Better pics are as easy as the old one, two

Taking better photographs is as easy as doing two simple things, and I’m going to let you in on how it’s entirely possible. The first is: Stand in front of something more interesting.

Now I wish I’d invented that phrase but I “borrowed” it from a famous National Geographic photographer who admitted to stealing it from another well-known camera man he admired. Step forward Joe McNally. You’ll have to ask him to reveal his sources!

If you're going to steal a Je McNally phrase and hawk it as your own, then you're definitely not going to be shy as getting him to pose with his crew for a selfir
If you’re going to steal a Joe McNally phrase and hawk it as your own, then you’re definitely not going to be shy as getting him to pose with his crew for a selfie

In fact, they probably all purloined it from the legendary Stateside landscape deity Ansel Adams who said the most important thing in photography is not an in-depth knowledge of his zone exposure system or other such techno fripperies. He said it’s where you point your camera.

Now, I realize that it all sounds very glib. But when you think about it, an interesting subject is, by its very nature, interesting. Or dramatic. Or some other such positive adjective. Taking a wonderful picture of the inside of a ping-pong ball is achieveable, but it’s intrinsically harder than, say, taking a shot of a sultry girl wearing shiny fabrics posing in front of the latest cool motorbike in the sunshine. Even to the most devoted wiff-waff aficionado.

But if you’ve got your interesting subject, then you need to photograph it in an interesting way. And that all starts from camera position, your choice of lens and your composition.


For my shot of our biker gal, I’m laying on the floor looking up at her with a 24mm wide angle lens on a full-frame camera. Is this the best way to show off the best features of a pretty girl? Not really. Wideangle lenses can distort persective and aren’t often very flattering.

But what my unusual viewpoint gave me was a shot that made the girl look imposing, which suits the strong pose and choice of clobber. But importantly, it gave as clean and simple a background as possible. Because what you can’t see is that the shot was taken in a typical pub car park, surrounded by parked cars, ugly walls, buildings and all the other detritis of modern life.

Some of the best advice I ever had was that good photography simplifies a cluttered world. So that’s what I tried to do by cropping out the distractions, and framing the girl so her head is in the clouds – if you see what I mean!

Of course, the other critical factor of where to stand the girl and put the bike was also hugely governed by the direction of the harsh midday sun. Which leads me onto the secrets of great photography, number two, which is: Photograph the light.

Because it’s the quality of light that will transform your photo, not the camera or lens you’re using.

So, a car park with little shade and overhead sun would see many photographers cowering and looking for shade. But dramatic, strong light can give dramatic results and it’s just what I love because I use powerful portable flash outdoors to overpower the sun.

My standard get-me-out-of-jail card is to use the sun as a strong backlight or rim light, which puts the model’s face in shadow. I then use a flash as a main light to punch light back in there. Just out of shot to camera left is an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra flash fired through a beauty dish to give pretty hard lighting on the girl’s face and body.

But with the sun so overhead, the bike was in shadow. So I put another flash to camera right just to light the bike. And then another out of shot at the left to put light onto the back of model and the back of the bike – to stop them disappearing into the darkness of the underexposed background of the bushes. You can see the effect of this light on the leather jacket and the girl’s shiny leggings. Job done.

OK, so maybe that sounds a bit complicated. But all it is is choosing precisely what you aim your camera at and thinking about the light. The old one-two.

  • First published in Practical Photography magazine