Hiding behind the subject

Photographers normally hide behind the camera (though we shouldn’t, because it distances us from what we’re shooting and makes us observers rather than participant-observers, but that’s another story for another time) right? So what’s with hiding behind the subject?

A friend once said this to me about a watch: I’m expecting exceptional photos because it’s an extraordinary subject. I didn’t quite understand what he meant at first, but I do now. How many images are famous because of the content – maybe the rarity of the subject, the famousness of the person, the momentousness of the situation – rather than because the photograph itself is exceptional? Look carefully. For instance, imagine the photo wasn’t of say Obama, but instead an ordinary man. Would it still be a special photograph? Probably not. The examples go on. Some of these images are truly special for their composition etc – but a lot are also well known solely because the photographer happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I’m not saying that news photographers can’t shoot, but there is a continuum. I often wonder whether I’d be able to produce images as good or better than other people if I was in one of those once-in-a-lifetime situations. The honest answer is, I don’t know.

But I digress; back to the watch.

Supposing you make what is perceived as an ordinary photo of an ordinary subject; that is probably par for the course. If you can make an exceptional photo of an ordinary subject, then the talent lies with you as the photographer rather than the subject for being special. However, if you fail to make a ‘wow’ photo with a very special subject – I dunno, say a Bugatti Veryron for instance – then you’ve both failed to capture the essence of the subject in the photograph, and failed to apply your nascent talent as a photographer.

I bore this in mind as I photographed the watch – a Lange & Sohne Datograph.

The image on the manufacturer’s site looks like this (slightly different to the actual watch shot because this is an updated model):

It’s technically competent, but a very flat, very boring shot that fails to capture any of the magic of the piece. I can’t say I was happy with my first, second or even third try; I too made an ordinary photo out of an exceptional subject (you’ll see why, shortly) or at best, a good photo. Which still didn’t do the subject justice, in my mind.

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Early attempt. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

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Later attempt, which you’ve probably seen in another article; I use this for illustration purposes. Yes, it’s compositionally and technically much stronger, but also fails in many ways to capture the essence of the subject. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G

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Here’s an interesting attempt to capture the idea of cool precision. I think by throwing out conventional notions of how I’d shoot a watch, I was definitely making progress. I didn’t even use my usual D700 and 60 macro combination with flashes; this was shot with the Olympus Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 and continuous LED lights.

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Final attempt. I like this idea because it subtly represents the ‘best of Germany’-teutonic-aesthetic, yet it’s still a little bit imperfect (like anything handmade, especially the subjects) and a bit surreal. The watch was actually resting on the same surface as the lens, but the laws of optics reverse the projection (and in turn required mirror-imaging in photoshop to make the orientation look correct). Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G and a Leica Noctilux 0.95 ASPH.

This philosophy is something I now keep in the back of my mind when I shoot: don’t hide behind your subject. At very least, do it justice. If you can, then make an extraordinary photo. If you can’t, then try, or at least know when it doesn’t come up to scratch. It isn’t easy to do, but I think just one more way to raise your game. MT


  1. I guess what you’re dealing here is what Barthes called the studium and the punctum. There are pictures that are interesting in a documentary kind of way, because they explain or highlight something about the world, or human nature or whatever – the studium. There are others that also add another layer on top (or behind) this documentary, general kind of interest. A quirk, a certain something that goes beyond the obvioys interpretation of the picture. A delightful, playful experience, something that is only there when you look at the picture, and belongs only to the realm of photography, a sort of punctuation in musical terms – the punctum.

    • That’s a great way of putting it. I think great images need both studium and punctu – something to draw you in, and that little extra to hold you there.

  2. Hilmar ('- Hilmo -' on flickr) says:

    Very intersting article. It’s very inspiring at the same time.

  3. Great description!

    You wrote: “Photographers normally hide behind the camera (though we shouldn’t, because it distances us from what we’re shooting and makes us observers rather than participant-observers, but that’s another story for another time) right?” I would really like to read more about this ‘hiding’ theme. I’ve been sometimes told that I’m using camera and photographing as mean to avoid discussion … and that might be partially true …

    • A very good idea – I think there’s a whole discussion on participation vs. observation, and how that changes the nature of your images. And I think it’s an important difference – something I’ll go into in the near future 🙂

  4. Amazing process and explanation. Thank you really enjoyed this piece of writing/photography. 🙂


  1. […] post is a follow-on spurred by the discussion following yesterday’s article on hiding behind the subject. Apologies to anybody if I lose you in the second paragraph, but I promise it will be worth […]

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