photographing details

In one sense, any photograph is a detail: you can't get everything in, even with a fish-eye, and even if you tried, you wouldn't necessarily be able to concentrate attention of the things you found interesting. Certainly, with a fish-eye it is often difficult to create an image in which the attention is focused on the subject matter, rather than on the equipment.

There are therefore at least three good reasons for shooting details of any subject, instead of trying to get everything in. One is because something (a detail) catches your eye. Another is because the subject as a whole is too big, too complex. And the third is because if you did include the whole, you would have to include elements that detract from what you are trying to say.



Alpine Renault

Some detail shots rely on the expectations and preconceptions of the viewer: you can be reasonably sure that a detail will evoke much the same recognition as an all-in shot. One of the classic examples of this is when you are shooting at classic car meets -- or indeed, anywhere that you see a classic car. The usual problems are unattractive backgrounds; signs telling the history of the car, often poorly executed and illustrated with incompetent snapshots; badly-dressed classic car nuts; and/or (as here) dull backgrounds. Roger shot this with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX. We'll come back to some more classic car shots later in the module.

You can shoot details with almost anything: digital or silver, and just about any lens. Of course, if you want to shoot real close-ups, you will need a lens that focuses close, but an awful lot of detail shots can be done with just about any camera and lens, such as the Leica that Roger used for the shot above. In practice, a digital camera is often very useful because it allows you to try a lot of shots to see if they work, and then delete the ones that don't.

Thermometer, Miami Beach

Both this and the Alpine Renault shot, above, show another trick you can do with detail shots: using them as 'captions', especially if there is actual text in the images (again, as there is in both these cases)


This sets the scene for a series of pictures in an album, magazine article or computer gallery, and does it much better than any other written explanation.

Roger shot this with our Nikon D70 and standard 18-70mm zoom, with the ISO sensitivity set to the minimum (200).






Les Lolitas

Of course, not all captions are immediately informative. This is a shop sign that could be used as an introduction to a wide range of subjects. Well, all right, perhaps not a very wide range... Roger shot it on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 using his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux, then trued up the verticals in Adobe Photoshop.

As we said, this module is very much 'picture driven', and this reflects the way that details are normally photographed. After all, a detail is shot either because it catches your eye or because it is the best picture that is obtainable of a subject: either way, it's the picture that matters, rather than a literal interpretation of the subject.

classic cars

Classic cars are a fruitful source of detail shots, and such pictures are much easier to shoot than 'all in'. To be sure, you need some 'all in' shots if you are doing a gallery of classic car pictures, or a book or a magazine article; but you can pad them out with details in a way that doesn't feel like padding, and that can be very attractive in its own right.

Buick Eight

Sometimes, a good reason to shoot a detail is that it doesn't necessarily have to tie in with its background. Several hotels in the Art Deco area of Miami Beach have very handsome old cars parked outside, and while these cars are often contemporaneous with the hotels, they can also stand alone as images in their own right -- and, of course, you cut out an awful lot of clutter, fellow tourists, modern traffic control signs, and Heaven knows what else. Another of Roger's shots, again with the D70 and 18-70mm standard zoom. The glossy black paintwork was further darkened in Adobe Photoshop using 'Selective Color', selecting 'Blacks' and then adding still more black.

As with the Alpine Renault shot, many people have clear expectations of what the rest of the car must look like, even if they don't have a very clear idea of the details.

An interesting point here is that some editors -- not many, fortunately -- have very fixed ideas about never having any writing in pictures, even trade marks and logos like this Buick lettering.






MG TD 1952

As we say above, you need a few 'all-in' shots if you are shooting classic cars, or the collection of pictures as a whole is curiously unsatisfying: it's like being fed crisps and peanuts and olives when you were expecting a whole meal. But you can get away with a surprisingly high ratio of detail shots to all-in shots without anything looking too awkward.

Roger used his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux to shoot this on Fujichrome RDP ISO 100 at Minnis Bay, where there is (or used to be) an excellent gathering of old cars every year -- sometimes even against good backdrops, like this!

