There’s Nothing Here to Photograph !

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from photographers is ‘there’s nothing there to photograph’ – wherever “there” happens to be.

I moved over to Lincolnshire about 2 years ago now, from the fringes of the Peak District – and on asking local photographers where I could go to shoot, I heard the same thing over and over – there’s nothing here – Lincolnshire is too flat – there’s just nothing of any interest…. ‘you’re so lucky to have lived in the Peak District – we go there for our photography’

Grey Seal Portrait

So, having realised I wasn’t going to get much help, I decided to do, what I did where I lived before, and that was to make like a tourist, and drive round till I found something interesting.  I joined the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, and found they had 94 separate reserves and so even if I visited only one a week, that was nearly 2 years worth of exploring.

So deciding to drive around every reserve, even those off the beaten track, I got a good map and started to mark off where I’d been, which roads I’d been down, and not repeat any till I’d covered them all.

Some places were not that exciting, but some I ended up returning to again and again…. and this is what this blog piece is all about.

It WAS a good plan, a great strategy if you will, with the idea that once I’d been down that road – visited that reserve – I didn’t need to go again. After all, there were plenty more to visit.  What I hadn’t thought through though, was that I was ignoring the changes in light, the season, the weather, and the changes in me.

I visited places – thought they were pretty, but didn’t photograph them as I should have – thinking I could go back and get the same picture later – tomorrow – but you never do, and when, and if you do – its changed.  That tree fell down, buildings went up, the pond dried up.  It might be different when you go back, it might be better, or worse but it won’t be the same.

It’s important, if you want the right photographs to have repeated access to see things at different times.  Of course, if you go on trip abroad, you may only have the one chance to see things, at one time of day.   You might be lucky, and get that shot of a lifetime, but mostly, you don’t.  You need to be able to plan a return visit, at different times of day, to increase your chances of success.

If you can go to the same place more than once, it might be just the same, but if you’re clever, you will target that place for different times of day, different seasons, and so on, increasing your chances of getting a better shot.

Everywhere is interesting if you get the right weather, the right time, the right mood.

The familiar can be just as exciting as the unfamiliar – if you let it.

Spend time getting to know the places you have access to, and the unusual conditions that you haven’t let yourself experience yet.

We live in a county that is a holiday mecca – caravans, mobile homes, great beaches.  People wouldn’t come here if it wasn’t attractive in some way.  There’s probably a lifetime of photography within 50 miles of where we all live.  Travel is good for for our photographic vision, but local views, and our experience of them, can help us too.


Images – Covenham St Bartholomew (colour) and Fotherby Top (mono)




The Value of Failure

When I was younger, I was fascinated by the work that went on in my father’s darkroom.  He was an avid photographer, and shot weddings, and some commercial work in engineering workshops.  I would go with him sometimes, on these outings, and carry gear.  Sometimes I’d get to do exciting things in the workshops – like driving the overhead cranes and watching steel plate being rolled.   I think that the health and safety people would be wringing their hands in despair nowadays.

I would watch in fascination later, as images miraculously appeared on sheets of paper in developing fluid – I spent my childhood surrounded by bottles of developer, fixer, film canisters, and rolls of drying film (pegged up in the bathroom)………

Funnily enough, I hated the entire process – the smells were horrible – sitting in a dark room (maybe with a red light for company) – no ventilation (well we were sat in what amounted to a large cupboard, converted for the process).  It was hot, sweaty and uncomfortable.  It was the image making – the appearance of the darks and lights on the paper that was the fascinating part.

Later on, even in the digital era – I had to relearn how to process both film and pictures at college.  It slowed me down, but I still didn’t like the smells…….

What film taught me, was how to be patient, and how to slow down, and how to work towards a goal that may never be fully achieved.

I’m constantly looking for that one picture, the one image that will set me aside from everyone else, that will allow me to be ‘discovered’ – so as film processing has influenced my photographic journey, so digital processing has allowed me to make more mistakes, faster than ever…….

Even those who make mistakes, and fall flat on their face, are at least moving forward.  It’s productive in photography to experiment, to try different media, and be willing to fail. I would go so far as to say that the most fascinating photographers I have met, have all been experimenters, and have all failed at something.


