How to compose photographs

While composition is only one aspect of what makes a picture work, it’s the one aspect over which you always have some control. It’s about balance, so we can think of the frame as a lever. The simplest setup has a weight directly over the fulcrum:


It is stable, certainly - but in a photograph stable implies safe, and safe can equate to uninteresting, boring. Often something else is done with the composition to imply counterbalance. This image of an umbrella has been cropped to a panorama. Whilst still a very static shot, the crop reduces dead space and makes it about solitude:


A weight placed slightly off-centre is sometimes all that’s required to create some imbalance or tension:


In this analogy, a simple off-placement is an effective technique for a photograph containing just one subject. In the image below, placing the girl centre-frame would probably result in cropping to a square, to fill the frame better. The off-centre composition, the angle of the chair, the girl’s legs over the corner and her informal pose work to emphasise her spirited, youthful nature:


Although the subject in the photo below has been placed centrally, her looking out of frame provides a similar - if only slight - imbalance:


This image uses a similar idea, but you could argue that the lighter side of the building acts as a counterbalance to the main subject (more on this later):


Moving on, the diagram below is balanced with equidistant objects of equal weighting:


Photographically, this would refer to bisected or symmetrical compositions. Although a frame may (often) be filled more readily with two subjects - a good thing - one might assume that such blunt placement would lead to dull or confusing composition. Dull, because it’s reminiscent of the single object above the fulcrum. An confusing, because both subjects compete for attention, breaking the ‘rule’ of simplicity.

But this needn’t necessarily be the case: this kind of balance in a photograph can create various kind of tension.

They two subjects may invite comparison eg where they’re not quite the same. Consider the various series of images online which show a black and white city scene as it once looked during wartime, or a hundred years ago, blended with a colour photograph of how it appears now, both taken from the same viewpoint. This comparison is precisely the point when two images are combined in Before/After.

The composite of the two images (below) results in looking back and forth between the two expressions:


In a single shot, we might make comparisons with family photographs, for instance, and more specifically of siblings, with the most obvious example being identical twins. Here’s an excellent set of portraits by Peter Zelewski.

Other kinds of symmetry can be more exact - as in someone by a mirror - or merely suggested. And sometimes they just point to a simple, direct relationship between two subjects, as in the photograph of the chess players below.

Note that in all these cases (and as illustrated previously with the girl looking out of frame), composition can be merely implied. An example would be found in action shots, where traditionally we compose a photo so that the action is shown coming into the frame. That is, it needs space to move into. Normally we might think of a moving vehicle, a runner, or a ball being kicked - but even an eye line will suffice. That the players are both looking into frame serves to tighten the composition, drawing our own eyes to the chessboard:


Next, balance can be satisfied with the arrangement of one larger object, with a smaller one placed further from the fulcrum:


Translated to a photograph, the subject - sharp/dominant/larger in the frame - is composed with a secondary subject positioned on the other side of the frame which may be smaller/darker/out of focus etc:


The shot of the dancers below uses the same technique:


Moving onto imbalance, scales weighted with a single object near the end will fall, with nothing to act as a counterbalance:


In a photograph, this equates to skewed or disharmonious composition, and can be employed to create an edgy, uncomfortable, exciting or dramatic mood.

Typically I think of fashion photography, where it could be a face, cropped in half, right at the edge of the frame. It’s also often seen in war, ‘hard’ photojournalism and documentary photography. James Nachtwey, Martin Parr have plenty of examples. Or have a look at how TV drama series Mr Robot uses this framing device to evoke unease and tension.

This technique needn’t necessarily use composition to achieve this - disorder and discomfort can be created by subverting other expectations. For instance the subject, centre frame, but out of focus, would achieve the same discomforting effect as an off-composition.

I struggled to find any good examples from my own work to illustrate this kind of image! It’s neither my style, nor does it apply to much of my commissioned work by its nature. Anyway, hopefully I can make the point with this photo of my eldest when he was much smaller (I should admit I applied this crop in post):


In the triptych below, the effect is only slightly applied, and done so for comic/absurd effect. Note that given its subject matter, it would be hard to justify placement any further to the edge of frame:


Finally, a complex arrangements of objects across the lever may still have equilibrium, and the diagram below illustrates how this might look:


Photographically, this refers to the majority of images which have several points of interest around the frame. Photos are rarely in perfect equilibrium; a mix of balance and imbalance within a frame is very common. After all - unlike the lever - composition is not exact mathematics, and I think most would agree that composition probably shouldn’t ever be too perfect. Here are some examples of busier compositions which still retain sufficient harmony:

 Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

In the image below, it’s easier to envisage an (unwelcome) imbalance if the lady in the background on the right of the frame weren’t there:


Where time or location is a constraint, eg day to day scenes, candid or street photography etc. situations don’t usually even allow for the 'clean’ setups shown in the examples so far (this is all assuming such a style of image were even desirable, of course - I’ve used these simple examples so far to illustrate the point). In any case, composition may not be the main aspect of what helps make a particular photograph.

The Rule of Thirds

Photographers tend to dislike photographic rules - this one in particular. Rules can be formulaic and safe: they often work best when they’re bent or broken. That said, I’d be remiss not to mention the ‘ROT’ - and it’s an easy go-to. With this idea, the frame is usually depicted as a noughts and crosses board:


Simply put, it means placing the subject off-centre, on both axes. Where there are other points of interest, they would ‘ideally’ fall on the opposite junction:


As I’ve said elsewhere, cropping is the most powerful tool of all (and is included in all editing software), meaning composition can therefore be applied/corrected afterwards.

This leads to a final aside - if composition can be employed to emphasise or draw attention to something, at its extreme it can be used to change the meaning of a photo entirely. “Cause of Death” by John Hilliard illustrates this with four images of a dead body, each telling a different story:

Cause of death.png

I hope this has been of interest!

How to edit photographs in Instagram


This hashtag means, “This is straight out of camera. It looks great without any effects or editing. It’s all down to me.”

Well, even if they’re telling the truth (ahem), they’re sadly mistaken. The camera/phone has to process the shot to create a jpeg file. It applies sharpness, contrast, brightness, adds blacks, reduces noise and compresses the file, having already determined colour balance and exposure. That’s quite a lot of work.

Also - like it or not - pretty much every image can be improved - SHOULD be improved - with some further work. Editing is to an photographer what revision is to a writer, presentation is to a chef, or pruning is to a gardener. That’s why #nofilter doesn’t really impress. Depending on the image, I’d say the editing makes up between 20%-40% of the final impact.

Editing begins with correction, which gradually becomes improvement, which then runs into creation (which is at the opposite end of the scale to #nofilter). Everyone has different views to where the boundaries lie, how much to do or declare, and the context of the photo and its purpose will also largely determine this. Note that the ‘creation’ aspect is very limited in Instagram, but I’d certainly place the ‘filters’ in this camp.

So the first thing to say when editing is: ditch the filters. But not for the reason above. But instead, because they make an image look processed: all style over substance. And for anyone who cares about creating nice imagery, why put all that effort into taking a photograph, then leave the rest to an algorithm you don’t understand? I’ve found doing the editing myself informs my photography, and my photography influences the editing.

Some of Instagram’s filters, which apply an instant ‘look’ to an image.

