Tag Archives: Vision

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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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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