Who Says There’s No Un-Suck Filter?

In The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David20 Comments

In my first book, Within The Frame, before all of this blew up and I became a writer (and just how exactly did that happen, anyway?) I wrote that “there was no Un-Suck filter in our photography” and since I didn’t get a flood of emails asking me what on God’s green earth I was talking about, I assumed people knew what I meant. That it’s easy to take photographs that suck, and to make many of them, and that there was no filter you could put on the camera or apply in Photoshop that would absent the suck from the image once it was there.

I still believe there is no Un-Suck filter, and there’s little to be gained by polishing our turds in post-production when we’ve mucked things up in-camera.

But in the years since I’ve found a set of my own (please forgive this horrible play on words) Un-Stuck filters. They are the techniques to which I return when I’m stuck. When I’m standing there looking at the scene in front of me and can’t for the life of me figure out where to start, how to make my first sketch images a little less, well, sucky, or how to get myself un-stuck.

My un-Stuck filters are not gimmicks. They aren’t shortcuts.

They’re things I try just to get my wheels going again, reliable starting points that I’ve found by looking at my past photographs and seeing the best of them often use one or more of these techniques. They happen to work for me, they’re part of my own visual voice. But they also work because I think they have more to do with the experience of the person viewing the image than they do with being technically advanced, whatever that means.
Sitting at lunch yesterday, trying to figure out what to send you this morning and wanting very badly to keep the conversation light and away from our current global situation as best as possible, it occurred to me to share with you my 4 favourite un-Stuck filters. I hope you use them well, and that they lead you to discover your own ways of getting out of those momentary panics about where to begin.

Filter One: Wider and Closer

You’ve probably heard me talk about this before. A wide angle lens pushed in close is my default starting point. It doesn’t always do what I hope, but it has a couple advantages. It forces me into the action, to be part of it and not only a viewer. The experience is stronger for me, and that shows in the images. Wide and close is a better starting point if you want to recreate the illusion of depth and peripheral vision, and make the viewer feel like they are really there. When things are working I ask myself if I’m wide enough and close enough.

Filter Two: Slower Shutter

I know, we love tack sharp images, and there’s nothing wrong with sharp, but I’ll give up a little sharpness any day of the week for more emotion, mood, or the feeling of motion. If something’s moving, I want to see it and I think I probably photograph more around 1/30 these days than I have over the last 35 years. I want people that look at my images to feel them, to get not just the information but the impact.

If there’s motion, don’t just show me it’s there, give me a chance to experience it a little, if only in my imagination. It doesn’t always work, it’s not a panacea, but when I’m stuck it’s often asking if there’s motion and if I can show it a little better that helps get me moving toward stronger images.

Filter Three: Backlight

You’d never guess this looking at my work, would you? I love backlight. But it’s amazing how often I’ll shoot a scene for a while and think, man, this just isn’t working, it’s not popping for me, before I think to change it up and get the sun in front of me, to harness the rim light, or even (you knew this was coming, right?) the star burst effect with a partially hidden sun and a tight aperture.

You don’t want every image to be backlit, and from experience I can tell you it’s easy to over-use the starburst and lens flare, but they’re a quick way to get back into the groove, find something that gets you excited, and make your images more alive.

Filter Four: Under-Exposed

We don’t hear people talking so much about HDR (high-dynamic range) techniques these days. I guess the trends have moved elsewhere. But for a couple years photographers everywhere were obliterating their shadows and doing everything to make sure the light was as even (boring?) as possible. I love the drama and mystery of dark shadows. I love slivers of light, too. Your camera wants to make these scenes as average as possible. But learn to underexpose, or to expose specifically for the highlights, and let your shadows go dark, and you’ll have found a wonderful way to isolate bright subjects, to hide unwanted details in shadows, and to restore drama to your images.

Again, it’s not always the right choice, nor do you want every image to camp out on this technique, but it’s a good one and the photographer who knows how to do this quickly, and to recognize when conditions are right to do so, will have a powerful un-Stuck filter in their back pocket.

On their own these are all good, but used together they can introduce layers of impact and create a more powerful visual impact for those looking at your images. If you’ve got some down time, or a little more time to practice right now, consider getting really good at these four techniques, and being familiar with when and how to use them well. They’re some of my favourites, I hope they serve you well.

For the Love of the Photograph,

PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.

“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown


  1. Thanks as always David. I’d possibly add to that too, single focal length, single (but different than you are used to) aspect ratio to name but two. I think the unstuck for me is helped when we allow ourselves to play a little. It’s funny, as a landscape photographer for a long time I used to convince myself it wasn’t an image worth taking if I didn’t get out the tripod and mull over the scene for an unhealthy amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a place for that and I love to slow down and consider, but similar I’m finding great joy is simply walking with the camera, making images as I go and quite often they end up being some of my favourite images from the day …

    On a side note, a while ago (okay perhaps more than a while) you published your blog posts in a series of books … I had them all and simply loved them. I can’t seem to find them on my hard drive (or multiple other hard drives I seem to own (Tupperware in the digital age) and don’t think they are available on your website anymore? Any ideas where I can pick those up again as I’d love to give them a re-read through. I used to use them almost as a daily reading exercise …

    Thanks and take care ..


    1. Thanks for that, Nigel. I’ve replied by email with the links you’re looking for.

  2. I like unstuck filter 1. I have found I really like that for photographing flowers upclose but still being able to show their surrounding environment. I need to get back to doing more of that.

    Ah. Filter 2. This is one I feel like I’m literally afraid of. I’ve done it a little bit more recently though. But one thing I photograph regularly is sports and I’m literally afraid to dial back the shutter speed to something slower even though I know that’s what I’d really like because I’m afraid I’ll not get a great shot and I have a better “success” at a faster shutter speed.

    Thank you for this post.

    Kyle Reynolds


  3. Hi David. I’ve perusal all over your book, it’s inspiring, thank you so much. I lived some years in the loved Africa where contrast is “highlight” everywhere you shot, especially cultural, as you well decribe.

    What about deserts in general (Atacama, Gobi, Namibia,..) and poles. These extreme sites despite the temperature difference, have in comon lack of life and colors and yet amazing photos are taken.

    The question is: based on your experience what’s the best spots to chase in these remote areas besides in color or BW ? All the best

    1. Author

      Thanks, Perry. Yeah, slow shutter was a game changer for me when I started using it more subtly and in combination with other devices and techniques.

  4. Thanks for this article, David. Regarding wider & closer… how wide is too wide? Do you have a preference? I’m mindful of distortion, especially if you push in close to a person’s face. I feel safe with 40mm and sometimes 35mm, but never dared with 21mm. 🙂

    1. Author

      Hi Paul. I think this is a matter of taste. 100%. Some people don’t care for distortion. It doesn’t often bother me. I like 16-35mm lenses and in fact if I could only shoot with one focal length it would be my 21mm. Don’t put the face too close to the edges and you’ll be OK. 🙂

  5. Great information David. I am going to refer to this information often. It stirred up my creativity to another level. We all need that. You have a great way to stir it up. Thanks again.

  6. David,
    here’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask for a while: what do you mean by making a photo “sketch”? How are you thinking about that word as a part of your process?

      1. David,
        Thanks for both of those articles. I see you are “reframing” the language of the process using a term from the other kind of art. That makes perfectly good sense to me. I teach colleges composition, and the majority of students just hate the idea of revising their precious compositions—which so badly need it. I hope I’m a better student of photography!

        1. Author

          Funny how we get an idea stuck in our heads and just can’t see it from any other angle, isn’t it? I like the idea of different iterations of one thing, though it usually takes me some time to stop being so precious about the one I settled on first. 🙂

  7. Hi David, thank you for these inspiring concepts. I will memorize them for me as follows: WC-SS-BLUE and hopefully remember while taking next pictures. Best Regards Martin

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