Some of Instagram’s filters, which apply an instant ‘look’ to an image.

Let’s think about what we’re trying to achieve.

The approach

For me, the rule is to make an image look as good as possible, without making it look like you’ve done much at all. And remember, edits are global. That is, the effect is applied to the entire image. So for instance if you wanted to darken something, then everything gets darker. Improvements will therefore have trade-offs: a good reason for a light touch.

OK - the ‘correction’ part' is easy - is it too dark, does it need cropping etc?

When it turns into improvement, it’s then about asking what the picture is about, and emphasising that aspect. So if it’s a picture of friends, your adjustments should mainly consider their faces, and so may involve Brightness, Saturation and Sharpness. If it’s a sunset silhouette, you’re looking at Contrast. If it’s a portrait of your grandmother, best to skip Structure. If the subject is centre-frame, you might be considering cropping, or the Vignette tool. And so on. With global edits, the trade-off means you have to let the rest of the frame fall where it may.

It is not about sliding every slider each way to see what looks nice. That’s time-consuming and results in an over-processed look ‘just because it looks good’. You’re not being sympathetic to the right treatment. Plus if you’re spending more than a minute editing, that’s too long.

We’ve dealt with the filters. Let’s look at the editing tools now, starting with the most essential one: the crop.

The editing tools



This is on the very first page, and not immediately obvious as it sits near Boomerang and Layout. Instagram defaults your image to a square, and this function returns it to its original shape, if different. You can crop in/out by pinching/squeezing, or move the canvas around.

When to use

Always. It can be used as a trim to tidy up the frame. It can be used more severely to cut out unwanted elements. Or it can be used to radically recompose and change the meaning of the image.



Also often missed, this appears at the top of the filter page. It’s the odd one out in that by clicking on it, it automatically adds 50%. It works on contrast, saturation and sharpness, and gives a bit of a ‘pop to flat images.

When to use

Nearly always, and roughly between 10-30. Never above 50. Be careful to press ‘Cancel’ - not ‘Done’ - if you don’t want it.



Since you can crop on the opening edit page, this is only useful for perspective correction.

When to use

Almost never. Occasionally you’ll have something large or small at the edge of an image which looks wrong, eg a face in a group photo. Otherwise, it’s only necessary if your image relies on exact angles, parallel lines etc.



I often return to this tool a couple of times during editing, as Highlights, Shadows and Contrast all affect overall brightness.

When to use

You should use this for almost every photo.



This is about how much ‘punch’ there is in your image; it’s the difference between the shadows and the highlights. Be aware this will affect the saturation of an image.

When to use

Most of the time: the majority of images need a little boost. However, with misty landscapes and images with a calmer mood you might want to go the other way, reducing contrast.



Similar to the ‘clarity’ tool in professional editing programs, this tool lies somewhere between sharpness and contrast, and gives a crunchy, hi-definition feel to an image.

When to use

It pulls up texture, so definitely not to be used on a portrait of your grandmother as it would be unflattering. But for a photograph of her hands, it would be fantastic. I use it a lot for detail and abstract images.



This gives a red/orange hue sliding right into the positive; sliding to the left (negative) gives a blue/green hue.

When to use

I rarely use this except to give a bit of a ‘look’. Use sparingly - you never want to push this too far in either direction.



This determines how strong the colours appear in an image. Strictly, it’s about how much grey there is.

When to use

Naturally, images relying on (‘about’) colour may benefit from saturation. But you’d be surprised how effective a slight reduction can be, typically between -10 to -20, especially in more moody/soft-light portraiture.



This tints the highlights, shadows, or both with a colour and to a degree of your choosing.

When to use

Rarely, if ever. And extremely sparingly. It gives the image a look (in the same way as the filters do). So as soon as it’s noticeable, you’ve gone too far.



This reduces the blacks and colours. Again, it gives a very obvious look to an image.

When to use

Perhaps on a misty scene, but otherwise never: this belongs among the filters.

Highlights & Shadows.jpg


This deals with the brightest parts of an image. Sliding to the right can ramp them towards white, whereas to the left darkens them.



Like highlights, but covering the darker tones. Sliding to left pulls them towards black, while to the right lightens them, revealing shadow detail.

When to use

Nearly always, for both. While degree is a matter of taste, more contrast tends to be more desirable; pulling them apart achieves this, resulting in punchier and simpler results which work well on the platform, but at the risk of losing subtlety and detail. Bringing them together has a softening/fading effect, and can result in an HDR-type look.



This darkens the edges of the picture, drawing the viewer’s attention to the centre of the frame.

When to use

Use for anything where the corners are unimportant, but they must already be (slightly) dark. On a light background, vignetting looks horrible, or at least makes the image look overly processed eg sky.

Tilt Shift.jpg

Tilt Shift

This is a naughty little cheat tool, blurring everything outside the target area. Blur can be radial, with both the size and location of the focus area set with pinching and moving. It can also be linear, where the width and angle can be changed. It’s a lot of fun and has immediate impact.

When to use

For snaps - if you use this, it’s very obvious and unnatural.



This is an essential tool, even though the results can be hard to see at anything less than about 50%, especially on small screens. It gives that final little tweak. Our eyes are drawn to - among other things - anything sharp, so it’s an important part of the process.

When to use


Final tips

Left to right workflow

Work left to right, and go back if you need to. A dot will appear underneath the settings you’ve changed. Remember, you don’t need to use every tool.

left to right.jpg

Touch and go

Keep checking the before and after. By holding your finger on an editing screen, you’ll see how the image would look without that adjustment. On the main screen, it shows how it would look without any adjustments applied. Touching and removing is a handy before/after view.

Pull back.jpg

Ease off

With that last point in mind, pull back on your effects, as they compound one another. 34 Saturation, 47 Contrast, 45 Highlights, -28 Shadows: all of a sudden you have a very heavily-processed image. 34 should be 20; perhaps bring 47 down to around 30, and so on.

I hope this is of use! Happy ‘gramming.

Out with the old

In my recent article about how we improve (“A little learning is a dangerous thing"), I talked about how my old work isn’t good enough now - can’t be good enough - as my skills / critical eye have developed. I wrote, “Hopefully, in the years to come I'll feel the same way about the pictures I have in my portfolio now. Because if not, I'm not improving.”

There’s this idea that anything not recent doesn’t represent us, is somehow false or misleading for being out of date. We’ve moved on - or regressed. But I’m now coming round to the conclusion this is erroneous. More on this later.

Regardless, in the meantime my website is bloated, and in need of a refresh: I’ve not done much to it in a while. This seems like a good opportunity to remove some of the dead wood. And besides, the more I’ve improved, the easier I should be able to cull old images. Right..?

Before finishing marking pictures for deletion - a troubling task - I ask for thoughts on a forum: how old is old? How do you feel about showing work you haven’t done in a long time? Does it still represent you?

I say troubling because it’s really not easy. It’a not like old food - I can’t just look at the date and bin it. Some of my old photos I still like. Do I really have to take them down? I don’t want to. Hmm. I’m not nearly as dispassionate as I should be in displaying my work. Or today, at least. It just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do in the name of a cleaner portfolio.

