The pre-shot checklist

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All of the below applies, even in a situation like this. What you’re not seeing is that it isn’t a Wild-West quick draw: it’s more like the preparation of a sniper.

There are many different types of photographers; all the way from the fully spontaneous use-whatever-falls-to-hand-and-just-hit-the-shutter-so-long-as-I-get-an-image, to the people who only photograph under 100% controlled situations – think still life in a studio, tethered. I’m somewhere in the middle, though definitely much further towards the latter end of the spectrum. The reason I’m writing this article is because during a recent workshop, I was asked by a student if I really kept all of the ‘four important things’ (and sub things) in my head and under active consideration even in a split-second instant; the answer is yes, and there’s quite a bit more on top of that – but I’ve been doing it for so long that the vast majority of the whole capture process becomes second nature.

By and large, professionals know this part of the job as ‘workflow'; when you change something in the workflow, you have to devote part of your mind to consciously managing it, which means you are no longer concentrating on observing, and that will be visible in the form of a weaker image. It is the reason that I always advocate being familiar with one’s equipment before going out to shoot something important or unrepeatable: you don’t want to be caught surprised or fumbling at a critical moment, especially if you’re not in full control of the action, or your client is watching. Tried and tested is safe.

With any action – not just photography – do it enough and it becomes second nature. Remember learning how to drive? I certainly do: I was scared as hell the first time, and 20mph seemed quite fast. And you had to remember to watch for other traffic, not stall the engine, signal, check your mirrors, and do all of that under the sternly critical eye of your driving instructor. That would be like changing formats just before a big shoot. Now, on the other hand, I’ve been driving for long enough that it’s mostly second nature; I have to pay a bit more attention (and do get slightly nervous) when driving overseas, but in my home city, it’s 100% intuitive – even avoiding the myriad drivers in Kuala Lumpur who seem to have trouble maintaining speed and direction.

Like driving, if you photograph enough, the ‘core’ stuff becomes part of your muscle memory. And again, like driving, you still need to pay attention, otherwise you might run into unscheduled/ unexpected territory. Except losing control of your camera is not very likely to kill you. Bottom line: it’s all about practice.

The part of photography that can’t really be ingrained into automation is the act of seeing, or specifically, conscious observation of the world and noticing things that are worth photographing or of personal interest; that’s the part you will always have to work on; it’s also the part of photography that’s highly individual, interpretative and will evolve with you as your own experiences and preferences evolve.

But I digress. Here’s the list; the items in bold are part of the ‘four things*’.

*I really need to write an article on this at some point.

  1. Light. Always interesting light first; no light, no photograph. A mundane subject can be turned into something arresting under the right light. The key is to look for both shadows and specular highlights.
  2. An idea: what do I see? More importantly, what do I want my audience to see? Note: this doesn’t always come second, sometimes I see light, subject, then an idea presents itself that fits with the subjects I’ve got to hand, and sometimes the idea can be as simple as abstraction or aesthetics alone.
  3. A subject: what is the photograph about? If there’s a story, what/ who is the protagonist? Does it stand out enough? Is it something that interests me personally, fits my assignment, or is just interesting because it is unusual?
  4. Secondary subjects: does the single image have to tell a story on its own? Do I have subsequent or preceding frames to set up context? Is it about a definite chain of events, an idea, or merely a suggestion? How much of the background context do I need to include?
  5. Perspective: do I want to emphasise my foreground, do I need context, do I want abstraction? Which perspective renders my subject in the most aesthetically pleasing manner? Am I storytelling/ reporting? If so, then do I want to portray the point of view of an observer or a participant? Note: if in doubt, I will always frame with a wider lens: I can always frame to include more context, but I cannot put it back in later if my angle of view is too tight. Related to this, I may need to decide to change lenses or not: I run the risk of missing the moment whilst doing so, or being caught short later. Or if I pick a zoom, compromising image quality.
  6. Framing and subject isolation: where am I going to put my subject? Are there any other devices in the frame that I can use to help lead my viewer’s eyes to the intended point, through the frame in the intended order – such as leading lines and frames?
  7. Edges: have I cut anything off? Is there anything distracting that I shouldn’t include? Remember: framing a photograph is about conscious exclusion.
  8. Depth of field: how much do I want in focus?
  9. Related to depth of field: what aperture should I use? I have to take into consideration both the format, the lens’ available apertures, the tradeoff against shutter speed and ISO/ noise/ diffraction/ image quality, and the optimum aperture of the lens – plus where in the frame my subject is located.
  10. Focal point/ focal plane: where should I focus to manage my depth of field properly? This becomes especially important if you’re trying to push the limits of image quality; even more so if you’re using a larger format that requires camera movements to obtain complete focus across the entire frame. And to complicate things further, there’s the issue of field curvature on certain lenses to consider if you’re shooting at wider apertures.
  11. Exposure: there’s a lot of sub-things related to this. Firstly, choice of high or low key; what do I want to show or hide? This is important because you will need to adjust your composition accordingly depending on your final output exposure choice – even though you are going to shoot digital and expose optimally to the right. Secondly, do I have enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake, and manage subject motion? If not, how much of an image quality penalty will I incur by raising the ISO? Or do I have other tricks I can use to keep ISO low, and manage low shutter speeds – like bracing, tripods, VR or burst shooting? On top of that, the sensor type matters: CCDs must be exposed precisely; later generation CMOS has more latitude in shadow recovery. And then you need to think about white balance: if the ambient light temperature is too extreme, you risk blowing a channel irrecoverably if you don’t get it reasonably right in-camera first. And then you’ve got to think about how important colour accuracy is to your image.
  12. One last double check of focus and composition.
  13. Timing – wait for the right moment; if the action is happening now, I’m shooting now both as insurance and as progressive recording; if the action is something that hasn’t happened yet, then I wait in position, ready, shutter half-pressed. If it’s a static frame, exhale and release between heartbeats/ breaths.
  14. Hit the shutter, usually in a burst. You will know intuitively if you nailed the composition or not; people often wonder why I’m shooting sequentially (not bursts, but sequential single images) on static subjects: I’m fine-tuning my composition, until I know the edges are perfect. That means no need to crop later.
  15. Check framing and sharpness. Move on if OK, wait if there’s likely to be more action, or try again if you flubbed.

