[Shooting, verb used without object: 34. in Photography, cinematography, or videography, to photograph, film, or capture. The word "shoot" has many meanings and uses, and many don't connote violence. If you have a complaint about the word, I want to hear it, so, shoot! And if you think the use of the word related to photography is insensitive or politically incorrect, well, shoot. —Ed.]
I used to have two bad habits when shooting. One was that I tended to be too quick and undemanding. See it, shoot it reflexively, and then assume I'd gotten it. My other bad habit was almost the opposite, and sort of depended on using cameras that had good viewfinders: I liked to look at beautiful things on the viewfinder. So I'd stare at the image on the viewfinder, as if fascinated by it, occasionally taking another exposure.
I realized this second tendency was a problem when I was in school at the Corcoran. I shot a roll of 35 exposures and about 22 of them were absolutely identical shots of the same scene. Film was expensive for a student, measured in both money and time'n'effort, and I realized I was going to have to be more mindful about taking so many exposures thoughtlessly. One or two "insurance exposures" was one thing; uselessly wasting film anothe
The seductive quality of the viewfinder was at its height with my view camera. The direct image on a large ground glass can be spellbinding; I had the thought, a time or two, that sometimes I just set up the camera to stare at the ground glass, never mind exposing a photograph. That problem is largely gone these days. EVFs aren't as pretty as the world. They're good for pointing the camera but not enjoyable to look at for their own sake. (Kind of like a rangefinder that way...nobody likes just looking at things through a rangefinder window, and in fact a lot of rangefinder photographers often shot without actually looking through the viewfinder.)
I've gotten better at shooting as I get worse at shooting. That is, my mental habits seem to be improving as my physical skills deteriorate. I'm not as limber or nimble as I was when I was younger, not as practiced with the cameras or as fluent with the controls, and I no longer have the appetite to get out and explore that I once had. My eyesight isn't as good. Often, a jaded quality intrudes..."seen that before," "taken that before," "too much like work." It's sort of an old-guy pre-critique layering that's scornful of cliché or dullishness. At the same time, my concept of what's going to make a picture has gotten better, and I know more, both about photographs and about what I'm doing.
I've always felt that taking pictures requires a certain openness and iconoclasm—you've got to be willing to see what's in front of you and let go of prejudice and preconception, go with the flow, keep seeing, keep reacting. Fluidity matters. It's a constant process of finding by letting go.
(I remember when I learned that lesson too—also with the view camera. I kept trying to force the world I was seeing into view-camera-cliché terms, like I had an Ansel Adams filter on my brain. My pathetic mental pandering to the picturesque annoyed me so much that I took a radical step to correct it—every time I took a clichéd setup, I would turn the camera around and take a picture of whatever happened to be in back of me. This brief practice resulted in a good picture only once, but it worked to shatter the AA filter in my brain.)
In a strange way, you sometimes have to do the same thing when editing. My favorite picture that I've taken in the past month is this one. It's going to make a great print if I ever manage to calibrate the Epson (I'm not there yet). I'd gone out to get a picture of the new snow for the blog post I was writing. Butters was very energized by the snow, happily charging this way and that. I put the camera on Continuous High (I'll write a post about CH someday—a useful and interesting feature on the X-T1 that I have strong thoughts about) and shot a number of sequences of him running. I took a large number of exposures, maybe 150 or so. I got inside to the computer convinced that the best shot was going to be one of Butters against the snow running full out...
...Something like this (this is a throwaway). But my experience has been that you have to let go of your ideas in editing just as often as you have to let them go while shooting. When I got to the picture that turned out to be the good one, the one I had in my head sort of evaporated. You don't always get what you think you're going to get, or even what you're after. When fate clobbers you over the head with a great shot, you've got to respond by not obstinately clinging to your preconceived ideas of what you thought you were after.
Control or freedom?
That brings up another interesting wrinkle in this subject. I'm convinced that in general, photographers' shooting styles, and even their taste in subject matter, develops according to their psychological comfort with various ways of shooting, and the various possible methods of confronting or interacting with the world. One's interest in imposing control over the result is usually a description not about how photography actually works, but about what the practitioner finds most appealing. Some people like to impose control over every aspect of the process; it appeals to their nature to do so. Some people like to be loose and impressionistic—snap everything and see what works. That's what appeals to their personalities.
Like styles of parenting, these opposite approaches can both work, and neither one guarantees great results (or inadequate results). But they do reflect each photographer's personal style, his or her relationship to the work—or the world.