The hive-mind replies. The near-unanimous response - a slight surprise and a great relief - was that it’s completely fine to have old pictures, as long as they don’t look dated, and as long as you have new work, too.

So I’ve gone through again, looking only for the weaker pictures, with only half an eye on the date taken. That’s surely more important, how good an image is. But I don’t know which are good or bad. It’s an important skill and notoriously difficult. I’ve only ever culled a few images over the years, those which begin to stick out rather obviously after a time. But nowadays the quality and style is, I feel, fairly consistent throughout. I know better than to seek true objectivity from colleagues, as they will tear apart my keepers and praise the ones which need to go. And they’ll disagree with one another. As for deleting the weak ones myself, on the one hand I’m bored of nearly all my work, and on the other, I’m oddly attached to much of it.

But the ‘bored’ part - does this mean I’ve improved? Yes? Great…but if so, where’s the new, improved work to replace what’s to be removed? Ah. Well, I do have a few images which need putting up. But for now, mostly, it’s about culling.

So I ask myself these questions about each image:

  • Do I like it?

  • Does it represent the work I do, or would like to do? Or rather, will it appeal to the clients with whom I’d like to work?

  • Is it the best example among similar images in my portfolio? Is it different enough to justify existing?

    (while keeping in mind)

  • Has it been taken recently?

Devoid of context, the best images in a portfolio continue to shine. These images below - the ones I’m retiring - all suffer from the corollary: standing alone as they do, they don’t say much. There’s nothing wrong with them per se, but I don’t feel any of them quite spark an emotion or connection on their own. And I realise why - I’d included many of them as placeholders, representing a technique, style, or kept just because they were a little different.

Getting rid of a dozen images is not quite the grand cull I’d imagined, but it’s a start.

 Broadcaster John Sergeant has made a recording for an 'audio bench' at the National Trust property, Petworth House, in Sussex.  Several other public figures have also made recordings for other locations.

A little learning is a dangerous thing

“Do you still improve as a photographer?” a friend asked recently. What an odd question - I’ve been doing it for nearly 15 years, and have only in the last few reached a point where I’m not constantly worrying and feeling like a fraud. All I ever strive for is improvement. It’s a strange idea that one day you just ‘get it’ and you’re done.

I realised three things.

One is that you don’t ‘just get’ anything. Everything can be improved. Even walking? Yes, I’m pretty good at that, but put me on a catwalk and I’d like some lessons first. What about drinking? Maybe, but ask the people who taste coffee, buy wines, and you’ll find there’s more to it.

Two is that any assumption - here, that photography is something you ‘get’ - is based, in part at least, on our being unable to see, judge or understand anything much outside our sphere of knowledge. On a recent weekend in Dublin, my Irish hosts were stunned I couldn’t hear the difference between their accents - Galway, Cork, Derry*. Why would I? But while not important to me, it is where it concerns one’s identity within a country. Or to take another example: I’ve barely touched my guitar in 20 years (and was only Oasis-round-the-campfire level then). Yet my kids think I’m a rock legend. Because they don’t know better, I’m up there with Slash and Jimmy Page.

Three is that improvements must become smaller. What I learn in the next few years will be far less than what I learned in my first years as a freelance. Or to put it another way, I need to work much harder now to to improve the same amount**.

Anyway, the following diagram - which I came across some years ago - describes the learning process from beginner to expert, and applies to any skill or ability - driving a car, playing the piano or, indeed, practising photography.

    Stage one is 'unconscious incompetence'. This is where you have a subject which you don't know about, and, moreover, you don't know what you don't know. This could be something like the stock market, interior design, or Bolivian basket-weaving. It applies to most things, for most people.

    The next stage is 'conscious incompetence'. You have a basic grasp of a subject, and realise there’s a lot more to learn. This applies to the well-read, the busy, the educated and the hobbyists, about most things.

    The third stage is 'conscious competence'. You are practised enough to do it, aware of how far you've come, and aware of what else there is to know and learn. The most basic techniques are perhaps second-nature, but the bulk of performing the activity is very much a conscious process. 

    Then, at stage four, we reach 'unconscious competence'. The knowledge acquired is now hardwired in the unconscious part of the brain through practice and/or study. Almost as if you're not aware of what you know - it's second-nature. Like riding a bike. Or, like speaking in our native tongue, we can produce and process complex sentences at will, taking into account grammar, vocabulary, intonation and body language. But most of us would be unable to analyse or explain the compound verbs, adjuncts, facial clues or speech patterns we use so readily.

There’s also "reflective competence", which is to do with a self-awareness and deep understanding of a subject, the kind required for teaching or writing. It might also suggest an ability to adapt and respond naturally to entirely new challenges.

Or, the arrow could lead back to stage one. Unconscious competence can lead to complacency and habit as one develops a personal style, set along certain ways of doing things, and self-belief becomes stronger. It can be hard to learn (or one might actively resist) new techniques or accept new ideas, and to do so requires starting again, at least in some way. I remember as a student the feeling of ‘unlearning’ what style I’d had as a keen amateur.

Competence and the Critical Eye

    Bringing it back to photography, as you improve and get the basics under your belt, you being to notice things previously hidden or ignored. Things which didn't bother you before - didn't even appear on your radar - now become issues to deal with. Your pictures get better through experience, but as this learning finds its way into your work, you become more critical of them. In learning what to 'look for', so you see those things when you judge the picture later. Messy backgrounds, dead space, and burnt-out highlights never bothered me when I started out. They simply didn't register. But looking now, these flaws would be the first thing I see and all I notice. Hopefully, in the years to come I'll feel the same way about the pictures I have in my portfolio now. Because if not, I'm not improving.

    For me, this is where doing photography and viewing photography overlap. Doing photography takes place in real time, with all the difficulties and problems that brings. The better you become, the 'higher' the concerns which you need to consciously think about, concerns which didn’t exist before. And with these newer concerns on your mind, when you view the pictures later, these are the things you may (or may not) have got right. Those are the new benchmarks by which you judge the success of the shoot.

Ars est celare artem

    And the higher up you go, the more theoretical they become. For the really good photographers, the 'rules' count for less and less. Some of the greatest pictures can look, at first glance, almost like amateur snapshots, in my opinion. They look easy, without any apparent art or style. The Latin quotation above (sometimes incorrectly attributed to Ovid) loosely translates as "Art is the concealment of art", or "Art hides itself". The idea is that the greatest art lacks overt ingenuity or self-conscious craftsmanship. It doesn't seem to present itself as art - until you look closer. It suggests that you need to be at a certain 'level' to really appreciate it. And one recognises that improvements are harder and harder to get: the final few metres are what separates the good from the great.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

Going back to the second idea (how little we really know, when we know very little), this is a symptom of unconscious incompetence. The model below describes the relationship between one’s ability and one’s confidence:

Dunning Kruger copy.jpg

After only a short time learning a new skill, we feel we know a great deal. Probably because even after a few lessons (in anything), we’re already ahead of 98% of people. But soon enough, our self-belief plummets (consciously incompetent), before we begin to build up our ability and confidence at a more equal ratio (consciously competent).

Alexander Pope described the behaviour in 1709:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

and drinking largely sobers us again.

