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Sunday, 21 March 2010


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Are you familiar with Jim Brandenburg's Chased by the Light?

I like both the 'make one exposure' exercise (which I have done), but I *really* like the 'make a lot of exposures' exercise (which I do regularly).

I used to recommend it to students: http://photomusings.wordpress.com/2006/10/11/exposure-resistance/

Hah! Reminds me of the time I dove into Nicolaides' The Natural Way to Draw. Though the exercises are very good, they are also very intense, so being not very dedicated nor talented in that area I didn't get very far.

Maybe you should still write that book. Maybe some of us would buy it. Maybe a few would even attempt doing the exercises.

"Are you familiar with Jim Brandenburg's Chased by the Light?"

It's a book, isn't it? The only book of his I've seen is called, I believe, "Looking for the Summer," although I can't seem to find it now that I've mentioned it. It's possible I didn't actually buy it, but just looked at it in the store and thought about buying it. That happens sometimes.


I an always looking for exercises or assigments to stretch my photographic muscles. I therefore do think you should go ahead with the "book of exercises meant to make you a better photographer." But, if you continue to decide not to do it, would you consider making the lessons a series on the TOP blog?

I can't relate at all to the concept of taking a hundred shots to warm up. To me, everytime I release the shutter it's my masterpiece, the best photograph I've ever taken, or I wouldn't have taken the picture in the first place. If I want to practice framing, or the technical aspects of operating a camera, I can do that at home before entering the "arena." And I feel that if I need practice I shouldn't even be out in the field in the first place. Any photo-op is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I need to approach my subject with a serious, prepared, and respectful mindset, and never as an exercise or a warm up, whatever the subject.

Among other things in my past I have taught pottery, throwing on the wheel, also drawing and used to use similar exercises in teaching those subjects. The first forces you to really think critically about what you are creating and bring to it as much skill as you can muster. The latter loosens you up, makes you react more spontaneously and can reveal weakness in your technique although auto-everything cameras probably lessen that. Hopefully your everyday photography (pottery, drawing) will incorporate elements of both.

You could include those exercises as blog posts. This wouldn't preclude you from publishing it as a book, especially if you include some new content to the published version.

Any tips you have on unblocking yourself would be appreciated. I have a list of my own but I'm always curious to hear what others think.

Speaking of the Leica exercise, I offered to buy the Leica one of your readers offered up for sale. Fortunately I was a little slow--my wife was laid off that week.

Following on from the one-shot exercise...
I went to a landscape workshop many years ago which left me with a thought that still resonates. The person running the workshop distinguished between "looking" and "gazing". Essentially, he said, you should go out to make an image in the landscape and look until you see something that attracts you. Leave the camera in the bag or just use its viewfinder and gaze at your chosen subject. This "gazing" is a much more prolonged and introspective process than just "looking" and is a necessary precursor to actually taking the photograph. As I understood it, all those years ago, you are trying first to internalise what it was about the subject that was really meaningful to you (the light? the tones or lines? the way it seems to be a metaphor for something else that has an echo for you?) and then attempt to understand how this translates visually and, finally, attempt to capture this total experience of it on film (it seemed then, and now, a process particularly well suited to the sheet film / view camera set-up). This particular workshop leader did indeed use a view camera and I have seen him spend an hour or more doing just this and then making a single exposure when he finally set up the camera. He was reasonably well known then and is now internationally famous and still works the same way with the same camera. I only refrain from naming him in case my memory of a process explained to me some twenty years ago is at fault and represents his approach to image making innacurately in some respect or other.
The details don't, I think, matter. What is important is the realisation that although photography is instantaneous image making the understanding of what exactly it is we are trying to convey in that image may be a much more prolonged process of deliberation and this prolonged process may be necessary to create something of lasting meaning rather than merely superficial impact.

I'd buy that book. I'm working on getting a Leica, I'm a bit behind schedule. And my year might be a bit different, but still in the spirit.

Given that the Leica-for-a-year excercise started a while ago now, it would be interesting to see how people have been doing, if you can arrange for that, Mike.

Hmmm ...? Well, OK. I'll put that on my list of todos.

I do find, personally, a need to "circle in one spot" before any project; blank page, canvas, raw wood, unexposed image syndrome. I have gotten better at not biting my own tail, and not starting, but that specter lurks ever constant.

