I’m trying a new, long form, blogging style in this post. I’ll be revisiting it often. I’m going to use it as a mental dump, a place to share some inner thoughts and discoveries. Although the topics that I’ll discuss here may not be purely or strictly ‘photographic’, they are deeper parts of me than I haven’t shared with the general public before. They do make me who I am today, as well as guide how I act in the future. Perhaps you will find some common ground with them, or something will resonate with you. If so, I hope you’ll chime in and leave a comment.
Perhaps it is all TMI for you. That’s fine, I’ll have plenty of other blog posts with pictures of Alaska, tips, tricks, travel factoids, etc. that I think you’ll find fascinating.
To each their own.
It seems that every thing in this modern world revolves around cramming as much into our existence as possible. This translates directly into photography. Last night, I was a part of a great discussion on twitter (with Chuq Von Rospach and Richard Wong). At one point, the tweets veered towards productivity.
As an aside, do you know how difficult it is to have a deep conversation in spurts of 140 characters or less?
A few of us mentioned how many shots we had taken over a given time, or on a particular shoot. I soon found myself looking inward, at what this all means.
Digital photography has been such a blessing, in so many ways. My last year of shooting film (2003?), I probably shot well under 100 rolls of film. 36 exposures per roll puts that at less than 3,600 photographs. I primarily shot Fuji Velvia (50 ISO) on my 'old' Canon EOS 3. There was no LiveView, no changing ISOs whenever I wanted, no histograms, no HDR bracketing, no option of switching to HD video (heck, there was no HD video back then). Exposures were made using the camera meter, or via my Sekonic handheld reflective/incident meter, and then adjusted in my head, depending on the subject and my intent. If I was shooting landscape at sunrise, and a deer walked through the frame, I would need to wait till it had passed until I could resume shooting. Nowadays, I could just jack the ISO, open my aperture up wider and 'go with the flow'.
Digital is flexible. It's wonderful that way. It has changed the way I teach photography, the way I learn and continue to develop, and the way others learn. It has shortened and shallowed our learning curve. Adjustments made to our shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and lens changes are readily apparent in our LiveView screens, and in the review shots displayed on our camera's LCDs. We don't have to goto our bags, pull out a filter holder, calculate the difference between the foreground exposure and the sky, and slide in the correct graduated ND filter. We can simply set the camera to fire an auto bracket series of images, then blend them later (via a myriad of post processing techniques).
With film, I moved slower. I didn't have 8-12 frames per second to contend with - nor did I have the financial capability to process that much film if my camera did. There was a poignancy to the press of each shutter. Every click meant a processing/lab fee, slides to label and store, scans to be made.
It was tactile.
It was physical.
It had financial ramifications.
I simply couldn't afford to blast away, experiment to my hearts content, to fire off countless shots in the hope that one 'captured the moment'. At the time, this was a very natural way to look at it. When I switched to digital, that thought process stuck with me for quite a long time. Perhaps it still does. I frequently remind myself to "Shoot! It's not costing you anything to hit that shutter!" Sure, I have to buy more storage space (hard drives), but the cost per image/megabyte is SO SMALL, it hardly factors in anymore.
What did this shift in thinking do for me, and my photography? Well, I learned faster - at least I think I did. With the ability to see changes, in real time, on the back of my camera - I was able to work with the knowledge that "I got that shot!", or "that didn't work, I need to change ______", rather than waiting several days till the film got back from the lab to see if I had actually "nailed it". I do miss those days. Getting several boxes of slides in the mail was like Christmas. I'd open each one like I was unwrapping a gift, lay each slide out on my 6 foot light table, and review each one thoroughly with my loupe. There were a lot of disappointments those days (let's be honest, there still are, but now I see them in the field); under-exposures, over-exposures, poor focus, etc. 'Rescuing' an image wasn't even possible (in most cases) back then. Slide film 'latitude' was far more restrictive than a digital raw file.You couldn't simply 'lighten up the shadows a bit', or 'drop the highlights'. There was no way to deal with film grain (unlike it's younger, more nimble, hyper-intelligent sister - Noise - in today's world).
With digital, I learned to move faster, to take more photographs, to 'spray and pray', to not worry about getting it absolutely 'perfect' in the field, to experiment more. I know for certain, that a great deal of my favorite and most popular photographs simply would not have been possible were I to be using a film camera.
This realization makes me sad.
I've gotten sloppy. I've taken too many photographs. I've lost too much respect for the contemplative nature of the art, for the reasons what drew my interest to it in the first place. As I mentioned in last nights conversation, I've focused (albeit, somewhat subconsciously) too much on consistency and quantity of exposures. I'm closing in on roughly 10,000 photographs this year alone.
