the qualities of professional looking photos?

If you compare the work of amateur and professional photographers shooting the same subjects you will notice differences in these five areas:

  • Lighting
  • Composition
  • Timing
  • Access
  • Editing


Light has quantity, quality and direction. You can learn to see light, especially natural light very quickly. If you’re having problems, turn your photos into black and white. You can do that in camera, or in editing. When you do this you notice highlights and shadows.

Using window light is a great way to start learning to see light. The next time you take a portrait indoors, turn off your flash and put your subject near a window. You’ll be amazed at your results.

If you’re shooting outdoors, try to pick weather conditions and a time of day that have more dramatic looking light, like early morning or late day. Foggy days can also create interesting dramatic effects.

I have many more tips about natural available lighting in my free e-course, and you can sign up for that here:

Of course professional photographers often use extra gear to light their subject. Though it’s a bit harder to master, artificial light still has quantity, quality and direction. I like to make my studio portraits look as natural as possible.


I tell my students that the easiest way to get professional looking photos is by improving their composition. Compositional elements help you with where to put things in your photos.

Composition includes things like: rule of thirds, framing, point of view, angles, and many more.

Look at all four corners of your photo before you click the shutter. Concentrate on using just one or two compositional elements on your next photo excursion, and your pictures will look better. For more about composition, read this blog post.


Timing is everything! That’s true in many parts of life, but also in photography. You need to capture photos at their peak. Whether that’s when your kid is jumping on the trampoline or when the sun is rising. If the timing is off, your photo will have less impact.

I used to shoot a ton of sports photography, mostly cycling. With sports you definitely need to capture the peak moment or your photo won’t have any impact and people will not really want to look at it.

I know landscape photographers who camp out in the mountains waiting for the perfect morning light. Sometimes you get lucky like when you’re on a holiday at Peggy’s Cove and you get the ONE sunny day. You’ve got your postcard shot.

You have to be at the right place at the right time, but your camera needs to cooperate too. If your camera has any shutter lag, then it will be hard to get the timing perfect. Professional results require lots of practice if you want to capture fast moving subjects! Here are a few more tips about getting the timing right.


If a friend of yours is a member of a bird carving club, you can get access to artists that carve, by asking for an introduction. But sometimes getting access can be harder than that. Professional photographers get hired to shoot events, attractions, facilities and products, and photo journalists get press passes.

To gain access, you can buy a backstage pass. That’s why people take photo courses, go on African safaris, and get the pit pass at the Indy races. In my SAIT basic photography class, we have a field trip to the top floor of a tall building on campus which gives us unobstructed access to views of downtown Calgary.

There is another way you can gain access. Volunteer to teach people how to take photos at the place you want access to. It worked for Kyle Marquart when he went to Africa the first time. It’s also a great way to gain teaching experience.


After your photos are shot, there are things you can do in editing that make them look a notch above the average amateur’s photos. You can use professional quality software such as Photoshop to edit the colour and crop, but also do more complicated things like close cutting. If that’s not in your budget or the learning curve is too steep for you, try Photoshop Elements or Lightroom instead.

If you shoot raw files you can change the following settings after you’ve taken your photos:

  • file size
  • file quality
  • exposure
  • recover blown out highlights
  • shadow detail
  • white balance
  • contrast
  • sharpening
  • lens distortion
  • do minor retouching
  • and more!

You can’t change everything in raw. You still need to choose the ISO and focus the picture!

These are not the only professional techniques

Emotional impact is a very personal element of photography. When I teach critiquing, I talk about puppies and babies, but also war and devastation photos. Those are on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, your photos can certainly have emotional impact.

And here’s the kicker, whether or not a photo is “good” by the standards set out above, all that goes by the wayside when you show a grandparent a photo of their new grandchild. That first emotional reaction is sometimes all that it takes to make a photo look good to the viewer.

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