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The Ten Commandments for Creative Photographers

First published in Camera Owner magazine in 1967.
Forty-five years on, how many of these still apply today? I've added my notes under each.

 

first commandment

Sharpen your vision

There is a constant fug of humbug surrounding amateur photographers. And one of the most pernicious of these is the aura of mystique attached to photo-equipment and technique. This aura has been generated by camera clubs, their lecturers, text-books, the photo-press and 'shows' such as this month's Photo-Fair. Who can blame the amateur for believing that a better camera is the 'open sesame' to better pictures? Unfortunately, it is not true, necessarily.

Many amateur photographers still suffer from a lot of this. But despite the tremendous advances in technology and the ever-changing range of equipment available, in general I think the situation is better now. Digital cameras and instant results have changed things immensely; no longer do you need to know 'technique' to the same degree. The standard of pictures may not have changed much as a result though - I would replace 'camera clubs' with photoblogs and Flickr now.

The problem of how to take a picture, which technique to adopt, is largely imaginary. The barrier to better pictures has never been how to photograph the subject; but how to see it in the first place. Once you begin to be aware of significant images in the mundane surroundings of everyday life, then you start to be a photographer. Constantly strive to cultivate a 'sense of the significant', the ability to see a picture which previously you would have missed.

How do you sharpen your vision? Take every opportunity to see fine photographs. But not only 'see' them, study their contents. Sit down in comfort with the pictures and ask yourself: what is the photographer trying to communicate? Very rarely will a fine photograph tell you all in a brief glance. Keep going back to the pictures and on each study your eyes will be opened a little wider to the meaning of fine photography. These significant pictures can often be seen in top photo-exhibitions, such as the World Exhibition of Photography and modfot. More conveniently, study the pictures in annuals and collections of great prints - such as the Photography Year Books and the British Journal of Photography annuals. Build of a personal collection of books by the top photographers-such as Bill Brandt's Shadow of Light, the Monograph of Aaron Siskind, Dorothea Lange, and many others. Photographic magazines, if chosen with care, will introduce you to fine photographers.

Much cheaper are the colour supplements supplied with Friday's Daily Telegraph, and Sunday's Observer and Sunday Times. Other magazines like Nova and Queen are often rich in good photography. Collect cuttings of fine photographs in a personal scrapbook, so that you build up your own portfolio of significant pictures for instant inspiration. As well as looking at prints, keep your eyes ever-open for your own pictures. Don't forget that you can look for shots even without a camera. It is just as useful to have the 'pictures' stored in your mind as printed on to paper. You might find it helpful to carry in your pocket a viewfinder ripped off an old camera. This will help you to 'see'. Alternatively, find a 2 x 2 in. slide, push out the transparency and use this mount to frame your pictures. Before long you can dispense with such aids to seeing, since you develop square eye-balls, and automatically frame a picture, and reduce its colours to shades of grey.

All good advice, and still good today for the most part.

second commandment

Collect ideas

Most photographers - and that includes me - find it impossible to pick up a camera and go and look for something to photograph. Significant pictures very rarely pop up when required. And nothing is more disheartening than to tramp the streets for a couple of hours, take a couple of frames (just to justify time otherwise wasted) and arrive home feeling fed up with your equipment and, more important, yourself. True?

If you are ever in this capsizing boat, grab this life line. You will never be stuck for something to photograph if you collect ideas. A notebook is the one indispensable accessory in photography. When looking through the fine photographs mentioned in the First Commandment, jot down the essence of the picture. I do not mean that you should copy the image. Never. But the shot will probably spark a train of thought in your own mind that will lead you to rich photographic fields. The idea could be a technique to explore-such as deliberate blur, exaggerated perspective or increased contrast. Or it could be a location or unusual subject matter-such as abstract reflections in cooking foil. If you keep, and always carry with you, an ideas book, you are never likely to say: what shall I photograph? As soon as you have the opportunity to take pictures, you need never waste time thinking of a subject or how to treat it. Get out your ideas book, and take your pick. An ideas book means that you shoot more pictures, better pictures, and have more fun and satisfaction to boot.

