Why do YOU take pictures?

Most of this blog is about the professional side of photography but, like a lot of people who make their living taking pictures, there is a passionate enthusiast inside me too. From time-to-time I get a lot of emails from keen amateurs asking me how they can improve their photography. The first answer is always “take more pictures” but beyond that it really helps to know what you are taking photographs and who the audience for those pictures is.

©Neil Turner. November 2011, Branksome Beach, Dorset. This picture was taken as part of a set to illustrate why the BH13 post code area is such a desirable place to live.

Defining who your audience is and realising what their requirements are is a huge step towards becoming a better photographer – especially if you care about what others make of your work. Of course there are many among us who would profess that they only take pictures for their own enjoyment and who don’t really care what other people think. I’m sure that those people exist but they are an incredibly tiny minority. The rest of us want to share our work, get feedback on it and (hopefully) have praise heaped upon it.

A few years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Commission Yourself” as an early attempt to give some direction and purpose to photographers who had a desire to be out there taking pictures but who struggled with what, when and why they were doing it.

It doesn’t matter if you are a professional photographer, a keen amateur or a weekend and holiday compact user – shoot the best pictures that you can. It is all a matter of approach so here is how I suggest you try to take pictures. There are a number of things that a professional photographer knows long before he or she starts to take pictures. The pro knows who the client is, what the end use of the pictures will be and what they will be taking pictures of. This enables them to “focus” on the job ahead, an approach that can easily be translated into the type of photography you do.

The “client” could be your partner or your children and you know that the pictures are destined for the family album. The pictures might be of a child’s birthday party. Already you are starting to think in a far clearer manner and you can concentrate on making a list of the important images. You could, for example, need a range of images that would fit accross a double page in the album. You need a shot of the birthday boy – maybe a nice tight one. You need some pictures of the guests – perhaps a wider picture with three or four revellers in it. Some smaller images of a cake and other guests and something with a bit of humour. A total of five or six images, shot from different heights and some tight, some wide. To get five or six good images you will need to shoot at least thirty pictures and on a digital you have wasted nothing by trying different things. You can print images to different sizes and edit on screen adding captions as you go.

By deciding what your goals are in advance you will actually spend less time just snapping and hoping. Next time you will know how well you did and what worked in the framework you set yourself and adjust your self-commission accordingly. It is one of the great ironies in photography that tighter briefs often make better pictures. I have never been able to just “go and take photographs”, but if I am looking for a something specific I nearly always get what I want.

As you become a better photographer you can learn to recognise what you like about certain images and trying to shoot in a given style becomes a great way of finding your own. So go out and commission yourself tomorrow and if nobody is having a party try to document your garden or street. Pick out details and shoot the wide picture – you’ll soon have your own photo story in the can.

Of course it is equally true that there are people out there who don’t really care about what they shoot; they just want to own and be seen with some very cool and expensive gadgets. I have met so many people with cameras over the years who can quote the features of their kit as if they had learned the brochure by heart but who don’t actually like taking pictures. Each to their own.

Another tactic for becoming a better photographer is to analyse and even mimic the pictures that we see from other photographers. Shooting street scenes in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson or portraits in the style of Terence Donovan can be a real creative spur and sooner or later you will develop your own spin on those styles and start to move towards having your own way of shooting. There are fashions in photography related to specific lenses that you can follow and there is a constant cycle of effects doing the rounds that you can analyse and adopt if you need more inspiration. It’s all out there waiting. Light, subject matter and composition – master being able to assess those three elements in other photographers’ work and you will be well on your way to being a much better photographer.

6 comments

  1. That’s useful – something I can do over and over again wherever I am:

    Imagine someone commissioned me to shoot this railway station, this shop, that couple standing there…

    Good one.

    Small typo alert: ‘but, like a lot of people who make there living..’

  2. As always, thanks for the comment. The typo is history!!! I find it amazing that so many people just go out to take pictures with no idea where, why or how…

  3. Good one Neil! If I’m honest, apart from work, I really take pictures INSTEAD of stopping to look at the important things in life. For me it’s a bit of a stand-in for enjoying what’s in front of you with your own eyes. Hope you’re well! Pete.

  4. Very interesting article Neil. It has raised so many points, i’m struggling to collate them all coherently in this comment.

    “Defining who your audience is and realising what their requirements are is a huge step towards becoming a better photographer – especially if you care about what others make of your work”

    If you are a professional photographer, I agree with the above wholeheartedly – completing the brief above and beyond all expectations should be the number one priority (whether you become a better photographer is of course a by-product of this).

    Speaking from an amateur point of view (and admittedly this view may seem tainted having sat on both sides of the fence) – but I now genuinely believe that until you can forget about what anybody else thinks about your work, whether shooting muzzy ladybirds or HDR landscapes I think the first step is shoot what and how you want, yes, absolutely share your work (and let’s face there has never been a better time to share photos) because that feedback/critique both good and bad WILL make you a better photographer.

    I just don’t think you should ‘shoot to please’ in the hope of becoming a better photographer off the back of that praise, surely we should ‘shoot to please ourselves’, take the impending critique and (possibly) adjust as necessary?

    I wrote an article recently that skirted this subject if you are interested: http://www.mattkirwan.com/photography/go-forth-and-share/

    Just my thoughts.

    Kind regards,

    Matt Kirwan

    1. Cheers Matt – I think that there is a lot of truth in what you say and I guess that my point was much more about those people who know that they want to take pictures but aren’t sure where or why. By giving themselves distinct “briefs” I am suggesting that they can find a structure to organise their thoughts.

      Anyway, good discussion is where it’s at!!!

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