The problem with promising pictures

by Nick Kelsh

posted Sunday, April 19, 2015 at 2:36 PM EDT

Angus McDougall, legendary photojournalism professor, 1917-2009

I’m sure most professional photographers can relate to the cartoon above. That brings me to one of the most influential people in my life.

His name was Angus McDougall. I’ve mentioned him before in my Tips and I’m sure he’ll resurface again; he certainly does in my dreams.

He was my college photography professor. He was a legendary newspaper photographer and a gargantuan personality and yes, his name was really Angus McDougall. He once called me on the carpet in a manner I would wish on no man.

As knowledgeable as he was about photojournalism, it seems that it’s his small, totally practical pieces of advice that have stuck with me. As a collection they almost represent a code of photographer behavior, and although he was speaking to us as future professionals, they are no less important for any amateur who has embraced the photographic life.

Today I present one of his most important and profound ideas about how to properly behave as a photographer—regardless of how obvious it may seem at first glance.

If you promise someone a print, keep your promise

McDougall’s contention was that having the talent and skill to shoot decent photographs demands that, as an ambassador for photography, you behave on the highest level. If you have no intention of ever sending a print, don’t say you will. It’s that simple. I know that’s just old-fashioned good manners, but when you start bringing your camera to every family gathering or church event or dinner party, the number of pictures you shoot that people want grows like a garden that needs constant loving care.

When McDougall was giving this advice, delivering a print was no small task. We made ours by hand, in the dark and the wet and hung them to dry on a little clothes line in the finishing room. We removed specks of dust with camel hair paint brushes and Spot Tone—photographic retouching ink. It was always a good idea to make two prints because you inevitably messed up the first one. No photo subject who casually commented “send me an eight by ten” had any idea of what they were asking—or commanding.

Today “delivering” pictures still requires writing down someone’s email address, getting your hands on the file, and remembering to complete the task. Emailing a picture to a photo subject is a thoughtful act, for sure. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and speak for my now-deceased mentor; I’m quite sure he wouldn’t buy it.

He would, I think, tell us you can’t hang an email attachment on a wall. Prints are prints and will always be the gold standard. A hand written note accompanying this elegant paper gift thanking someone for their cooperation, or telling them you appreciate what they did for you, makes the world a better place and it always will.

There are dozens, OK, maybe hundreds of people out there still waiting for Nick Kelsh pictures promised by the photographer. In my defense, I’m sure that’s true of most professional photographers in the world. It’s just so easy to say you will send a picture to please someone in the moment.

It’s much more difficult to be honest and say you have so many people in your life waiting for pictures, that the odds are slim you’ll ever come through. As I’ve aged, I’ve done much better. At the very least, I use Christmas as my annual personal deadline to come clean with everyone in my life who thinks they have a print coming.

McDougall had other gems of suggested photographer behavior. I remember him facing a room full of blank stares from a menagerie of photo students as he suggested that all the males wear neck-ties to photo assignments.

Were he still alive, I’m sure he would reluctantly revise that bit of dress code, but I’m equally confident that his if you promise someone a print, keep your promise is etched in granite for as long as photographers shoot pictures other people want.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)