In photography, the devil is in the detail you don’t see until it’s too late. Combing
through my hard drive of late, I’ve had cause to reflect on the various categories of photographs that result from the average shooting sessions. There are the guaranteed “keepers”—the defining images that you just know will sell. There are the “possibles”—technically sound pictures that don’t quite sparkle as brightly as their neighbours. There’s the inevitable tide of rubbish, rendered useless by dodgy exposure, a blink at the wrong moment, or shaky handholding.
Then, there are the nearly greats. The shots that would have been A-grade keepers, if not for that one detail that pitches them straight into the trash folder.
You know what I’m talking about, because we’ve all got them lurking somewhere in our photo libraries. The ugly metal fuse box poking out from that charming Victorian house. The pine tree protruding from grandma’s head in the family portrait. The digital watch winking smugly back at you in that sepia-toned Old West gunslinger portrait.
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As a cub photographer, I used to hang on to these shots in the deluded belief that people would overlook the small indiscretions and applaud the overall excellence of what I nearly achieved. Guess again. The human eye is hard-wired to scan for imperfection, and no matter how excellent your technique and composition may be, if your picture contains a single overflowing litter bin, or just one lurker scratching his backside, that’s guaranteed to be the part of the scene to which your viewer’s eyes fly.
Look and look again
To my mind, these accidental eyesores are among the most frustrating ways to ruin a good shot. They imply a basic lack of awareness of what was going on in the frame at the time you hit the shutter button. And being married to a yoga teacher, I get ample opportunity to reflect on my own moments of unawareness without bringing it into my work.
I now make a habit of scanning the entire scene two or three times before taking a picture. The first scan takes care of general composition, where I decide on the shapes and colours that will define the image. Second, I go through those shapes on a mission to seek and destroy pine trees, telegraph poles, stray power lines and anything else that disrupts the harmony of the picture. Sometimes a small shift in the shooting position is all it takes to remove these rogue elements.
Not so perfect: It’s not always possible to eliminate eyesores.
I reserve the third and final pass for litter, for of all the gifts that modern life has brought us, none is as aesthetically disastrous as the discarded plastic bag. Unnoticed junk can, in theory, be removed in Photoshop, but I’ve learnt from bitter experience that it’s quicker and easier to grit your teeth and manhandle the offending items out of your picture and into the nearest bin.
Trash into treasure
In India, however, liberally strewn litter is a fact of life. Shooting pristine scenes might be possible if you have a huge budget and an army of assistants ready to scurry around for you—think of those Incredible India ads, which magically make the Yamuna river look as spick and span as Disneyland. But what are the rest of us to do?
My answer, having trawled along the banks of that river in search of a travel-brochure shot of the Taj, is to rethink your strategy. If you can’t beat the rubbish, make it the subject of your picture.
Sure, no brochure will ever print a picture of garbage-festooned monuments. But images of this kind can hold a certain gritty appeal—one that’s extremely useful in documentaries and photo essays. As photographers, we don’t always have to pretend that we live in a perfect world.
David Stott is a photographer based in Australia.
Write to David at email@example.com