Women Photographers: what the guide books aren’t telling you

Women Photographers: what the guide books aren't telling you

Annabel Williams

Annabel Williams has been a professional photographer and trainer for the past 25 years, and is one of the most sought-after portrait photographers in the UK.

Interviews with famous women photographers: Annabel Williams

All images this page by Annabel Williams

Please explain your thoughts on the quality, design and information included in guide books on the market in the past and today.

There are many amazing photography books out there, particularly the coffee table books which show inspiring images from famous photographers, but there are also many educational books which are just totally focused on the technical aspects of photography rather than the inspiration and dream of photography.

When I was first asked to write a photography book 15 years ago I refused on the basis that I wasn’t going to write something technical as it was not my style at all.

This made the publishers sit up and ask me how I would do it then, and I told them it would be about the importance of looking at what is in front of you, rather than placing the emphasis on what you are photographing WITH. As I say on my site:

Annabel Williams quote

From your own experiences, what one thing do you wish the guides had told you when you were first starting out in the industry?

I wish they had placed the emphasis on the importance of what is in front of you instead of telling you that you need to understand everything about your camera, film, lenses etc – which you definitely don’t.

I always say, “How many buttons do you use on your washing machine? I bet it’s two at the most.” You don’t need to understand everything on your washing machine to be able to wash your clothes – most people use quick wash and slightly longer wash – and that’s what I do with my camera.

Traditionally in the past most camera books (practically ALL) were written by very technical men. I would say that 75% of photographers today are not technical at all – in fact, if you count everyone who takes a photo with a phone, then I would say it was about 90%.

The majority of people taking pictures with a phone would just point it at the subject and press the button, with very little technical thought at all – and why should they, they don’t need to! It’s the work they put in BEFORE they press the shutter that really counts.

The photographic industry has seen a growing number of women photographers enter its ranks over the past 15 years. What do you think are the main differences between and female and male photographers in terms of approach to learning new photography skills?

When I started in photography 25 years ago I was virtually the only woman on every seminar I attended. I was constantly slated by most of the trainers and fellow photographers – I was laughed at for my simple ideas and felt very intimidated.

At one of my first ever weddings I was using a simple SLR camera (in the days when everyone used big cameras on tripods) – and a guy came up to me and said “well don’t worry love, if your pictures don’t turn out, mine will!”

I’ve never ever forgotten that and it really drove me on to succeed and prove to people that you could be much more flexible and take much more natural pictures if you used a zoom lens and a hand held small camera, and moved around the subject instead of expecting them to stand in one place and focus on your tripod.

I remember going to a seminar where I was told I could not expect to be taken seriously if I didn’t use a tripod at weddings, and I stupidly went out and bought one!

The first wedding I went to with a tripod was a disaster for the first ten minutes, until I threw the damned thing behind a gravestone and just got on with it my way – it’s probably still there for all I know!

The main difference in approach is that women tend to want to know how to easily set up their camera so they can just get on with the business of dealing with the people they are photographing and develop a rapport.

Most men actually like the process of the technical side – they enjoy taking photos on different settings and different lenses because it is important to them to achieve something which might be more difficult, and really learn a process.

I think women enjoy dealing with the subject they are photographing rather than the equipment. I know it’s a great generalisation but I have definitely found this to be the case throughout my teaching and my own experience.

Interview with Annabel Williams

As a trainer, do you approach teaching male and female photography students differently?

I don’t teach them any differently, but I appreciate that they take on board the information differently.

Having taught photographers for 25 years I have found that men and women learn in very different ways. That is a generalisation, but I have found it to be true for most of the time.

Men tend to want to research everything and get all the facts before coming to a decision and they question things constantly. Women tend to just want to know what camera I use and how I do it and then just get on with it.

Women tend to get bored in seminars which give out lots of information rather than teach in bite sized, practical ways. Women tend to enjoy learning in a much more hands on approach rather than a fact driven approach.

They need to see it to understand it, whereas many men like to know that something has been tried and tested. However more and more men are learning in the same way as women now – I think it’s because we have busy lives and they want to get on with it too.

But there are still a lot of men out there who are fascinated by the technical aspects of the craft – nothing wrong with that – just that they learn differently. Women tend to get frustrated by the technical side, I find.

Give us an example of something you learned from a guide book and later realised was wrong?

At the beginning I didn’t believe in myself enough or have the confidence to go with my gut feeling. I spent a lot of money on equipment, lenses, tripods and trying to do it the way they said in the books and on seminars, but it never felt right.

In the end I ditched the equipment and did it my way, and never looked back. I don’t think these things are wrong – I just think they are different ways of shooting pictures.

If you are doing a commercial shoot in the dark, for example, then you DO need a tripod and you do need clever lighting. But you don’t always need that tripod or lighting setup if the purpose of your shot is, for instance, to create something abstract.

I think a lot of the time people think all photography is the same and all the rules apply to whatever genre or niche you might want to shoot.

I remember once a client saying they were not booking me as their wedding photographer because their friend was an advertising photographer and he was going to shoot their wedding for them. I asked her what his speciality was and it was cars!

Photography is myriad different pieces – each needing an individual approach. It just doesn’t make sense to teach every aspect in the same way.

When I first saw someone’s picture with a blurred background I asked them how to do it, and they said “use a wide aperture”.  I dared not ask what a wide aperture was, so I looked at the f stops on my camera and assumed that 16 would be wide because it was a bigger number! I soon learnt from that mistake!

I now tell people to remember “the smaller the number, the less in focus” – that way they can understand. I don’t know why camera manufacturers still use all those silly numbers anyway. Why doesn’t the dial just say “more in focus, less in focus”?  Pretty obvious to me!

Photo apps have it all sorted – totally simple to understand. What we need are apps on a DSLR camera, which I’ve been saying for years!

I love camera apps and spend most of my time shooting on my iPhone, but for critical things you need to be able to look directly through a lens closely – for example, to press the shutter at exactly the right time you get the perfect expression, it’s critical that you are looking at the eyes, which is harder to do on an iPhone.

Differences between men and women photographers

What is the biggest learning curve for male and female photographers?

I would say it’s having the confidence to just get on with it and do it your way. It’s also about discovering how to find the right light. Once I show people how easy that is, they just fly.

And the biggest revelation for most people I teach is when they realise they are “allowed” to shoot things in a simple way and stop getting hung up on the technical side.

You can find Annabel’s books, such as “99 Portrait Photo Ideas” and “99 digital Photo Art Ideas”, on the books page of her website.

PAGE 1: What are the differences between men and women photographers?
PAGE 2: Angela Nicholson, Digital Camera World’s head of testing
PAGE 3: Kelly Weech, wedding and portrait photographer
PAGE 4: Annabel Williams, portrait photographer and trainer


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