And we haven’t even started to talk about shooting under controlled (studio) situations…MT

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Comments

  1. John ( other John ) says:

    Hi Ming, long time lurker, long time admirer, thank you for your superb blog, photographically, and intellectually!

    Can I ask a OT question please?

    I lost my bookmark to your blog entry that IIRC was on your assignment in Suriname, for a old line British dry cargo shipping company. I would love to look at those again, they were all over their website also, as you’d expect, but I seem to have lost all my bookmarks… could you indulge me a link to your post?

    Many thanks,

    Please kept it up, excellent to find such a balance of serious kit talk and real pictures,

    J

  2. Wait, does someone NOT shoot static subjects sequentially? It is surprising how much the little movements affect compositional balance. I have trouble identifying the best shot on camera evf/lcd, though. Kind of annoying especially when I feel I missed the “just right” framing entirely.

    I think I will print this list, and should buy a tripod to suppress the urge to “get the shot now”.

    • liramusic says:

      :) I like this Tarmo. Possible dissent. Order in the court! Ok, I will stand up to confess (the court is hushed). I have always ignored point number 2. (order in the court). But seriously, I make a deliberate effort to not do the number two point to consider my audience. I simply have no audience except for myself. Of course as artists we do have an audience even if it is in the abstract, so it is a sort of conundrum. At least I have confessed, so I feel a tiny bit better. Ok yes, if it is professional work, which I almost never do, then my wishes do not even matter. Feeling unsure of myself suddenly. Judge: Lira, you may step down.

    • Actually, I’ve observed people usually take one shot and move on. I might do a dozen – unless I’m on a tripod and can take all the time in the world.

  3. Too many decision to capture life live. Just saw an David-Allan Harvey video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L29PnsIpZdI – he has a Fuji X100, loves people and takes his shots and worries very little about tech. He says he doesn’t wait for the perfect frame, he just takes images and gets quite a number of good ones in the process. If you’re more analytic about his process: he has made all his decisions beforehand: 35mm equivalent lens for all shots, medium kinda aperture to show subjects and context, medium distance.

    His most important decision: talk to people, genuinly befriend them and document (parts of) their life using the smallest camera possible.

    • It depends on your subject. Buildings, for instance, don’t really respond well to befriending or conversation, and 35mm is rather limiting.

      • liramusic says:

        I sort of think that in a way buildings do speak. A different kind of speaking maybe?

      • You are absolutely right, of course. However, your comprehensive set of left brain rules might bring you in conflict with what the art world expects these days. In other words: there is a set of technical decisions you have to take for almost every project, artistic or non-artistic. And you would be able to describe the set of rules for every project after you have finished this project. But this specific set of technical rules is not how to start this very project.

