How to build your photographer's skill toolbox

How to Build Your Photographer’s Skill Toolbox

How to build your photographer's skill toolboxA good carpenter would never show up to the worksite without his toolbox loaded with every tool that the job might require. He may not use all the tools each day but they are there and ready when needed.

Do you have all the “tools” you need to do the proper job?

A skilled carpenter excels at his craft not because of the tools he owns so much as his skill at using them. I could own the very same saws, drills and sanders as a master carpenter but I still don’t know how to use them to build a beautiful piece of furniture.  As photographers, we have all kind of cool “tools”- cameras, lens, flash units and so on- but it is our skill and knowledge of how to use and shape light that make a true portrait.

This is the reason why ten talented photographers could use the same equipment and photograph the same subject and yet, you would still end up with ten very different portraits.

Sharpening Your Skills

As photographers we all love the newest, coolest gadget and technological wonder. We think if only I had that (fill in the blank gadget,) I could really take awesome pictures and compete with the big guys!

In reality, our time is much better spent focusing on knowing how to get the most out of what we have and expanding our skill level.

Going back to the carpenter analogy for a minute- would you ask your carpenter what brand of circular saw or drill he uses to get the job done? Of course not, and 99% of your clients don’t care about your camera model (unless they are also shutterbugs); they just care about the awesome images you’re creating!

Are you ever afraid a client will ask for a certain style portrait and you won’t know how to create it?

In the beginning I had that fear. I sometimes felt that I couldn’t quite get an idea out of my head and onto film (for you youngsters, that was what we used in the days before digital 😉 ). I may have known that a certain look might require a portable flash unit or two, but I still needed to figure out where to place them, how much power to use, etc.

The solution I found to overcoming this fear is to hire yourself!

Don’t wait for a client to hire you and ask for something that you are nervous to produce; instead, give yourself the assignment!

The only way to get comfortable with your equipment and different lighting techniques is to practice them. Many new photographers like to photograph using only natural light, but knowing how and when to add some off-camera flash can truly take your images from ordinary to extraordinary.

Two of my favorite books for honing your skills

Two great books that have a permanent place in my educational library are The Lighting Notebook  by Kevin Kubota and The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally. What I like about both these books is that they show different types of images with diagrams and the “recipe” if you will for creating them.

I probably prefer Joe’s book because he is one of my favorite photographers, but this may be bit advanced for people starting out. Kevin’s book has little diagrams and ISO and F stop info, so it may be a better beginner to intermediate book.

Don’t just read the books- test the setups!

I did this when I was just beginning and I still will go through these books for ideas and set up similar scenarios to photograph. My suggestion is to pick out images that appeal to you, whether it be something you saw in a magazine or online, and then use the diagrams found in these books to recreate something similar. I personally don’t try to duplicate the exact scene- it is more valuable to learn the ideas and techniques used in photos I admire so that I will have that skill in my toolbox when it is needed or requested.

In Joe’s book, one setup was a man with a fedora lighting a cigarette in a dangerous looking part of town, like a scene from a 1940’s film noir, but in color. The building’s wall behind him was in a red cast, as though from a neon sign. I liked this idea, so I played around with adding gels to my speedlights to change background colors and add some drama.

I had forgotten about this technique for a while until I had a high school senior to photograph with his acoustic guitar. He signed up for one of our “Around Town” sessions where we walk around the local town and find different areas to use for our backgrounds. We ended up at the town armory which is a cool old building.

I’ve done a lot of portraits there, but I wanted to jazz this one up a notch. That’s when the idea from Joe’s book popped into my mind and I decided to add a red gel to the scene. I wanted to get a “on-stage “ type of feel; something with a lower camera angle to simulate a view looking up at a musician from an audience.

I had never practiced this technique at this particular location, but because I had played around with the lights and gels previously, I had a good idea of what I needed to do to pull this off. Thanks to past practice, I had this tool in my toolbox when I needed it!

Here’s a look at the shot:

BEFORE: Here’s a typical type shot for reference. You can see the SOOC color and texture of wall.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.57.23 PM


AFTER: Final enhanced Image with red gel on flash & flare effect added.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.57.33 PM

Your turn! Time for some (fun!) homework:

I don’t think you can go wrong with adding these books to you library, but keep in mind these books aren’t meant to be read like a noveI to pass a few leisurely hours. Get a notebook take some notes, flag some pages and grab your gear and try out some of the setups. The more techniques you can master the more confidence you will have when on a session and a client or nature throws you a curveball.