Mike, should inspiration strike and prompt you to complete the book of exercises, please put me down for a signed copy. e-publish? Make it available on TOP? I'm just thinkin'...

I love exercises like that,the ones in that book you were planning, why don´t you just post them here on T.O.P.?

I don't get it.

I "get" that teachers sometimes feel the need to control the direction of students' learning, although I was always "difficult" when pushed. (Was? Am!) And I can understand how one may invent or adopt an exercise to improve one's ability in an area one feels is weak.

Still, I don't understand why it might be necessary or desirable to to assume that others need the same prescription.

I carry a camera with me most of the time. Sometimes, I see something I find photo worthy, and take its picture. Other times, I find many, many image worthy subjects and shoot them all.

In my daily files, I have at least a couple with one image in it. I think the max is about 350. That seems to cover your exercises, but I never set out with any such goals in mind.

Many days, the camera doesn't get used at all. Could one use that exercise for students? Zen photography 101. Carry camera, do not use until there is no attachment to making - or not making - images; then correct action may or may not take photo(s). Pass, pass grading.

Maybe it's the difference in climate. We don't have to dig in to hibernate, then dig out months later and work to get the juices flowing again.


I'm not a teacher and I don't control anyone. (Well, I sort of control my dog. But only sort of.)

But what in the world is a teacher for if not to direct a student's learning?

My position has always been that people can do anything with their photography they want to, if it's not against the law or hurting anything. Suggesting an exercise that might be helpful to some readers doesn't imply that anyone has to do it or that everyone who does it will get something out of it. It's just a suggestion. Have it your own way, I'm fine with that.


Okay, done.

That was fun! I noticed that I was more open to finding compositions. It didn't take long either; I did 105 frames while getting takeout. It helps that it was during the golden hour, though :)

Mike: I set myself exercises from time to time: go someplace with beautiful views and only take pictures of objects on the ground; only take pictures of reflections in puddles after a rain; sit in one place for a few hours and take a picture every time the light changes; pick an object and find as many angles and frames for that object as I can; etc. Any creative person can probably think up some similar constraints.

But if you spent much time teaching, you probably know which exercises are particularly useful or thought provoking. I for one would definitely appreciate your ideas, even if it was only a list of one-sentence descriptions.

It would be fun to find an online group of people all willing to take pictures for a day following some exercise, and compare/critique results, and then do a new exercise once every couple weeks or so. There are probably such groups around somewhere, but I’m not sure quite who or where to find them. Anyone else have ideas?

Speaking of "The Natural Way to Draw," my second drawing class at UGA was based on that book. We did figure drawings for 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and a few that were longer. We drew only on newsprint. At the end of the course, each of us had a stack of drawings over six inches high. Then we threw them all away. The prof said: It's calesthenics.

Chased by the light was the book of Brandenburg's images where he shot 1 photo a day for 90 days. (There is a DVD about it and the complete series ran in National Geo.) Kind of the 1 piece of film idea taken to an extreme.

I have to have my camera in my hand if its in my bag I don't shoot, sounds obvious but as I'm lazy I have in the past been too lazy to get the camera out.
The shot I don't take is probably no loss but if you have the camera out and WORK it then it is surprising what pops up.

Getting 100 shots out of the way means taking all the obvious 'first idea' images which are invariably not keepers.

Then you can settle down and work at getting the keepers.

I can't remember who said it but in a new environment you need to shoot lots because the next day you are no longer seeing with as fresh an eye.

Umpteen images of the same idea/subject are my equivalent of umpteen prints in a darkroom. Continual refining/cropping to get the final image.

It's funny how people don't see a thing wrong with [...] but they balk at the concept of exercises and practice where photography is concerned.

Well, that's easy. Or at least I think it is.

For trudging up stairs or parrotting a phrase, they don't cough up additional money.

And please do the book. In PDF format. If you do, I offer to do the page layout.

You should give the challenge here in TOP for some of us to follow.

The key issue at stake is feedback for learning.

For the single exposure one, I am not sure as it is obvious that it is too many variables for this to happen -- good for exam but not for learning I think. Last 18 month as a 8x10 photographer with only 7 film holders, it is really not ease to learn. The feedback loop is too slow. But once you get the basic idea (film/camera/developer/paper), may be I can go for this kind of exam. but really not good for learning.

