I know WHAT it is but WHY did you take that photo?

I feel like something of a scratched record about this, banging on about photographic intentions yet again. But it’s important. Not “life-or-death” important; like football, it’s far more important than that, with all due deference to Bill Shankly.

Another Place, Crosby

I’m sometimes shown pictures and asked what I think of them and how they could be improved. (More often I see pictures and offer my opinion uninvited, but let’s skate over that.) After I’ve enquired what the pictures are about, I’m often struck by the impulse to ask “Why bother?” But I don’t usually say it quite like that, mainly because a lot of my images also fall into that category.

When I eventually get an answer to the question “What made you take the shot?” or “What was it about the scene compelled you to press the shutter button?”, the answers invariably include the following, all of them excuses I’ve made myself at one time or another:

It looked nice

And that’s just fine.

But what do you want me to say? “No, it isn’t” doesn’t cut the mustard, and certainly doesn’t make for a comfortable chat. If you were aiming for “nice” then well done. But if you are looking for ways of improving your picture, then making it “more nice” is tricky. Picking apart what “nice” means to you would be a constructive way forward but experience tells me that’s not quite what you’re after.

Occasionally I might suggest taking away the colours and turning it into a monochrome picture. Does it still work? Does it work better? If not we can move right on to our next excuse:

The colours were pretty / bright / striking

A variant on the “nice” theme, but a step forward. We’re getting closer to a motivation. But: did you fill the picture with the colours? If the colour was the important thing, how did you emphasise it?

I wanted a record of it

Buy a postcard?

No, if you are motivated by photography as aide-memoire, I’m not going to knock it. But I would ask if you’re actually taking photographs of the things you really need help remembering. Is it just a catalogue you’re creating, or a scrapbook? Are they the pictures in 10 or 20 years you’ll be poring over with your grandchildren?

Really, thinking about it, they’ll get bored by ANY pictures you make them look at, but they’ll usually try to be very polite about it …

Still – buy a postcard!

It’s meant to be arty

Do I need to give this a title?

OK, now we can have an in depth conversation about the concept behind the image. We can’t? OK, refer to “nice” above. Oh, you mean the image should speak for itself?

Well, that’s an opinion.

More coffee?

Its a holiday snap

Moving on ….

That’s my wife/children/sundry siblings

… to more dangerous territory. Silence is golden …

It took me days to get this photograph

Heron under railway bridge, Victoria Station, Manchester

OK, I can understand the attraction of this sort of photography. Typically wildlife photography can be like this. Doing your homework, getting set up, waiting, spending time looking, seeing your target and eventually going home with a great image. You probably already know how you want to improve the picture, so why not ask directly?

But: as a consumer of the image I really don’t care what it took to take it. For me, it’s an extreme record shot. Almost, but not quite, as incomprehensible as extreme ironing, and veering perilously close to “nice” – see above.

The workshop leader / magazine article / my best friend said it was a classic view

St Marks, Venice

Well, is it? What do you think? What did you do to make your interpretation of it personal? It may be on good authority that what you’re looking at has a pedigree but frankly, so what? You still have to frame and expose your image to your satisfaction, not his. You still have to work with the light at your disposal (or come back later.)

More specifically? Well, perhaps setting the alarm clock a couple of hours earlier would be a good start!

Get thinking

Clearly, motivations for taking photographs vary from person to person. With me, it changes from minute to minute sometimes. But if you want to create pictures that match your expectations or ambitions of them, you need to get specific.

What exactly are you trying to do?

Slow down and think what the end result might look like. Look again at what’s in front of you and describe it to yourself. In words. Out loud if you like or to a friend if you don’t want to be caught talking to yourself.

Start off by describing factually what you see.

From that list, decide what’s important.

Only then take a picture of it

Try to exclude everything else. As much as possible anyway. Zoom in, or walk closer, to it. Fill the frame with it.

Then next time we speak, we can move on to the next question: “How far do YOU think you succeeded in capturing your intention?

And that’s a much more interesting conversation.


Other articles you might like:

Talk about your picture

Try this as an exercise. You’ve got three minutes. Describe your image and give me some idea of what motivated you. Intimidating? Impossible? Here’s how.

I saw the light

This year, a new camera has changed the way I take pictures. I’ll not break the habit of a lifetime – this won’t be a camera review – so this is all about how you see.

Struggling for inspiration? Just keep trying!

Its the middle the day in the middle of summer. The sun’s shining and you’re out with a bunch of friends intent on taking some photographs. And the light’s dreadful. What to do?

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Finding someone else to help with editing our pictures and choose our collections can prove useful. It works in other fields; why not photography too?