        To me, it appears that you’re trying to convert the creative process of a project into an algorhythm that a photographer/artist should follow. In many ways, I believe, it might be a good start to take pictures of whatever you love (to do) and begin to refine your images step by step. Basically, bottom-up instead of top-down might be a good alternative.

        • You mistake my intention entirely. There’s no algorithm or formulaic approach involved, it’s a statement of how I work based on the images I want to produce. Acceptance in the art world or not, you can’t work without some sort of conscious thought.

  4. I love having the light bulb go on when I read some of yr posts. Its like oh yep that’s what is happening and yes I do that. Thanks again : )

  5. Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Terrific advice!

  6. That photo is amazing for two reasons. First, as a photo itself– amazing. Second, it’s a photo that most anyone of us “could” take, but of course we never do– amazing.

  7. blotzphoto says:

    Hehe… this kind of attention to detail is why my degree in commercial photography gathers dust and I instead reside comfortably towards the former edge of your spectrum,

  8. great stuff, nicely focused and compiled thoughts.

  9. Ming, thanks for this. I’m wondering how your thinking might change, if at all, when you’re shooting with film?

    • Aside from thinking about the different tonal response of film, and metering/ composing accordingly, you also need to plan your shots a bit more: last thing you want is to be caught short with a fully exposed roll and a fast moving situation. I’ll carry a second loaded back with a Hasselblad, or spares roll of film in a handy pocket. And sometimes that second (or third) back may be loaded with color, or a fast B&W film, etc. If you don’t have the option of flexibility, you quickly adapt to being a lot more discerning with your shots…

  10. John Weeks says:

    “The part of photography that can’t really be ingrained into automation is the act of seeing, or specifically, conscious observation of the world and noticing things that are worth photographing or of personal interest; that’s the part you will always have to work on;”
    This!!!! watching your videos and seeing how you condense the massiveness/happenings of a scene into a vision of a photo helps me the most…technical aspects aside.
    Being a former sniper appreciate the analogy…

    • and what I find pretty compelling is that probably no two of us see in exactly the same way… and thus, even an oft photographed scene may not have been ‘saturated’ from every angle because someone will approach it and see something a little differently, with, perhaps, different lighting or environmental influences to lend enough of a difference that it becomes an image distinctly beautiful and standalone. or… when traveling, it’s not that the scene wasn’t recreated in camera by others and perhaps with better talent; it’s that it was recreated by me at a memorable moment in time and that specialness, added to whatever else I do to recreate as beautiful or compelling an image as I’m able to do, means something to me and may make all the difference in the world.

    • Thank you. You should have really steady hands and excellent shot discipline then :)

  11. You need to place more emphasis on isolating the subject–not just from the background. This is referred to as the proximity problem in perceptual psychology. For example, if you are photographing musicians, you don’t want a mike stand that is taller than the musician and behind him coming out of his head or out of his left arm. You don’t want the pole holding the cymbal coming up in front of the musicians throat. In all cases, there is nothing that ruins a photo faster than a proximity problem. Once you see it as the viewer, it becomes a distraction and ruins the photograph. Sometimes you can’t eliminate the item because you can’t reposition yourself do the limits imposed by your surroundings. If you are doing art (not photojournalism), you should be thinking how you can remove the offending object in Photoshop. That also calls for repositioning. Once again with musicians, you might be shooting up into a saxophone and there is a distracting light in the ceiling. You can hope that the musician moves his body so as to hide the light, or if he doesn’t, you can try to move so that there is maximum separation between the light and the musician, and then clone the light out.

    Somewhat relatedly, many people think street photography is run and gun. In my experience, the best street photography turns on patience. When you see a sign or window display with a subject walking past it, and the relationship between the two is perfect and makes a strong statement–usually through irony, it didn’t happen spontaneously. That photographer saw the sign, noticed the flow of traffic and waited (maybe for an hour) for the “right” person to walk by. During that hour, he probably made some errors in terms of composition–light pole or trash can shows up, but caught and worked them out by repositioning himself or by moving a object (I have moved a trash can on occasion). The key to street photography is finding a lair.

    Remembering and doing your list is not as difficult as you seem to suggest. Many of these happen long before you frame the shot. When you walk into the scene, you should recognize high/low key, what is in the foreground/background, and shadows/highlights. You then think about how you can put those things together to make a good photo. By the time the viewfinder comes to your eye, that should all be done.

