By Clive Gracey — Compared to these peculiar periodicals, the magazines I enjoy seem rather staid. I am one of those lonely men who lurk in bookstore magazine racks, thumbing through Photography Today, Black and White Photography and The Journal of Professional Photography until I get noticed by the checkout clerk and told to buy something or get out. One common feature of these various photography magazines I’ve noticed is that around this time of year, almost all of them carry articles that offer tips on how to improve one’s photography. The only variation is the number and complexity of the tips, depending on the sophistication of the journal and the assumed skill-level of the readership.
Most of the tips mentioned in these magazines are related to technical issues, such as exposure, metering, image formats and focal lengths. Given that discussion of such issues often requires the use of technical jargon, they must surely be a turn-off for the novice photographer. I have therefore decided to share with you five pearls of non-technical photographic wisdom that I received from my photography mentor decades ago at Art College.
My tutor, known fondly as Old Bill, was an ex-advertising photographer who had forgotten more about photography that most of us will ever know. His wise words of advice have guided me through decades of practice to become the photographer I am today. Here they are, in no particular order of importance:
Forget about everything that is not in the frame
“If it is not in your photograph, it doesn’t exist as far as I am concerned,” Old Bill would say. “But if it is in the frame, you’d better be able to tell me why, or else!” Unseasoned photographers lift the camera to their eye and look only at the subject they are photographing, ignoring the rusty car, or telegraph wires, or dead donkey in the background.
The seasoned photographer, on the other hand, instinctively scrutinises every square millimetre of the frame in the viewfinder to check that, (a) nothing is there that shouldn’t be there, (b) that everything is there that should be there, and (c) that the subject of the photograph is in a dynamic relationship to the frame.
Take your time
“Photographers are tortoises, not hares,” Old Bill was fond of saying. “Take your time, consider what you are doing and get it right first time in the camera.”
Of course, in those good old days of fully manual capture and wet processing, we had no choice but to take our time and consider every aspect of what we were doing before pressing the shutter release button, otherwise we wasted money. Today, though, thoughtful, measured photographic practice has been replaced by the Kalashnikov approach — take as many shots as you can in the general direction of your subject in as short a time as you can and post onto Facebook or Instagram as fast as you can.
See the world as your camera sees it
“Unless your ambition is to be a Street Photographer along the lines of that French geezer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, there is no need to carry a camera around at all times,” Old Bill used to say. Instead, train yourself to see the world how your camera sees it, not in wide panorama, but in small segments that could work as stand-alone images.
You can also learn to see in both colour and black and white. And when you have spotted a potential photograph, then return with your camera when the conditions are right.
Seek the light
“A draftsman can draw a picture with the end of a charred stick, but a draftsman can draw a better picture with a fine graphite pencil,” Old Bill frequently remarked. “A photographer can draw an image with any light, but a photographer can draw a better image with beautiful, natural light.” To know the best light for your subject, you must wait and observe. The Almighty gave us a fantastic range of natural light, so watch it, understand it and use it to full advantage. And never, ever, in a million years, rely on flash.
Revel in you photography
“If you love what you are doing, you will always seek to do it better. If what you do bores you, you should give it up and do something else,” Old Bill was apt to say whenever any of us yawned during a tutorial.
Photography is one of those few disciplines that appeals to both science nerds and wooly-headed artsy types. The former can become absorbed in the technical and scientific aspects of the medium, whereas the latter may lose themselves in the expressive and aesthetic elements of image making. Whichever aspect of photography excites you, throw yourself at it wholeheartedly, live and breathe it, otherwise you are only a dabbler.
Poor old Bill fell off a ladder and died over thirty years ago. I keep hearing his gravelly voice, though, every time I lift my camera to my eye.