Photographic Notes to a Future Self

I've been taking photos for about 40 years now, and although I've done a few weddings and had photos in newspapers and magazines (right up to the Sunday Times and the Irish Times Sunday Supplement), I'm still just a snapper. One thing I have done though is maintain my entire collection as a living digital collection, which means organising into albums, annotating them, and scanning thousands of negatives and a few hundred black-and-white prints.

And not just once. The UK's Lockdown Mk.1 in 2020 triggered the not-insignificant task of revisiting all 260,000 photos with the benefit of better software tools and an eye on the technology that would actually be looking at them. This has meant, for example, re-generating all the down-scaled web versions at double the previous resolution to make them look better on increasingly-common high-resolution monitors and mobile devices. And it's this process that has been the revealing bit, because with the benefit of age and experience comes the benefit of hindsight, and more of an understanding of what - at least to me - makes for more interesting photos, and it's often not what I thought of at the time.

So this is like a note I wish I could have sent back in time to my future self: what makes an interesting photo decades later, what I wish I had done more of, and what I wish I had known at the time.

Rules to Live By

1. Context is Everything

There's a place for close-cropped photos of people: old men with wrinkled skin and massive wiry bears, studio shots of people with quirky expressions and ring-flash highlights in their eyes, or journalistic photos of happiness, sadness or torment. For everthing else, unless you happen to be taking photos of famous people, then capturing the context can really make a difference, especially years later when the places or events can become more significant than the people in them. Twenty years later and without context, that photo of you as a kid on a beach somewhere exotic might as well be you in a sandpit in your back garden.

Some of the lack of context in my own collection was an unfortunate side-effect of available technology. Early on everything was film, and film cameras tended to ship with 50mm lenses which were designed to give the same relative view as the human eye, i.e. roughly one to one magnifiation. However, this meant that unless you stood miles away from anything, you didn't get to see much around your subject. The addition of a 28mm wide-angle lens opened up a whole new world, and of course now it's not unusual to have 15mm or even 10mm fisheye lenses on digital SLRs, so make use of them.

However, including context is still very much a consciously-considered activity, as in I still struggle sometimes to remember to do it. In some situations, like outdoors, it comes more easily as it's more natural to try and include the beach or those mountains in the background, but it's the other scenarios that can be a challenge, so remember to step back and try to capture more of the room you're in, or the building you're in front of.

2. Blink and it's Gone

Don't wait to come back the next day - if there's a photo opportunity, take it there and then. I've lost count of the number of times this has happened, like the day driving past a pub in Finningham where the landlord had actually pulled all the render off the front of the pub in protest over his contract with the landlord, only for it to be covered up later in the day when coming back from work. Or the near misses like trying on and off for ten years to get a photo from the train of the listed Fison's North Warehouse just outside Ipswich, to finally get one just two weeks before it's burned to the ground by arsonists. This is all much easier now that there's always a camera handy thanks to the decent optics on a mobile phone, so don't ever wait.

3. Don't Ignore the Dull Stuff

Take a photo whilst you're waiting on the platform at the railway station; get a snap in the car park of the motoroway service station, or when you're hanging around for hours at the airport. Take photos of the High Street and the pub. In a few decades, these things all become interesting in their own right. There's more detail below.

4. Don't be the Subject

I've never really got the whole Selfie thing. Unless you happen to be someone famous, then in a few decades' time, no-one, apart from perhaps immediate family, is going to be remotely interested in thousands of photos of you gurning at the camera whilst doing whatever stuff it is you like to do. They might, however, be interested in your view of your world if you've got an eye for things that most people miss. Let me know in 100 years' time if this is true.

5. Organise and Back Up

It was perhaps understandable that photos during the analog film era were not organised in any particular way, other than by mostly remaining in the photo wallets they came back from the developer in, but at least the best ones were put in photo albums with some vague date and place information.

The first couple of years of digital photos were not so lucky. Not only were they stored in folders containing no date information whatsoever, but they were edited - and overwritten - using conventional graphics tools, rather than dedicated digital darkroom software, and so lost their EXIF date and time information. They'd also been moved around various different computers with different filing systems and so didn't even have reliable file-creation information.

These days, photos are moved (not just copied) from SD card after every trip or event and a stored in a directory structure along the lines of year/year-month-dayActivityName. They're then backed up to a network storage device. The converted website versions are also backed up to local NAS as well as Azure Cloud storage - just don't rely entirely on the Cloud because if your cloud provider goes bust, your backup goes bust too.