    • liramusic says:

      Hi to Jack Siegel
      Am I writing too much? …more thoughts now
      I really liked your post and its reference to perceptual psychology. I started to think of a two-step process where first I liberate my mind to think of objects “not as what they are” but as shapes; then I try and imagine the effect of those shapes within a photo.
      I have done so many musician pictures (but never for pay). Cymbal stands don’t throw me off as much, but mic stands do. What I try to do— and here is this idea of pre-thinking without my camera, or my inner dialogue— is to wonder if the offending object can be used to my advantage. I ry to imagine an emotional or psychological aspect a little bit to my reaction but to the scene itself.
      “Maybe I can shoot through darkened cymbals & stands, if from one angle they are darkened, to give the emotion of what the drummer is dealing with. The drummer might feel confined or alternatively be gloriously buried in all that gear.”
      The worst thing is to walk up and take a picture face-on and with no pre-thought.
      Mic stands, (like telephone poles,) are a nightmare to face-one pictures or it would be nice if there were an international law against any stands or poles, but there again… I’m there, who knows maybe for 1/2 hour, wondering.
      “Could that mic stand, let’s see, sort of be this bounding line or inner-mat element supporting the subject if I shoot all the way from the side. But wait, what is the mood here.” I put in quotes because that is an example of my inner conversation. I look at things without the camera and contemplate. I think that I translate things into geometry and then represent emotion using geometry. Think of how different the mood is from kids careening down a hill on a sled to lonely street lamp at night; someone singing a ballad eyes closed, to an old machine, or a drummer in the middle of a frantic solo.
      If there is an annoying light, as you mentioned, “could that light be at a 45 degree angle out and resemble a spotlight?”
      For all of these, I am sort of engineering the photo in my mind: and I have to move or there is no inner dialogue. They can’t move. Their equipment is what it is, so only I can move. All this really, really is true of shadows. This is such a big deal I think that it could merit a bullet point all its own. Shadows in photos are not the absence of light but they are objects within the photo.
      I do none of this with the camera in my hand— not at first.
      These machinations are in my mind before I reach for my camera really, even though I am not a ten thousandth what Ming is with clarity & color, everything really… I do mental gymnastics as I gaze out with the camera still in the bag. I ask myself what matters right now in this scene. I also imagine the edge of the photo still only in my mind. I mentally imagine this rectangle— the photo’s edge as an element of an imagined photo.
      Then I imagine again objects not being what there are; then I love when geometry splays out. I think to myself, “that might work.”
      Maybe the cymbal and stands can create a keyhole effect if I can look through them. Or maybe just the rounded edge of the cymbal can be vaguely like a celestial object, floating there as if in orbit about the musician. Maybe a stand can be suggestive of constraint or the wires like bondage, just slightly I mean.” The inner dialogue rambles on like that.
      Maybe a single light can be liken to a sort of divine element or like this feeling of loss or regret. In that case I move to “make” that immovable light love around. Light is that Other, that force, the thing beyond us. A single light is primal.
      All this is fairly exciting as imaginary but the downside is that my photos are not as clear as a professional photography. I’ll begin soon to think of some more formal education.

      • Thanks. Glad you enjoyed my comments. I agree with you. Last night while two feet in front of a sax player and sitting on the floor shooting up, I tried to shoot through the mike cord (with a circle) as a framing device. I’ve done that with music stands, etc. Rarely does it work, but when it does, it is very nice.

        • liramusic says:

          Nice, cool. As a musician, these artifacts– the cords, stands, curtains, lights, racks, amps, even little rugs– all become part of the landscape of the stage.
          ……
          Thank you Ming for correcting one letter of mine. I sure do love this blog.

    • The emphasis is there, but I didn’t mention it in the checklist because I see that item as being all-encompassing. Put it this way: I don’t think my images have a proximity problem, because I’m highly aware of it – both when shooting, and when postprocessing. If unavoidable, the trick is to reduce luminance and color contrast afterwards.

      Not sure I agree with the lair part, either: it’s too easy to fall into the trap of making similar photographs. I might use the same location for a day or two at most; anything more and it becomes difficult to avoid routine. It’s one of the reasons I shoot little in KL these days; once you’ve seen the same location 100 times, you have a preconceived notion of where the ‘best’ image and ‘best’ light is, and you really don’t want to do anything else because it’s perceived as a compromise.