For the repeat exposure I just did it yesterday's race in 8 hours using 7 rolls of XP2 using mainly CV R3a with Elmar 50F3.5 and Nikon F4 with 28F2.0 (plus about 100 with D300 which turns out a waste of my time as none I can visual/resonate, unlike the other 2 camera/lens). It is quite an experience and I am still taking in the lessons learnt. Hence I am all for this type of exercise.

Still, as your administrator said, it is expensive. In fact the digital one does not help here as you really have to see the printing and having 10 takes of similar small picture (on the back of the digital camera or in the minilab) does not help much. Even 4R (4x6 inches) is too small. I ended up look at the negative (not the 4R) and get some 12R size photo (8x12) to get proper feedback. It is very expensive but for once, it is quite an exercise. I highly recommend it.

In fact, I am now not sure whether you can do it using digital camera - LCD monitor, as I thought I can when buying my digital SLR in 2004 (to save the film / print cycle when I decide to restart photography). I have taken about 100,000+ pictures in places like Galapagos, African wild life, ... etc. in the last 6 years+. Somehow it does not give you proper feedback and learn nothing. Instead yesterday' race which due to time limit and theme selected, I ended up mainly with fix camera (2) / fix film (XP2) / fix lens (2) give your better feedback that is much better to resonate in my mind.

I guess you single camera single lens (single film?) make sense.

Any more challenge?

That's one kind of book I actually would buy. There's lots of how-to works around, but precious little on the learning process or the creative aspects on photography.

Kinda am working on the one shot thing.... Except it's a four shot thing cause I bought two film holders 3.25 X 4.25 to use behind a 105mm f4.5 intended for a 6 X 9. Think it might cover OK with just the very corners a bit dark and it's set up as a box camera with scale focus on the lens, no bellows. If the paper negs are sharp I'll spring for a box of B&W from Freestyle.

Let me amend that, 165 frames. Nine keepers at first glance.

I'll second (third?) your exercises as TOP posts or as some form of book. If you really want people to do them, of course, get a photographer to endorse each one.* Posting them on TOP might get you exactly that: (famous) experienced photographers, writing about how they did that exercise (or one like it) when they were learning.

*I mean, people obsess over what exact camera, film stock, and backpack their heroes use. Why not put that impulse to their benefit, instead of high-end tripod manufacturers?

In this era of digital, film-exposure-processing expense-free shooting, I think the one-shot exercise has become invaluable; people have lowered their standards for what they consider a good shot, and the "Shoot first, ask questions later" attitude, I think, has had a negative impact on the quality of my own work. When I go out with my M6 and a single lens, I end up with fewer total shots but far better ones than when I shoot with digital, because I ask questions first and then shoot.

I don't subscribe to the 100-shots theory either; perhaps it would be more useful for beginners.

Easy, folks--these are exercises for developing particular abilities or skills, not prescriptions or philosophies.

Let me add my "please do it" for Mike Johnston's TOP Fitness Workbook.

And more: The book (in whatever form) for inspiration and reference, but also the moderated Flickr groups (one per exercise) to serve as classrooms, study groups, advertising for the book and the workshops, and to provide material and inspiration for the follow-up book.

Exercises or commentary from TOP contributors would be cool, too.


The first book about photography I bought was Freeman Patterson's "Photography and The Art of Seeing." In it, he presents a great set of exercises. Although film based, I worked it in digital. I was amazed at how, for me, it opened up the possibilities. As someone who took up photography at 47, with no art, design or photography background, I found exercises completely opened my mind. My favorite, 36 exposures locked in your bathroom. Second, throw a hoola hoop out in the yard and take 36 exposures of only what's inside the hoop.

It really makes you stop and consider the possibilities that anything that reflects light is a potential image. It got rid of the excuses and had me thinking that I didn't need to drive to some location just to replicate the usual.

Personally, I've found that, like in music, drills and exercises really set you up to be able to intuit really great images. Practicing scales make me a better improvisational bass player. And exercise have made me a better photographer. Bring em on!

Mike, 'tis the time of 'self help' books and everyone wants to get better/more popular/more beautiful (sometimes all 3). Go ahead, write it, get it published, then retire on the proceeds. It should sell (hell, look at some of the crud that does, and I'm sure you're not in the crud category), and it's not your problem if the victims, I mean accolytes don't have the stick-to-it-ivness to see the programme through.

If you decide not to go ahead, a lot of us here would no doubt appreciate the excercises being posted on a schedule that fits your schedule. :) And I would be passing the URL to all I know who ask me the question "how do I take better photos?"

Just one question - if I pass the final exam, will I be more beautiful and popular?

I used to put "sheet film" in my 35 all the time. I didn't know it was an exercise; Kodak just didn't put out Kodalith in 135. But I do think that exercises are important to learn to shoot and to get up to speed. In a beginning photo course years ago we were required to make 1000 exposures. Back then on an art school budget this was a lot. We got a lot of technical help and critiques along the way. The last assignment was to throw the 1,000 shots away. If we had learned enough to know why we got an A.

You have to learn how to shoot. The idea that you will stroll into a great shot and just happen to be at the right place and elevation for what you have with you seems a bit optimistic to me. I don't do 100 exposures warming up but if I count all of the shots that I visualize it probably comes close. I try to do as much work as possible before putting on the blinders that come with looking through the finder. 100 shots will get your feet pretty well warmed up.

Photography and the Art of Seeing and More Photography and the Art of Seeing have been among my favourite photography books... and yes, I even did the exercises! I like the one-shot exercise - could be done with digital but it would take discipline. With my TLR only 12 images/ roll, so discipline goes hand in hand.


An exercise I like is to carry around a timer set to somewhere between 5 minutes and an hour depending on how crazy you feel and how understanding your friends are, and taking a picture every time it goes off.
Call it Pavlov's Photographer. 288 frames in j24 hours = one frame every 11 minutes = 8 rolls of film = one tall developing tank, then print the whole thing on postcard paper

For a month or so last summer I was using a camera with an intervalometer on it that would take a photo every 5 seconds which is another interesting

Speaking of postcards, over the weekend I say an actual sent in the mail Dian Arbus postcard print sell for $275,000 at the AIPAD Photography Show here in NY

Dear Mike,

The second part of your two-part exercise reminds me of the scales and studies that musicians have to practise every day.

Without playing double-stops in thirds sixths octaves and tenths and all those violin studies long enough, it's just not possible to play the Beethoven violin concerto, let alone perform it.

So perhaps this is the same for photography. If we want to turn up something decent, we need to sharpen up our senses with these exercises.

This should be interesting and I can't wait to give it a try. Thank you Mike for another great idea!

Siu Hay

A hundred shots to "warm up" might be needed if you allow yourself to "cool down". I shot every day from May 2004 to December 2009 and posted a daily sample to my website. 5-10 shots on a bad day maybe, but 100 never. Five years of monthly favorites at http://www.pbase.com/ed_k/pad_favs

Keep shooting. As long as you can release the shutter you know that you're still alive.

Actually, Elvis was seated on a gryphon when the saucer descended. I'd prove it with the un-photoshopped negative, but I had just taken a picture of my cat using the three inch piece of film in the single shot exercise.

Lovely bokeh, too.

There is a great demand for advice on improving the "aesthetic" side of peoples photography. Thom Hogan has several books he recommends, one is "Picture this" by Molly Bang. The recommendation has been up on his site for possibly several years but he mentioned it on the "front page" and people tried to get hold of it but it was temporarily out of print and second hand prices rocketed - Much to Ms Bangs suprise, when she found out why she asked Tom H to inform everybody that it was due for a re-print. (April 14th 2010)
I know TH commands a lot of respect but I got the impression that there is a lot of unsatisfied demand for advice on the "art" side of photography. - Not that "picture this" even mentions a camera

I'd buy the book.

I have always been an extremely frugal photographer and frequently return home without a single shot. I chimp mentally before shooting, I guess most will think I have it all wrong. Maybe I do.

I will bow to your infinite wisdom and try both exercises, should be good fun. Now where do I find a reeaally small 1-photo CF card?

About the Leica for a year project.. I started that almost a year ago after reading your post and now I can't ever see myself going back to a big SLR setup. Absolutely hooked..
So, I'm sticking with Leica :) Thanks John!