6. Shoot in Raw

This is more of a technical point, but if possible shoot your photos in Raw format. This is because there's much more latitude for exposure correction and things like fixing colour-balance issues later on. My early digital photos were all JPEG, and a lot of them are borderline-unfixable for these simple issues. This choice was largely a belief that storage would be a problem (Raw images can be ten times the size of the equivalent JPEG), but disks always get cheaper by the time you need more of them. The downside is you will need to "process" these raw photos first, but that should really be a given as it's rare that a photo wouldn't benefit from at least some sort of adjustment for cropping, rotation, exposure or whatever.

Photos To Take More Of

A Sense of Place

It took a few years before I started developing a "sense of place" and taking photos of where I lived that weren't just photos of people doing stuff in those places, and I noticed that it's not something that occured much in any of the old family photos. People don't often take photos of just their bedroom, their lounge or dining room, the kitchen, or even straight-forward shots of the outside of their house or the neighbourhood unless there are people in it and they're the focus, but over time it's sometimes these that become precious. By 1989, four years after I got my first camera, there was this growing sense when I moved house - as happened a lot at the time - that I would never see these places again, and now - thirty or more years later - it's great to see my student bedroom from my final year. It is a shame though that there are none of my first-year digs, nor of my teenaged bedroom, even after I owned a camera.

Perhaps with the exception of my mate Phil's infamous photo of a Cambridge traffic light, there's no limit to how "boring" you can go. One album I revisted had a photo of a hotel room I was staying in which hadn't made the original cut, but whilst not exactly earth-shatteringly exciting it still managed to aquire something of an "oh, so that's what it was like staying there" vibe, so in it went the second time around.

The High Street

I still find it hard remembering to take photos of the High Street, because it normally feels like it's not changing from day to day - despite occasional economic crises and pandemics. But it does change, all the time - it's just that you don't notice. Shops come and go, famous names can quite suddenly go bankrupt, entire classes of shop, like record stores, become scarce or extinct, and buildings that have been around forever are there one week and demolished the next. This is even more pressing in the third decade of the 21st century as for the first time there's a real existential threat that the High Street as we know might not be around for much longer, perhaps ending 150 or more years of that way of life. Document it whilst it's still there, and be the next generation's Francis Frith, and make use of any personal connections to get some "back stage" access.

Pubs and other Ways of Life

Pubs are the same - I have the occasional photo from way back of pubs, but there are plenty that I missed that no longer exist, and pubs have never been more at risk than they are in 2022. Don't forget the context though - I have lots of photos of friends at pub tables which could frankly be anywhere, but relatively few that really show the pub we were in at the time. It's the same with almost anything, like petrol stations with old pumps measured in gallons or tiny road-side shacks with a single pump. At the time you think "why am I taking a photo of this?", but in a few decades it's become social history, so think of the future.

Transport, Travel and the Journey

Trains and cars that seemed modern at the time will all, eventually, come to seem impossibly dated. Whilst this can take a while with trains which often have working lives of 20 years or more, and cars which are often ten years old or more, they all look old in the end. You don't have to be a trainspotter to take a photo of a train at the station, or think it weird to take a photo of cars in a car park, because yes, you probably won't find them interesting for many a year, but in time those now-modern cars will start to look like your Great-Grandad's Austin Seven.

But I also wish I had taken photos of stuff like the coach stations I would stop off on the way between Plymouth and Bournemouth, or going through Digbeth Station in Birmingham in the 1980s on the National Express, with its seedy late-night waiting room full of plastic seats with small built-in black-and-white televisions for 50p a go. Or my first flight on an Air France Caravelle II - a plane that now probably looks one step up from the Wright Flyer. So I now try to take photos of the mundane bits of the journey as well as the destination, even things as dull as motorway service stations. I would love to have had photos of my childhood travels via the motorways of Britain and to see just what Keele Services on the M6 really looked like in the 1970s, as even the relatively new Fleet Services on the M3 is going to look like that in 20 years time. Also, if nothing else, it provides more context to the story of going somewhere - I have many albums which suddenly start somewhere new, with no sense of how I got there. Bus, train, car, magic carpet? Who knows.

Music, Musicians and Support Bands

The band I used to be in, a now defunct but once locally-popular Rhythm-and-Funk outfit called The BBs, played with Ed Sheeran a couple of times, just before he became globally famous and we didn't. Naturally, I didn't get any photos of him on our first gig, although my wife did get a few on the second gig in Cambridge. So whilst taking photos at gigs is often forbidden by ticket restrictions, everyone does it and the rise of decent cameras on mobile phones means it's next to impossible to prevent. Just remember to get some photos of the support acts, because they're the ones that aren't famous yet but might be the world's biggest act in a few years' time. Just don't be the knob standing there holding a mobile phone over your head whilst streaming the whole thing to your mates, because that really is tedious and annoying. Remember that hundreds of thousands of people have photos of Ed twenty metres away on stage in some arena, but almost no-one, especially me, has photos of him playing Diss Cornhall.