Tag Archives: Seeing

Demystifying photography

  Today’s blog post is taken from my book ‘Home Photography’ Published By Argentum in 2003.

The quality of photography that you produce is dependent on the amount of time that you are willing to devote to it. So the obvious question is: are you shooting enough? A possible reason for not producing many good pictures is that you are probably not taking enough — the more you do it, the better you get. I don’t mean pick up the camera once a month and run off a number of films at a sporting event or whatever. Shoot every day, think about pictures every day, use the camera every day.


The ability to see pictures comes from exercising that part of your mind as much as possible; any period of abstinence causes you to become ‘rusty’. It is definitely not like riding a bike, the ability does not stay with you unless you use it. One way to keep it functioning well is to look at the work of good and great photographers. Avoid looking at the work of poor photographers, as this will also influence your vision. Seek out high quality photography and think carefully about how it was done. Many times there are big clues in the picture. For instance, ask yourself where the light is coming from, are there two or more sources of light? If so, then how has that been achieved, by the use of artificial light, or reflectors? Is there a hard edged shadow or a very soft one, is it midday sun or late/early in the day when the sun is lower? Can you estimate the focal length of the lens used? Is it a wide angle shot or standard? Perhaps a longer lens? Has it been shot on 35mm or a larger format?


Look closely and see if there is plenty of depth of field throughout the photograph, indicating a small aperture. Perhaps the picture shows very little evidence of depth of field, indicating a wide aperture and probably a fast shutter speed. If there is subject movement in a shot displaying shallow focus, then this would suggest low light or a very slow film. There are many more ways to extract the information from photographs, but to list them would get boring. You must work it out for yourself. This is a useful exercise which helps to demystify photography. Asking these questions puts you next to the photographer at the moment of exposure. The important thing to bear in mind after the technical information has been extracted is: it is essential that you ask yourself whether this picture would have worked if any of these details had been different. Would the picture have been poorer had a larger or smaller format been chosen? And so on. Once the essential points have been established, you have a valuable reference point for creating strong images in a similar situation. This kind of detective work saves a lot of wasted film and can be a fascinating exercise which can be enjoyed whilst reading a magazine or watching a film. Old black and white films are rich in such details.

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A nice discovery

I was looking through a box of old lenses and collected junk earlier this year, with an idea to sell off some bits on Ebay. I had sold some unused brass lenses, enlarging lenses and old cameras, and was about to list a little lens I had found languishing in the bottom of the box. I had acquired it so long ago, that I couldn’t recall where from. When I did a little research to pad out my description it made me reconsider my decision. So before I listed it, I tried it on my 10×8 camera. -Wow! it almost covered the whole negative area, and the corner vignetting was rather interesting. I won’t be selling it now, and I am looking forward to doing more with this lens. It is a Taylor Hobson Cooke Series VIIb 108mm Wide angle Anastigmat. The information online states that it is meant for a 7×5 camera, but I like seeing what it will do at full stretch.

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Winter light

I love the low sun and long shadows that are a feature of winter days. Shadows have been a fascination of mine for many years and will continue to be I expect. Every sunny winter morning the light shines directly into our kitchen and on this occasion I placed a piece of driftwood on the table to explore the distorted and extended shadows.

Long shadows

Paper negatives in Kent

Last month I visited an artist friend in Deal, Kent and took along the Kodak Specialist 5×7, shooting paper negatives on some of my remaining stock of Kentona paper. I had a really nice time. We went to see a painter called Jo Aylward and stayed in the house of another artist called Ruby.

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Words are the enemy

First posted 19 August 2011

In my opinion, there has been far too much written about photography throughout it’s history. The intensity is increasing and unfortunately I’m going to add another few hundred words here;
As a practicing photographer I am concerned with staying as ‘visual’ as I can be, for as much of the day as is possible. Modern life dictates that we deal with many distractions, and much of this involves paperwork or computers.
In my job as head of analogue photography at a University in the UK, I have quite a lot of this stuff to deal with and let me tell you -it totally scrambles my brain.
Whenever I have to write a report, read an essay on this or that, I am a million miles away from being visual.

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Now I believe that to be fully visual you must empty your head of words. Words are the enemy, and they will distract you and smother your creativity. Reading/writing uses a totally different area of the brain from seeing photographically and you must switch off the voices to be able to make full use of your eyes.
For many years I was able to indulge myself in a world dominated by the visual, but as life has got faster and busier the visual has got pushed further and further back.

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Because I can’t think that way every hour of the day, I set myself a little task to think about everything around me as a possible picture ten times a day. So whenever the little reminder pops into my head I switch off from what I’m thinking about and look for a composition. Often, it is not possible to actually take the picture, because I may be driving or in the bath, but it is still a useful exercise to keep the visual part of my mind alive to picture opportunities.



  1. Posted 19/08/2011 at 10:05 am

    I couldn’t agree more Andrew. The world is full of distractions and it is so easy to get caught up in daily life and forget to look around you. One of my new resolutions is to look up towards the sky more.

  2. Jen
    Posted 19/08/2011 at 4:09 pm

    Couldn’t agree more Andrew. That was my problem in 2nd year, too much reading/writing about photography and not doing the kind of work i enjoy. All change in 3rd year though!

  3. Gary Liggett
    Posted 28/09/2011 at 12:04 pm

    Bang on! For me, the rot started when Art Colleges – which were entirely focussed on the creative, were subsumed into effing universities. Whoever learned how to be creative by writing about it? Did the success of Van Gough or Monet depend on a 2000 word essay? I bet some of the greatest artists in history couldn’t even write, but they could paint a 1000 words, and then some.

