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.