Don’t Let Technique Take Over

By Tom Miles on September 4th, 2013

We've all been there and done it, and I'm not ashamed to admit to having done it myself many times. You think to yourself, "Shallow depth of field with ring flash, that's the answer. That's what my work needs." And then out you go and do a whole job using that approach, and wonder why the shots look lovely but feel rubbish. Usually this is because there's nothing actually in them, and all you've been doing is a technical exercise.

Choose the appropriate technique for what you're shooting — gritty, dramatic lighting is great for the shot of the weightlifter, but perhaps not for the lifestyle shot.

A film director doesn't generally start a movie by thinking "What I want is a really good shot under fluorescent light" and somehow try and hang a story around it. They start with a story and use the techniques of film to tell the story. Just because you've got a ring flash does not mean you have to use it.

Think of techniques as tools — you pick the right one for the job, and the more you know, the wider variety of jobs and situations you can handle. To continue the analogy, you wouldn't use a wrench to hammer in a rawl plug, any more than you'd use a hammer to tighten a nut. Likewise, there's a time and a place for moody dramatic lighting, and a time to break out the softboxes and the reflectors. In the same vein, adding a lens flare in Photoshop or whacking the high-pass filter to full power can sometimes be very effective, but let's be honest — we don't need to see it on every shot.

Rules are made to be broken, of course, and we all know that sometimes using an inappropriate tool can yield superb results. The secret lies in knowing when you can muck about and when you need to play safe, and although I'd love to provide a quick cheat for knowing when this is, the simple truth is there's no substitute for experience.

The results of a “Technical Test” — the shot on the left was made purely to see if the approach would work, and to perfect the lighting and set build before the portfolio shoot on the right.

Now, there's no harm in shooting for purely technical ends; that's how we broaden our skill base and make our toolbox bigger. However, I'd suggest that you shoot specifically with this in mind, rather than being led by it. Personally I often shoot what I call "technical tests," which I use to simply refine new lighting approaches, equipment, Photoshop effects and so on. Occasionally the results from the shoot are outstanding, but generally they simply demonstrate how best to use something (or occasionally how not to), and the finished shots don't end up in the portfolio. However, when it comes to the next job, I've got another technique in my back pocket, which I can employ as required.

Technique (and technical methods) should be almost completely invisible, certainly as far as your subject is concerned. (I'm assuming your subject is human here — still life objects don't tend to care either way!) If you spend most of your shoot faffing about with lights, settings and so on, you'll almost certainly lose any connection to the person in front of the camera, and it will only be the most professional model or outstanding extrovert who still has something to give when you come to actually take the shot. Practice your craft, ideally with patient subjects, inanimate objects, household pets or someone who owes you a favour. Make it second nature, take copious notes you can refer to later, and then when it comes to the "real thing," you'll glide along quite happily and be able to concentrate on what you want your picture to say, rather than what f-stop you're at.

“The Kiss in Front of the Hotel de Ville”, by Robert Doisneau. It's grainy, very blurry in places, and there's a woman's head growing out of the man's shoulder, but that doesn't stop it being an awesome photo.

Many of the most famous photographs in history are technically flawed in one way or other, but that doesn't detract from their impact. I doubt many people (except true photo geeks) would look at a shot like Robert Doisneau's "The Kiss in Front of the Hotel de Ville" and think, "Oh it's a bit grainy and soft, and it's only in black and white. What that needs is good bit of high-pass filter and a lens flare." Remember that photography is about communicating ideas and emotions, rather than just an excuse to show off the latest kit you've bought.

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About the Author

Tom Miles is a London-based photographer who first picked up an SLR at 13, and, after getting hooked on the photography bug good and proper by the nice folk at his local paper, started shooting seriously at the ripe old age of 15. After 3 years at Blackpool College studying a photography degree, he moved to London to work as a photographer's assistant. After 3 more years, roughly 30 different photographers, and some lucky breaks, he started shooting in his own right for various magazines. These days he shoots extensively for Men's Health, Runner's World, Men's Fitness, Golf Monthly, many other magazines, PR companies, book publishers, and even the occasional advertising job. He's shot more than 100 magazine covers and generally wears a camera body out once every few years! You can find him at www.tmphoto.co.uk and www.photosmudger.com, , or on Twitter @photosmudger.


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