Whenever you are shooting details, it is worth looking for what is characteristic about a subject, and seeing if one particular aspect of the subject can be made to stand for the whole. Most of the pictures so far do this: the bright red of the sports cars, the desaturated tones and Art Deco type face of the Miami Beach thermometer and the deep, glossy black paint and sparkling chrome of the old Buick.





Panhard Dyna

Car manufacturers always strive to make their cars as recognizable as possible, both with badges and by styling -- though it has to be said that cars tended to be a lot more distinctive (and distinguishable) in the past than they are today. Both of these pictures are much more literal than the shot of the Buick above, but they are still quite fun. Roger shot both with an M-series Leica, probably M4-P, both on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX, but it looks as if the Cadillac was shot with a 35mm or (possibly) 50mm, while the Panhard appears to have been taken with a 21mm.


Another Buick

A perennial problem with photographing shiny paint and chrome is precisely that it is shiny and reflective. The green of the trees under which this Buick was parked is distracting enough, but the red of Roger's shirt is even worse. You may do well to wear less vivid clothing if you are photographing old cars with a lot of chrome.

Technical information is as for the two pictures immediately above, probably with the 35mm lens.





the unusual

You may not see old cars every day, but it is not usually that difficult to find a vintage car meeting of some kind and take pictures there. There are however some things that are rare and even unique; and in this case, instead of trying to photograph what is typical, you need to concentrate on what makes each thing unique.



Monument Park, outside Budapest

This is a fascinating place, full of Soviet-era monuments. Like most monuments, these were designed to be admired (and looked up to), rather than to be photographed. As a result, trying to get the whole thing in very seldom works. (We know: we tried and failed). The trick, therefore, lies in trying to get as much in as possible, to give a real feeling for the scale and mood, without being overly literal.

Roger feels that he succeeded reasonably well in this, using his usual combination of a Leica M-series (M4-P, because it was before we got the MP) and 35/1.4 Summilux, shooting on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

The importance of composition is all the more clear when you compare the picture on the left with the one below on the right, which is a lot less successful.

The sole difference is that Roger has moved back a little further to take the left-hand picture, throwing the face into much sharper contrast with a larger area of shadow.

It's very much in the Socialist Realist/Soviet Heroic school of composition, and the clear blue sky and bright sun echo this. On an overcast day, the shot might work better in black and white, and give more of a feeling of the way in which the statues in the Monument Park have now been bypassed by history.



unifying themes

One of the many advantages of shooting details is that it enables you to build up a collection of related images -- images that might not hang together so well if you included more of the surroundings.


Art Deco window, Pecs

We are both very fond of Art Deco, and Pecs in southern Hungary is one of the great repositories of this. We have already used one Art Deco picture from Miami Beach; others appear below.

In Pecs, after a brief period of excessive relaxation just after the fall of communism, a great deal has been spent on sensitive, attractive restoration, and the worst excesses of the 1990s have been repealed: even McDonald's fits in a lot better without its standardized corporate facade. Of course many young people loved it -- Pecs is a university town -- but after their first year they often began to appreciate just what they had lost, as well as what they had gained.

Roger shot this with a Leica (probably M4-P) and a 90mm lens; if he recalls correctly, probably Frances's f/3.5 Apo Lanthar rather than his own f/2 pre-aspheric Summicron.

Using a 90mm permitted the verticals to be held very nearly parallel. It would be possible to 'true them up' for perspective using Adobe Photoshop but we think the image looks more natural this way. The electrical (phone?) cables spoil the picture somewhat, as does the satellite dish above the balcony; but after all, Pecs is a living, working city, and it would be harsh to deny its citizens the home comforts that the rest of the European Union takes for granted.






Congress and Avalon Hotels, Miami Beach

This different style of art deco shows how the influence of Art Nouveau drained out of Art Deco with the passage of time. Roger shot this with the Nikon D70 and standard 18-70mm zoom. He also shot a number of pictures in the same area with the Lensbaby soft-focus lens, such as the Avalon Hotel, below. Although these hang together as a series, they don't really work alongside the more conventional shots.

a question of scale

We have already made the point that a 'detail' can be any size you like: its main characteristic is that it does not show the whole of the subject. The next couple of shots are intended to reinforce this observation.