    When I was at art college, I was fortunate to be taught by a master, who taught me how to visualise a scene… to think in pictures…think about the way I should compose image to the best creative effect. The camera was only brought in at the last moment to record what I saw and wanted to portray. None this ‘looking through the viewfinder and shooting away’ like an American tourist in the hope that one of the frames ‘turned out right’. In that respect, on of my heroes is Thomas Joshua Cooper. He travels to the farthest corners of the planet and makes just on photograph. All of this stood me in good stead when I was making films – I had to think is moving images, which fell continuously one after the other 1/25th of a second at a time.

    Likewise, I spend weeks planning and thinking visually about a photograph: when the light will do its thing for me; when the landscape will look how I want it. On the right day, at the right time, I make sure I am there with my trusty old Thornton Pickard half-plate or my Houghton Ensign 6×9 to allow the beautiful light to fall onto the emulsion.


First posted 1 January 2011

Have you ever thought about your own perception? How distorted it can be and how easily it can be influenced?
How can you or I see things and understand things correctly? and what exactly IS ‘correctly’? Should we strive to represent things accurately?
Personally I enjoy having my perception changed -and thinking about it I’m pretty certain most others do too, though only in certain ways.
Comedy for instance, works because it leads you into what you think you know, then changes your perception at the end.
Drama and Films work the same way, we all like a thriller or a film that has twists and turns. The change in perception is what makes it interesting.
In music, I find a piece more of a fascination if it continues to surprise me, even after many years of listening.

I have tried to do this in some areas of my own work, seeing things or portraying things in a way which surprises the viewer.
For example, in this simple rock study there is nothing more than a random arrangement of boulders lit by a shaft of light. But if you turn your head to the right so that the left hand side of this image becomes the bottom, you will hopefully see a face.

1509 rock face 1

So I would suggest that a literal representation of a subject is not always the best option. it is fine for many subjects, but keep your mind open to the possibility that you can have more impact sometimes if you keep some ambiguity or surprise. Find ways of seeing and representing which lead the viewer a certain way, then twist their perception. It’s fun for the viewer and it’s fun for the photographer.

Some of the methods which can bring this about are pretty obvious; scale, angle of view, and putting things in a setting which is out of context.

This kind of work demands that the photographer is visually aware for the greater part of each day, as these opportunities don’t crop up very often. Just taking the camera out once a week or less is not going to give a very high hit rate. Be aware, -keep looking, -keep thinking and you will see images.

Let me know how you get on.

One Comment

  1. Posted 02/01/2011 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Cool photo, The big boulder on the left is the chin
    & the crack is the mouth, and the bright bolder in the
    middle/right with one courner round and a slight hook on the other
    is the nose. Nicely done… like it… :-)


First posted 1 October 2009

Looking around on the web I see many, many photographers who are producing sharp, well exposed shots and many of them are very competent photographers.
Often though, there is something missing; Too many of the shots are just BORING.
Making an image which is sharp and well exposed is the easy part, making an image which affects people, which has that certain ’something’ is another matter.

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Kitchen table and sunlight

So how do you develop (I know it’s a pun) a way of seeing?

Well, that depends on a few things; Where you are, what there is to photograph there and what you are interested in. Are you new to it and enthusiastic, or set in your ways?

Seeing is an important part of it, although not the full story -but I’ll come back to that in a minute…
What are you looking for? perhaps you have been looking in the wrong place?

The most common mistake is to concentrate too much on ‘what it is’ -the subject matter, the thing or person in front of the lens.
That may seem like a perverse statement, but let me expand on that.

The single most important element in Photography is Shape, not the subject matter. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the shape looks good. If you get too fixated on the subject you lose sight of that. The second most important element in photography is Light. As I sit writing this I can see some interesting light on the curtains and I know it would make a decent shot. Curtains are not an interesting subject in themselves, but the way the light plays across them just now makes them so.
The third most important element is Tone, how the tonal range is distributed over the frame.
Photography (and this applies to monochrome mainly) is about shapes and tones within a delineated area, whether that be a square, a rectangle or even a circle. If you pay attention to that, you can photograph anything.
Go and look at some really good photography now and see it in the terms I have described, you will begin to see things very differently.
There is one other thing that I need to mention; To be able to see the good stuff you need to be able to spot the bad stuff! You need to cultivate a highly developed sense of the naff, the corny and tasteless, the boring and cliched. If you can spot it quickly you can avoid photographing it.

I said that seeing is important, but not the whole story, the missing part is presentation. I could show you my best shot, but if it was on poor quality paper and badly mounted in a crap frame it wouldn’t merit a second glance. Conversely, I could show you a simple image as a beautiful platinum print, mounted and framed professionally and it would be far more desirable.
It doesn’t have to be platinum, it could be a print on a good quality Fibre Based paper or an art paper ink-jet. It does however need to be presented as an object of beauty, so don’t use poor quality materials. One of my pet hates is seeing a low quality RC print with glaring whites in a cream coloured mount -Yuck!

Dried noodles

There are plenty of good papers out there, both darkroom and digital, though what is great for one type of image, might look wrong for another. choose your paper to suit the picture.

Think about how the space around the image helps to present it. Narrow borders make you look at the centre of the image, very wide borders make you look at the edge of the image. If you get the proportion right, the full area is taken in by the eye.
Make sure your quality control is high, don’t make do with unfinished prints, make sure your borders are properly square not wonky and don’t think that people won’t notice dust marks on your pictures, – they will. Your laziness will be noticed by others and their impression of you will go down.

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