[Note: This is meant to be an exercise; it's only a suggestion; and it's intended only for those to whom it appeals. See here. —MJ]
In 2009 I published here an influential essay called "The Leica as Teacher." I advocated a learning exercise in which a photographer would use a Leica with one lens and one kind of B&W film for a year.
I argued that it would improve one's photographic chops in many ways. It would make you stop thinking about camera and lens options; the use of the one camera you were using would become second nature; the "transparent" nature of the RF viewfinder makes the finder image less seductive, less easy to get lost in (view camera photographers know how easy it is to get enthralled by that gorgeous image on the groundglass); the minimal shutter lag and mechanical responsiveness of the Leica encourages you to learn the benefit of timing the moment of exposure exactly; the necessity of developing film tends to make you more conservative and thoughtful and avoid shooting too much; and learning to see in B&W is a good foundation even for color photographers because color can't substitute for meaning, and value (tones) comprises the structure of many good photographs, even ones in color.
A surprising number of photographers actually performed that exercise—they used one Leica with one lens for one year, and shot nothing but B&W film. I've heard from at least 60 people who have done it. From time to time I still hear from someone who has just completed their year. I think there was even a Flickr group.
I still think that exercise is a valid and valuable apprenticeship for a photographer...any photographer.
Still, it's a tough ask, especially these days. The difficulty and expense of shooting film these days is a big impediment for many people. It's becoming an elite, specialist activity.
So I've come up with a digital variant. Here's the TOP OC/OL/OY exercise, digital version:
• For one year, use only one single camera. Doesn't have to be the latest and greatest. Choose one that will be easy to keep with you and that you enjoy using, because you'll be getting to know it. When you choose, pay careful attention to that camera's method of finding the view (the viewfinder), because that's the visual connection to reality it affords you.
Once you choose, no switching.
• You get only one lens. It's your life, so your rules, but by my rules it should be a 50mm equivalent. There's a very good reason for this, which I'll explain later. At least, it should be between 40mm and 60mm equivalent. It must be a single-focal-length (prime) lens.
• You need a printer. "Printer" in this case can either refer to the machine that makes prints, or a person who you hire to make prints for you from your files.
• You need a few boxes. Pick a standard size of printing paper, not too big (you don't need to choose a standard paper, just a standard size) and get some print storage boxes of that size. Century boxes or metal-edge boxes are fine. Whatever works. Get four or half a dozen of them so you're assured of having enough that match.
• The exercise takes 13 months to complete. I shall 'splain.
First requirement: You must have your OC/OL camera with you at all times, or as near to that as you can manage. Carry it every day. The more accessible it can be, the better; you should be able to go from however you carry it to being able to shoot in as little time as possible, and as effortlessly as possible. Usually this means a shoulder strap, but you decide.
Second requirement: You must shoot every day for 3–5 minutes or more. There's no upper limit, but try to carve 3–5 minutes out of even your most hectic day. Obviously on some days you will want to shoot more than that, opportunity and inspiration providing.
Third requirement: Make one print in your standard size every day, from recent shooting. Not two prints once every two days or seven prints a week; fire up (or hire up!) the printer every day and make one print on your standard sized paper.
Date each day's print, tack it on the wall for 1–5 days and look at it as much as you want to, and then throw it in the box. Don't go back and reprint later, and don't go back and look over older prints—just keep moving forward.
The prints should be made from the most recent shooting that inspires you to print. Sort of the "most recent best" shot you can locate. If you think the best thing you have is not that day's shooting or that week's, then go back two weeks. But generally, try to keep it as recent as possible—don't go back to July's shooting in December.
UPDATE: Note that this is not a "picture a day" project. You do have to use the camera regularly and you do have to print regularly, but you don't have to print a picture you shot that day or even that week. You could go two weeks and never print any of those pictures, and you could end up making ten prints from the same day's shooting. You just have to keep doing both regularly. Noticing the flow of one to the other and how it develops and evolves is part of the interest of the exercise. You'll learn what you need to do to give yourself a supply of raw material for printing, and you'll learn how not to overwhelm your printing limit by shooting mindlessly to excess. To name two possibile lessons.
Note that the day's print doesn't have to be good. It just has to be done. Some days when you're uninspired and frazzled and out of time you can just hit the button and throw the damned thing in the box. Obviously the opposite will sometimes hold true too: you're hoping you'll get ego-involved enough in the task that you'll strive to improve your craft—albeit incrementally, as you go along. If this happens in fits and starts, no worries.
As you go along with the printmaking, try to drift toward standardizing. Do this by feel, not by conscious ratiocination and deliberate choice. If you're trending toward one aspect ratio or toward B&W over color or small image areas on your paper or some particular kind of post-processing that gratifies your heart or even something like two pictures side-by-side on the same sheet, go ahead. The thing to avoid is ostentatious differentiation—trying to make each night's print different and unique from the last night's and the next night's. The opposite is better. Don't show off. You're seeking a natural flow, not a shop window for all the Photoshop tricks you've learned from books.
Hone your craft and your shooting skills as much as you can as you go along...as much as you're inspired to, as much as you're naturally motivated to do. Getting better is never bad. I think you'll find that this goes in waves...you'll have periods in which you're very inspired and work hard to improve, and periods in which you're in a doldrums and aren't really getting much from the work. Keep going through both. Both are quite natural and shouldn't alarm you.
And obviously there are going to be those times during the year when you absolutely can't print—you're traveling and away from the Epson, it's Festivus and you have the whole family together, whatever. Don't sweat that—just catch up when you can. But keep in mind the goal is very quotidian—regularity and constancy is the aim. Make it a daily thing as strictly as is practicable.
