Key elements of making photographs as records
by Malcolm Collier © 2009

There are basic processes or steps for using cameras that serve to enhance the research potential of the resulting photographs; these should become almost a matter of habit for any researcher with a camera.

1. Make a mix of wide, medium, and detail photographs of subjects. Wide angle photographs record more of the context and the inter-relationships of a situation. The wider the view, generally, the greater volume of potential information within it and the more likely we are to later discover aspects we had previously missed. Conversely, narrower, more selective photographs provide more detail and are important in working through an understanding of specifics, as in the steps of an artistic or technical process but their value is limited without a wider context in which to place them.

2. Make photographs from a variety of angles and distances. This is an extension of the same principle, just as a mix of wide and more detailed images enhances the range of potential information, so too does a mix of angles of view. Make photographs from a variety of heights, not just at eye level; a variety of distances, not simply as the same distance each time; and move around to capture different angles of view, not simple from “in front.” Realistically, not all situations permit the photographer to obtain a mix of angles but they should be obtained if at all possible.

3. Compose photos in terms of the edges of the frame, so as to maximize the informational content. Do not automatically place the ‘main’ subject in the center but rather compose the photograph to maximize the use of the whole frame. This means thinking about where the edges fall rather than what is in the center. We want to use the camera to extend our vision, not merely to re-affirm it. By composing from the edges we start to break away from a subject oriented view to one of discovery, using the image as a net within which to obtain more of the elusive and shimmering catch of information and insight.

4. Make photographs in sets and sequences, not simply single shots. This means tracking actions, people, processes, places through time and space. Only in this manner can we begin to discover and appreciate how social process occurs or how material elements relate. Single photographs are frustrating to work with because by themselves they usually leave us with more questions than answers, lacking both spatial and temporal context within which to make them comprehensible.

5. Be sure to photograph what comes before and after focal activity as well as moments of transitions. We want to know how things came to be and what their aftermath may be, capturing the chain of actions and consequences that make up both the mundane and the spectacular. Transitions are often crucial for understanding both social and technical process as they define new beginnings and endings, shaping what follows while signaling the end of what came before.

6. Make photographs at regular intervals, even when “nothing” seems to be happening. We can not assume that we know when something significant is present and should make visual notes consistently through time and space, within which we may discover previously unappreciated phenomena. Just because we don’t see anything “happening” or anything “important” does not mean that it is not there to be discovered later in the photographs, either by ourselves or by others more knowledgeable.

7. Make photographs of the mundane as well as the dramatic. We are habituated to recording perceived “peaks” of cultural process, forgetting that life is often not dramatic, that people do not live only at the “peaks.” It is often the mundane, the undramatic steps along the way that are most essential to cultural process and it is in the everyday mundane that the foundation of our lives are truly found.

8. Keep good notes (annotation) that can provide background and identification for your photographs. Do not depend on memory. Photographs, beyond a certain point, do not “speak for themselves” and their meaning and significant is defined by context, anything that extends the contextual information associated with an image extends its value. Ideally, in addition to written records, identifying information of some type should appear on the back of every print - written with soft pencil - or in association with each digital record. Video or film should be clearly identified both within the tape or film and on the containers. Negatives should be stored in sleeves and should also have identifying information. Digital cameras can be set to record basic temporal information automatically and with computers, images and associated annotation may be combined into visual data bases, easily organized and searched, providing the basic annotation was made to begin with.