      As for the list being easy – well, I do it all the time, so it isn’t that hard, but it requires practice. I’m not sure how many people are consciously thinking about the items all the time, though.

  12. liramusic says:

    I do much of this before I am holding my camera. Someone would wonder how that can be done with, let’s say, checking the edges of the frame– this inner dialogue that I experience. Yet, I do it in my mind. I hasten to add, though, that this would be on a good day. If I am really focused on things in my mind and intuitively going though the list, I am standing there and doing it all and my camera is still at my feet or at my side.
    I really like point number 11. I try and imagine what is meant to go to being black or all white and what the range of light would seem like. I don’t always want realism, but I don’t want to seem silly with my ideas. Then, if the photo has this pre-life in my mind, it also has this mental after-life for me. Certain photos become indelible in my mind; images sort of linger that way. Photographer Sam Abell talked about “the life of a photo.” I hope I am not being too etherial and I still think that this does relate, at least for me, to the idea of the checklist and these elemental parts that make up any single photo. I hope I added something. I loved your point 11 and I think like crazy about how the sensor will react to what I am thinking that I want it to do, but if I ever start talking out loud to the sensor, just put me in a nursing home I guess.

  13. Hmmm, what happens if you don’t have number 1? Where I live there is less sun than London, overcast 360 days a year. Sometimes it’s so bad trees don’t leave shadows.

    The rest, how to do in sub-second? I can see some of it is preparation, but some of is done at shot time…

    • Ah, but ‘good light’ goes a bit further than shadows: it’s also what fits the subject. So, either you don’t shoot, or you look for interesting visual juxtapositions that actually require lower contrast…

      The rest: literally, hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of frames of practice. And even then, sometimes we miss!

      • That’s a lot of 120 film!

        • Good thing there’s digital :)

          • Well, that leaves me with two options:

            1) Find a digital back for my Rolleiflex GX… Ha ha
            2) Find a generous soul who has a digital back for a Hasselblad 503cx for exceptionally low price.

            • The problem with ‘cheap’ digital backs is the crop factor: lenses simply don’t render the way they’re supposed to. Otherwise, early backs like the Phase One P20 or Hassy CFV-16 might be a viable option; used prices for those are comparable to higher end DSLRs. That said, image quality is not…a D810 will outshoot most things this side of a 645Z.

              • However I like the square format. I like the reversed image in the viewfinder, it gives a different perspective.

                • Actually, if your composition works backwards/ upside down, it generally also works the right way around…perhaps that’s why LF images have a certain balance to them…

  14. Your list looks like some NASA pre-launch checklist. :-) So many things to think of before even touching the button.
    My workflow is a bit simpler. Manual prime lens – 35mm equivalent. Mostly one aperture – f8. Shutter speed priority with auto ISO – this gives me full control of the aperture and of the shutter speed and I still have auto exposure. Sometimes I switch to manual exposure if I need more control of shadows or highlights. Auto white balance – I shoot raw anyway. Lens prefocused to a certain distance and there I go. I can take a picture in a second and be gone before the subject even notices. Of course there are limitations. This method is suitable for a speciffic style of shooting – quick street captures. It works best on sunny days. Ultraprint quality is very unlikely to achieve but technical perfection is not my goal. What I look for is strong content hopefully emphasised by strong form. Imperfections sometimes add ‘soul’ to pictures. I think of Robert Capa’s photos from Normandy for instance. Or difference between Impresionism and Hiperrealism. Anyway with my set up all I have to think of is light, background and subject – in that order. Basicly, as David Hurn put it, where to stand and when to hit the shutter. I can shoot spontaneously whatever attracts my attention. But still, getting a decent picture is so damn difficult. Frustratingly difficult :-)

    • Yes, but it’s not just a technical checklist, but a compositional/ artistic one, too :)

      • Yep, but what I mean is that with my method I can forget about the camera and focus on the ‘artistic’ part of the process. Third of the list is checked even before I find a potential scene. During shooting I work on the composition and timing and leave color and tone and contrast for post processing.

        • I still disagree. If you expose wrong for your tonal intention, you may be able to fix it later, but not without image quality penalties. Of course, this may not matter to you…

  15. Gerner Christensen says:

    Thank you Ming for the re-cap of what I yet have left to get 100% on my spine.

    The images shown in the “What makes an outstanding Image I & II” are some of my favorites of yours.

    “Remember learning how to drive?” …. yes now you mention it. At least now 42 years later I’m a bit better at it.

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