I’d like to think “I’m kind of getting it now” with regards photography. And I’d point out that if we knew from the start how much there is to learn about something, we’d probably never bother to do anything. A little ignorance and a touch of unwarranted confidence is a helpful nudge to get things started.

*If I’m honest, I sometimes struggle hearing between Scottish and Irish.

**An analogy from Breaking Bad: Gale Boetticher’s meth reaches 96% purity, yet he is in awe of Walter’s 99.1%.

Choosing between photos

A little about the editing process today, and the tough choice we have to make when choosing between two or more shots which are similar. This photo above is in my portrait gallery, and the subject is - possibly - good enough to be worthy of inclusion there, regardless of accompanying gestures (here, the gloved hand framing the eye).

Naturally, it was one of several ideas we tried out. The photo below could equally have been picked: there's little between them, especially since you could argue that the gesture in both is arbitrary. All things being equal, you go with your instinct when making a preference, but often you use more objective details (and in this case, it came down to the hand on the chin overdoing it). But it's not easy, knowing you're consigning a perfectly good, potential portfolio image to a hard drive in a cupboard.

Below are two images from a shoot with Shelly D'Inferno for mobile provider giffgaff:

Neither made the final cut (my preferred versions are here). How to compare them? The top image shows more of Shelley, but the expression doesn't fit. The bottom image makes more contact with a stronger (or at least more apt) expression, but I feel the hands should be more splayed, like claws, and that the clothes are rather lost. And I'm not sure if I like, or dislike, not being able to see her eyes. 

The point is this: whenever I have to choose between similar shots which I both like, alarm bells ring. Because if they both have obvious advantages over the other, there may be too much missing from both. It usually means I can't look past the subject to judge them on better criteria, that I just want it to work so badly I'll look past flaws which wouldn't get more than a moment's consideration on any other shoot.

Admittedly, sometimes the subject matter is so good that all other frames of comparison really do lose relevance - so in truth, knowing when this is the situation is the hardest judgement of all.


From the archives - two

I've nearly finished going through my archives in search of old images which I'd originally dismissed. 

As I've said elsewhere, even strong images tend to fade over time, both due to familiarity, and as one develops or improves. But occasionally, I'll come across an old reject which, with a fresh look, away from context - and usually with a different edit - I like much better second-time around.

Out of tens of thousands, only two or three of these I've since dusted off, tidied up, and put up in my galleries. But dozens got close - and were then rejected again.

The photo below is from a series of portraits of musicians (initially all 3- or 4-star rated I expect) but I thought this particular one could be worth another look - was it really only average? Yes. I really wanted it to work - a simple, outdoor shot like this would go well on my website. And there's nothing really wrong with it - and technically and aesthetically it's fine, but something about it's just a bit empty, boring, flat:

No matter how revised or polished a photo is, if it's not working, it's not working. You can do wonders in post-production, but there has to be something in the original which can't be created later, which has nothing to do with adjustments or photoshop. 

It's important to be brutally honest and unforgiving when judging an image, but often, subjectivity gets in the way. Usually it's the lengths you knew you'd gone to to achieve the shot - you were so invested in it that it becomes personal. 

I think it's about changing your role once you've put the camera down and when you're going through the work on the computer. You have to become an editor - a different set of skills - because as a photographer you can't be objective. And as an editor, this image isn't good enough. Next!

Seeing past the subject

The discussion about Charlotte Proudman had me thinking. Not about how inappropriate the comment was, nor the misuse of LinkedIn, or sexism. I wondered whether it's even possible to separate a good photograph from a good subject. Not to say the images below are good or not, but to argue that the subject matter often has a bearing on it.

I have photos of John Sergeant and Arlene Phillips on my website. To be quite honest, I'm not sure if they're very particularly strong images, but they do suggest access, which can equate to experience or skill. Hence, portfolio.

Similarly, many sports photographers might have shots of Usain Bolt/Mo Farah/Jessica Ennis/Oscar Pistorius shot from the end of the race track, crossing the finish line and winning the final. Even though these photos are far from unique and possibly not very exciting*, their value is in their fame and recognisability (which comes from newsworthiness). They show how - like the athletes they depict - the photographer is at the very top of his or her profession.

As for newsworthiness, we have etched in our collective consciousness innumerable images depicting great tragedy or joy, and never really consider or care whether they're 'good' from any other viewpoint (technical, artistic, creative etc.), but only see them as records of historic fact, and therefore as powerful photographs.

So: photogenic subjects, famous subjects, newsworthy subjects. These kinds of people blur one's opinion seamlessly: "Is it a 'stunning' LinkedIn image, or is the subject 'stunning'?", "Is it a great portrait, or just a well-known face?", and "Is it a good photo, or just access to some incredible event?"

Most interesting of the three kinds of subjects above is the 'famous': interesting because our cultural, subjective, informed position affects (determines?) how we view images of famous people. And it's very much rooted in its time. That is, it makes all the difference if the viewer knows who the person is, and even their opinion of them. If they don't know them, or at least don't recognise them, their viewing is immediately and irrevocably altered once given this information**. So, back to the title: I dug out some images of (I hope) less-recognisable but nonetheless powerful ladies.

This is someone you would know but probably not recognise:

She's an author, and as for fame, her most well-known book is perhaps only second to Harry Potter. Her work has spawned shows, films, mugs, socks and school bags. Every young-ish parent in the country will own at least a few of her books, and many (myself included) know them off-by-heart. It's Julia Donaldson, author of the Gruffalo.

But is it a good picture? Well, as I've been saying, sometimes it's hard to see past the fame of a person and judge a photograph objectively. In the end - and despite there being only a couple of decent images of Julia online anywhere - she never made my portfolio because I don't think the image is strong enough. 

So much for fame. Next are three leading ladies who are (perhaps?) less-recognised still but nonetheless hugely influential, powerful and successful. We have President of International Markets for Mastercard, Ann Cairns; Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pearson, Kate James; and Vice-President EMEA for Facebook, Nicola Mendelsohn. All these did make my portfolio - but not with these photos. Other images from the shoots were stronger (please take a look in my corporate and portrait galleries).

Let's assume you don't recognise them, and, unlike with Julia Donaldson, there's no immediate association going on even once named. Does their business or their high position affect your judgment? As it happens, two have appeared in national newspapers fairly recently, so will be recognisable to some. But does it matter? Does it make a difference how you view them?

It comes down to historicism - the extent and angle to which the background to an image influences our opinion. Perhaps we like to think we can be more objective, but there's much more going on here. We can't help but frame our view with external knowledge, a cultural climate, and our personal bias and taste.


*Not unique, since many other photographers are positioned in the same place. And not exciting with respect to a photographer's more creative and/or less newsworthy portfolios. To put it another way, if the images weren't of global sports superstars winning the Olympics, but instead showed (otherwise identical) shots from, say, the second-round heats at the U-21 Commonwealth games, they'd be unlikely to feature in a portfolio. 

**I should add that you can argue it's easier to read a portrait of a famous person. You have some idea who they are, and can judge to what extent the photograph captures and confirms that aspect of their personality. Or indeed, questions it. Success or failure in the portrait is surely tied to this in some respect.

What the job is - or, "Dealing with lemons"

"My job is not about taking pretty pictures - I wish that it were."

