If you survey professional photographers and ask them what separates the pros from the amateurs, you'll get a lot of different, yet equally important answers.
But if you combine all their answers into a few categories, the chances are that they will fall pretty neatly into just a few areas.
That includes an understanding of camera settings, composition, lighting, and business principles.
There are other things that make pros different than amateurs, but for our purposes, I'd like to focus on two of the four items listed above: composition and lighting.
I want to focus on these because they are probably the easiest topics for a beginner to master.
It really just comes down to developing your creative eye, and all that takes is a bit of practice.
With that in mind, let's have a look at a few composition and lighting tips that can have an immediate, positive impact on the photos you take.
Horizons Should Be Level
That's because a horizon that's rising or falling can completely ruin an otherwise great image.
In fact, you can get the framing just right, have excellent Golden Hour lighting to work with, and the most gorgeous subject, but if the horizon isn't level, guess what viewers will notice more than anything else?
That's right...the crooked horizon.
Tell me the crooked horizon isn't the first thing you noticed about the image above...
There's really no excuse for having a crooked horizon, either.
Many tripods have a built-in level, and many cameras even have a level you can use in Live View (or at least the rule of thirds grid) that gives you a straight line against which you can level the horizon.
It's an easy fix in post-processing, too, so avoid that rookie mistake and get those horizons straight before sharing your photos.
See how easy it is to fix a crooked horizon in the video below by Steve Perry:
Be Careful How You Crop
When you crop a portrait, avoid cropping through a person's joints at all costs.
That means everything from elbows and wrists to knees and ankles shouldn't be anywhere near the edge of the frame.
When you crop through someone's joints, it gives the illusion that their arms, hands, legs or feet don't extend beyond the edge of the frame.
Look at the image below, and you'll see what I mean:
You don't want your portrait subjects to look like they've lost a hand or a foot, do you?
Again, this is a rookie mistake that you'd never see a professional photographer commit.
If you want to take your images to the next level, be wary of where and how you crop your portraits.
That means avoid cropping through joints and choose instead to crop at mid-arm, across the stomach, or at mid-thigh, just as a few examples. You can even just include the person's whole body in the shot!
Don't Just Rely on the Rule of Thirds
Don't get me wrong - the Rule of Thirds is a fantastic way to learn basic photography composition.
But if you use the rule of thirds for every single photo you take, guess what?
They'll all look the same, and eventually, that's going to get boring.
So, spice things up and break the rule by avoiding the center of the frame (as was done above) or by placing your subject smack in the middle of the frame.
With a placement in the middle, you can create a different look that's symmetrical from left to right or top to bottom that's a nice change of pace.
You might also consider dividing your image into four equal quadrants and putting your primary subject in one of them.
Again, this gives you another unique way to compose your shot that makes the photo more interesting (and will probably impress your friends, too!).
Tungsten Lighting = Bad, Natural Light = Good
Tungsten lighting is the kind that's emitted from typical household light bulbs, and it's not flattering for your photos.
Even if you know how to adjust the white balance to remove the color cast that results from tungsten lighting, there is a better, easier option...
That's to use natural light if at all possible.
For example, if you're taking photos indoors, simply move your subject to a nearby window or door.
That will give you more than enough light to get a well-exposed image, and that light will be much more flattering than what you get from a light bulb, as you can see in the image above.
What's more, you can adjust the harshness or softness of natural light by moving your subject nearer to or further away from a window, or you can merely pull the shades or hang a plain white sheet to diffuse the light.
Compose to Communicate
A lot of beginner photographers start taking photos without really thinking about what they want to communicate with the images they create.
Instead, it's sort of a spray and pray approach, with a whole lot of shutter pressing in the hopes that one or two of the hundreds of photos taken will be good.
Ask any pro, however, and they'll tell you that photography is about telling a story.
That's true whether you're photographing a person or a dog, a building or a mountain.
You want to evoke a feeling. You want viewers to experience an emotion.
One way to do that is to think about how you compose your shots.
By that I mean that rather than running from one shot to the next, give your compositions some thought.
Look at the scene and see how the light interacts with your subject and think about how you might change your position to make that light a more prominent feature in the image.
Consider different points of view too - how getting down really low to take a shot might make your subject look powerful and imposing, or how getting up really high and taking a photo looking down on your subject might help the viewer feel like they're flying.
The point is that composition is much more than just considering where you put the subject in the frame. It's about telling a story about that subject with the image you create.
Your Focus, Processing, and Sources of Inspiration Matter Too
In addition to the compositional and lighting tips outlined above, you should also consider how you focus your shots, how you process your shots, and where you draw inspiration from as critical factors in making your photos more like pro shots and less like amateur ones.
To get more details on these and other tips that will instantly elevate your photos, check out the video below, "10 Tips to Instantly Take Your Photos from Basic to Boss," by Mango Street Lab: