Hosing It Down

The title, hosing it down, comes from a paparazzi term for photographing a celebrity and just shooting away until you’ve got something. The paps I used to know were a little different from some we seem to see on TV nowadays.

Richard Young, Alan Davidson, Dave Bennet, Dave Hogan, they all made their names not by simply monstering people and shooting frame after frame, hoping for the best but by being around celebs, being civilized and looking for the telling picture.

Richard young was one of the originals with his twin Leicas and Harley Davidson motorcycle. You could argue that the cameras and bike were affectations. Well, yes, they do have a certain style, a statement about them.

But in reality, the Leicas, with their rangefinder optics were able to do two things that SLRs couldn’t. In early hours London, outside clubs and restaurants, it is dark, The Leicas didn’t lose light to a mirror and a pentaprism, You viewed straight through the finder so you could see what was going on. Secondly, the rangefinder needed very little light for accurate focusing. Thirdly, at the moment your flash fired, your scene didn’t black out. You could see what you had.

The Harley, anyway who has tried to get around late night in London by black cab or car will know that it is impossible. You can’t get a cab and you can’t park a car. The Harley is perfect. While it is a motor-cycle, it didn’t suffer from the greaser image that bikes in England traditionally in did. Everyone know a whacking great Harley costs and arm and a leg.

With Richard, it got to the point where if there was a party on and he wasn’t there, it wasn’t a party,

Coming back to my title, hosing it down then probably meant shooting about  half a roll, 18 shots of 35mm on a given picture. The film has to be bought, carried, processed, contact printed and gone through with a loupe when it gets back to the agency. It costs money and takes time.

How times have changed. I read someone on a forum the other day talking about a weekend trip to a national park in the United States. He’d shot 5,000 pictures – 5,000! This isn’t hosing down a person, it’s hosing down a recreational area. With 5,000 frames, how would you ever pick out the best ones?

I used to go on holiday and shoot a couple of rolls of film in two weeks. Even today, a day’s shooting  landscapes in the Languedoc means maybe 40 frames. Some of those will be bracketed, so I’d expect to get maybe 5 or six different pictures from the 40 frames and maybe keep one, perhaps two. It’s a habit. I just can’t bring myself to press the button unless what I am going to get has at least an even chance of being the best choice.

The idea of just moving round from position to position, shooting everything with the intention of picking the best later is deeply flawed. It stops you from thinking about what you are doing, the very thing that separates a good photographer from the bad one. You can’t rely on chance to get your results. Imagine a songwriter who had a sequencer play thousands of random notes and then tried to pick out a tune among them.

A lesson drilled into me early on in my press photography, Fleet Street, days was from the then picture editor of the London Evening News, Alan Reed, one of the best picture editors I ever worked for. He was sending me and two other staffers, Bill Johnson and David Stevens out to Northern Ireland to cover the troubles. We had a tight, tight deadline, being an evening newspaper.


His parting words were simple – if the first picture you send back isn’t the one that makes the front page, I’ll want to know why. In other words, the output of three photographers for a morning’s work covering one of the biggest news stories in the world came down to one picture for the front page. No matter who took it, how hard it was worked for, no matter whose ego would be bruised, the three photographers would decide the best picture and wire that first. Then decisions would be made on the subsequent six or so.

Under those conditions, anyway who came back to the wire room with more than two or three rolls of films was regarded as an unprofessional waster of time, his own and his colleagues. The best of their pictures were selected by each photographer and then the best of three men’s output was  selected by agreement.  It was surprisingly harmonious, for three reasons.

One, that time was of the essence and sending a picture late meant no-one had a picture in the paper. two that Alan had arranged a collective by-line of all three names…and three, if the best pix didn’t arrive on his desk first all three of you would find yourselves on door-step jobs for the next three months.  And door steps were the most hated of assignments, waiting outside the home of someone in the news for them to appear and get in their car. You could be there for days and the best shot you could get in the paper would be a double column of someone walking up their garden path.

I heard one photographer, plainly well out of favour, remaking once “I’ve been on so many door-steps lately, I’m starting to feel like a milk bottle”.

You may have gathered that I’m not a fan of the scatter-gun approach to photography. Just because you can fire 12 frames per second at no extra cost doesn’t mean you should. The wedding photographer who shoots thousands of frames is just making life tedious for himself and probably getting inferior outcomes. Somewhere in the 700 pictures of the bride is a beauty of a pic – it’s harder to find it than it would have been to wait for the moment – and shoot it once.

Hose it or chose it?

I’m probably stretching Robert Capa’s famous dictum, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’ a bit too far but I’ll try  – ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’ve probably taken too many and missed the best one’.






6 thoughts on “Hosing It Down

  1. Paul Reed

    Hello David
    Just read this to my dad Alan Reed. He is 84 I’m afraid he is not to good he has Parkinsons. He still talks about you and his days with the Evening News with proudness and affection. He said you was a really photographer.
    I remember your name in our household when as we grew up. along with your editor Lou Kirby
    Theo. The Hart Brothers, Aubrey and Dennis, Roger Alstone, Mike Sullivan, Jimmy James, Dennis Jones, Mr Graves and of course the many others. Dad sends his kindest regards and thanks you for your kind words.
    The Evening News was his best days of living Fleet Street.

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Hi Paul – I replied via normal email – could you let me know if you got it?

  2. Philip Danks

    A trenchant commentary on a modern tendency which we could think of as digital photographic gluttony. Thanks David.

    Having just removed an exposed but long-forgotten Kodak Gold 100 film cartridge from my Olympus OM1n which has been sitting in the cupbaord for many years, I’m reminded how much more thoughtful I used to be before I pressed the button.

    I’ll take a leaf out of your book and see if I can get some of that exposure frugality back into my shoots. It’s not just about keeping alive an old habit is it? It’s about instilling a bit more thought into the process of taking photographs. Which is what the limited amount of film in the camera used to induce, not to mention the cost of film and processing.

    Digital photography, marevelous though it is, can lead us into bad habits. We often blaze away — what the heck, there’s a 64GB sdhc card in there — and then we store all this stuff on our computer and hardly look at it. I like your practice of shooting economically and then you paring down what you’ve got into what’s really worth keeping.

    ps: I wonder what I’m going to find on that old 35mm film once I get it back? Must be from the mid ’80s…

    1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

      Gluttony, yes, good word. That wedding photographer I mentioned, if you did that 5,000 frame shoot with film it would cost roughly £1600 just for materials and processing! A 64GB card equates to about 100 rolls of 35mm film at MFT RAW file sizes. That’s more than I would take on a 5 day feature shoot.

      When I first started going out on jobs on my own, after my first year’s training on my local paper, we’d have 12 double dark, 24 plates on which to cover 5 or 6 jobs. No leeway for bad pictures or fuzzies there. So you’d turn up at a fete or flower show and walk around first to see where there might be a picture. Then go back to the car, get your camera and, if the picture you wanted didn’t appear, create it. It’s a habit that has stuck with me. I really think that you should know what your picture will be like before you press the shutter, not when you review it.

      The 35mm film, fascinating. Expect awful hair and fashion, though 🙂

      1. Philip Danks

        Awful hair and fashion in the 1980s? In the in the 2010s hardly any hair, and same old jeans and sweatshirts (but sadly, not the same size)… but no flares, that ‘s ’70s after all. Got to move with the times.

        I’ll remember that old newspaper phtotographer’s advice (and try not to pass it on as my own!) — “know what your picture will be like before you press the shutter”.

        1. dt@dthorpe.net Post author

          I had to learn that not everyone used a camera day in and day out, especially my family. I’d shoot some family pix back in film days and not bother to get the film processed because I knew what the pix would look like. I’d say I’d done a nice portrait of our son and my wife would say, “well, where is it, then?” On a roll of undeveloped 35mm in my office, that’s where!

          I’d already seen it when I took it, I knew it was sharp and the light and expression were good. I just needed to learn that other people might like to see the actual pix.


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