- so I wrote in my last article. Sure enough, the very next shoot had me being asked to get a portrait incorporating a specific background, a large, branded vehicle which could not be moved. Unfortunately, the combination of timing and the weather meant that this was (possibly) going to be impossible, or at least a pretty ugly picture. The harsh afternoon sun - such as it was and relative to the background - would be directed into the subject's eyes. At best, it would force a hard squint. At worst, it would destroy his retinas.

When I raised this small lighting issue, my client probably retorted that on nearly every job I claim the light is in the wrong place, or that there's not enough of it, or that it's just wrong, somehow. Then (I expect) they would have said something about me whingeing (but to be quite honest, I usually stop listening at this point).

Well, they were probably right. Not about the whingeing - no. But I do complain quite a bit about the light being wrong. As well as almost everything else.

The main idea is this - situations are sometimes unpredictable, the lighting often unsuitable, the location rarely ideal. You very often end up doing things that 'aren't photography' in order to adapt or change the situation. If it's something you might consider way out of your job description, it can be irritating.

However, that part of the job, as I've come to learn, IS the job.

Anyone can produce a decent picture given enough time and ideal lighting*. But the working photographer's job is to innovate, to be pliable and resourceful, adaptable. Pull things out of the hat. Foresee problems and resolve them. Change up at the last minute, and under pressure. Because the lighting is never right. And often, other things are wrong, too.

The thing to take away from this is very important, so I'll state it very clearly: loads of things appear to get in the way when shooting. I say 'appear' - but to think of them as distractions or nuisances is a *fundamental* error. I'll state it again - it's ALL part of the job. Photography might only be part of what we're doing. We're dealing with many other things first, in order to enable the photograph to be taken.

So, it's about going with the flow, thinking around the problem. Facilitating and adapting. Not getting caught up sulking - "This shouldn't be like this," or, "I was hoping for that", or, "The light is terrible". It it's a barrier, it gets in the way of the job. Therefore, dealing with this stuff IS the job.

On the other hand - happily - I would say that roughly half the time, shoots are fairly predictable, and everything's tickety-boo. The office space is the (dismal) location you expected it to be. Or, working outside, it doesn't end up tipping down with rain - despite those ominous black clouds. Or, doing portraits, you actually get to use (most of) the twenty minutes you were originally promised.

These shoots are fairly 'routine': things go roughly as hoped or expected, and the skills called upon are what I would consider central to being a photographer. These, then, are the good days. They allow you to just get on with the job, to practise, learn and improve. To expand your patter and find new ways to blag coffee, biscuits or pens. You can think about ideas, lighting, framing, illustrating the concept, telling the story, whatever. By and large, most things on these jobs are the same as the last time you did something similar somewhere else. You could even dare to go so far as to say you can actually plan these shoots**.

The other half, the ones we're talking about today, aren't so predictable - often regardless of planning. They contain these seeming obstacles, changes of schedule, extra hassles, crappy light, and apparent nuisances. And we've agreed to accept these and work through them. 
Sometimes, however, there are curveballs which really stretch things. People problems spring to mind first. I've had several people at a workshop who had asked not to be photographed (not even in the background), but who then took centre stage in most of the activities. Which made photography of pretty much anything else impossible.

I've had a client who insisted their logo be in shot - despite the logo being very small, and ankle-height. They became rather incensed when I explained how it wouldn't work very well (and it didn't).

Location problems are common. We're especially at the mercy of the weather in England. I was recently caught in torrential rain for a shoot about city workers enjoying summer barbecues.

And indoors, many public buildings have horrific lighting. Offices with nasty spotlights embedded into the ceiling. Dark corridors, small windows, and useless spaces.

I had a shoot in a (sort-of) theatre, and I remember the "stage lighting" only covered half the people on stage. The other half could barely be seen by the naked eye - let alone a camera.

Light, people and location issues are general and universal. I suppose the thing with it is that there are other curveballs and hazards peculiar to certain types of job. At conferences, for example, there's always that one speaker who never looks up. Which results in shots of a depressed person at a lectern talking to his navel.

At jobs where props are required, sod's law says they'll forget to bring them. I shot a pair of cricketers (for a story about cricket) who arrived wearing normal clothes, and without a single cricket-related object between them. I once also photographed some computer wizards - who'd each (wrongly) assumed the other was bringing a laptop. And so on.

So, back to the two points of the article. One was that the job is much more than just taking pictures, because much of the time things aren't as we hope or expect. The second point touches on what to do with the 'curveballs'; with those trickier, unpredictable, desperate and even broken situations.

In gambling parlance - dealing with the latter is about knowing when to stick or twist. Or if you're religious, the beginning of the Serenity prayer sums it up:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

But let's put it in terms of lemons.

Eating Lemons

Sometimes you can only do what you can do. You can't use lights, you can't influence proceedings, you can't change locations. You can't do anything other than take pictures. The important thing is to be aware of the limitations, and work out how you can mitigate their effect or work within them. Accept what there is and do the best you can with the choices which you are able to make (lens, position, composition). And convey this to the client without sounding like a whinger. So with the conference speaker who doesn't look up, it might be best just to go for a wide shot, including the surroundings. Then you're not making so important that he's looking down. I should just point out that there are a few near-certainties which save us in tough situations. You learn what these are with experience. Even someone at a lectern reading from a script will look up, even if only at the very end of their speech for a fraction of a second. It's all to do with the decisive moment, and knowing what's coming up.

Anyway, another curveball: I remember photographing a (very) amateur dramatic youth production with poor lighting, everything spread out across the stage, no props or costumes to speak of, and no real action or interaction. Very little to do. The only thing left to do was to use a long lens and 'pick out' individual actors and their expressions and actions. The picture below is from a dance show, and is a similar example of something reasonable from out of not much, in this case through using a wider view:


Another example: I did some portraits of a trainee on a building site. I had a space (arbitrarily selected for me, without my input) of about three square metres to work within. Seriously. And there were no props***. Low angles, different lenses and a little changing of position still enabled us to get a reasonable variety of reasonable pictures, because at least the background was relevant. Here are a few from the shoot:


Making Lemonade

As pointed out in my other articles, many (most?) situations have a tendency to lead us thinking down logical paths. Certain kinds of shots present themselves, as other ones become unworkable.
When our preferred or expected shots are ruled out entirely, on occasion we can take those difficulties and turn them into opportunities. The job of the photographer is to know what's possible, to come up with a plan B on the fly. It's a remarkable way to focus the mind.


The example above comes from a situation where the banner needed to be in shot. Let's just say I'm not a big fan of banners, unwieldy as they are. Although, to be fair, this is probably the best one I've used. But then that's what I expect from the amazing Booktrust. By putting the banner centre, and having the people interact with it, it's not so much 'shoehorned in', as it is an integral element of the photograph. Imagine what the picture would be without the banner: a potentially dull group picture.

 The example below had extremely hard sunlight causing problems. So we found a wall and turned the light to our advantage. It's a go-to shot which gets you out of a spot:


Swapping lemons for apples

With vision, it's sometimes possible to reject the situation entirely. This often applies to dire situations where we don't (appear to) have any input or control - and we then really push it. Part of this can be knowing when that is. It may be possible to interrupt, ask for something, go against what we're presented with, create something different - when we had previously been told (or had assumed) we couldn't do something or other, that we weren't permitted. This takes confidence. Of course, it may not be possible, in which case we're back to eating lemons...