Get past the obvious
I wouldn't have guessed this when I was young—I was essentially a classicist—but my own photography has turned out to be mostly if not entirely about process. I just like to investigate what it means to be a photographer and to photograph, and that keeps me skating around trying experiments and exploring different aspects of the actual practice of photographing, not so much for the purpose of creating good results but rather for understanding and illuminating the process. The last thing I wanted to mention was that, many moons ago, I suspected myself of thinking there were only a few photographs out there. I'm visually rather facile. I think visually. My memory certainly works visually—when I was young I could find passages in books I'd read by picturing the page where I'd read it in my mind and "reading" the page number from the memory, which then allowed me to go right to the page in the book to find what I was looking for. (I can't do that any more—I think the ability faded away in my 40s.) So I would approach a scene and take the obvious photographs and then mentally move on, thinking I'd "exhausted" what was there.
It's important to shake yourself of this notion, if indeed you have it in your head (I'm sure some people don't).What I did, characteristically, was a deliberate experiment—when my mother was traveling and I was house-sitting at her Georgetown house, I enclosed myself in her tiny garden-level dining room (the 1800s row house on O Street, though deep and four stories high, was only 11 feet wide), and forced myself to spend six hours there shooting six rolls of film (maybe eight—I don't remember now). I quickly took all the obvious pictures, then somewhat less quickly exhausted all the less-obvious ones, and by the end of the exercise was looking underneath the furniture and at the soles of my feet. I then made gorgeous prints (if I do say) of some of the strangest of the results. In the next class critique, both teachers and fellow students liked the work, although everyone commented on how different it was from my normal work. But I had convinced myself of what I had intended to explore: there is an infinite number of photographs, not only in the world, but even in a small room.
I know I've heard from many TOP readers over the years who have made extended projects by shooting repeatedly in the same areas. They've learned the same lesson, to wit: the number of possible photographs is only limited by you. There are always new things to see and new ways to see them—if you're creative, and interested, and remain open.
"If an artist doesn't take risks, then it's not worth it." —Robert Frank
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Patrick Dodds: "Apropos your O Street experience: 'If you'd locked Van Gogh in the dullest hotel room in America for a week, with some paints and canvasses, he'd have come out with astonishing paintings and drawings of a rundown bathroom or a frayed curtain...I think Van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling.' David Hockney in A Bigger Message."
Omer (partial comment): "I've not used 'shoot' for over 35 years because of the association with violence. And now that photography is getting sullied from a number of sides, I wonder if the facile way that 'shoot' has replaced 'photograph' (verb), whether it might serve photographers to regain some good perception by more often saying 'photograph.' Anyway, I like the words 'photograph, photographer, photography.' I'm not a shooter but a photographer, and I don't shoot, I do photography."
[For the full text of partial Featured Comments, see the main Comments Section by clicking on "Comments" in the post footer. —Ed.]
Herman: "Oh shoot! I screwed up the photo."
Gerard Kingma: "For years I 'planned' pictures based on ideas about locations, scenes and subjects I wanted to shoot. I already had the image in my head, it only needed to get made. The end result: I 'made' the same pictures over and over again and missed out on opportunities that were thrown before my feet, because they didn't fit the plan. I refreshed my photography by not planning so much. I accepted that I got more interesting stuff by trusting my gut feeling. Usually the first, most intuitive shots are technically not the best, but do represent the freshest ideas. The more I work a scene, the more the images I make start to look like things I've done before. Then it's time to move on.
"During a workshop in 2014 Jay Maisel said words to this effect: If you plan to go out shooting a woman in a red dress with a green umbrella, chances are you'll be sorely disappointed, because what are the odds that you'll see exactly that? Go out and shoot what's there and don't think about it so much."
tex andrews: "How much do I work a scene, location, idea? A whole helluva a lot, these days. I've been working on a series/body of work for the past 10 years now, and have returned again and again to the same places, year after year. Some of these places are no longer 'there' in the sense that they were, which is not so good for me. In that time I have applied five cameras, from sub-4/3 up to digital medium format, to better get what I wanted, and over this time period I have learned so much from going back to the same subjects over and over (it's seasonal, odd sort of landscape thing, not especially scenic...). This is what you see in many of the great painters: a devotion to a process and exploration of a subject matter and content ad infinitum. The work is richer for it, and so is the maker."
