Photography in the Pub

In some ways we’re in a golden age for pub photography as almost everyone now has a relatively powerful camera on their phone, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s simple.

Historically, photos of pubs tend to be of the exteriors. That’s partly because of the availability of lights, partly because the exteriors were highly decorated, and also perhaps because drinking has been, and maybe still is, a somewhat furtive activity.

There is the odd historic interior shot, more often than not taken by brewery photographers to document the decor, and thus usually eerily empty. But this one from c.1915, a favourite of ours, is an exception:

Interior of a London pub c.1915.Even there, though, it’s obvious they’ve been told to sit very still and not to smile so it hardly looks natural. Things start to get really good with Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Bolton pubs for Mass Observation, taken in the late 1930s. We’ve used a few on the blog before but here’s a particularly dynamic example, where you can almost taste the mild, smell the smoke and hear the clack of the dominoes on the table:

Men playing dominoes.
Image ref. 1993.83.17.07

Spender snapped quickly without necessarily asking permission and occasionally got thrown out by irritated landlords. Eighty years on, the results are totally worth it — moments in time, faces, relationships, all captured without varnish.

In the post-war period, when ever more people got cameras and could afford to use them, things got really interesting; and now scanning and sharing photos is easy and cheap, we get to see the results, too. For example, check out this wonderful image from the Wigan World forum:

The Old Dog, Wigan, 1970s.

Snaps of friends and family are one thing but if you, like us, have a desire to contribute in a more conscious way to an ongoing record of pub life, there are a few things to consider.

First, yes, candid photos of other drinkers often look more interesting than shots of empty interiors, or posed photographs where the subject is self-conscious about the camera. But how would you feel if someone secretly snapped a picture of you? Especially if they then either (a) shared it on with a snarky comment or (b) sold it for reproduction in print or online without your permission?

Quite apart from the legal side of things street photographers have grappled with the ethics of photographing strangers for years. These days, the consensus seems to be that you should:

  1. Ask permission beforehand, even if you just get a nod and a thumbs up rather than having the subject sign a form. You can always wait a bit and take a photo when they’ve forgotten you’re there if you want something less staged.
  2. Or avoid faces. Shots of the backs of heads, hands, or where faces are in shadow or out of focus are not only less sensitive but can also look really cool.
  3. Or feature crowds rather than individuals. This is particularly hotly debated but, in general, there’s a feeling that a photo of a pub with people in it is different to a photo of a person in a pub. You have to be honest with yourself here, though — are you really just taking a shot of the room, or is it actually a sneaky way to snap the funny old bloke in the strange hat who just happens to be centre frame?

Secondly, depending on how professional you want your photographs to look, think about which camera you’re using. Gareth of beershots.co.uk fame suggests avoiding anything too big and fancy:

In fact, if you keep the lens clean and take a moment to stabilise it, you can get some pretty great shots just with your phone. The pictures Gareth took for our pub preservation blog post a few years back were done just that way:

An old man in the Black Friar, London.

But if you do want to capture the architecture of a pub in a more formal way, a wide-angle lens on a proper camera can really help, especially if there’s a chance it will be reproduced in print. We’re definitely still photographers with a small p but we’ve taken a few (we think) decent pics this way in the last year or so:

The British Oak, Stirchley.

Alternatively, focus on the details which can often convey just as much:

SIGN: 'Lounge Bar'

Our mission for the next few months is to get better at including people in our pictures — we too often chicken out because, frankly, it’s embarrassing to ask.

In the meantime, after an abortive attempt last night, if you feel like sharing the best pub photograph you’ve ever taken, why not Tweet it with the hashtag #PubPhotos? We’re always interested to see where other people drink especially if the picture captures something of the atmosphere as well as the fixtures and fittings.

7 thoughts on “Photography in the Pub”

  1. There’s always a question mark over candid shots, although they can be some of the most atmospheric. This one of the Hare & Hounds in Manchester city centre is particularly evocative, but I’m conscious that I’ve not asked anyone’s permission and just surreptitiously waved my phone and clicked. I generally steer clear of it, although I know some other bloggers are less inhibited 😛

    Pub cats will never raise any objection, though 😀

  2. I have took photos of well over 10000 pubs while doing my pub crawls,the earliest date from mid 1982 and i still take them now.i have only ever took one internal photo and was offered the chance to do so,i still felt awkward in taking a photo of the inside of what was a micro pub.

  3. And I suppose when you’re in an older traditional pub, you’re basically in the landlord’s/landlady’s living room. It’s intimate and just seems wrong to get recording equipment out. Humphrey Spender’s picture would not be extant if he hadn’t though.
    I also take snaps of pump clips with the phone. This practice is so widespread now but it omits the actual pub and its patrons.

  4. I take almost exclusively interior shots, there’s more than enough exteriors out there already. I always ask whoever looks most senior behind the bar, and if it’s going to include real live people I’ll ask them too. One technique you’ve not mentioned when taking shots indoors with lots of inconvenient people in shot, set your camera to a long exposure and explain to those who might be a bit shy that if they just keep moving their heads they’ll be a blur and unrecognisable…

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