Albert Watson On Creating Photographs

Photo By Albert Watson

Legendary celebrity portrait and fashion photographer Albert Watson has a new book out this month. Albert Watson: Creating Photographs is filled with amazing images, but it’s not just a monograph of pretty pictures. Instead, Watson has set his sights on helping other photographers make better photographs themselves. Filled with lessons large and small, as well as the master photographer’s advice and stories behind the making of some of his most iconic images, the book is a great way to learn to be a better photographer from one of the best. To that end, here are three tips taken from the collection of bite-sized lessons in the book.

Do Your Homework

Whether you’re setting out to make a landscape or shooting a portrait on location, it’s imperative to do your homework before you go. Great photographs don’t just happen by accident, and Watson says when he sets out to make a photograph he starts by learning as much as possible about the place he’s going, researching what photographs have already been made there and trying to find the places that are unique and special—maybe avoiding the most popular Instagram-worthy, overdone spots. “Preparing is absolutely crucial,” he writes. “These days it’s the easiest thing in the world, because you have Google. Do a search for the place you’re going, but don’t just depend on the Internet—get some books. Look up photo books, but also history and geography books, especially old, obscure ones. Research the climate, the weather, the light…You want to immerse yourself completely long before you take your first picture. This kind of preparation also serves as creative inspiration… As a photographer, you have to apply your intellect to what you’re doing in order to find the beauty that others don’t see—and capture it with your camera.”

Photo By Albert Watson

Getting The Light Right

A lot of powerful lighting can be done with modest equipment. While Watson often uses expensive strobe setups in studio and on location, he suggests learning to control light and practice lighting people with just two plain light bulbs. While these lights positioned above the subject’s face and on either side of their head make for a contrasty lighting setup, it’s a great way to see how small adjustments to the positions of the light and the subject will have a major impact on the look of the picture. Better still, by controlling the light with flags—which can be as simple as black pieces of cardboard or foam core moved to create shadows and shape the light—all sorts of creative expression can be achieved with even the simplest equipment. “If you move the bulb around,” Watson writes, “you can see how much the light changes the way a face looks and the shadows it creates. It’s a corny expression, but you are painting with light…You can always use flags, no matter what kind of lighting you’re using. You can block the light completely with a flag and reintroduce light little by little, to experiment with what it’ll look like and see if anything interesting happens with it… You can hold on to the flag and move it around while a friend hits the shutter (or vice versa) until you get to a place you like, and then bring a stand over and attach the flag to it.”

Photo By Albert Watson

Learning To Edit Is Essential

 In this context, however, editing means choosing the best images from a group, not retouching them in Photoshop. Watson suggests that to get better, new photographers should be shooting all the time—a hundred images each day, in fact. It doesn’t matter much if those pictures are practically all the same, what matters is the act of actively seeing. Then when it’s time to cull photos from a take, the importance of strong editing skills comes to light. “I do it in a very straightforward way,” he writes. “I look at the first few images from the shoot, and then I go to the very end and look at five or six at the end. I pick the best one of my first four and the best one of my last four and I put them side-by-side as markers. Then it becomes a competition between those two images and the rest, and you begin to analyze as you go through all the other shots looking for ones that beat these two. If you find a shot that’s better, you replace the one that it beats… Once you edit down to your best two or three images, if you have time, live with them for a while. Leave them up on a wall and look at them again in a day or two, or even a week later. You’ll see what you love about them, what you don’t love about them, what you feel has permanence. The key factor is always memorability.”

To learn more and pre-order Albert Watson: Creating Photographs visit

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