Eamon Hickey: "'EVFs aren't as pretty as the world.' True, true. But after using a Leica SL for a few weeks recently, I think the gap is rapidly narrowing. The 'EyeRes' EVF in that camera is pretty remarkable—in some kinds of light, it was even sort of lovely.
"Switching to the topic of interacting with the world, with a camera in your hand: most times, I also don't really do it for the primary purpose of creating good results. Unlike you, however, I'm not seeking to understand the process. I just enjoy the process. I like the walking. I like the fiddling. I like the click of the shutter. Most especially, I like the quiet looking. It gets me much more mentally (psychically?) present in my surroundings, and I think that has an effect similar to meditation for me. I like it when I make a good picture, but if I get home with nothing but crappy pictures that doesn't particularly bother me. The process makes me happy."
Gary responds to Eamon: "Amen, Mr. Hickey. There are few things as pleasurable as a solo photowalk. A good picture captured on the walk is just a bonus."
Tuomas: "Another classic post, thank you Mike! I especially enjoyed "...mostly if not entirely about process. I just like to investigate what it means to be a photographer and to photograph," because that's a big part of what I am as a musician. I'm a music teacher, but I'm fascinated by idea of Musicianship and what it means to be an artist, in any field."
Mike replies: I know a lot of people like us. Not necessarily centrally practitioners, but the keepers of the flame or the custodians of an art or sport or activity or practice. Some journalists qualify. Some educators do too, as you mention. Deep enthusiasts, I guess you might call us ("enthusiast" being the least loaded word I can think of and the one I use most—all the other terms seem to be too specific or carry too many connotations...especially "hobbyist," not that there's anything wrong with being a hobbyist). I've long been aware that my strongest allegiance is to practitioners—the people who are photographers—enabling them, being part of their audience, recruiting new people coming up or coming in, admiring their accomplishments, championing the best of the art.
Miserere: "Only one person has commented on the Butters photo, so let me be the second, and to agree with c.d.embrey in saying the inline photo with Butters in the top-left corner is the winner of the two. The photo you chose as the winner is a fine photo of a white dog walking in snow. The other one is a great shot (oops!, photograph?) of a dog having a hell of a lot of fun in the snow, in a framing that is off-balance, and lovely for it. It's also unpredictable; where's Butters going to run to now? He's got the whole frame available!
"I'd make a lovely B&W print of this one and hang it up proudly, if Butters were my dog.
"Just my dos centimos. :-) "
Mike replies: Thanks, but no. That does bring up a very interesting point, though, one which I could write another long(ish) essay about...which is that editing is part of the creative process. And not a trifling part, either. After photographing for years, our sense of what works for us and what doesn't work for us becomes well developed, and is very personal. It's quite possible that I would look at your raw assets and pick different shots as "best" than you have, as you have done with me here. But ultimately that's not valid for personal artwork. I have come to believe that the personal creativity of photography is partly in the camerawork, i.e., the "shooting" as I've been calling it here; partly in the selection of which shots succeed or resonate for us personally; and partly in the processing of the selection to render it in final form (which includes our choice of a final form). All three of those things are ultimately the photographer's personal responsibility, even if he or she decides to delegate some parts of the process to others.
In seeming contradiction to what I just said, we can often learn a lot from showing our unedited work to others to get their help with editing. That can be helpful in certain situations, especially if we're really stuck ourselves. My friend Pam West once picked a shot from my contact sheets that I had passed over, and all but insisted that I print it. I did, and eventually realized that she was right about it. So I'm not saying that other peoples' input can't be valuable. Especially if one person is a student or the other person has a lot more experience in one area or another (many people are poor editors, for example, because they don't do it enough).
Ultimately however we have to be assertive about what moves us personally, what expresses our concerns, what resonates for us, and take command of and responsibility for our own creative choices. We have to respect what we personally are happiest with. It used to bother me that other people would throw away shots of theirs that I personally would treasure, if I got to be their editor (editors often think they know best, I suppose). Not any more. Now I realize that their editing of their raw shooting is part of the creative process...it's a continuation of the choices that start with what to shoot and how to shoot it. It's not up to someone else, and it shouldn't be.
Dave Van de Mark (partial comment): "I really have to strongly second your comments about going ahead and producing images that 'resonate' within you. The excitement I feel about my own work is, frankly, almost the most rewarding and heartfelt aspect of my life. So I mount to sell what I like, and if no one else wants it, my soul isn't wounded!"