Apart from the magazines and books already mentioned, you will glean many ideas for fine pictures from poster hoardings and the 'visuals' that bombard our eyes everywhere. Sit down and watch television. And I do not mean letting Coronation Street swamp you, but look for lighting positions, camera angles and the graphics that often introduce programmes. The modern cinema, particularly the credit-title visuals, is a mine of valuable ideas. Study the cartoon strips in the national press. Watch how the artist creates impact with unusual viewpoints, exaggerated perspective; close-up treatments. Do the same in your photography.

There are some interesting points here, which are still as valid today as they were then. Perhaps television is not such a good source - there's only so much you can get from reality shows and property or cookery programmes, but films are still a marvellous source of lighting inspiration.
But how might 'social media' enter into the picture? There are more images on Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, etc than one person could ever view in a lifetime. But browsing such media, or the web generally, can provoke ideas and inspire. Perhaps not as much as browsing through a good library of photographic books might though.

third commandment

Shoot to a plan-create a personal portfolio

This advice cannot be over-emphasised. It is vital to better photography in the shortest possible time and with the maximum amount of pleasure. What does it mean?

Once you have chosen your idea from the notebook in your pocket, shoot the pictures to a time limit, and to the exclusion of all other subjects during your 'assignment'. Your theme could be a technique to explore, a location (such as a timber yard or railway yard), a subject (such as windows, cats or peeling paint and plaster) or a more abstract theme such as reflections, or isolation, or shadows. Now set yourself a time limit in which to complete your self-imposed assignment. It could be an hour, or afternoon, a month or 10 years - it makes no difference. Club workers who are set monthly print competitions can use this assignment as the basis for regular, personal portfolios. Do not simply shoot your portfolio pictures and 'file' them in a bureau drawer or box under the bed. Buy a scrapbook, or display book, and fill this with your best shots on the theme. Only keep the very best. A very good photographer I know has been photographing one simple subject for over two years and he now has the grand total of 9 prints in his portfolio. Quality counts, not quantity. Why is a portfolio so important? Right in front of you, you have a visual guide to how you are growing as a photographer. Believe me, creating a private collection of pictures on a set theme is the most satisfying form of photography.

I still prefer to see a body of work inspired by a particular idea, theme or situation, rather than a random collection of disparate images - although the web encourages photographers to post everything, good or bad, even on a daily basis. Setting a time limit is a useful discipline that I've tried myself on a few occasions. Pinning prints up on a wall and leaving them there to view every day is a technique well worth trying - on the web you just don't get the same effect; comparing pictures side-by-side is important, not so easy on a screen.

fourth commandment

Simplify your equipment and techniques - and then forget them.

Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could see a picture and instantly transfer the image onto the final print? Unfortunately photographers need cameras, lenses and processing chemicals. But - note well - these are only tools for creating pictures. They are not important for their own sake. Obvious? Don't you believe it. This point was rammed home to me at the last photokina, Cologne. Thirteen vast exhibition halls were full of manufacturers' stands. On a typical day, the crush surrounding the stands was stifling. Thousands of amateurs, like starving vultures, were rushing around drooling over the tit-bits of goodies in makers' show cases, collecting armfuls of leaflets and asking the most technical questions of the experts. Upstairs were exhibitions of the world's finest photography - picture galleries of inspired and inspiring pictures. They were practically empty of visitors. That is the big gulf in photography today. The camera has become the be-all and end-all of our hobby, rather than the mere channel through which significant images are poured onto paper. For maximum efficiency this 'channel' must be clean and uncluttered. So take every means possible to limit your equipment to the bare essentials. Standardise on one film with one developer. Sell your accessories, tripods and other paraphernalia which block the channel of communication. Simplify, simplify, simplify. I reckon that the automatic camera has been the best invention since the dry-plate, because it takes away from the photographer another purely mechanical process and leaves more of his concentration free for the photograph.

