Here are the boring photos I took before I got the shot

What are the shots I take before the great shot? How do I hone in on a scene and find something interesting?

Someone asked me this question the other day and it sort of chimes in with what Di was talking about when we were selecting images for my book.

“Wouldn’t it be great to do a post about all the terrible photos you take? I mean, you take so many!”

“No it wouldn’t,” I said. “That sounds horrible.”

“It’s just that people would probably be surprised how many boring shots professionals take before they get something really good.”

My wife clearly still hasn’t grasped the fragility of the artist’s ego 🙂 I still hadn’t warmed to this idea, but then I got this request from Chris (thanks Chris!) about looking more into the process of how I work a scene and find the shot.

So today I am going to go through some of the images from my recent book, and look at the ones I took of a scene, how I worked it, and got something I liked.

And in the interests of sharing, I am also going to share photos in which, try as I might, I couldn’t get anything working. Because Di assures me that that’s interesting. She said the process that I go through as a photographer is useful — both for what works and what doesn’t.

You, dear reader, can decide if that’s valid!

Let’s get started! So I saw this:

And thought — interesting light! Light always makes me stop and pay attention. I also saw some potential in the scene because you have lots of great simple shapes here — the strong repetitive pattern of the bricks, the black lines of the traffic light poles, the lines of the railings.

The simplicity of these things matches the simplicity of the subject — light and shadow on a wall. So a lot to play with. But how do I pull it into something interesting?

Well, this photo below is a slight improvement. I had changed position — and I had focused in on what to me were the most interesting elements. But still not a great shot:

Now I clean it up by taking out the top of the wall because that’s distracting. Can you feel I am getting closer to something here? It’s not totally right but there is a refining of the scene happening here:

I then decide that I need to cut out the messy foreground and get closer, and that I want very clean shadows. That is what is going to create the strongest impact.

I am always thinking to myself — what can I take out of the shot to make it cleaner, and to make sure that every single element that is in frame is relevant and says something that adds to the story of the photo?

And I end up with this:

It’s super simple, much cleaner, and every thing has a reason to be there. Could I have taken out that little traffic cone in the left hand corner? Possibly, but maybe that would make it too clean (I hear that is possible, lol! Sometimes I can be a little over enthusiastic with my simple/clean aesthetic. It’s something I watch out for.)

Now this scene below is the only one I’ve used in this post that isn’t from my East London at Dawn project. This is in King’s Cross, and was just something I took while coming back from a meeting (always be looking!)

I love photographing places that are in the midst of change. This is where you have lots of new and old things jumbled together — and probably why I love East London so much.

In this scene I was attracted by the three layers of contrasting elements in the foreground, midground and background. The lines of the barrier, the interesting black and white photos and then these lovely semi-circles in the background.

So I hung out there for a little while taking photos of people walking past. So far, nothing interesting. I was waiting for something to happen. I didn’t know what but it’s important to remember this:

“What I most like about photography is the moment that you can’t anticipate: you have to be constantly watching for it, ready to welcome the unexpected.” Martine Franck

That’s why it’s useful to always be looking for interesting backgrounds, great collections of elements, interesting views. It’s not always people that you are looking for to brings a scene together — it could be a change in light, in weather or that after looking at a scene for a long time you notice something you hadn’t seen before that is unexpected and super interesting.

So I am here looking at this scene for a while and then, all of a sudden, this girl appears on her scooter and gives me this look. Awesome! Now see I have lost that structure of the three elements as I pulled back to capture her. I wonder if I had kept it, would it have been a stronger photo? If I had a been a bit lower, maybe?

This is when you need your lightning reflexes on red alert!

“Only photography has been able to divide human life into a series of moments, each of them has the value of a complete existence.” Eadweard Muybridge

Now here’s an example of a scene I saw that looked like something, so I thought I’ll stay here and work this:

I really liked the natural framing element of the bush to the left, I thought that could be consequential. Then you have this cool church in the background. So I waited, thinking — something is going to happen, someone is going to walk around the corner, doing something interesting and it will somehow work really well.

What I wasn’t happy about though, was the bell in the bottom right hand corner, if you saw all of the photos I took of this scene you’ll see me moving around like I was super itchy or something and trying to get it out the frame, but I couldn’t do it.

The other unsatisfactory thing about the scene is all the busy-ness next to the church of the poles and the crane. Instead of creating depth in the photo, all of the elements are too mixed together and look flat and messy.

But I waited and took about 20 photos, some with people walking around the corner, some like this, and nothing happened. No cool ‘human moment’. So I moved on. You can’t win em all!

