Some things to look for in a photographers portfolio before you hire them

When you are looking to hire a photographer there are a few things I recommend to look for in the work they show you.  If you pay attention to these little things then your storytelling will improve.


When you look from photo to photo is there a consistency in the exposure? Amateur photographers often have inconsistent exposure values.  

Skin Tones

When you look at the subjects does the skin tone look the right color and exposure?  How often are you seeing photos that were shot under fluorescent lights having a green tint to the skin tones. If they have good skin tones on the main subject but the background is green this might be due to using their on camera flash.

Another color shift in skin tones is orange from shooting under tungsten lights.  Again if they used their on camera flash the skin tone might look OK and the background is orange.

If the photos are outside and the subjects are under trees, is the skin tone natural or green cast.  The leaves on the trees are filtering the light and giving it a green tinge. 

Where does your eye go first?

When you look at the photo quickly, where do you look first?  Is it at the subject or is there something distracting in the background or off to the side.  Many photographers are just not able to understand how the photograph is about front to back and not just the subject.  Good composition will have your eye going first to the subject and then if they do a great job it will want to wonder around at all the subtle complementary areas that give more context to the photograph.

Light value on faces

Can you easily see the people’s faces in the photos?  It is much easier to just point a camera and shoot existing light.  Some photographers will even talk about how it makes it real.  Great photographers can shoot using often just available light, but the light on the face has to be right.

Here it is much easier to see the Fencer’s face due to the style of helmet used here.

While normally it is difficult to see a fencer’s face, I chose to make it show up by lighting them in a special way. 

Can you see how the face helps bring more life to the photo?

When you are trying to sell something you need to be sure the faces are the best they can be and looking natural as possible.  Skilled photographers know how to introduce light on faces so it looks natural, but most important the person’s face is not in a shadow and difficult to see.

Catchlights in the eyes

Often the difference in a good and great portrait is just a catchlight.  A catchlight is a photographic term used to describe light reflected in the subject’s eyes. The lack of a catchlight, even in an animal’s picture, can make the subject seem comatose.

Catch light in action photos is just as appealing as in a portrait.

Not only is there a small catchlight in the subject’s eyes I have picked a somewhat neutral background for the photo.  This was shot at the same time as the tennis shot above.  We wanted to show how a gym helps local business people.  So we needed in the gym and them in their other environment.  For time reasons we shot them just at the tennis court with a change of clothes.

Without a catch light you can look a little more sinister.  

For the most part a catchlight will add more life to the person than without it. Not having a catchlight can help communicate as well.  The point isn’t they need to be in every photo, but you need to be aware if you never see them in the photographers work. 


When the photographer shows you some photos do you see a series?  You really need to have overall, medium and some closeup shots sometimes for visual storytelling. Your designers want to have some graphics for a background or things to compliment the layout of the webpage, printed piece or to use in a series in a multimedia package for the web.  

Citadel Cadet prepares the Sparkling Cider for the seniors who are now getting their rings.

I chose to add a little variety shot here to show it waiting for the seniors.

The seniors all run in under the sword arch after getting their rings into the quad.

All the seniors grab a glass and toast their success of making it this far at The Citadel.

After toasting they all toss their glasses at their company’s letter.  Here they are all in Bravo and smash the glasses on the B.
I just like how I caught the glass just before being smashed.

Without the other photos this doesn’t make sense, but in the series it helps to tell the story.


Do all the photos look like the photographer took them from the same perspective?  It is amazing how many photographers shoot everything at their standing height or even a similar distance to the subject.  They may use their zoom lens to get closer, but they never get close to the subject.

Giving out door prizes at a college alumni event.

Same alumni event but now the audience is listening to the development office talk about the future of the institution.  The variety is not just in closeup and far away, but in the tone of the moment as well.

You should feel like your photographer has some visual surprises and give you some safe as well as some on the edge compositions.

Focus and sharpness

I hate to even have to mention this, but many photographers just do not have razor sharp photos.  This does not mean that everything is in focus, but rather whatever place that is suppose to be in focus is and is extremely sharp.  Many photographers have camera shake and the photos just are not tack sharp.


Family enjoys working out at the gym together.

This is where many elements come together to help make the moment, but you have to catch all the subjects in the “moment” which is often their face expression as well as they are all in step together.

You will find many technically proficient photographers who meet most everything I have mentioned up to now and still after looking at the photo you are not moved emotionally.  Great storytellers will have moments that bring joy to your heart or maybe even sadness.

What will be apparent is that you felt something when looking at the photos.