Instant prints? Polaroid had been around for some time when this article was written, but the author seemed unaware of it. Digital cameras of course give us an 'instant print' on the LCD screen - some even make little real prints...
I think today at Photokina you would find the exhibition galleries well-attended, they certainly were when I was there in the 1990s.
These days you don't need to own a range of equipment, a single camera and zoom lens is all most people will need. And yes, the automated camera has freed the user to concentrate on picture-taking, as the >5000 uploads a minute on Flickr attests.

fifth commandment

Shoot plenty of pictures

One of the symptoms of the camera gadgeteer is the sparse output of pictures. He is so engrossed in building up or exchanging outfits and accessories that he has no time, or inclination, actually to use his equipment for taking photographs, which, let's face it, is the whole point of being a photographer. It's the same with the pseudo-experts on photographic theory. They may know all about characteristic curves, gamma, and contrast transfer functions but how many picture results, and of what quality? The darkroom-dabbler is another blot on the photography horizon. He is constantly striving to reduce grain size, improve shadow detail, control image tone, that the content of the picture is irrelevant as long as the print is technically acceptable. Forget photo-technique. Raise your sights a little higher-to the picture-and you will find that good quality follows in your wake. Good print quality is not difficult to achieve. It is the natural result of following a few simple instructions. Once mastered, forget it. Concentrate on shooting pictures. If ever there is a 'rule' in photography it is this: the more pictures you take, the better the photographer you will become. It's a sad fact for those of you who find film costs prohibitive. In this case, it is better to buy a cheaper camera and spend the saving on film stock. True, by shooting a lot of pictures, you will waste a good deal of film, make many mistakes. But it is these mistakes that improve your future photography. In time your mistakes become fewer, and the proportion of fine pictures higher. You will learn that the good photographer is the one that knows what not to take.

There's no excuse for not shooting a lot of pictures with digital, film costs are no longer an issue. But a great tendency with digital is to delete those that do not appear to 'work' when 'chimping' on the back of the camera. This is a big mistake, as quite often we can learn more from these 'failures' than we can from any number of 'successes'. 
There's a great story in Bill Jay's and David Hurn's 'On Being a Photographer'. Josef Koudelka, when staying with Jay out in Arizona, was to be found outside one morning snapping away at apparent random amongst the cacti. When asked what he was doing he replied 'Just keeping in practice'.

sixth commandment

Experiment

What photography badly needs in this country nowadays are trail-blazers, picture pioneers. Hide-bound in traditional pictorialism, any new image is treated with scorn and suspicion. Yet the rewards to those who will dare are rich. Mind you, if you attempt to create novel and striking pictures you will never win competitions, seldom see your prints hanging on exhibition walls, rarely find them published, certainly not win friends and influence judges at your camera club. But the reward of personal pleasure and satisfaction will be so much more worthwhile. Develop a thick skin. Be immune to adverse comments and criticism. Try out any ideas that cross your imagination; no matter how off-beat or way out. Do not be straight-jacketed by conventional rules and regulations, or inhibited by other people's opinions of your result, or influenced by preconceived pictures. Easier said than done? True. But you do not know real fun and satisfaction from your camera until you can approach your pictures in this highly personal way. I am not getting involved in the hoary old chestnut: 'pure' photography or 'anything goes' controversy. As far as I am concerned each photographer must make an individual decision on how he can best present his feelings and personality in pictures. If this takes the form of a triple-exposed, solarised, bas relief kitten printed out of focus through a texture-screen-fair enough. But somehow I doubt it!

