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 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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