Master Class
Want To Turn Pro

Photos © 2003, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

How many times have I heard people tell me that they want to quit their jobs and become professional photographers? This is always followed by, "How do I know when I'm ready to quit my full-time job and become a photographer?"

"You're not," I tell them. "If you have to ask, you're not ready. You should quit your full-time employment and switch to being a professional photographer only when you have no other choice. Only when you know that there's no other way. Only when your daytime job is keeping you from making more money through your photography than you can make doing your old job."


When I was still a kid wanting to get married and at the same time get into photography full-time, my future mother-in-law took me to see her former boss, Roy Stryker, for advice. I wanted to know what school to go to. How should I begin? Stryker, by the way, was the leading force behind some of this world's greatest images being created during the depression years.

Some Good Advice
His advice to me at that time (back in the late 1940s) was to simply go out and do it! Find out if you really like it. Find out if you're really good. Go to the school of hard knocks. Then, when you get stuck because you don't know enough to make any further progress, you'll know what you need to learn. You'll find the person who can teach you those things. And you'll understand and appreciate what that person is teaching you.


I believe in his philosophy to this day. At the same time, I know that today more and more professionals are sharing their techniques with others. So, now you really don't have to wait until you get "stuck" to find out how to make progress. Through magazine articles like this one and through educational websites you can learn while you earn...and never really get stuck. So, with this in mind I'll share some of my pro techniques that I believe you can use regardless of the subjects you're photographing.

Here's how to place people in an indoor environmental photograph and still have the subjects stand out more than the background. In all three of these first pictures I used a wide angle 17-35mm lens on a Canon EOS 10D digital camera. The technique I use for environmentals is to keep the subject close to the lens and let the background become incidental. One of the great things about wide angle lenses is that the size of objects drop off quickly as they are farther from the camera. So, I always try to bring my subjects as far from the background as possible and as close to the lens as possible.


The next thing to decide is whether or not the area between the subject and the background is important to the photograph. In the first example of the bride and groom in church, only the stained glass window and the couple were important (Photo 1). Certainly, detail in the pews behind them was not nearly as important as good color saturation in the window. To achieve that with film I would take an exposure meter reading by the window, turning the meter toward the window and seeing what the meter reads. Then, I'd set my exposure for one f/stop less than what the meter calls for--this would help me to get great color saturation in the glass.


With my digital camera I just zoomed in to let the window fill the frame, let the camera figure out the exposure, and then set my camera manually one f/stop below that. I shot again and loved the results.

Now that I knew what exposure I needed, I set my Quantum T2D flash (their digital version of the QFlash) to match the f/stop. I placed a second light behind the couple to backlight her veil. I had that flash on as low a power as I could get. A light coming through from behind and pointed toward the camera always appears brighter than you might expect. This second light was triggered by Quantum's FreeWire attachment on top of my camera, allowing me to fire both flashes simultaneously without having a cord connecting them.


I didn't use a bare-bulb flash on either of the two flashes, because I didn't want the flashes to light up any more of the pews than was necessary. The area between the couple and the window went completely dark, exactly how I intended the photograph to look.

Here the environment in which she's standing is definitely an integral part of the photograph (Photo 2). So, the exposure in this case was based upon the ambient light in the room. Fortunately the window (just out of view in the picture) kept the piano area of the room from going dark. There was a second window to the left of the
fireplace that gave me additional ambient light from that direction.


To light the bride I took the reflector off my Quantum flash and used the soft light of the bare bulb to augment the ambient light on her face and gown. Again, with Quantum's TTL adapter on top of my 10D I was able to dial-in how I wanted the power of the flash to relate to the f/stop that I was using. In cases where the room has subtle indoor ambient light as we had here, I simply dialed in that I wanted the flash to be one f/stop less and it ended up appearing as if there had been no extra light added.

When compared with the same photograph made entirely with ambient light, there are many subtle differences (Photo 3). Which is better? I leave that up to you. I definitely see benefits to each of the techniques. This photograph, entirely unretouched, shows you how I toned down the furniture in the foreground of the previous picture to keep the attention on the bride.


Too many times, I'm afraid, the whole purpose of a photograph is often lost in an attempt to show too much in the viewfinder (Photo 4). In this photograph of the interior of the home, for instance, I had to carefully compose the image with my 17-35mm wide angle lens to include enough of the room to tell the story, but not so much that it would detract from the bride.

I used the two windows to light the background and frame the subject. The furniture adds depth to the photograph.

I can't believe how simple digital cameras allow you to determine exposure in instances like these. I set the white balance to flash. I set the ISO rating to 400, taking advantage of the ambient light. I set the lens to aperture priority (f/8 to achieve depth of field) and let the camera do the rest. With the incredible assistance of Quantum's accessories, the amount of flash was automatically generated to match the ambient light. An extension cord from the camera to my digital flash allowed me to place the light several feet from the camera. It lit the bride perfectly without over lighting the furniture in the foreground.


With the controls we now have available to us by all the manufacturers currently working in the digital arena is it any wonder that it's become so easy to balance flash to ambient light without even needing an exposure meter? Just look at the picture on the back of the camera and decide if the balance is the way you like it, or if you want to change it a little. Life is good in the professional market nowadays!

Going outdoors for portraits is easy. Going outdoors for pro portraiture is also easy, as long as you learn how to work in a controlled environment. Unfortunately, many photographers go outside for the backgrounds and the "ease of lighting," when they really need to go outdoors to find lighting that creates three-dimensional portraiture with little or no distracting elements in the background.

This portrait was made outdoors, but not exactly where you may be thinking of looking (Photo 5). This portrait of the young girl was actually created on a narrow outdoor stairway. There was an opening at the top of the steps and another below and it was covered overhead. This is a perfect lighting situation for a profile with a hairlight. All I had to do was turn her face to achieve my normal lighting pattern and compose the portrait to take advantage of the angle of the handrail.

With cover overhead and directional light it's easy to create professional portraits. All one needs to understand is that lighting outdoors should be the same as for any good portrait. Professional standards must be maintained wherever you're working. The simple background of the textured wall allows one to center all the attention on the subject. It just doesn't get much easier than this, does it?

These last portraits (Photos 6-9) may have the appearance of precision lighting in a studio environment. Precision lighting--yes! Studio--no! Far from it. They were created during a class session in Cape May, New Jersey, a few months ago. Location? Outside, in a parking area below some condominiums. Here's the "outdoor" setting and the actual setup.

Once again, no light from overhead. The sole source of light was coming in from a small opening between two corner walls. The background was my Black/White Westcott fold-out background. All I had to do was to block some of the light coming in from the large drive-in opening to my left and to place a Westcott silver reflector in front of and below their faces.

Give Your Portraits A Pro Look
What do most professional portraits have in common?
1. Impact.
2. Simplicity.
3. Little or no distractions from the main subject/s.
4. Exact camera positions of the face--either full face, 2/3, or profile.

Is The Pro Life For You?
Is it easy to go pro? Only if you figure a way to make money while you're on your way.
Is it worth it to go pro? You betcha. I can't think of anything that I could have done with my life that could have brought me this much pleasure.
Was the advice I received as a young man from Roy Stryker on target? A bull's eye!
Do I think that you should go pro? Only you can answer that. What's your gut feeling?

You can see more examples on my website,