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.
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.
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.
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.
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 :
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.
Choose your approach (once you’ve mastered the scarcity route) and stick to it. Your gear choices will follow.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.