A recent example was at an awards ceremony. I had been clearly instructed not to use lights for the performances between the speeches.

However, the lighting was awful. The background was awful. There were only a couple of (not very good) places for me to position myself. The performances - exciting as they were for an audience - would not work at all well (photographically) by themselves.

Well - I used my lights. And nobody stopped me. Nor was I reprimanded - it turned out that the client had just expected the lights to be much more of a nuisance than they were. They even said after that it had added to the sense of occasion. And the pictures were much better.

To be fair, this is quite an unusual example. More often is the situation where you have to use your position of expertise and overrule someone. To explain why something else entirely should be done, that's it worth the time or effort, that the current setup is no good. All the time, being aware that your client or subject may have strong feelings to the contrary, that someone might be at risk of losing face - and knowing that you have just one chance to prove yourself right. This is especially tricky where you are viewed as a 'snapper'.

So - to sum up: In these difficult circumstances the job is to know what is and isn't possible; what can and can't be changed; and to have the confidence to stick or to twist.

And what did I do with the picture with the bright afternoon sun which started this article off? I'd like to say I managed to rearrange everything quickly and smoothly, with clear vision and minimal fuss. Without offending anyone. But as it happened, a few small clouds had started to appear and pass overhead by the time we were to do this main photo. As there were several other shots to do, I got on with those first, quite happy to delay doing this main photo. I no doubt seemed to be stalling, but I simply wasn't confident we'd have a sufficiently large cloud for sufficiently long enough to cover us. I was, however, confident that the shot would be better than our other options - if we could get it. In other words, I didn't have a plan B and had nothing else up my sleeve.

And as it happened, we had a small window of opportunity, just enough time for about four frames with the sun behind a cloud, and I was happy enough with the shot, below. I suppose sometimes you just get lucky:

ARP160412_Beat Fleet_Large19.jpg

*What is ideal lighting? I suppose it depends what you're shooting. Remember that ideal can equate to safe - which can equate to boring.

**That may seem surprising - but in general I don't plan many types of shoots. I have a rough idea of what I might want to do, what the job might be, but so often it's more a starting point. Because as I keep saying, so many are different to what was promised or expected.

***While I think about it, if you haven't already, look at the articles I wrote on limitations.

****I appreciate the lemons analogy is starting to fail.

Your holiday photos aren't rubbish

Recently, a friend was a little embarrassed when showing me their holiday photos. They said, "They're not very good… they're just snaps" - and that was before I'd even seen them*.

People generally don't like to show me their holiday pictures.

Perhaps this is because they saw me shaking my head at the huge framed picture on their wall of their two-year old, just moments earlier. Or they caught me flicking rapidly through the pages of their coffee-table family album, muttering, "No, no, maybe, no, no, no, maybe, no, no, oh for the love of god no, no, no, maybe…"

I'm there as a friend who wants to see their holiday photos**, not interested the arty photographic concerns. But I'm also a photographer, and they might feel 'judged'. Fair enough. My sniggering and snorting don't help.

Seriously though - that there are different kinds of photograph, in the same way as there are different types of writing. You can have King Lear, and you can have a shopping list scribbled on an envelope. You can have e=mc², "ok c u l8r babes lol" on a phone, and you can have ramblings on my blog. It would be strange and irrelevant to try to compare any of these. Because my blog would win hands down (not really, but if you do like it, why not 'like' me on Facebook?)

There are different kinds of pictures. To try and judge them by the same criteria would be unfair.

Ok, so what?

It's to do purpose, style, motivation, context and method. Mainly, though, the background to the image. What is a photograph doing - why was it taken? Is it there to inform, inspire, or to move us? To persuade us to buy something? As a record? How was it taken? Was it created with thought, effort, or love? Is it complex? Or is it just a quick snap? What's the context, and how does this affect our reading of the picture?

So what, though?

Elsewhere, we looked at different photographic techniques and saw that this can enable us to (loosely) recognise and categorise images. It allows us to evaluate and compare them. Well, this article is a bit like that - but using different criteria.

Simply put, awareness of different contexts, functions, types and styles gives critical tools to unpick and examine photographs.

It's a very vague idea, with lots of overlap, inconsistencies and subdivisions. Here we go:

Pictures for purpose     <------------->      Pictures for pleasure

My job is not about taking pretty pictures - I wish that it were. To this extent, I suppose my job description would be to take the "best (or most suitable) picture I can in a given situation". Primarily, it's my job. Taking pretty pictures is most often between 20% and 80% of the job. Just recently, as part of a series of shots for a pamphlet, I had to take a photo of a sign on a wall. It's not going to win any awards. It's an extreme example of a "picture for purpose", at the very end of the scale***.

"Pictures for pleasure", then, are those we might do in our spare time, taken without a goal or brief, purely for their own sake.

By "pictures for purpose", I suppose I mean - at the furthest end of the scale - photographs (which would appear to be) devoid of artistic input. Purely descriptive, token efforts, easily replicated, filling a space.
Other examples in this category might include catalogue shots of children's toys, police mugshots of criminals, car adverts (especially classifieds), and newspaper insets of pot-holed roads which residents are complaining about. They're always seen in a particular context, and they're purposeful.

Children's toy catalogue photos and (upper-end) car adverts might not appear to fit well into this group. At the very least, they differ by a huge degree. They require a more professional setup, and are shot in the way that not only shows the product, but, in the case of car adverts, shows it appealingly, fully designed to make you want to buy it. Car adverts are shot with branding, image and concept in mind, often as part of a wider campaign marrying text, design and marketing strategies. So, quite a bit of skill and creativity. And often quite stunning imagery. While the kids' toy photography might not be as 'pretty' as a car, it's certainly more artistic, considered, professionally-produced and skilful than a police mugshot. And for all this, perhaps because of context, the most evocative of these examples might yet still be the mugshot: consider O.J. Simpson's controversial photos on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

So let's reframe our spectrum:

Descriptive     <------------->      Evocative

Posed pictures of people, smiling at camera, are often descriptive - they show who was at some event or party and that - at least for the photo - they looked like they had fun****. But they're not usually very emotive or exciting. On the other hand, evocative imagery would (in the party example) be candid shots of people drinking, laughing, chatting. At the extreme, we're looking at artsy, flash-blurry saturated images of people on the dancefloor. It makes you feel like you're there.

I would add that a very straight, descriptive picture can be extremely emotive (especially with some background); consider the portraits of genocide victims from Tuol Sleng in Cambodia.

Which brings us to the next scale:

Deadpan <------------->      Self-conscious

I would describe deadpan images as ones where I'm not aware of any artifice. They're very straight, undramatic, and descriptive. A passport photo is a good example. You see them a lot in documentary work, and modern styles of portraits (for example, the subject standing dead centre of the frame, unsmiling). They can be extremely powerful. Photographer and friend James Ball's work might be described as deadpan.

At the other endwe have "self-conscious" or "self-aware", which would, I guess, describe pictures which cannot be experienced in real life. As such, they draw attention to the photograph as a medium, the camera as a tool, the method as a technique. So, examples are things like the picture of the apple at the exact moment a bullet smashes through it. A dog's face up close, shot with a fisheye lens. Extremely narrow depths of field, and tilt-shift lenses. Less extreme examples might include underwater photographs, studio fashion photography (which might use lots of lights), or a 'silky' waterfall shot at 10 seconds. Or even the waterfall at 1/500*****. Things that are not readily visible or experienced.

The example of the apple and bullet leads us onto the planned/found spectrum:

Planned     <------------->      Found

This is, to me, quite a central one in seeing how photographers work differently. As for 'found' images (pictures you might 'come across' on your way to work), I'd just point out that nobody is entirely 'reactive'. Street photographers deliberately head out with their gear, hunting for opportunities. In autumn, parks are filled with keen photographers looking to find scenes which will correspond with their vision. So there is always a degree of forethought and planning. Nevertheless, that's the end of the scale, and later we'll explore this a little more in the snap response/considered approach range.

Planned photography, at the other end, makes me think of apples and bullets. Or at least, complex lighting setups, staged setups, cc'd emails, food stylists, assistants, fine details, professional models, location scouts and retouching. Very likely, this photography might have a commercial goal - again, we have pictures for purpose. But even if it's some grand personal artistic endeavour involving swimming pools and wind machines, there's a sense of a final purpose.

Much of my work is somewhere in the middle of this scale. I'm thinking of PR, commercial work, press releases and marketing materials. The planning involved in photographing a businessman, for instance, might only involve the company arranging a day and time for me to do the shoot. The brief, such as it is, might only say what the pictures are for. Arriving early, I'd scout about and have a few plans and ideas before starting. That might be it as far as planning goes. That suits my style - very often the ideas, locations and lighting are discovered or chanced upon. Some work doesn't suit fixed plans.

You also have theatre or dance photography, which I suppose are something like (the oxymoronic) 'orchestrated news'. And just as with news, knowledge of the subject (the play, director, dance company etc.) helps one predict or react, and so find more and better pictures. Planning, here, equates to experience and familiarity. We've talked about this more regarding the decisive moment in another article.

Dance is choreographed with precision, repeatable and predictable. Photographing it is somewhat reactive, and somewhat predictive (we may not have seen the performance but we might have an idea of what's coming, moment by moment). So, dance photography is a good example of something that neatly straddles our next scale:

Candid     <------------->      Posed

I suppose this one is a bit like planned/found, but applies well for portraits and 'news'. Candid shots are rarely entirely so - the mere presence of a camera will change the dynamic of any situation. Real news pictures, of course, can't be posed; candid equates to truthful.

People often complain about pictures being too posed. The thing is, truly candid pictures often don't work. You can have people doing the most brilliant thing, or the most cute child in front of you, but if the people are looking away, or if the kid's standing in front of a rubbish bin, it's just not going to work. As I've said many times, a photograph primarily needs to 'obey the rules'. How interesting the event, cute the child, awesome the sunset - they're all secondary.

So, my preferred style of picture when I'm working is the 'posed candid', and I regularly veer toward this style for my PR or event photography. It's basically taking natural(ish…) pictures in a situation, but orchestrating it when necessary to improve the picture. For example, you have kids doing an activity in a classroom at some workshop. I briefly interrupt and pause them, tweak the scene a little by tidying up the foreground, perhaps getting rid of one of the kids or bringing another one in. I might then ask them not to look down too much, or perhaps concentrate on staying with some part of the activity a little longer - and then let them get back to it, ignoring me again (if I haven't killed the moment entirely) as I take the pictures.

So the next one is along these lines - working towards getting the best picture based on wearing your photography hat, rather than being simply carried away with the situation itself:

Snap response     <------------->      Considered approach

This is entirely to do with working around the subject, and may be the difference between making a good or a bad photo. It may be impossible to tell afterwards looking at a picture, whether it was a simple reaction to a moment (a reaction which started and finished at the pressing of a button). Or whether it was the result of an hour's work, several setups and ideas and tea breaks. 

But how much work or time was taken doesn't matter a jot, in the end. But I'd suggest that many of the best photographs probably took time and effort****** - and many of the worst, didn't.

I would just add that a 'snap response' to something may be all that's required, or all that's possible. Sometime there isn't time or opportunity to try much else. It might even be the best approach - although not very often for the kind of work I do. In my work, it probably equates to laziness! Taking pictures for pleasure would move this idea into another scale: effort/laziness. But that's too simplistic and subjective. Instead, let's reframe it more broadly:

Personal vision     <------------->      Shared view

I've mentioned elsewhere in my blog how I find it strange (annoying?) that millions of tourists take identical photographs of famous landmarks. Everyone knows what Big Ben looks like - there are 292,840 results for it on Flickr at the time of writing. Snore. You don't need to see another photo of it. Besides - the picture you take at midday when you're passing it on your bus tour is frankly going to be a bit rubbish. Far better photographs - planned, considered, and taken with care, are easily accessible.

This mindless photography is the snap response. At best, it's a personal record. Fine. But since almost everyone's pictures of Big Ben are identically boring, why not at least try and do something different? Or just enjoy the moment instead, rather than experiencing it through an LCD.

I'm being unfair. This is the kind of holiday picture that serves a different purpose. It's not about being a good picture or a bad one - didn't I say that right at the beginning? Well, yes and no. I'll come to this later.

Anyway, this is at one end of the scale. To get back to the point: I use the term 'shared vision' to describe what's generally obvious, even to the most oblivious among us. We cannot fail to be impressed by the sight of certain things, no matter how often we see them. Stars on a clear night, a sunset, a deer in a park. Even Big Ben.

But to get something fresh and interesting from these, we need to have a personal vision. We need to analyse what it is that moves us, and find a way to capture that. As I've said in other articles, good photography is so often about showing new things, or old things in a new way.  Standing on a pavement by Big Ben at midday when we happen to be passing, setting the camera to "P" before holding it out in front of us - this won't result in anything worth looking at. I'm pretty sure of that. Don't ask me how. I'm under no illusions - you have to work pretty hard to get a 'new' picture of Big Ben.

And then on the other side of the scale, we have personal vision. At the extreme end, we have photos that simply cannot be taken by anyone but you. Actually, if we even put only a little bit of ourselves into what we do, it's impossible NOT to have a personal vision.

It might be a style - from always using B&W, to having a preferred lighting setup, to having a recognisable compositional style.

It can be a personal choice of subject - perhaps your fourth project in as many years documenting rural decline, or covering bodybuilding competitions around the country, or choosing to concentrate on portraits of musicians. Perhaps simply using photography as the medium for one's work as an artist.

Or it might be more to do with yourself and how you see the world.

This next one doesn't really fit with these, but it should have a quick mention:

Of the moment     <------------->      Timeless

Pretty obvious, really, and to do with context. A news photograph shows a moment in time. Primarily, it's descriptive. On the other hand, a picture of the inside of a kiwi fruit, on the other hand, is more generic and yet (perhaps) more artistic (because of the purpose of the image), concerned with shape, texture or colour, and has nothing do with time or place. Very different subjects, very different kinds of photograph.