Soft focus sunflower

Where we live, sunflowers are a cash crop, grown for the oil extracted from their seeds. Big fields of sunflowers are an impressive sight, but say more about agriculture and masses of colour than about, well, the sheer sunniness of sunflowers. Frances used the D70 to shoot this backlit sunflower, deliberately over-exposing as far as she dared (the exposure histogram on the back of the camera helped) and shooting only part of the flower so the centre was surrounded completely by glowing light. But rather than the standard 18-70mm zoom, which might have given her an overly literal image, she chose instead to use our 90/4 soft-focus Dreamagon, a lens that has certainly lived up to its name here.




Turret, Miami Beach

From part of a flower, less than a hand-span across, to part of a building, three storeys high... And shot with the same camera, the Nikon D70, though in Roger's hands this time.

Years ago, we both had considerable problems with images like this, cut off from their surroundings and indeed from the rest of what belonged to them, such as most of the trunk of the tree and almost half its foliage.

Roger worried about them much more than Frances, because whenever he took such pictures they looked chopped-off, awkward and amateurish to him: he tended to shoot far more literal images. But then he realized that actually, he quite liked such pictures when someone else took them, from which it was a short step to realizing that he could take them himself.

It is only fair to add, though, that much of this acceptance of details may be conditioning. Look at travel brochures and see how often this sort of thing is done. It is hard not to suspect that all they want to do is lose awkward details...



Detail shots often provide a certain amount of scope for humour, or at least amusement. This can be of the 'double-take' variety (surely I can't have seen what I thought I saw...); or the unnoticed detail; or the gentle smile; or indeed the simple confirmation of prejudices that are only barely humorous.

Pipework, Miami Beach

This is a good, dramatic selection of shapes and colours, with the contrast slightly boosted in Photoshop to emphasize the graphic quality. Then you see the sign 'Rodent Control Device', and you start wondering what sort of rats and mice they have in Miami Beach! Roger shot this with the Nikon D70 and 18-70mm standard zoom.




Bread and Oil

It's bread and oil, Jim, but not as we know it. The French are astonishingly casual about how they carry their bread but bungeeing it onto a motor-oil bidon on your motorcycle is remarkable even by Gallic standards. Roger used his Leica M4-P with 35/1.4 Summilux to shoot this on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX ISO 100

Bottle Aeroplanes

Go on: tell us you didn't smile when you saw these. They are lent added piquancy by the fact that they are in Xaghra in Gozo, a few hundred metres (or yards) from the oldest ruins on the planet, the prehistoric temples of Ggantija. Roger shot this too with a Leica (probably the M4-P) and 90/2 Summicron, on Fuji RF/RFP ISO 50.

the 1000 motels series

In early 2006 we began a new series of pictures, rather different from most of our other work, exclusively digital. Obviously we stay in a lot of motels because of the way we travel: it's a choice of more time travelling more cheaply, or less time travelling more expensively. After a while, all motels look increasingly similar, so we tried to capture details that reflected this.

Roger shoots mostly with the Nikon D70 and either the standard 18-70mm zoom or a Lensbaby soft-focus lens, while Frances shoots mostly with an 8-megapixel Minox 8111, but we also use each others' cameras.

We correct the colours to some extent in Photoshop but the way in which the digital cameras' automatic 'white balance' settings render the colours is, we think, part of the story: it's all part of the disorienting, never-quite-the-same-twice nature of staying in motels.

We hope to expand this series over the years, perhaps with pictures of hotels elsewhere in the world. See also the free 1000 motels gallery.