There isn't much history of photo instruction, or of exercises used in it, so I think it strikes some of us as a bit foreign to the field. But of course in most areas, from math to athletics music to art, there are fairly standard exercises. It seems likely that there would be valuable exercises in photography for learning particular things, too.

Also most of us are older than the character in The Karate Kid, and perhaps less willing to accept someone as our sensei and trust them to drive our development to where it needs to go (and I'm pretty sure I didn't hear anybody actually volunteering to take on that responsibility, either).

And perhaps a lot of people, like me, got into photography long enough ago that it started as a technical discipline, and our general mindset isn't that open to artistic / newage / woo-woo thinking, which many of the artistic exercises seem to embody.

Seems kind of cruel, for somebody who thinks he needs 100 photos just to warm up, to send people out with the assignment (and enforced restriction) of making exactly one shot. Of course, anybody who owns two cameras can cheat easily enough. Shoot 500 digital pictures, and go back and use the film clip on the one you like best!

I'd be interested in proposed exercises (with stated goals). Might even do some of them (though not anything requiring me to buy a new camera and completely change my photography for a year, leaving a full-year gap in my normal collection).

you were right! One of my son's first assignment as a freshman at RIT was to take one roll of 35mm and return in a week with one picture. Same reactions, but they learned how to "see"...

I'd be interested in that book or maybe a series of blog posts around the exercises.

I've been interested in a few of your book ideas that were aborted in the past. Didn't you have another book on lenses that was on Lulu at on point? I just checked and didn't see it.

I think the one shot idea is great. When I used the 35mm I new I had 24 or 36 shots and had to discipline myself, now I think when anyone goes digital, they can go crazy shooting hundreds. Yes you can take more shots but are you getting "the shot"?

The "one shot" idea is great. I wish I would have had that assignment when I took my b+w photo class.

I would buy that book!


I have very much enjoyed David DuChemin's "Within the Frame". Not a book of exercises, but rather on seeing with the camera.


I read the book "Within the Frame", and I must say I found it overly repetitive and more about how the author views the world than on finding your own vision.

I have found Freeman Patterson's books an excellent source of inspiration and exercises, having re-read them half a dozen times already.

I did your "Leica for a year" exercise in 1962 with a M2 & Summilux 35. 48 years later, I can still be amazed at the quality of some of that work toward the end of the year. I also did the "6 rolls" type of exercise, but usually one roll on a fixed geographic area - my yard, a park, a building, a person, an event, etc. I did a "roll a day" too. I also tried another exercise - drive around and shoot from the window (stopped of course, at least most of the time). Oh, and repeat the exercises at night.
Today, I do something similar with each new piece of gear (my Oly E-P1 right now) to familiarize myself with the hardware. Each time is a learning experience!

I would absolutely buy that book. In fact, I've looked for it on more than one occasion and failed to find it.


I came across this article of yours quite a while ago and in a way it parallels what you do in your class.
URL: http://www.steves-digicams.com/smp/09012002.html

Obviously with digital you limit the number of shots you take to any reasonable number (36 is a good starting point). I have done this exercise a number of times over the years and although each time the results are slightly different I never failed to learn something from each one.
Your comments (and those of your readers) comparing and contrasting what you did in class vs. this "exercise" would be appreciated. Keep up the great work.

Both Jim Brandenburg's Chased by the Light
and Freeman Patterson's Photography and The Art of Seeing (First Edition) are available from used book agregator sites such as abebooks.com and alibris.com. I just bought both there. Patterson is actually on the third edition of his Photography and The Art of Seeing book and has another three books out (almost a series) all at least on a second and third edition available on Amazon.
I am looking forward to receiving the first two mentioned above and will later consider Patterson's complete series (latest editions). You can never read or learn too much.

I just completed teaching a Color Printing and Design course at The Art Institute of Philadelphia. I gave the students 12 color problems and asked them to shoot 72 captures (we're all digital now) of each problem. I based the number on two rolls of film with the expectation that one might get two or three really good shots on a roll.
They didn't complain to me directly, but I heard through my colleagues how unhappy some students were with the numbers. No one wants to spend the time looking, and of course there were those who thought that "brackets" of 10 were acceptable.
Personally, I think the one shot idea is a good one. Too bad I've no way of swiping it.

Why were they unhappy with the numbers? Too much shooting, or too little?


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