#765. The photographic value of scarcity

By pascaljappy | How-To

Sep 05

There are two approaches to photography that strongly conflict with one another.

I don’t believe one is inherently better than the other, though my feet are firmly in one camp. But it seems to me that one can lead to the other, while the other way around is impossible.


Photograph by Matthieu Ricard


During my recent visit to the Rencontres Photographiques d’Arles (a yearly event that peppers over 40 large photographic exhibitions throughout the old town) one of the highlights was Matthieu Ricard’s set of large prints. Each came with a philosophical quote which the photograph illustrates, more than the other way around. I’ve been an admirer for many years, have read several of his articles and books, have known he was a respected photographer but had never realised what an accomplished photographer he was. In truth, the B&W versions of photographs seen elsewhere in colour added a lot of impact but the raw potential was in each file and the work as a whole is really very impressive. By any standards.

Looking up gear information for a Monday Post, I stumbled on this interview by Le Monde de la Photo. In it, Matthieu Ricard explains the following :

Some of the most beautiful photographs I’ve made were created by taking only one shot, because I had no money and rarely used more than 30 films in a year.

30 films. One thousand photographs a year. If battery life complaints by today’s commentators are to be believed, that’s a big travel day for many people (if not, why are we complaining, people?).

Vivian Maier, from what little information we have about her life, appeared to be a solitary and misunderstood photographer. A genius nonetheless and possibly the sort of photographic genius you only get a handful of in every generation. If you let the mystery surrounding her life wash away and only focus on her photographs, you can only be astonished by the intensity of her work. That genius came at a cost. Her work as a nanny suffered as she forgot children, let at least one get seriously injured and took them on mistreating photographic errands through unsafe areas of Chicago …  Her lack of financial income forced her into a professional that she may have considered menial and may have made her very bitter as years piled on. It must be hard to think you’re very talented but have to work for people she felt maybe weren’t. But her relative poverty had one positive impact on her photographic life.


Vivian Maier’s negatives on a light table (c) John Maloof.


The Howard Greenberg gallery (representing the Maloof collection of Vivian Maier photographs) writes:

Always with a Rolleiflex around her neck, she managed to amass more than 2,000 rolls of films, 3,000 prints and more than 100,000 negative which were shared with virtually no one in her lifetime. Her black and white photographs–mostly from the 50s and 60s–are indelible images of the architecture and street life of Chicago and New York. She rarely took more than one frame of each image and concentrated on children, women, the elderly, and indigent.

Contrast this with the contact sheets of Henry Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau, below.

(c) Henry Cartier Bresson, via Petapixel

(c) Robert Doisneau, via photoeye


The final shot we get to see printed in books and on gallery walls tends to be just one of a much larger set of very similar others. Unlike the Vivian Maier negatives above, those contact sheets almost look like they are showing individual frames from a video.

Now that’s not to say that every one of Vivian Maier’s 150,000+ photographs is as good or better than the best in the HCB or Doisneau contact sheets. Or that photographic talent of these 3 can be compared in any way. This is only meant to illustrate two different approaches to crafting a photograph. In one, an opportunity becomes evident in your mind and you build up the photograph that makes the most of it and move on. In the other, you follow the moving scene as it unfolds to freeze its various high points, very occasionally with the helping hand of serendipity.

Is one approach better than the other? Clearly not. All 4 photographers cited above draw crowds to galleries and inspire deep respect.

Everyone’s different. My approach to this leans towards scarcity, probably more because I’m lazy than for any other reason. I decide before a trip how many photographs I’m willing to bring home and will carry only that many cards. Typically one 32Gb card for 10 days. 70 pics a day. That might seem terribly low to some but it’s still 25 times more than Matthieu Ricard’s early years. I’m obviously still not lazy enough.


A typical CaptureOne page for me, early in a trip to Scotland


Because my photo trips are so few and far between, it usually takes my brain several hours or a several days to get into gear and do anything interesting. Because I’m not a seriously committed to photography as to having a pleasant vacation, my interest will typically also taper towards the end of the day.