Roughly 9,980 of them are pure crap.
Why is that? Simply put, I've lost the poignancy associated with the click if the shutter. It used to be a nearly sacred moment, where the investment in time, practice, and skill culminated in a financial investment (lab fees, and the need to buy more film). These investments factored in directly to the amount of work I created. The 20 or so images that did matter are certainly ones that I am very happy with. But, did I need to take the other 9,980 to get those 20? Doubtful.
I believe this is why I am so enamored with the work of today's (dying breed of) large format film photographers, and the (very) few digital photographers that buck the trend of quantity, in favor of slowing down and capturing simpler, more contemplative, and far more profound images. One of their photographs tends to carry more weight than 1,000 photographs taken in what could justifiably called 'snap-shot' shoots. Their photographs are the result of investing more. Not just the investment of more money, but also of themselves to their craft.
I always loved Jim Brandenburg's book, "Chased by the Light". The photographs are beautiful, and define 'contemplative' photography. For 90 days, he set a personal challenge to create just 1 photograph a day. No do overs, no second chances, no bracketed exposures. It was all film back then as well, so he had no LiveView to ensure that he was actually getting the shot. According to Jim, there were days when he would be walking through the woods, or paddling in his canoe, in his 'backyard' (Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area) and he would see a shot, but would hold off on the one press of the shutter, simply because he believed that it wasn't the day's 'true moment'. Some days, he would find that moment early on, in the morning. Then, if he saw something else that he really wanted to photograph later that day, he wouldn't allow himself to. Other days, he would go in search of an image, and not find it until nearly midnight. He was scared that would be the day that the whole self-project came crashing down, and he wouldn't be able to take the one photograph to document that day. The slides sat unused in his archives for quite some time - he never intended them to be published. They were for him. When the editor of National Geographic was visiting him, and happened to find them, he knew that he had to run them in an upcoming issue. Those 90 images were published in one article. It was the most photographs Nat. Geo. had ever published in a single article, using the least amount of film. Most National Geographic photographers (used to, with film) create 30,000+ images for every article. Jim created 90 photographs. Absolutely stunning.
Blogging teaches us that we need to consistency be cranking out content. Consistency is key, according to so many self-proclaimed 'marketing gurus', more so than quality of content. This same concept is carried over into social media - people follow (and as a side affect, respect and reward) those photographers that consistently share new content. Quantity checks quality. But through this odd divergence from the thoughtfulness that is the true labor of love of our art, we become pawns to the 'game' that has shifted us from 'creatives' to 'productives'. Check and mate.
I'm not sure this applies to 'new' photographers. I think digital photography, and its inherent ability to allow you to experiment and take lots of photographs can enable you to learn better and faster. In that stage, I believe you should take a lot of photographs. Notice I said 'take'. When technique and composition are no longer hurdles that you must strain to understand and achieve, then you will begin to 'create' photographs.
We are bombarded with images at every turn in this new world we live in. Digital photography has turned what was once a more deliberate exercise, into a free-for-all, quantity over quality, self-imposed & peer reinforced numbers competition. We've lost the poignancy associated with the click of a shutter. I'm not saying that we (that includes myself) need to toss our high end digital cameras and buy a Linhoff, or turn off every feature but single shot, manual exposure, and manual focus modes. We shouldn't all run out and buy memory cards that only hold 36 photographs. But, just because the cameras now allow us to take several thousand images a day, it doesn't mean that we should.
Our goal is now to go out and capture moments, rather than the moment. To share photographs rather than a feeling. To resort to storytelling through a series of images, rather than a single visual masterpiece with the beautiful ability to distill the essence of the experience.
I have a new set of goals.
I want to photograph less. Produce less, but at the same time produce more. By that I mean that I want to become more thoughtful in my work, by pushing the shutter fewer times, but having those (fewer) presses equal more introspective work. I want to edit harsher - not just in the office, while reviewing my images, but also in the field as I consider making them. I want to process slower. I want to delve deeper into the rabbit hole that is contemplative artwork, throughout the entire creative experience (field work, capture, post production, printing). I want to work harder. I want to create more, by creating less. I want to treat my digital camera as if it were an 8x10 view camera,
... as if every click of that shutter needs to matter. Because it does.
Ask yourself, does this image portray the essence of the scene? The very soul of the moment? Does the image you want to make capture everything you are feeling at that decisive moment? Or are you distracted by subtle things, not truly immersed in the process, or willing to 'fudge it' in Photoshop?
If it doesn't, maybe you need to invest more time in creating less.