On to Brick Lane Market… this photo below exemplifies almost every problem I see with street photos that don’t work — I wasn’t close enough and I wasn’t at the right angle. There isn’t a strong connection with the subject because of the height that I’m at and the fact that I’m too far away.

Now I recognised what I needed to do, so there was only one more shot and it was all I required:

Can you see how getting closer brings you so much more connection with the subject? You can see his paper, you can feel the relaxation in his posture, his absorption in what he’s reading. You are with him in that moment.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Robert Capa

For me on a composition point, I think the faint mistiness works really nicely, and I think if the light had been brighter it wouldn’t have worked so well. The mistiness sort of softens the background, so that we don’t get drawn into it, and so our focus is concentrated on the subject. The soft background helps to both isolate and project him.

I was at East India DLR Station and it had been raining. I don’t usually photograph rain; I think I am too much of a precision, clean type of photographer. Or maybe it’s because I don’t like cold rain! But in the right circumstances it produces a beautiful effect. (Venice, rain and sunlight, for example, can be breathtaking.)

A couple of tips for shooting in rain — always carry a plastic bag in your camera bag in case it starts to rain. You can buy little raincoats for your camera but I have always found a good quality thick plastic bag will keep it nice and dry.

Look to backlight your rain, so have some light — whether natural or artificial — shining through the rain drops. This concentrates the light and creates a beautiful effect.

Lastly — look for reflections! Reflections are one of my favourite things to play with photographically.

I mainly tried to get this shot below because Di loves rain. Four things interested me in the scene. (I always want to have a minimum of two interesting things making up a scene, but preferably more. It’s rarely only one element that I am trying to capture.)

The compelling things for me were: the clear plastic barricade that I photographed through, because I could see all the raindrops individually making a beautiful pattern over the scene.

Secondly, that range of colours of the lights: reds, blues, whites, yellows — awesome! Then all the contrasting shapes and lines of the buildings, bridge and road. Lastly, of course, the blue, pre-dawn sky. That deep blue twilight is awesome with all the artificial lights — and that goes for sunrise or sunset.

First photo — not interesting. I had thought that if I lined up all the lines of the road, the lamp in the middle and bridge to the left it would be a good shot, but it didn’t thrill me.

Then I went a little lighter, thinking that would help to define the elements. But no, still a bland shot.

I messed around a bit more and then I moved, and straight away it’s better and I know I’ve got the shot:

What I believe makes it interesting is that I use leading lines here in a less obvious way than in the previous shots. These strong lines — the one of the bridge going through the middle of the photo, and the line of the road almost hitting one of the thirds creates a strong structure for all of the other elements in the photo to connect to. It’s almost like the skeleton of the photo. You’ve got the sense of movement and journeying created by the red lights and cars, and then the lines look as if they are travelling off to meet the city buildings at the end.

What I think works better about this image is you’ve got two places within the frame where you have space, and this creates some balance within the photo and contrasts with the busy elements of the rest of the photo. You have the space under the bridge — which brings out the warm droplets of the yellow lights, and then the lovely cloudy blue sky. A little bit of negative space here I’d say. (If you don’t know what negative space is, I’ll explain in a future post. It’s one of my favourite compositional tools).

Like everything in life, and photography is no different, balance is key — having both light and dark, space and activity, soft and hard. And balance is super important when you have a very busy scene like this. It’s very hard for the camera to take a photo of a busy scene like this without it looking flat. What your eye can see in real life is what you have to manually recreate with your camera, by placing elements carefully in your scene. So:

  • Look for contrasting elements that will highlight each other
  • Look for strong elements that will create structure
  • Don’t forget to inject some space!

I hope this was helpful. I’d love it if you left me feedback by commenting below. I’ll do another one of these posts later down the line, and it’s just generally fantastic to hear from you.

Now, I’ll leave you with a great quote/idea from Albert Einstein:

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

So how about let’s all try to make a bunch of mistakes and not-great-photos this week? Let’s all lunge forward and get some serious mistake-making done, so we can get to that magical place where we are creating something new, and the chance to create that singularly awesome shot.

Knowing that we have lots of room to make mistakes means we don’t put quite so much pressure on ourselves to get it right first (or even second, third or fiftieth) time. We are all taking tonnes of mediocre photos — even us professionals — it’s part of the journey towards those great shots. Just keep at it until you feel that special buzz.

Happy photographing,

Anthony — and my writer guru/partner in crime Diana

Some of the shots in this article are from my new book East London at Dawn.

Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been exhibited and featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. With his wife Diana he is also a teacher — writing in-depth free articles on their website and teaching photo workshops in the worlds most beautiful and interesting cities.

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