What to photograph?

Finding your photographic territory. In the end, you can only make yourself happy.

If you take pictures for money, most clients tell you what to photograph and how they want it to look, while leaving the skill to you.

Other people’s problems. Some professionals earn their large incomes, and my astonished respect, by photographing most superbly when the jobs seem most hopeless. Hard-working and giften problem solvers, some of them are actually grateful for “impossible” assignments that bring out the best in them. These are rare people. I am not one of them, and I don’t suppose you are likely to be one.

Camera clubs and contests. Camera clubs sometimes provide amateurs with a client-substitute, in the form of cliques and competitions that ordain who shall photograph what, and in what established manner. The results are judged by success in conforming to decree. Club leaders and content winners are typically better at pleasing others than at finding their own approaches and pleasing themselves. They might do better to earn money with their talents. The losers and also losers.

The best I can say for camera clubs is that they provide their members with limited stimulation and technical help, usually leavened with confusion. The best clubs really help, but they are rare. Most clubs seem to be socially deadening, though they may be socially enjoyable. They tend to standardize and depersonalize photography. An individualist in a club may have enjoyable battles, but he is not likely to win anyone over to their viewpoint.

The survival of the unfittest. Professionals and camera-clubs kings compete for money, medals and status, more than they work to express anything they see and feel. They convert ugly ducklings into cardboard swans on demand, by sheer resourcefulness and hard work.

Prospecting for ideas. Camera magazines and books that tell you how to photograph generally contain both useful and useless ideas. There is good ore in most of them, but you have to do your own smelting.

“Authorities” are often just people who think that they know. Indeed, some do know what they are saying, but you can learn which are which only by trying out the things they advise. Find out for yourself. You can’t count on others to think or see for you.

George won’t do it? Who will? With no clubs, clients, or authorities to tell us what to do, we independent amateurs and artists must decide for ourselves. From start to finish, it’s entirely up to us.

Who decides? In my work, I decide. In your work, you decide.

This freedom is a privilege and a problem. If we don’t solve the problem, the pictures and the privilege are no good, and photography becomes an expensive bore.


Horrible cliche. People sometimes say, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” They are usually wrong on both counts. They know too much that isn’t so much about art; and they don’t know what they like, but only what they think they ought to like.

The truth behind the cliche. If you know accurately what you really like, you hold the key to using photography or any other medium of expression well. Technical information and acquired skill aside, that’s all you need to know about art – a word that no one can define anyway.

Pay attention to yourself. Start noticing how you feel about the things you see, and you will soon know what to photograph and how to show it in your pictures.

The problem is to recognize your own photographic territory, which might be anything and anywhere. It can be a rational aim or an irrational urge. One is as good as another.

A rational purpose. Lewis W. Hine, who made many moving photographs, started as a sociologist and teacher with a rational aim: “There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.” Often they came together in the same package. Hine had the luck to know his territory from the start – the problem of social injustice, seen through seeing people. He had a message he was burning to deliver, and he chose photography for his tool.

A lot of us are not that lucky. We buy a camera because it’s a fascinating machine, then look for something to do with it. All dressed up and no place to go.

You don’t need a program. Compared to Hine, most photographers, including me, have no such clear purpose; but you don’t need a definable mission. I can’t tell you what your motivation for photographing is or should be: that’s strictly up to you.

For example, I can tell you something about my own approach – the only one I know much about.

I am self indulgent. When I photograph, I’m scratching the same itch that makes people gossip or tell jokes; only this gossip is visual, not verbal. There is nothing exalted about it, and it does not transcend any reality whatever. It tries to pass an experience on as nearly intact as possible.

What happens, and (maybe) why. The process is that something comes in my eye and stimulates me to shoot because I’m bursting to let it out again – preferably to inflict in on an audience. If the audience likes it too, so much the better; but my photography is selfish, not altruistic. I do it for me.

You don’t have to please people. Photography is not a popularity contest. Your best pictures confirm and clarify your own experience – directly or indirectly, facts or dreams. Whether other people like them at first site is secondary. Real pictures eventually find an appreciative audience. Pictures calculated to please soon lose their audience.

How much is enough? You can, like Lewis Hine, photograph what you love and hate in full consciousness. But your feeling does not have to be a raging passion to lead to strong photographs. It can be quiet; it can be outside the range of words. Many people photograph because pictures can show things that words can’t say. Loud or silent, explainable or not, a clear feeling in any strength can be enough. If it comes through in the picture, it can be definitely enough.

Limitations. The still camera in black-and-white photography is not wired for sound, smell, touch, or even color, to name only a few of it’s limitations. But what it shows, it can show either weakly or with incredible clarity, force and conviction. To get strong pictures, you must generally work within the limitations of the medium. To push them – often a good idea – you must first be acquainted with them, or you will usually fail.

A twist of the mind. I have a private, rationalized way to pick my shots. When I look around at the world, when I see something that “wants to be photographed,” I take the picture if I can. It’s a matter of recognition, a “yes” signal. The method is intuitive. The want, of course, is my own.