Chair and corner

The standard lamp; the anonymous, functional chair and table; the huge front window covered with a curtain... It's all here. (Roger)






Digital Alarm

What can we say? Another of the great symbols of Moteldom (Roger)

Gold Anodized Chair

A standard piece of balcony furniture, here brought into the room because the easy chair had broken. (Frances)



Phone, Car Keys, Key Card

We tend to avoid motels that have a big sign outside saying AMERICAN OWNED AND RUN, because this is often shorthand for 'Run down dump operated by xenophobic rednecks'. This one (like so many motels in the USA) was run by Indians from the sub-continent. (Roger)

Disco ball

This was from one of the weirdest motels we have ever stayed in, with mirrors everywhere (including over the bed) and three porn channels on the television. There's more about it below. (Frances)

the porn hotel

We had left Naples, Florida and driven from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast. There's not a lot in between. It was late and getting dark when we found ourselves on a boulevard where most of the motels seemed to promise free X-rated movies. Then we saw a Peruvian restaurant. We had never tried Peruvian food and this seemed like a first class opportunity. This was the nearest motel. They seemed moderately amused to rent a room to a middle-aged couple, but at least the whole-night rate wasn't too bad (we didn't ask if they had an hourly rate). It was actually a very good motel.





Mirrors, Porn Hotel

You can see what we mean about the mirrors. The longer you look at this picture, the stranger it gets. (Roger)

Heron Print

There's a special kind of art that you get in motels -- though the Porn Hotel had none at all. (Roger)

Glass Bar, Porn Hotel

The Porn Hotel did however feature a tasteful bar built of glass bricks, with a pink light inside. (Frances)

graphic details

Most of the pictures so far have been what we call narrative, that is, they are 'about' something. The question 'what is it a picture of?' is at least as important as the sheer visual effect. But it is also possible to take detail shots that are not in any conventional sense 'about' anything: they are, in a sense, making a picture out of nothing, purely because it makes an attractive graphic shape.


Wall and sky, Pecs

Even the most graphic shot will usually have some narrative content. The shapes and colours prompted Roger to shoot this picture (with his Leica M4-P and 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar, on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX) but the deep blue sky, gleaming whitewash and bright sun have very positive connotations for most people: summer, holidays, good times. Hungary is the quintessential Central European country: the West is Western, the East is Eastern, the North can be surprisingly bleak and Northern, and parts of the South (where Pecs is) can seem almost Mediterranean, despite being hundreds of miles from the Middle Sea.






Here, Roger has abstracted a graphic shape from a very narrative setting. This is Levoca in Slovakia, one of many towns in Central and Eastern Europe originally settled in mediaeval times as a German colony. Next, of course, it fell under the Austro-Hungarian empire; was briefly independent after World War One (as a part of Czechoslovakia); and then was under Russian occupation for the best part of half a century.

The ancient wall, peeling paint and graffiti are all a part of this history, but the shapes here looked so much like an old-fashioned wizard with pointy hat and puffy-sleeved robe that Roger deliberately under-exposed (on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX) to block up the shadows to an almost solid black and saturate the red as far as possible. The small triangle and circle, incidentally, are traffic signs (and their shadows) and the big vertical triangle is simply where two walls meet.








Blue painted wood

Receding tide

Rusty punctured metal


The three pictures above are all very old, probably dating from the 1970s, and represent a style of photography that we both find difficult: 'pure abstract' images, rather like Jackson Pollock's 'pure paint' paintings. To us, they almost always look better through the viewfinder than they do on the light table, in print or on the computer screen. Nor are these three helped by being shot with an old Pentax SV with frankly soft lenses, using the flat, unsharp slide films of the period. But they still have a certain charm.

Such pictures can tip over into a style that we find particularly irritating, the 'What Is It?' picture. These are photographs shot from an unfamiliar angle or very close up or both. Who cares what it is? The camera can be made to see in a way that fools us. We do not find this either remarkable or interesting.




Door, bolt, handle

We both have a terrible weakness for photographing doors, and have indeed been tempted to put up a gallery of them (and another gallery of bicycles, though those are principally Roger's weakness).

The artificiality of the divide between 'narrative' and 'graphic' is shown to some extent here: such colours, and such weathering, are often more typical of warm southern climes (this is Mertola in Portugal) than of cold northern ones.