The photo makes you ask questions

If your photographer does a great job you will want to know more about the photos.  However, the photographer should be waiting for you to ask questions more than jumping in to tell you everything.  The photos should for the most part do the communicating.

I can see the cool angle and what they are doing, but I want to know why and who are they doing it for.  This photo causes me to want to read the caption.  By the way it is a middle school group helping widows with repairs on their houses during the summer.

Pass the Pen + Walk and Talk

Getting people doing something gives you better expressions.  I have two techniques for keeping people engaged when I have to set up a situation and then help it to become a real moment.

Pass the Pen

Many schools love to show the seminar setting for a class.  When you photograph in a room with everyone around the table Murphy’s Law states the action will be when their back are to you if you are photographing.

I have a few moments with everyone and explain my dilema.  If I shot this naturally it will take ten times longer due to I am on the wrong side of the table when someone starts to talk.  By the time I shift then the conversation has shifted.

I ask everyone to listen with their eyes and not just with their ears.  This really speeds up the number of usable images.

Typical conference table for a seminar class.

I then ask to borrow a pen and then give it to someone and tell everyone this person will talk.  I ask them to tell us what they did the other day or what they are planning to do that is exciting.  No one can interrupt them and they need to continue to talk until I say pass the pen. 

Even if you do not see the pen the person holds the attention of the group and lets me get the photos catching their various expressions.  Usually we get some laughs and good stories in the process.
Even in small groups I use the pen to help the subjects relax. 
This teacher used a similar technique for classroom discussions.  He had a ball of tape that he would toss to a student who raised their hand to answer a question. He tossed it to the student and when they were done they tossed it back to him.  He was quite impressive with his tosses and catches.
You can see as this student tosses the ball back he is engaged in the class. 

Walk and Talk

When you get people walking and talking they forget about you and engage quickly.  If it is just 2 people I have them walk close enough to feel each other bump occasionally.  I have one person talk and the other listen. I stress the importance of looking at each other and not the ground.  It is amazing when people are in a normal conversation they might look at the ground or off somewhere rather than looking at a person.  However, for a photo to communicate they are interested in each other they must have eye contact.

Again in the group situation I designate who is talking and ask everyone to give them their eye attention and not just their ears.  Off to the left my assistant is walking along with them out of camera range pointing a flash to them.  I normally use the Nikon SB900 with the Radio Poppers PX system to be sure the signal from the Nikon SU800 triggers the flash consistently.  The flash is zoomed out to about 28 setting to light the entire group.
Here you can see the tour guide helping tell the student about the campus.  Now for this photo I am using a Pocket Wizard Plus II to trigger the Alien Bees B1600 being fired off to the right of the group.  They are walking towards me as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand: AKA assistant) is carrying the light on a light stand and staying with the group out of the frame.
The couple is walking and talking to each other a good 50 yards from me. I like using the zoom lens so as they walk closer I just zoom out.  My VALS is carrying the Nikon SB900 with the Radio Poppers PX system being triggered by the Nikon SU800 on the camera.  I am shooting with the flash at normal setting and zoomed to 200.
The flash off camera really helps clean up the photo.  Often you will have a shadow on one or more of the people.  The other advantage of the flash winking in is it helps draw the audiences attention to the subjects.
Helping keep the dark skin tones with detail is really improved outside with the off camera flash.  I can power the flash up or down on the Nikon SU800.  Sometimes I make it +1 or -1 as compared to the exposure of the camera.  Only takes a second to look at the histogram and the LCD and see what might need adjusting.  By shooting RAW I still have lots of control in post processing, but being sure shadows have detail is really important when the dark areas can be the subjects face in a photo like this one here.
Take notice that we have details in the white shirt and the dark skin of the subjects in the photo.  This is will work in a printed piece easily.  Remember I have one person talking and the others listening with their eyes.

TTL hot shoe Flash vs Manual Studio Strobe

As your VALS is walking along with the Nikon SB900 as they vary their distance from the subject the camera still compensates being sure the power stays the same.  Of course the assistant has to remain pretty close with a hotshoe flash like the Nikon SB900 because it is not powerful enough to be much more than 10 to 15 feet away.

Now when you VALS is carrying a studio flash that means as they change the distance to the subject the exposure will change.  As they get closer the flash will get brighter and when they move away it will get darker.  However, with a studio strobe they can stay further away, since the strobes are much more powerful than a hot shoe flash.  I seldom am shooting with my Alienbees B1600 much more than 1/4 power.  I am usually at 1/8 power.  I do like to use a grid spot so I am not lighting up the ground leading up to the subjects.  I like to hit the faces and let it drop off a little.