So during a trip, I’ll initially shoot as much as I want to warm up and will delete anything not worth keeping. By the middle of the trip, space on the card is typically so tight that I’ll have to delete a frame to take a new one. You can see my CaptureOne window above. There are typically few similar shots, unless I’m planning on stitching, experimenting in colour and B&W or haven’t been able to do something that I’m happy with (and haven’t yet deleted the junk).

That can get old pretty fast, but it forces me to think before a shot and spend more time with my family or friends than behind my EVF. Also, with my current gear, photos typically need a lot of work to look good. So, fewer files also mean less time spent on the computer.

And I do believe the scarcity approach is a must when you are beginning. The temptation, when you are unsure of your skills, is to bracket aperture, bracket focus, bracket the subject. Multiply the shots to be sure one will be good. That’s profoundly wrong for two reasons :

  1. It doesn’t work. Spray and pray is a universal recipe for sucking at anything.
  2. It puts the importance on getting the shot rather than learning. Failure-based learning is the only guaranteed way to success. If you miss the shot, so what? You’ll get 10 more opportunities, just today. If, by accident, you get the shot but haven’t learned anything, you’re no better off than yesterday. And those 10 seconds of initial jubilation will be replaced with disappointment just minutes later, when you try again.


Work in progress. Single frame.


Once you’ve mastered some level of repeatable creativity, it’s really up to you. My personal preference is the scarcity approach. But it’s just that, personal preference.

In a very interesting video about Super Resolution, Tony Northrup recommends that, whenever you find a scene that really appeals to you, you shoot 20 or 100 frames of the place. Because you never know which is really sharp. Because you never know what sort of group processing you might want to perform on it in the future. Because of other valid future proofing reasons. It’s not for me, but it’s sound reasoning for others.

And HCB himself has this to say about his contact sheet:

A contact sheet is a little like a psychoanalyst’s casebook. It is also a kind of seismograph that records the moment. Everything is written down – whatever has surprised us, what we’ve caught in flight, what we’ve missed, what has disappeared, or an event that develops until it becomes an image that is sheer jubilation.

To a man of that level, even within a burst, every frame has a role, a meaning, a potential. He’s not multiplying chances of getting one good shot, he’s multiplying opportunities based on an evolving vision of a changing scene.

In closing, here is a spectacular photo by our co-author Dallas Thomas. Shot on a Nikon D4, it can be the result of a high-frame rate burst or a well-timed single shot. I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter. It’s the result of a keen eye, good technique and good preparation.


Oeuvre dart (c) Dallas Thomas


Choose your approach (once you’ve mastered the scarcity route) and stick to it. Your gear choices will follow.


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  • Rudi says:

    I prefer the scarcity approach personally. At the end if a walk many often compare how many shots they took. It makes me smile when I’m asked, because to their 200 to often 300 plus, my 60 to 100 max get the quizzical look. I am dead against the “shoot at will” as opposed to “when you see whites of their eyes”. Sure in sports photography action it works using burst, but hunting that shot is more satisfying in real time as opposed to searching through 50 of same subject. Just my thoughts. Does not always pan out, but its my little idiosyncracy.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Hmm – well having tried it both ways, on & off, over more than half a century, I must say that the shots that still stand out in my mind are the ones taken with care & preparation. But then of course it’s always the case that happenstance will deliver the goods, sometimes, too. So I guess my conclusion is (a) try hard and (b) be ready. You can never tell, till you review it all later.

    Actually your description reminds me of an American lady landscape photographer, who plans weeks or months in advance, goes after a particular shot (or maybe several) and comes home with hardly any – all of them not just “good” – but “seriously brilliant”. [Damn – now he’s going to ask me what her name is!] 🙂

  • Adam Bonn says:

    A lot of how it was done ‘back in the day’ has to do with the budget of the photographer I think…

    HBC toured the world at a time when traveling some where far away was a real undertaking, VM took photos as and when around a day job. In one case you don’t travel to China in the 1930s and bring only 2 rolls of film, and in the other finding time and opportunity for (say) 10 shots in a day might be the highlight of the week.

    These physical contraints no doubt influenced the way they worked.

    HBC was seeking the decivise moment, which in today’s lexicon amounts to ‘man slipping on a banana skin’ but for HCB it was more about finding scenes that adhered to the robust and classic compositional rules of fine art painting with the uncontrollable variable of there being the people in them. (Which is why HCB’s work is as often about the background as it is the subject)

    By contrast VM was a humanistic photographer who by definition had to grab single shots

    I think (imo ymmv) even if the quality of the fruits of labour are the same between high and low yield photography, the fruit always tastes sweeter when it’s the result of a precise process that delivered what you wanted.

    Equally if it’s your kid’s graduation, then probably best to come home with as many pics as possible 🙂

    Important to note I think that the way of working is a rather personal thing inside the head of the photographer, once other people see the image they’ll have no idea if it was a carefully considered single shot or one of a series captured in burst mode.

    Good article cheers.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Thanks Adam – I’ll treasure the suggestion in your second-last paragraph, forever! 🙂 You I might know – but I can bluff all the others, armed with that thought!

      • Adam Bonn says:


        I was thinking the other day that this obsession about camera performance, and all the various facebook and forum camera brand centric discussion groups, this camera can do this or that….

        It’s a bit like talking about what you’re thinking during sex, rather than being into who you’re having sex with… which is a bit daft… unless one isn’t having sex at all. And that’s called wanking 🙂 🙂

        • pascaljappy says:

          I thought wanking was the sex equivalent of the selfie !?

        • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

          I think it’s handy to have a few bits of gear that you can choose from. Beyond there, it seems to be to degenerate all too rapidly into “bulls**t baffles brains!”

          All these mirrorless cams coming onto the market are simply turning up too late, for me. I don’t have a future budget for them, and for the most part, I already have the cams I want. It’s a shame, because I do see the point of them – my best wedding shots, for example, have been taken on my D7200 with the original kit zoom – it works! – and that’s what I need – but it shows me that these new mirrorless ones should have a huge market, in the wedding photography sector.

          And image quality is totally suitable for that – after all, how many people ever get anything much larger than A4 prints of their wedding?

          So – I’m already covered on that one – someone else might end up with a “better” cam for it, but that’s of no possible relevance or consequence to me – and everyone except gearheads is happy.

          I could go on, with other types of stuff I do, but again it’s pointless. GAS victims, gearheads etc get off on their spend. I get off on sharing prints of my stuff with the people I took the shots for. And wouldn’t life be deathly boring, if we were all the same?

          PS – thanks for that comment on selfies in the bedroom – I know someone who’s been trying to talk his wife into having a mirror on the ceiling, ever since he found one of his “bachelor” friends has a bedroom fitted out like that – I’ll now be able to pass your comment over to his wife! 🙂

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    There’s something unrealistic about how model photographers are shown in movies, they shoot away in bursts of ~5-8 f/s – which is far to slow to catch a moving model at the right moment.
    A camera being ready for the next photo in a small fraction of a second would serve better.
    ( Unless the model is told to move very slowly, which would result in artificial poses unless (s)he was a very good actor.)
    And the rattle of shutters at some press conferences… – of course, some photographers are reduced to lift their camera without seeing.
    – – –

    Re. HBC’s and Doisneau’s contact sheets,
    in a way that can also be scarcity photography – if it is about a new aspect of an evolving sceen each time. Or, with moving persons there can be a continuum between scarcity and serials.
    – – –

    I’m more for scarcity, a walk gives maybe a dozen photos, a photo walk maybe a few dozen. If I bring a (preferably discreet pocket) camera to some friend’s event I just catch what I see – often a lot.

    ( Perhaps because my first camera was a 6×4.5cm 16 frames / film, and the next a 6×6 w. 12 f/roll )

    When traveling I’m careful about what I *don’t* photograph – photographing a special sceen diminishes the memory of it.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    “.. with my current gear, photos typically need a lot of work to look good.”

    Just curious, what gear?
    So that I can avoid it.. 😉 , 🙂 .

  • Frank says:

    When I am engaged with photography and seeing good pictures on a blessed day, usually the very first shot of a scene does it all. The rest of them are minor compared to that first shot.

    So for me I am beginning to learn to take just that one shot and move on. It always works best. And lets me catch several worthy shots on the same day. Great!
    On some days, none of my shots come out right and I soon realize that and stop shooting and instead just look and try to see the world as it is. Beautiful!

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