The photographers who are the least interesting, in my head, are the ones who are doing exactly the same thing they were doing 10 years ago.  They are the ones who are least willing to fail, the ones least willing to experiment.  The ones least willing to stray outside their comfort zone.  It’s a great idea to introduce randomness in your life.

A photographer said to me recently – “It’s great working with you, you have so many zany creative ideas” – which was lovely to hear, as it means I’m moving forwards, and not backwards, or worse, standing still.

The thing is….. it doesn’t matter if I fail… it really doesn’t matter if the experiment, the idea, the trial, doesn’t work – what have I lost?  I’ve probably gained some different ideas, maybe even worked out what I can do to make the next shoot successful.  Maybe it didn’t work THIS time, but maybe it will work next time.

Go out in the wrong weather, with the wrong gear, the wrong location, the wrong mood.  It will introduce randomness into your life, encourages discovery – takes it outside your comfort zone.

The idea of failure should push us forward as photographers. Failure can lead us to success as photographers and we (deep down) know that it’s true.

The image below, has been a successful one for me – it was an accident.  I’d seen similar images and with some research worked out pretty much how they were done.  Following the idea through, resulted in this image.  It’s won a number of competitions, and involved me in a lot of conversations about ‘how it was done’ (and if you want to know how it was done – just drop me a line – it’s a bit long to ramble on about here).


Introduce some randomness into your creative process – it will increase the number of ‘failures’ but, if we pay attention to them, we will find more potential that would normally come our way.

Could you not have moved three steps to the left?

We’ve all heard it……  the judge looks at the photograph and calmly states that if you’d moved about three steps to the left or the right, the composition would have changed for the better……  and we all know, that in moving those three steps, the photographer would be heading, head first, down a flight of steps – falling off a cliff – stepping into deep water – or stepping into something unfortunate.

We all laugh, but what should we be really be expecting from our judges…. ?

To quote one example ”

‘To judge and criticise constructively, demands a depth of knowledge, at least equal to that of the author of the work.  In the case of a competition, the judge’s expertise should at least be equal to that of the best exhibitor”

So, what is the judge looking for?

  1. Focus – it’s vital that the relevant parts of an image are sharp.  In portraiture, it’s usual that the eyes are focal part of the image – they should be the windows to the soul, and therefore the sharpest point.  The eye is drawn to sharp parts of an image.
  2. Crooked Horizons – especially where there is water – if the horizon is off, then it just looks like the water is about to flow out of the image.
  3. “Flat” colours – images that have been processed to bring out detail in all the shadows and highlights – this can leave a  washed out looking image, with ‘muddy’ colours.  This can be unattractive to the viewer.
  4. Blown out highlights – whites with  no detail are a huge distraction. Clouds, water, white clothing.  It can be used effectively sometimes, but please use with great care.
  5. Black black shadow areas – similar to blown out highlights – areas with no detail, just blocks of black – for example in a treeline, that unless in silhouette could have some detail in there.
  6. White halo round edges – usually caused by over sharpening – or HDR toning – found sometimes around the tops of hills, or mountains which encroach into sky.
  7. Cropping – too tight, too loose.  If there’s a moving ‘thing’ bus, train, plane etc – leave it room to move into -same applies to people who are moving. Don’t be tempted to cram too much into an image.
  8. HDR (High Dynamic Range) – this can be great when it’s done correctly, but terrible when it’s not.  Images can look over-saturated, and flat.
  9. Sensor Dirt – please don’t leave it on the image – spot it out – make your images clean and presentable.
  10. Converging Verticals – can work well sometimes – and can add drama to an image, but please check that if everything else is straight you don’t leave buildings at a lean, where there is no need.
  11. Colour casts – try to make  your white balance as it should be – ensure that skin tones are accurate. Check that white areas are actually white.  Learn to use the white balance tool in camera RAW, or in Lightroom, or other software. Don’t try to correct by eye.
  12. Bright areas on the edge of pictures – the human eye is generally drawn to the brightest part of an image – if that part is on the edge -then it’s hard to draw your eye away from that to the main subject.  Don’t give the judge a chance to be distracted.
  13. Bits of object (usually trees) encroaching on the edges of images – I’ve seen half a person, or just a few disembodied tree branches.  In then end it looks careless.
  14. Mounts – judges generally don’t like coloured mounts – try to keep your presentations clean and professional looking.  That purple mount may look great, but does it compliment the picture inside?  If it doesn’t – then don’t use it.

