Simple ideas: Shoot the third thing

Good day to you all,

I am sitting in a beautiful square (where there is wifi :)) in Trinidad, Cuba, a stunning little town nestled between some verdant green mountains, tobacco fields and the sea. I arrived yesterday and am loving photographing the wonderful tropical light here; this town that feels like it’s been frozen in time.

There is a small dog near me chewing on a very large bone, and about 100 roosters are crowing. The winds are gently sweeping through the square, and I am sitting with my face to the sun. This is an amazing adventure. The wifi is nowhere near good enough for me to send photos of where I am at at the moment – so you’ll just have to imagine :). 

Now – tropical paradises aside – I have a really cool, simple idea to help your photography today.

I like giving you ideas that are really simple, so when you are out in the thick of it, camera in hand, you have something to pull out of your toolbox that is both easy to remember and to put into practise. It’s important with any form of learning that you practise what you learn – otherwise you’ll forget it! Which is an added incentive for me to give you simple tools and ideas to help you.

This is one of hundreds of shots I have taken of the Grand Canal, and I will continue to take. It is always a different experience.

Plus – all the best people loved simplicity (Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci) If it was good enough for them… then it’s certainly good enough for us! 

The greatest ideas are the simplest. William Golding

This idea is based on the magical number of three. I’ve already given you another technique for composing with three elements, this is another three-themed idea. 

A few years ago I came across this piece of advice from the writer Victoria Coren, and it really struck me as not just a great piece of advice for writers, but also photographers too. I often talk about it on my workshops, so you might already heard me mention it.

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. 

So clearly for us photographers – I am translating it into shoot the third thing. This is a great way for you to get beyond the obvious shot. The one that everyone else is taking. It’s also great to get beyond the not so obvious shot, but still pretty common – that all the clever people are taking. Shooting the third thing – and this comes in many forms which I will explore in this article – that should be just yours.

This is super relevant to me because I am usually shooting places and subjects that are highly familiar, highly photographed. I am always looking to shoot my subjects in ways that are interesting and unique to me. I don’t want my Paris to look like anyone else’s Paris. 

For me this is a super simple way to remember to not just shoot, but to pause, look and then compose. Anything that helps you pause and think through the shot before you take it is massively beneficial in my book (unless of course it’s one of those urgent amazing moments you have to capture, but you do still want to try and get the best composition. So pausing is always relevant).

So how can we bring this piece of advice – of shooting the third thing – into a practical situation? 

I shot a lot of cafes around sunrise in East London, that’s where there was so much life. But I didn’t get anything I liked, nothing that popped until I found this reflection. Then I waited, took a bunch of shots, until the people in the cafe were doing something interesting. 

Use this idea when it comes to positioning and finding the best angle. This is a subject that comes up all of the time in my workshops. People find a great subject but most people are not exploring the scene enough to find the perfect angle for their subject. It’s one of the top three challenges most photographers face, I would say.

Now here I got this shot, which to me seemed like the right angle, a good shot.

I liked the scene, and the dark, negative space around the vendor. But then I thought, OK let’s try another angle, let’s see what else is here in the scene, so I got closer, and moved around, until I ended up with this:

I prefer this shot, Di prefers the first one, but can you see that even if you think you’ve got a great shot straight off, still think about this idea of the third thing, still think what more can I do here? You can think about this in terms of – I like the scene, let’s shoot it from at least three different angles.

Use this when approaching a monument, a statue of a very static but not very interesting subject. I like the ‘shoot the third thing’ as an approach for shooting any famous building, monument or statue. This is the Galata Tower, a very important and historical building in Istanbul. But it’s just a tall thin tower. Not super-interesting to shoot. So I have looked around, thought how I could capture it in a way that is interesting and not just shoot it straight on (which most people do), and I came up with this, framed by this cool looking street.

I did the same thing with this column – and I’ve shot a lot of columns and statues this way – by adding another element, whether that is some kind of framing or beautiful, beautiful light.


Use this idea when picking a theme for your subject

I’ve talked in the past how I always am looking to get a different view on these world famous beautiful cities I photograph. I want to see their beauty, but also the things that make the city what it is – and there are usually a lot of parts that are challenging. 

Here are some shots I took in Venice when I was looking around, digging a bit deeper, and not going for the first thing that caught my eye.

What I was thinking about was – don’t just do the obvious vision of Venice – pretty, grand, breathtaking. Or my second thought was decay and beauty, but then I thought there must be something else. 

Yes, I am always looking for light, but what else is the city showing me? So I remembered the textures of decay in Venice. Not just the decay but what it feels like in the detail of the city.

This shot is of the decay and disrepair of Venice. The city is stunningly gorgeous, but also a bit rough and aging. The decay, though, also creates all these cool textures – and I love photographing textures.

I do of course have lots of the breathtaking and beautiful shots too – but I’ve spent a lot of time there, so I’ve got all kinds of mini-projects about every city I’ve been too.

These are also beautiful textures, and with that contrasting light – the blues, yellows, very nice.

Go beyond what everyone else is doing. When you are where a lot of other people are shooting, ask yourself – what is everyone else doing? What can I see that is different? In touristy cities it’s actually quite easy – find the photographers and go in the opposite/different direction. Or even simpler, look behind you. It’s stunning how many people look towards the obvious scene, like the beautiful sunrise over water, but not behind them, to what the light is doing to the world around us. 

Once you notice how a person’s eye is usually drawn to the obvious subject in a scene, you’ll see how much more there is to shoot that is less obvious; it’s almost like watching lemmings.

This shot was in an abandoned building in Venice that I found. Not at all what I was expecting, but again – this feels a bit like it’s being left to be reclaimed by nature.

In Paris I felt that getting beneath the surface of the super pretty, picture perfect image was really important. There is a lot of urination and dog poo on the streets of Paris – very surprising to me – and the city gets obsessively cleaned every morning. There is also a lot of graffiti everywhere. So I liked to contrast those themes of pretty and grit, mainly because I found that people seemed to either do grit or do pretty. Why not combine them both I thought?

I was at the Trocadero looking out to the Eiffel Tower at dawn one morning. I had already taken the prerequisite obvious shot of the sunrise rising behind the Tower – and to contradict myself for a moment, it was a great shot (although I had had to come back to this spot repeatedly in order to get the right sunrise).

So maybe here the advice could be translated to:  if you love a spot visit it at least three times – perhaps during different light/weathers! I go back to my favourite spots all over the world repeatedly because they always change – weather, light, time – nothing stays the same in this world.

Now this scene below is not an uncommon shot at all – I had seen a version of it on a guide in Paris. But I think I added a unique touch (though I won’t claim totally unique) with the cleaning men. Which is another thing to think about – what can you include that you would normally, perhaps reflexively, leave out? 

So I really hope that was an interesting little exploration for you on how you go about shooting a scene or a subject. How you get beyond the obvious!

Please let me know by the way if this was interesting / useful. Would love to hear. Comment below. It’s amazing and awesome to hear from you – thank you for taking the time. 

And please do share this with anyone you know who might like photography, thanks 🙂

Anthony and Diana