Out of context, a news photo can be 'art'. For instance, portraits of musicians in performance, boxers in action, or political leaders holding forth. These famous people become heroes or inspiration, and become evocative bedroom-wall posters. Similarly, photos of important historical events might in time, begin to signify defiance, hope, chaos etc.

Our last category is about the holiday and family pictures which started this article:

Personal pictures     <------------->      Pictures for others

You are allowed to take rubbish photos of your kids/cat/hotel swimming pool. Nobody is going to judge you. What you can't do is photograph the same stuff from the same position as everyone else does. That's it. Ok?

As for me, I very rarely take any. I often don't even take my camera with me. Because either I'm doing Photos (capital P), or I'm not. Not in some grandiose way, just that if I'm doing Photos, I want/need to commit to that fully. I don't want to put my name to the 'snaps'. You think YOU get judged?

That's not to say I don't take pictures of my family - I do. But I try to get the best pictures I can. And so should you. I'll leave you with a selection of baby photos of my beautiful son:


* Actually, I do this to my clients. I apologise for my work first to soften the inevitable disappointment. Probably lots of photographers do it. Even if the client likes my work, I know they're somehow wrong and I feel ashamed to show it. I don't like any of my pictures, and many photographers I know feel the same about theirs. It's really weird.

**I can't lie. In fact, I don't want to see them, and if they were a true friend they wouldn't offer to show me. I only like to look at three kinds of photos, and in equal amounts. The first is the kind that are amazing, and make me want to quit photography. The second is the kind that are amazing, and make me want to do better. The third is the kind that blows me away, moves me, or makes me think.

* Actually, I do this to my clients. I apologise for my work first to soften the inevitable disappointment. Probably lots of photographers do it. Even if the client likes my work, I know they're somehow wrong and I feel ashamed to show it. I don't like any of my pictures, and many photographers I know feel the same about theirs. It's really weird.

**I can't lie. In fact, I don't want to see them, and if they were a true friend they wouldn't offer to show me. I only like to look at three kinds of photos, and in equal amounts. The first is the kind that are amazing, and make me want to quit photography. The second is the kind that are amazing, and make me want to do better. The third is the kind that moves me, or makes me think.

*** The goal of the professional, even (especially?) on the most mundane jobs, is still to get the "best (or most suitable) picture in a given situation", or, rather, not to get it wrong. There's still a right way and a wrong way to do it. I remember one of my earliest jobs for the newspaper was to take a picture of a book cover. I was sent back to do it twice. The point is that even at the (apparently) least artistic end of the scale, effort and skill are necessary.

****A friend has an issue with people always smiling for group photos. He sees these pictures and gets annoyed at their inauthenticity. He usually says something like, "I was there that night. It wasn't like that, everyone laughing and smiling at camera. The photo makes it look great, but, in truth, it was an average evening until those two had an argument and everyone went home."

***** This is an irrelevant but interesting point. You could argue that much of what we see in photographs merely approximates how we see the world, that it's not a truthful rendition at all. Looking at a waterfall, I don't see individual droplets of water, neither do I see a silky torrent. In the same way, I've never seen a blurry car drive past me, yet nor have I seen one 'frozen' at 100 mph.

****** That effort may, of course, have been through years of experience and study. I'm not suggesting that the same sweat and tears go into every photo.

Seeing pictures

Back to basics

I think the most important thing to learn in photography is the most basic. It is the ability to see - to see things as they really are, or as they could be.

So often, we filter out the information before us. We see a pretty tree - but ignore the lamp-posts and ugly tower blocks surrounding it. We watch a raindrop running down a window pane - but block out the dull scene behind it. What we think we are seeing is really a distortion, often because we have decided what to see beforehand. A camera cannot distort the truth in this way. So we need to focus on what is really there. And, to me, it is one of the hardest skills.

What shape is a coffee cup?

We already have a distorted view of the world around us. We think of buildings as rectangular, the rims of coffee cups as circular, roads as straight lines. But if we actually look, we will see that a cup's rim is only circular when we are directly above it - not very often. All the rest of the time, it is an ellipse. To this day, I have never seen a rectangular building. They are usually experienced as trapeziums. And as we sit in a car, our own experience of viewing a road is not as a line, but almost always as a trapezium or triangle.


Our perspective changes our perceived shape of things - but we don't really take notice. Only when we look at a picture do we appreciate the difference between the geometry in our minds, and that which we experience (I must just add for anyone interested that the only shape that is always consistent, regardless of anything, is a sphere).

So much for shapes. Let's consider sunsets. I used to work for a newspaper, and readers would regularly send in pictures which they hoped would be published on the letters page. Often, these would be of fantastic sunsets, but all too frequently the photo would not do it justice. Lamp-posts, cars and trees would clutter the view. The clouds and setting sun would be dissected with telephone wires. The photographers had ignored what was in front of their eyes, in favour of seeing a pretty sunset. They had filtered out the rubbish. But no matter how interesting a subject, the 'rules' still have to be followed. And apart from these 'rules' of composition or framing, the first rule is that the camera can only show what is there, and is indifferent to what it sees.

It is hard to see the world as it really is. Often I am unable to visualise or imagine - see - what I'm actually looking at. No matter how much I squint, concentrate, mentally create a frame, I can't process the information. In these situations, I have to take a picture first, to see how it looks on the back of my camera. Only then do I get it. But this is for things right in front of me! What about seeing things that are so hidden, that - to most of us - aren't even there?

The art of seeing

Two masters in this art of seeing who spring to mind are Nils Jorgensen ( and Magnum photographer Martin Parr ( Good photography is frequently about showing the same things in a fresh way, and this requires really noticing and paying attention to what is around us. It involves real presence. Look at Nils' website and see how often you catch yourself nodding and saying, "Nice..." Go and buy some of Martin Parr's books. The greatest photographers (artists?) are not only seeing in photographic terms (shapes, lines etc.), but in terms of visual puns, cultural nuances, pointed comparisons of entirely unrelated things. It's awareness and presence on a whole new level.

 Abstracts are a good example of a photographer seeing. They often involve taking an everyday object or scene, and emphasising an aspect to present it as something at first unreal or unrecognisable. It involves seeing with a further sense of imagination or exploration - a "what if?" - which gives us a fresh view. Silhouettes, close-ups, wayward cropping and composition are typically used to create abstractions.

Learning to see

Happily, there are tried and tested methods which photographers rely on. Similar kinds of pictures come up frequently which use the same ideas and techniques again and again - because they work. Look at newspapers, film posters, magazines, and you'll see a variety of interchangeable, overlapping and mixed elements which are combined to create images with impact. 

I am convinced it is not always possible to get something really good from every situation, merely one can work to find the best that the situation offers. The real trick is knowing when a situation contains potential for something really good, and when it doesn't. Hence it is wise to have a few of these 'fallback' ideas to hand as a starting point. For most of us, the best way to learn is to borrow ideas from others. We then try out things for ourselves, and discover if we can 'see' something else.

I would finally add that often the most seemingly interesting thing simply will not work as a photograph, no matter what: there is nothing more to see. And other times the most apparently mundane situation can yield something extraordinary; there is real potential, if only we can find it. It is all about what works photographically. We need to be working always to see things in these artistic terms, then, and not through a filter of our own preconceptions.