Reducing the Obvious

“The question is not what you look at but what you see.”

                                                               Henry David Thoreau

When we are confronted with a beautiful scene our first reaction is to take a photo.  “Done – can’t wait to show my friends. Let’s get lunch.”  This is what I would call the obvious photo. A snapshot.

What do I mean by the ‘obvious’?  Well, in photographic terms (mine) the ‘obvious’ is what is seen and taken as a snapshot by 95% of the population (or 100% of tourists!)  It is what is right in front of you, not what is behind, above, below, beneath and all around you.  It is usually very beautiful and worth a snap, but like most things that are beautiful, it may have many parts and aspects that make it so.

Most of my work is shot in cities, where people with camera phones and other photographers are in abundance. Cities create a good tension because I am always aware that every view or building that I photograph has not only been copiously photographed, but is probably being photographed at the very second I am pushing the shutter button.  It reminds me to push myself further, to see something new, to find a different photographic path.

So what can we do to obtain that special shot that no one else will? Here are a few super simple tips I like to use:

1.      Deconstruct the scene

My favourite thing to do is to de-construct a beautiful scene and make it my own. A simple example is a landscape, say with a vast range of smoky mist-capped mountains beyond a winding river valley (Ansel Adams comes to mind).  Really nice you say.  Indeed it is.  Who wouldn’t want that photo – it’s what we are there for, right?

Now stop. Look again ‘inside’ the scene:  see that tree with light playing just on the top half and the way the light reflecting from the water illuminates the shadowed side of the tree opening up the dark.  If I captured just that small part of the scene wouldn’t that also be a good photo?  Maybe even better?

The only difference between the two photos is you.  You make it yours by seeing it.  And your vision is like no one else’s.  You have made something special because you are ‘seeing’,  and you saw when everyone else was enraptured by the obvious.    Most people won’t see that tree or the light play on it.     Most people are not aware that there is more to the scene for whatever reason; time, interest, mood, etc.  As a good photographer you cannot help but to ‘see’ that piece of the obvious and make it yours.

2.      Look in the opposite direction

Here’s another way.  One late sunny afternoon I found myself on Westminster Bridge with twenty other photographers and we are all taking the photo (below) because well, the light was awesome.


I then started to look around as the light was fading.  To my left, I saw this ice cream kiosk and behind me St Thomas’ Hospital in that epic light, but it had a different quality as it fell on the buildings and the people scattering  in different directions.


I thought to myself how beautiful the hospital looked as the sun faded. And I loved how the light inside the ice cream kiosk began to get brighter relative to the daylight, like it was glowing.  Which is a better photo?  It all comes down to personal taste, but for me  the better photo is the one only I saw.


3.      Look for the photographers

Although Venice is one of the top touristy cities, I was really surprised (or am I, having spent many years dodging them?) that tourists seem to confine themselves to a few well worn routes.  Venice still has a quite serenity. But what happens if you want to shoot St Mark’s Square, for example?  My  dawn advantage was, for once,  limited. It was the one place where photographers were already up and shooting. One morning I shot the square with the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen.   A few Venetian Carnevale characters emerged, posing in front of the canal, bathed in pink light. In front of them was a scrum of photographers, snapping away like paparazzi. I didn’t want to miss this incredible light, and looking around I realised the best photo for me was of the photographers photographing. The less obvious.


(By the way, I went back to St Marks Square after a night’s rain and got a lovely shot. Rain puts photographers off in a big way!)

4.      Shoot the third thing
I came across this quote about writing a few years ago and it struck me as a concept that could also apply to photography.  Victoria Coren wrote about advice she had received from her father, the late writer Alan Coren:

“Don’t write the first thought that comes into your head, because that is what everyone will write. And don’t write the second thought that comes into your head, because that is what the clever people will write. When you hit on a third thought, pick up the pen. That one is just  yours.”

5.      Don’t be afraid not to shoot 

Sometimes I go out with the intention of shooting, particularly for my dawn projects, and never take any photos. I took my family to Paris for several months to shoot my book Paris at Dawn and each morning I’d arrive home with warm fresh croissants. The first thing my wife would say was, not thank you for the croissants (!) but how many shots did you get? I think she was computing it all in her head, like hours worked = shots taken = % of project finished. I would often say none, didn’t even take out my camera, and her face would fall. Over time she realised what was going on.  I did get all the photographs in the end.  Some mornings there would be 3 rolls of film, sometimes none, and sometimes just a couple of shots.

Unless you are on assignment there is no pressure to shoot. I think telling yourself you will only shoot something that really inspires you is a great discipline and makes you work harder to find something unique and original. Getting you beyond ‘the obvious’.