evaluating a photographer's portfolio / by Ashley Brown

Hiring the right photographer for your family is no easy feat. There are so many things to take into account, including (but not limited to), the photographer's style (does it fit what you are looking for?), technical abilities, reputation, overall investment.... the list goes on and on. One of the easiest ways to evaluate a photographer is by their images. It can be challenging to look at portraits with a subjective eye... especially when it is your children!... and if you aren't a photographer, you may not automatically know what separates a good image from a bad image. Here's a quick visual tutorial on what makes a technically correct and pleasing portrait. Keep in mind... art and photographic technique is subjective. From many aspects, there is no right or wrong. However, there are basic photographic techniques that are universal truths and should not broken... or, if they are, it should be a stylistic choice that is made by a photographer who has the basics down pat. "Style" is no excuse for a poorly executed or incorrect image.

Below is an example of a solid image. It is properly exposed and in focus. The color is true to life. A wide aperture was used (creating the creamy, blurred background) which adds dimension and depth to the image. And no, blurring a background is NOT a technique that should be attempted in Photoshop :)!

The gorgeous K. family... who will be properly showcased this week on the blog!

justright

Now, lets see the same image... but with a twist!

This version is underexposed. This lovely family has become dark and muddy.

underexposed

And on the opposite end of the spectrum, this image is way overexposed. Details have been lost and the image looks washed out. Overexposed images will not print well. In fact, the areas that have turned white (the edges of their clothing, the hot spots on their skin) will print as such... blank white... because there is no data left to print.

Put on your shades for this one!

overexposed

Why so blue? Incorrect camera settings can create people that are blue, green, magenta, red or yellow. A good way to check is to look at the whites of the subject's eyes, or in the shadows. Looking sickly in a portrait is never good!

tooblue

Yikes! The K. family has gone radioactive. A common amateur mistake is skyrocketing the saturation of an image in Photoshop. The result is orange skin, bright red lips, and colors that not only look crazy, but will not print (labs do not have the ability to print oversaturated colors that are "out of gamut".)

Steer clear... this is hazardous!

oversaturated

Using different Photoshop techniques to create an image that is hazy, vintage-inspired or otherwise unique can create fabulous finished products... in the right hands. However, it is easy to go overboard. Editing techniques that are used to the extreme can quickly turn a nice image into an unrealistic and easily dated one.

Yuck!

action

There are a few other things to consider.

Focus is paramount. When an image is in focus, you should be able to see all of your child's beautiful details that you hired a photographer to capture... their eyelashes, their lips, etc. The focus should not be on a leaf behind them, the collar of their shirt, etc. In the image below, you can see that the focus of this image accidentally fell on mama's dress... not Colin's sweet face. This is a pretty obvious example, so keep in mind that missed focus can be more subtle and not show up well until you've enlarged an image. Ask your photographer to see a closer crop if you are in doubt.

OOF1

Motion blur can also cause those crisp details to be missed. Note that in the image on the left, you can see all of Brie's eyelashes and how sparkly and vibrant her baby blues are.

BLUR1

How about lighting? There are many forms of lighting that are correct, but one that should be avoided at all costs is full on sun in the face... namely during the brightest parts of the day (the exception is if your photographer is using supplemental lighting). It creates harsh shadows, turns eyes into black holes, and makes for very squinty subjects.

See what I mean?

sun

Ahh, much better. Michael is happier and we can see those handsome eyes and features when he is in more even and pleasing lighting.

correct

Lastly, post processing is an essential part of creating a finished portrait. The investment you make should cover light editing to bring out of the best of your child and family. Your photographer should be able to polish up the image as needed (brightening, straightening, cropping) and touch up redness or ruddy skin, drool, bruises/scratches/blemishes, under eye circles, etc. A photographer who is more seasoned with Photoshop may even be able to remove distracting background objects, give mom a touch of a virtual nip-tuck, and more. You've seen above how Photoshop can turn dangerous, but it can also turn an image into a excellent, finished portrait.

This image of Jackson has been post-processed enough so that he looks perfect, but not unrealistic. There is a fine line! The image has been brightened, his skin tone smoothed, and his minor blemishes and scratches were removed.

edit

This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg, and should be one of the many things that you consider when hiring a photographer for your family. Be sure to review the blog/website/portfolio in depth, and don't be afraid to ask to see a recent full session. This way, you know they can provide consistent quality work, and aren't just showcasing lucky shots on their website. Portraiture is an investment, so its always in your best interest to do your research. Your photographer should be willing and happy to answer any questions you may have to ensure that you will come away with beautiful images and a wonderful experience.