If you’re not sure how an image looks, get a friend to look at them with you – a second pair of eyes can make all the difference.  If you are a member of a camera club, show your images there before you enter a competition.  I’ve been told that if you turn your photo upside down and look at it, you’ll see more errors – personally I’ve not tried it, but it’s worth a second of your time.

And finally – enjoy your photography – I tend to think of photography competitions a bit like taking your dog to a dog show.  When you lose,  you bring your dog home, and you love him all the same.  Similar with photographs…  let the judge see it – take the critique in a good spirit, bring it home, and maybe still love it for what it is, and the fact that it means something to you -but also learn from the comments – you just might be surprised……



It aint’ the camera folks

One of the things that I hear all the time is that the camera does not make the photograph, the photographer does.  I want to reiterate this again –

“It is NOT the camera”……  honestly, it’s not.

I judge a lot of photographic competitions, and I look at a LOT of pictures.  I also, (given the opportunity) look at the EXIF information. (EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File Format) – On each and every shot, the camera records not only the date and time, but all the other camera settings used to record the photo. That includes the shutter speed, aperture setting, ISO setting, if the flash was used, the focal length and lots lots more.  Lots of web applications allow you to see the EXIF information – as does Lightroom and Photoshop.  So when I’m given lots of files to look at, I always check this information as a matter of course.

It’s not that I’m being particularly nosy, it’s just that I’m interested to see what cameras people are using.  I don’t use this as part of the judging process – after all, I’m only really interested in the end result when I’m scoring, or marking images.

There’s an interesting conclusion I’ve come to – it doesn’t matter what the camera is…. I’ve seen great shots taken on an i-pad, and technically very poor shots taken with a Hasselblad.  There is in fact no relationship between the image, and the camera it was shot with.

The only time it really does matter – is when you come to produce prints.  You can get fairly decent ones from an iphone – great ones from Canon or Nikon flagship cameras – and the issue here is size.  Size matters.

Projected images are sized to the projector – and we can get away with images shot on the ipad, and compact cameras – however, if you want to produce a 40” print, you’re going to need more pixels, more quality, and a better camera.  But for smaller prints, maybe the ones you have in your home, any camera is capable of making images.  And, if you really want large images, then make a panorama, and stitch them all together……    think though, how many really large images do you want, or can fit into your home.

Camera quality counts of course, but more important in my mind is the lens.

Some photographers think that the better the camera, the better the picture – is that so?  No – it’s all down to clever marketing from the big companies.  They would have you believe that you can’t function without the latest in their new range. The added gizmo – the higher ISO capability – the GPS – the wifi……  Does the average photographer really need ALL of those things.

Essentially, you should choose the camera you use, not for all its features, or even how expensive it is – you should choose based on what you want that camera to do for YOU, and importantly how it feels in your hand.  Does it ‘fit’ you – is it intuitive to use.

I would always choose a new lens, over a new body.  In the end analysis – camera bodies will come and go, but the glass will stay with you.  Buy the best you can afford, as here you most definitely get what you pay for.  Remember that there is no such thing as a 50-500 zoom, that is going to beat (in terms of image quality) a 50mm prime.

After all that’s done – it’s down to software, and what the photographer does with it.

Photographers largely fall into two camps – those that process, and those that don’t.

There’s a group of guys on Facebook, who swear by their ‘SOOC’ (Straight out of camera shots) – these are the ones who allow the camera to do all the work – though admittedly they are swapping lens, and changing focal lengths during a long exposure time. A very skillful business.   Any in camera processing though that goes on, is the work of Japanese engineers at the time the camera is built – and many good results come from that………

Secondly, there are the people for whom the taking of an image is only the start of the process – images are broken down, and put back together in new and creative ways. This might be as simple as cropping, or as complex as combining many different photographs into one image.

This isn’t about heavy handed work, and the ‘lets slap on a filter’, it’s about totally transforming what they took at the outset into something different.

The extreme is the over the top HDR (High Dynamic Range) images – usually created by taking a number of shots of the same image at different exposures and the combining them together to create something altogether otherworldly.  Sometimes it works, but mostly it hurts my eyes.

In conclusion – I’d say that I’m very honoured to be allowed to see so many images that other people have taken.  I love seeing their creative ideas.  There is so much to learn from what other people shoot, how they shoot it, and what they shoot it with.