'Your most important piece of kit is your eyes'


MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN,a judge in this year’s Amateur Photographer of the Year Awards, gives some tips

What is the most common mistake photographers make?Forgetting to pay attention to the details. Sometimes it is important to really think about what you are trying to capture, and then frame, compose, focus and expose accordingly.

Apart from a camera, what piece of kit every photographer should have?Your most important piece of kit is your eyes. Sounds obvious, but the trick is learning how to use them properly. Being able to see an image, or the potential for an image, is key to capturing/creating good images. Without this, the right equipment and all the technical skill in the world is useless.

Any advice for those who might favour digital manipulation or filtering?It really depends on the type of manipulation, and the purpose of the images. For nature/news/ documentary images, it is important to not distort the reality of a scene, though selective framing and exposure may be just as effective in doing that anyway. For the purpose of self expression and creating “art”, then anything goes. The trick is to make sure you do it well, and convincingly, and to resist the temptation to overdo it. For me, less is definitely more.

What’s the secret to a great portrait?I agree with Annie Leibowitz when she said that you can’t capture the “essence”, “soul”, or even “personality” of a subject, so it is definitely not that. What you can do is capture a persona that they choose to show you, or at least your interpretation/perception of it. You can even portray a completely different person if you wish. This can evoke a response in the viewer, who themselves will filter all of this through their own experience and prejudice. I think if you do this well, then you have potentially made a great portrait.

What makes a great landscape?It depends on the end purpose. Ask a holiday or travel agent, and they want you to make a place look great. For a travel journal, a great landscape says something about a place: it teaches, illustrates, and prompts more questions. For me, the best landscapes are where the intent is to say something about how the photographer/artist sees the place. To create a mood and evoke a feeling in the viewer.

Black white or colour?Do I have to choose?

If you had to give just one piece of advice, what would it be?Find your own style. Learn from others, by all means. Learn the “rules”. Get acquainted with your equipment to the point where you can operate it in your sleep. But definitely and emphatically use all of this in an effort to bring your vision to life. When you are learning, it is useful to see how other photographers have created your favourite images. How they overcome problems in creating those images. What they were trying to achieve when conceiving, setting up, capturing and finishing those images. This is a great way to learn the practice of photography, but it is all for nothing if you do not then take the crucial step of applying all of this to showing the world what you see.

Is there a cliche you’re fed up seeing?Style emulation. Everything can become cliche when we have seen too much of it. On the other hand, something we thought was cliche can be fantastic when shown in a novel way. If everyone produced images of the same thing in their own unique way, nothing would really be cliched.

You can see this happen all the time with distinctions, portfolios, on the competition circuit, in magazine editorials etc. Someone produces something unique, and it causes a bit of a stir. Almost overnight you see a tsunami of emulators. I think this is a shame, as it can devalue what is a great contribution to the wealth of photographic art, while also showing that the emulators never get to that stage where they are contributing something unique. It is important to put one’s own stamp on any subject.

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