Bearing in mind the period in which this was written, when camera clubs still held sway with their clique-ish formulaic approach, this was quite revolutionary talk! All good stuff; a 'call to arms' for the pioneers of the revolution that was to take place with independent photography over the following decades.

seventh commandment

Meet other photographers

This is not a paradox to being an individual photographer. The final choice of picture treatment must be your own. But by sharing ideas with photographers of equal ability you will bolster each others ability and enthusiasm. Criticise each others pictures. This involves a problem. You must expect to receive as well as give, frank and often brutal comments. Unless you are prepared to be honest and frank among yourselves, the idea is useless. So often clubs that I have visited are mutual admiration societies: 'You pat my back, and I'll pat yours'. This is no atmosphere in which to grow as a photographer. Where do you meet other photographers of like mind? In clubs, through postal portfolios, at evening classes, to name a few contact points. In the end, you must be your own sternest critic. Ruthless self-criticism and rejection of second-rate shots is the finest therapy in photography.

Perfectly stated. The importance of engaging with others cannot be over-stressed - which is why Flickr is still a force within the photo-sharing community. But there is no real substitute for meeting face-to-face with others to talk photography. Attend workshops, take part in the ad-hoc group outings that Flickr encourages, and generally get out more!

eighth commandment

Steer clear of traditional pictorialism. the chocolate box-top, the pretty-pretty landscape, and the local beauty spot.

When you set out on a photo-assignment, visit the back-streets of your home town, a power station, railway sidings, timber yards, dock areas, anywhere there is building construction work. In places normally considered non-photogenic you are not lulled into taking a straight snap. You are forced to create, you have got to see. There is only one excuse for visiting the local beauty spot with your camera. That is: to set yourself the assignment of seeing it in a new light, attempting to create unusual pictures from such a well known, familiar landmark. You will find this assignment a tough test of your initiative and imagination. If anyone ever remarks to you about a picture: 'that one has been done before', or, 'how often have you seen that subject?' then that is your cue to do it again - but differently. For example, two clichés in photographs are swans, and the neon signs at Piccadilly Circus, London. So pick the theme of, say, swans - and build up a portfolio of original shots on this common theme.

Goodness me, the number of clichés in 21st century photography would run to pages. But in general this is still sound advice. However, in my experience there are those who can open their mind to a novel way of seeing and there are those that can't. No matter how hard they may try to 'be original' they will never achieve it. Often that doesn't matter; the next 'commandment' tells you why.

ninth commandment

Have fun

Photography is not a religion - it's a hobby. A fun-project, a relaxation, a means of obtaining pleasure and satisfaction. As soon as you feel photography is becoming a chore, or difficult, or a bore, watch out. Keep a 'light' touch on your camera. Amateur photography has no place for the pompous, 'experts' on theory, or those that pretend our hobby is difficult or complicated.

'Nuff said.

tenth commandment

Be honest in producing pictures purely and simply for your own pleasure, not to please others.

This is the most important 'commandment' of all. Your pictures should bear the unmistakable stamp of your own personality, they should be revealing a little bit more about yourself, to yourself. Everyone of you is unique. You have never existed before, and you are not likely to exist again (however, I could be wrong on that last point). No one else can produce the pictures that you can produce because no one else has had the same fusion of personality, experience, education, environment and training. Your pictures should be unique also. If they are not, if they are so similar to every other snap, ask yourself: Am I being honest in my photography? This is the only way to achieve maximum pleasure and satisfaction from your photography. It is said that everyone has a novel inside them. It is just as true that everyone has significant pictures to shoot. The secret of revealing these individual 'masterpieces'? Be honest, and sharpen your vision-constantly.

I think that the majority of modern practitioners have now, finally, realised this. The advent of digital has had an enormous effect on enabling anyone to create their own pictures, never having to entrust them to a third-party for processing, never having to print every one, never having to worry about the cost of material (after the inital heavy investment).
I have seen truly stunning imagery created from mobile phones, even from the nasty but not-so-cheap plastic cameras that are in vogue with many. The old rules still apply; it's all down to you, not the equipment you use.

You may be interested to take a look at the list of personal commandments that Tony Ray-Jones made for himself - see it on this page.