What should you shoot? What should be expressed? The subject and the feeling can be anything. The only restrictions are the technical restrictions of photography. When you’re up against them, try anyway, or a calculated risk basis, instead of telling yourself you can’t do it. Our idea of our limits is sometimes too conservative, and film is cheap. Good photographers cheerfully, carefully, selectively, push their technical luck.

Your own territory in photography – what you shoot and how you handle it – is the visual side of anything you care about. It’s whatever you see more sensitively through the camera.


The camera and the eye see differently. The eye normally sees selectively. It picks out whatever interests you the most and ignores everything else. But the camera is utterly indiscriminate and incapable of being interested.

Learn to see indiscriminately. To use the camera perceptively enough to get more good surprises than bad ones in your pictures, you must learn to see indiscriminately too.

We need selectivity in most photographs, but first we need to see all that will appear in them.

Seeing selectively. The telephone pole that grows out of your mother’s head in a snapshot results from seeing too selectively for photography. You’re interested in her, not the pole, so you concentrate on her and don’t notice the pole. But the camera records it all faithfully, including the pole.

Look at all of it. When you look through the viewfinder of the camera, look at everything there, interesting or not, or it will betray you.

Seeing what’s there. The first problem in shooting is to see what’s in front of you. This is easy; just pay attention to every part of the picture. You will often forget to, at first, but your mistakes will remind you if you look at the pictures as attentively as you need to look at the subject. Indiscriminate seeing is a discipline that needs practice.

Organizing the picture. In the viewfinder, fill your picture with clear shapes, tones and textures of things you care about, in relationships to each other that feel right to you, and leave everything else out, and you’ll have, at least, a well-organized photograph. There’s a good chance it will also carry feeling, which has an astonishing way of leaking in; and feeling is what photography is about. (There is no way to force feeling into pictures.)

Learning to look. You usually can’t consciously take each detail of a picture into account – little that’s worth photographing is that simple. But a strong conscious effort at the start soon pays off by letting you work intuitively, without effort, and still get good results.

There’s a method to it. If you struggle with any difficult matter long and hard enough to get frustrated about, it usually works if it was deeply enough into your mind to simmer on its own. You can then “sleep on it,” and presently you find yourself doing what’s necessary without conscious effort. This is a generally effective learning technique you can use in any field, not just photography.


In printing, as in shooting, the thing that seems hardest to learn is actually in front of you instead of what you wish were there.

Where printing problems come from. Most of our difficult printing problems are really shooting problems: two matching tones have been placed together so you can’t tell one fital area of the print from another. This often happens when we mistake color contrast for light-and-dark contrast. A careful look at the print will show this if you failed to see it when shooting.

The remedy is obvious: Next time, watch the tones you shoot, and don’t let the colors fool you.

Mistakes are easier to avoid than to repair. Few pictures that are weakened by tonal confusion are worth the struggle of printing with enough manipulation to “fake in” clarity. The ones that you do print will remind you to shoot more observantly. The ridiculous amount of labor needed to repair harm that a two-inch camera movement could have prevented is a strong lesson.

After a few such prints you will know that black-and-white film can’t tell one color from another. Then you will see light-and-dark as well as color when you shoot, and your camera will give you fewer printing problems.

Psychological hitch. But first you must see the trouble when it happens in the prints. This is often difficult at first, because we confuse wishes with facts. But wishes don’t reflect and absorb light, so no one else can “see” them in your prints. When you see what’s there instead of what you want to see, the problem vanishes.

An unscrupulous trick. In a sneaky, underhanded way, I have been able to teach students to shoot observantly. I tell them to shoot a picture with a confusing background. No one can do it. As soon as they pay full attention to what they see in the viewfinder, as they much when looking for a confused background, their sense of order takes over, and the pictures become crystal clear.

A basic principle is involved here: The key to clear shooting is to see accurately in the viewfinder; the key to clear printing is to see what’s on the paper with the same accuracy.

The self-evident, simple things are easy to do after the first time, but they are not always easy to arrive at in the first place. Many people find it hard to let go of wishful seeing.


When judging print tones, keep these in mind:

The inspection light.
A good print inspection light in the darkroom is a great help, though you can print well without one. If the light is too bright, you’ll print too dark: if it’s too dim, you’ll print too light. Look at the prints when they’re dry and adjust your inspection light until the problem disappears.

Know your papers.
Different photographic papers darken in different ways when they dry, and each picture takes that darkening differently. If you negatives are good, the mechanics of printing are simple, but accurate tonal judgment isn’t always simple. When you inspection light is right and your eyes are well tuned to the pictures and the paper, there’s usually no problem: a look at the wet print on the inspection board will tell you if it’s too light or too dark, too soft or contrasty, or “just right,” and you know what to do next.

Don’t expect miracles.
If you’re like me, your eye is not always well tuned. My printing judgement fluctuates. Sometimes I’ll print several negatives before I find out that the prints I have been making are disappointing, though I liked them while making them.

Follow through.
Then there is one thing to do: Learn the Lesson. Identify the trouble and print again to eliminate it. If I’ve printed in muddily soft tones, as I sometimes do, the failures tell me to use more contrast next time. Have patience and follow through, and the prints will reward you.

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