Don't start the printmaking until you've been shooting for a month. Then, carry on printing for one month after your year of shooting is finished, such that you've both shot and printed for one year each, staggered by one month.
As you go along, try to give it what you can, but keep in mind you're in it for the long haul, the whole 365—that should help keep you from working so hard on one shoot or one print that you burn out. It's the sustained activity that provides the lesson, so neither one day's crappy meaningless shooting nor one night's horrible dispiriting print matter. Keep moving forward, and trust yourself. Your eye will get better and your prints will get better and the "servo mechanism" between shooting and printing will improve both...dramatically, unless I miss my guess.
I don't want to tell you what you're going to learn from this exercise (and that's what it is, an exercise, mean to stretch you and challenge you and teach you something), because then you'll think you can get the benefit of it without doing it, and I don't think that's correct.
At the end of the thirteen months, look over what you've done, and, especially, review the first 30 or 60 prints relative to the last 30 or 60 prints. I think you'll be amazed; but you can tell me, when the time comes.
P.S. Oh, and here's why a 50mm-e: There's something unique and challenging about the range where the angles of view transition from "wide-angle" to "telephoto." With a 50mm-e, you can "mimic" somewhat wider-angle lenses, and you can also mimic longer lenses. I have a superb visual example of this, but the prints are in boxes I know not where. The "50 yard line" aspect of this focal length (that's what we call it in billiards when the cueball falls between natural shots) makes it more challenging to see interestingly with it—it's not actually an easy angle of view, at least if you are keeping your standards high. John Kennerdell observes that with a 50mm, it's harder to get shots that are competent or good enough, but that when you get a shot that's great, it's really great. I can't prove that.
Another reason to choose it is because it just doesn't let you have any "specialness" imparted by the lens itself. No wide-angly effects, no automatic creamy bokeh. You really have to do everything yourself. I gotta warn you, it might be frustrating at first. But this is an exercise, remember. It's meant to improve your understanding and your skills, not to be a permanent way of working.
But decide for yourself. You're not paying for this, there are no grades, and I'm not actually a teacher.
UPDATE: The choice of a 50mm might have something to do with my own goals. I do really think that a prime lens in the normal range somewhere would be best for this exercise, but the lens choice is up to you in the end—certainly, the many people who want to use a 35mm-e are not disadvantaging themselves in any way. I guess my main advice would be to make your own choice thoughtfully, considing your choice carefully.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
John Kennerdell: "Just to clarify that comment about the 50mm lens, I said that to Mike about 20 years ago, back when I was finally trying to come to terms with the focal length. These days I hardly use anything else, so it has come to feel natural and easy. So now I'd say what I like best about the 50 is its purity: no widening, no compression, just a transparent window on your subject. That's what can make it a little awkward at first, but ultimately so rewarding."
Bryan Willman: "Actually, the point of the exercise is to work on an ongoing basis, all the way to the end of the process, with some minimum of irrelevent technical fiddling. If you don't own a 50mm-e, that doesn't mean you need to go buy one. If your day job is photographing birds with a 600mm lens, don't sweat that, just maybe try this exercise the rest of the time. Practice! Practice all the way through the process! Without getting sucked into 'gear wandering.'"
Will: "Print a photo every day, or ready a photo for print every day? Is it valid to dutifully select and prepare a photo each day and to order in bulk at the end of the week? I'm guessing not, but that might be the sticking point of the whole thing for me...making it to Walgreens on a daily basis. Or even settling for Walgreens as opposed to a preferred online printer.
"Other sticking points: 1. My camera of choice would be a just-too-wide X100s. 2. I've got a new baby, and I really get great pictures of him with the X100s and the XE-1 with all focal lengths. I don't know if I want to sacrifice documenting his early months with wide and portrait lengths. 3. I intend to get a flash and umbrella and start trying my hand at 'lit' photography (I'm a cinematographer, so lighting isn't new, but I've never done it with my photography), and that seems somehow antithetical to the exercise. At the very least, mixing 'lit' pictures in with the rest seems like it would tarnish the whole enterprise. As would mixing in baby pictures, come to think of it.
"Yeah, maybe not the right time for this, for me. But I want to do it. Badly."
Mike replies: Will, I think you should. Use the camera you have, and make the modifications you need to make and the accommodations you need to make in order to create a sensible procedure that works for you. Actually, having a new baby and wanting to experiment with lighting are not bad things at all. Both those things might be really good for the project. Have at it.
Bernard Scharp: "I was one of the people who did the Leica year project in 2009. It was an eye-opener. My M3's (I got a second one at the end of the year so I could use two different films simultaneously) are still the cameras I use for 80% of my photography. I did get some extra lenses for it, but the 50mm I used for the year easily sees most of the action. I'll need to think about this excersice, as digital photography doesn't really excite me, and my only digital camera with my 50mm-e is quite a lot bigger than my M3, so carrying it all the time would be a challenge.
"For those readers who have trouble with the printing part: these devices are better than you'd think. Printing costs are exactly 28 cents a print (cartridge and paper are sold and used together). That's $187 US for this excercise, so even if you'd never use it again, you've still spent less than the cost of a new lens."
Brett Jensen: "I've been thinking about doing this for some time. But I have slightly different requirements based on my own goals. I want to use my 35mm (equiv) ƒ/1.4 as this is one of my most used lenses and I want to learn it until it becomes intuitive. I don't use the 50mm focal length much at all, and I understand your reasoning, but I want to learn to really see the 35mm perspective. Then I will do the same with the 85mm. I also considered using only straight out of camera JPEGs, the point being to make me get everything as right as possible in camera. Not sure I have the guts for that though!"