Lose the Dead Shots

Serious photo enthusiast?
Maybe it’s time to critically examine your images…

I'm into bark. Maybe I need therapy...

I’m into bark.

When the amateur photographer finally gets a handle on equipment and technique, the next looming problem is probably what to shoot. Open a few photo magazines and critically assess what you see. You’re sure to find photos that are just plain ordinary. They may be technically sound, but the subject matter is as stimulating as the dust on your windowsill, or cricket.

Some time ago, while looking for a little online inspiration, I came across a photographer’s pet project. He was taking close-up shots of a toy car placed in various locations and contexts, like on the beach, in puddles, or covered in what looks like icing sugar. Really. Well, why not. While I envied his photographic drive I felt a little uncomfortable for him. Or I did until I realised what my own upcoming project might be – shooting tree bark. So, anything goes. Or does it?

Photographers’ preferences and even their artistic idiosyncrasies can’t always be used as an excuse. Year in, year out, in British photo magazines in particular it seems, you will come across a pervasive sameness that may threaten to suck you in. I’m thinking of things like dewy spider webs, hot-air balloons, colouring-in pencils, butterflies mating, puffins (always puffins!), cotton wool waterfalls, frosty trees, pouting girls in weird poses wearing shiny stuff and trying to look raunchy for men who haven’t moved on since they were 15, wind turbines… And why on earth does anyone want to shoot the moon?

But there’s more: water reflections turned upside down, English beach huts (the last resort?), Selfridges Department Store in Birmingham (or worse, The Angel of the North at Gateshead), fungi, fairground long exposures, shots with fake moons that nearly always look fake, and not forgetting one of the most hackneyed examples imaginable — gondolas in Venice. Could you go there and resist? Are you thinking of shooting The Dark Hedges in N Ireland? Please don’t!

OK, I apologise. This is a tongue-in-cheek synopsis, so each to his or her own. And yes, I’ve been guilty too. It’s easy for anyone to be a hypocritical, whingeing cynic, and I don’t need anyone to tell me that too many of my amateur images need a critical examination. But here’s the point: do we readily accept the average and mundane because the special and unique are uncommon? How hard do we try? If you want to be an accomplished photographer it’s important to practise regularly, of course, but eventually you’ll need to step back and think about the subject you’re shooting, and why.

I tried my best for these shots, but failed.

I tried, but failed.

One of the incongruous facts to hit home while wading through countless postings on photo forums and Twitface is how many keen amateurs had taken hundreds or even thousands of images over a period of several months. They may claim that this frenetic activity helps them to develop their skills, but the end product that some feel justified to share on websites can range from the very average to the downright pathetic. Is it necessary to be so prolific?

Over the last 11 years I’ve visited tons of amateur and professional photographic sites and looked at a great number of images. It’s truly disappointing. I’m convinced that the vast majority of shots weren’t worth firing up the computer for. Just a personal view? Well, not entirely. You’ll see lots of stuff that just doesn’t work no matter how forgiving you try to be.

Arguably, photography should be a challenge that rewards our hard work and planning with arresting images. It’s true that some shoot purely in the name of art, so that covers a host of photographic sins. It works for them and all those who find that approach refreshing. So we’re back where we started – anything goes.

This reminds me of a TV programme that examined attitudes to art. The presenters took a modernist-style painting to those with an artistic leaning, and asked them to give their considered opinions. Which they did of course, glasses on their heads and flamboyant scarves around their necks. Some waxed lyrical, no doubt drawing on years of experience. Imagine their chagrin when they were told it was painted by chimpanzees.

Art? It’s whatever you want it to be.

In my opinion, this is an example of a worthwhile and interesting subject. Timeless too.

In my opinion, this is an example of a worthwhile and interesting subject. Timeless too.

In the work of too many well-meaning amateur shooters, technique, subject matter, composition and creativity are a consistent failing, and sometimes all at the same time! There are reasons for this. To be blunt, there are many amateur photographers who just don’t have what it takes, but they are enjoying themselves anyway. Good luck to them. I envy them.

Others, for whatever reason, are not disciplined enough to push their raw talent further and draw the essential technical and creative threads together. Some don’t have the time, or have other priorities. Then there are those who have the necessary skills and talent, but can’t be honest enough with themselves to the point were they discard most of their work in favour of a small percentage of shots that are really worth looking at.

Back in my last days of using film I remember returning at dusk to my charming rented accommodation after an exhilarating day clambering around Horn Head, County Donegal. I can recommend a visit. I took a lot of time over almost every frame I shot, using a tripod and experimenting with lenses and my grey grad, as it used to be known, but I knew that when I sat at the computer to analyse the index scans in detail, only a few would survive. Most were scrapped. Sometimes I have to be ruthless.

Back in 2003-4 my observations online suggested to me that digital technology had given rise to an unstoppable wave of inconsequential imagery – like the kind of shots we associate with camera reviews in magazines, and worse. When I looked at my not-long-out-of-the-box EOS 300D I thought to myself: Don’t Shoot Lots of Rubbish. But, do you know what? I went ahead and did it anyway.

I remember reading decades ago about an accomplished outdoor photographer who was especially pleased when 3 shots out of a 36-frame roll were worth keeping. This should come as no surprise. Is it reasonable that advanced amateurs and even competent pros should have expected such a low success rate from a very carefully shot roll of film? How comfortable are you with this?

Good photographs that we can confidently share are a lot fewer than many of us care to admit. It could be argued that there’s no point in churning out a staggering 5000+ shots a year and then fall at the last hurdle by failing to diligently whittle them down to the very small number that really exude the essentials. We need to lose the dead shots.

Some shots take careful planning. I spent quite some time on this one, from concept to pressing the shutter.

Some shots take careful planning. I spent quite some time on this one, from concept to pressing the shutter button.

So, how about asking yourself some tough questions about your most recent batch of serious images? Have a good look at them once again. A lot will depend on what you’re shooting. Absorbing documentary photography will rarely need to resort to the studious technicalities associated with delicate landscape photography. But in general, think long and hard about your latest shots.

Does the composition work? Is the subject matter strong enough? Was the exposure nailed properly? Is creativity lacking? Did that shot need a tripod to extend the DoF, but you just couldn’t be bothered? Did you view the subject from various angles first? Should you have returned to the same spot when the light was better?

Even committed hobbyists need to be hard on themselves once in a while, unsparingly trawling through their work, discarding those shots that lack impact. It isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

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2 thoughts on “Lose the Dead Shots

  1. Well Samuel you read my blog posts so I am choosing to read yours. I see some very inspiring photos in your blog. Years ago my husband tried his hand at photography. Each fall we would travel to Colorado when the fall foliage was so beautiful and my husband would literally wear his camera out. Some shots were beautiful, some were just ok. He loved being an outdoor photographer. We traveled Arizona so my husband could capture every rock arch he could find to photograph, including the famous Rainbow Bridge on Lake Powell. He acquired some magnificent
    photographs. His hobby continued for several decades, but other hobbies and activities finally took the place of photography. I know from reading your blog that photography gives you much joy,

    • Thanks so much. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed looking around. It sounds like your husband really got into his outdoor photography, and I’m sure it helped a lot that you were supportive. Like many hobbies it can be hard to work them into the demands of life, but it’s very satisfying getting the images you’re after. Keeps the passion alive!

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