You could also call it 'narrative' because it is so easy to weave a story around an ancient weathered door. Where might it lead? A secret garden? A house unused in a hundred years? Another dimension?

Ultimately, though, we'd defend it as graphic rather than narrative, because after all, it could be almost anywhere, and the things that matter are the colours, the shapes and the textures. Unlike 'Wizard', above, it is immediately clear what it is, but this doesn't matter.

What we can't really defend is the lack of sharpness. Some time in the early 90s we decided to take a couple of zoom lenses to Mertola with us, and shoot principally with those. The simple truth is that next to the Leica and Voigtländer lenses we normally use in 35mm, even the 90-180/4.5 Vivitar Series 1 Flat Field looks rather flat and soft. There may also have been some camera shake, though it seems unlikely. On the other hand we have always found it easier to hand-hold longer exposures on rangefinder cameras than on reflexes such as the Nikon F that Roger used for this picture.


Lion doorknocker, Malta

This is clearly related to the shot above, though slightly less literal: the bolt has been removed and the old wooden lock has been filled in. Even so, it illustrates several points.

One, already made, is the way in which details can create a unifying theme, in this case, doors.

Another is that while the old 'rules of composition' are far from unbreakable, they work surprisingly often. The doorknocker is pretty much 'on the thirds', and its dark mass on the right is 'balanced' by the ghosts of the bolt and the lock on the left.

The third is that details make it easy to concentrate attention on the subject that interests you, even in quite a small picture. The whole house is extremely attractive, when you are there, in Malta, with everything in front of you; but to capture that adequately in a picture, you might need a very large print, perhaps 30x40 inches or 90x120cm. Not only is this technically demanding: it is also damnably expensive and extremely inconvenient to carry around.

The fourth, and perhaps the most important, is the sheer pleasure you can get from shooting details, both at the time and as an aide-memoire. Of course you can see things and admire them without photographing them, but the added spur of looking for details to photograph means that you notice more and therefore enjoy more. At least, we find that to be true, and others have said much the same.





Sun umbrella

This is another very old shot, so old we cannot recall where it was taken, or what with, or on what film stock. Roger must have taken it, because it antedates the time that Frances took up photography seriously, so it was probably shot with the same old Pentax SV as the abstract shots above.

Like the door picture above, however, it is at least as much graphic as literal. Yes, we know what it is, but that is less important than the colours and shapes that prompted Roger to take the picture.

We're not sure about the shallow depth of field. It might work better with everything sharp. But then again, it might not.







Shadow of railings, Easton Railway Station, Bristol

This is the last of the very old shots in this module -- promise! -- but it shows how there is a continuum between narrative and graphic shots, and how (to be brutal) one can prop up the other.

The shape of the shadows was what prompted Roger to take the picture, but on their own, they are not very interesting. Likewise, the cracked and peeling concrete, the asphalt and the general run-down-ness of the scene say a lot about the decline of the railways, but not quite enough without a decent graphic shape. You really need the caption 'Easton Railway Station' to finish the picture off; once you know where it is, or at least, what it is (a railway station), everything seems to come together.

This probably was shot with a Leica, Roger's old IIIa with 50/3.5 uncoated Elmar, and the film stock was Ektachrome 64. It needed a lot of cleaning up in Adobe Photoshop to rescue a flat, blue, somewhat faded, 30-year-old transparency.

the bottom line

A good way to think of detail shots, in the context of your overall picture taking, is in Hollywood terms. In the movies, it is normal to have long shots, mid shots and close-ups. This provides variety and allows the director to keep the attention of the audience where he wants it -- and to change its emphasis, as necessary. Some photographers shoot far more detail shots than others; but if you shoot none, or if you shoot only detail shots, you may need to re-examine your priorities.

Renault Alpine

The same car as we started with. Roger must have taken half a dozen different detail shots, without ever shooting an all-in picture, but this leads to the interesting thought that even if the all-in picture is not all that good, it might be possible to 'carry' it with a sufficient number of attractive detail shots. He has resolved to try it at the next opportunity. Leica M4-P, 35/1.4 Summilux, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX.

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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks