Being prolific

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The images in this article are unconventional compositions: products of long periods of experimentation, sometimes the result of a single fast grab, or several iterations of adjustment and refinement. I think they suit the theme well.

Today’s essay is a slightly odd one. Consider for a moment: is it better to be a prolific photographer, or a slow, methodical, considered one? No matter how you slice it, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. And I honestly haven’t been able to figure outs which works best, so I’m hoping the comments are going to spark an interesting discussion depending on the approach of my readers.

All of you – readers, email school and workshop participants alike – will recall me exhorting the value of practice and experimentation. I believe that is true, but only up to a point. Simply, you need to encounter enough different situations that you a) know how to handle them technically, b) have some idea of how to compose for them in keeping with your artistic intentions, and c) have some instinctive feel for when a scene or subject or light is interesting. Much like modern matrix meters, which keep a database of scenes, you need to have that ‘visual muscle memory’ to at least get you part of the way towards the basic structure of an image. In a situation which is changing quickly – reportage, for instance – then you simply don’t have the thinking time. The intuitive response means that you are more likely to get the shot you want with fewer errors. A higher hit rate, if you will.

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The problem with this approach is that there is a very high range of one simply falling into the stochastic (i.e. lazy) approach: shoot lots, and if you shoot enough, then you’re likely to get something great by sheer random chance. All you need to do is be very good at curation. That in itself is a hugely important skill for a photographer; there’s no point in being able to take the most impactful images but be unable to recognise them, and as a result never have that work seen. But I suspect that if you’re just spraying and praying, you’re also not likely to have strong objective evaluation skills as somebody who did would probably be disinclined to use that approach in the first place; the pre-shot filter would be tighter.

The spiral takes another turn: if your pre-shot filter is too tight, then there’s a good chance you might miss something because you dismiss a possible composition offhand before trying to make it work. And this dismissal of course results in a dearth of experimentation, which is of course the antithesis of creative evolution.

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I find that most amateurs will start off at the stochastic stage: they will shoot anything and everything, and almost always not be able to tell good from bad. Those who are jaded or too busy or eventually get over that hump will probably land up not shooting very much at all, and slowly the ‘vision’ gets blinkered; they miss interesting compositions that are right in front of their eyes, and walk past interesting light and shadows. Eventually, they might no longer carry a camera – and this is very sad indeed. A jolt is required to restart the seeing process.

Assuming you either make it past the slump or keep up the experimentation and quantity – you’re likely to arrive at a point at which you can see compositions in everything and anything; this is the anxiety of infinite composition. The upshot is that you land up shooting too much; it’s not that the work you’re producing is poor – it’s at the same standard, of course – but you’re just outputting and showing so much of it that the really great images get somewhat lost; on top of that, there’s again the risk that you may not be able to recognise the exceptional work. I feel as though I’m in this trap at times: I produce a huge number of images in a day of casual personal photography; I probably raise the camera every 30-60 seconds. The standards of curation must therefore be elevated to compensate for the sheer quantity; this in itself becomes tiring and physically difficult because of the sheer number of images. That said, I’d rather be prolific than creatively stuck.

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I believe it’s a very difficult thing to balance experimentation and creativity with overdoing it, and either becoming jaded, losing one’s curative objectivity or simply presenting too much work to the audience to absorb. The alternative approach is of course frontloading the curation process; we photographers are really nothing more than curators of the real world. We isolate visually interesting snippets for our audience and consciously exclude the rest of the distractions to focus our viewers on the intended subjects.

This approach can work once you reach a certain level of skill and compositional experience; I would equate this to my medium format film phase. There was just enough unfamiliarity with the process and the camera that forced me to think a bit more than usual before hitting the shutter; I believe it was this additional consideration that raised the level of my game at the time. But, like everything – it got familiar and intuitive enough to the point where I don’t think I was consciously doing that any longer. I managed to bring some of those principles back to digital, and with it raise the game there; large format was supposed to take that contemplation even further. Though you can shoot quite fluidly and quickly with medium format – I’ve gone through 20 rolls in a casual day, with a reasonably high keeper rate – you physically have trouble carrying that much 4×5″, which should in theory make one just that bit more introspective before hitting the button.

One of the reasons you’ve seen little large format work from me – aside from just not having that much time to use the camera – is that I’ve not really been happy with the output; I think if anything it’s a bit too static and too safe. It is actually a format that I find doesn’t encourage experimentation so much as extremely rigorous discipline; that’s great if you’re looking for higher image quality, for example for Ultraprints, but not so great if you’re trying to move your creative game up a notch, too.

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If you’re expecting a firm conclusion either way, I’m afraid you’re not going to get one. This article started out examining the most conducive approach to maintaining compositional proficiency and developing creativity, but has turned somewhat introspective. I seem to oscillate between the periods of extreme productivity (e.g. the 6,000+ images I shot in Melbourne in five days) and those where I produce very little work at all; in fact, the only constant seems that I have to be trying something new. I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing – I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way to incalculate creativity as part of one’s workflow. Projects might be a way of doing this, but I find they tend either have to be reasonably short-term to yield a consistent body of work, or tend to lose focus (perhaps shift focus is closer to the mark) over longer periods of time. I think there’s no question that teaching forces you to up your level of understanding – this can indirectly lead to better work, but it isn’t necessarily always the case as it depends on the level of your students.

I admit that part of me wonders what and how I’m going to be shooting in another five years – I certainly wouldn’t have forseen the current point five years ago – but there is also a small part of me that’s afraid I may not be shooting at all because I’m now shooting too much. I can’t help but think a counterintuitive piece of advice given to me by several friends might turn out to be the smartest thing to do of all: take an extreme approach and simply not shoot for a week or two, then see what happens afterwards.

And at this point I’m going to turn the article to the audience: do you find slow, steady and considered yields better images for you, or large quantities of experimentation? MT


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  1. One way of looking at this is to define “prolific” by your keeper rate. A slow methodical large format shooter who shoots 5 glass plates a day and keeps 4 of them is just as prolific as a sports shooter who flys through a thousand digital frames and keeps 4.

    The rapid shooter spends more time to distill his/her work down so they need to budget for that. A nice feature to have in-camera would be to enable the photographer to pick the keeper from a series of shots on the same subject. Many shooters overshoot because they can’t easily go back and reshoot because either time or distance have passed. Then you review the series in-camera and delete all but a keeper or two. Current cameras require you to check off all of the deleted images and that’s a lot of clicks. Keep 1 of 30 images and you’ll need to click at least 29 times. Invert it and select just the keeper.

    I’d imagine an interface that automatically figures out the first and last shots in the series, lets you review and maybe even do a crude sort until you go “Yes, yes. That’s the one!” and deletes the rest. That would save a lot of time and not that hard to implement in the camera.

    • Agreed, though volume is not the only metric…

      • Absolutely quality matters. In that comparison I meant that both photographers produced comparable quality. Though certainly those 4 glass plates from the large format photographer could be garbage while the keepers of the sports shooter could be pure gold. Or visa versa.

  2. Hi Ming,

    Just saw your post today, so sorry for the late answer.

    Most of the times, I need to think about what I see first, and whether it could tell anything after being brought into a photo. It is funny how, when walking in the streets, I let myself feel immersed prior to going to the camera. Even when the camera is at hand, I do not proceed differently. As you can guess, battery life is not my problem, as I think my personal record is 300 in a day, but most usually there will be less than 50. And I use only a 21 and a 90, not in a rush when changing them, with a Monochrom so it means the 21 will do in Lightroom 21-90, and the 90 will do 90-400. I do compose the exact framing, as the tonality, the key etc… in Lightroom, reason why I love the tons of greys the Monochrom gives (can’t wait for the day when they’ll be printable!).

    Does it mean I do only photos of still life? Quite the contrary! I feel that to bring life into a photo, one needs to be part of it. And more than often, photos are boring for the one looking at them because that one does not feel any link with it. To my taste, a good photographer is a good novelist, he’ll let your mind wander, just as a consequence of looking at one of his images. And a bad one will keep your mind at bay, looking at the images, but without feeling anything but “yes, it is nice”.

    All the best,

  3. Mike Ross says:

    I think your advice about putting the camera down for a week is excellent. I’ve got to the point where no image is good enough, not mine or anyone elses. Tack sharp, amazing light, stunning clouds, surreal shadows, and close to perfect wide open shots are just pictures. The time, effort and level of my obsession is beginning to bother me. I vow to leave the camera in my drawer for a week and then see what happens. Of course tomorrow I’ll probably look out the window to check the light, then go take 50 photos of ice, play with them in Lightroom and Photoshop and start the cycle again.

    Its a vicious cycle, but photographed at the right aperture with late afternoon light it becomes a beautiful vicious cycle.

    Thanks for the best photography website on the internet. Every post amazes me with the length you go to explaining your perspective and philosophy. Your photos are the best I’ve seen and make this site worth coming back to again and again.

    • Pleasure. I for one am curious to see how your experiment turns out – please feel free to report back if you’re happier with your images after…

  4. Hi Ming, interesting post. I remember William Eggleston being interviewed while taking pics… When asked why he only took one photo and moved on, he replied that he only took one because he could never choose if he took more 🙂

  5. I’ve gone through phases of higher shooting rates, though nothing along the lines that many photographers shoot. Film cameras are definitely one way to slow down, and large format really forces thinking before exposing film. The funny thing for me is that I don’t go too high volume with digital cameras, despite that the memory cards can hold far more than any roll of film.

    I come from the world of painting and drawing, so that guides my approach in photography. A sketchpad was my usually daily companion, and I drew often the world I saw around me. Even a quick sketch takes time, and that slower thought translated into my efforts in photography. The closest to drawing has been large format, because so many compositional decisions need to be made before the film is loaded.

    There are probably more volume photographers out there than slow and methodical photographers. To me that means many of them are spending far more time at a computer, than behind a camera. I suppose some photographers enjoy the computer time more, though I’ve always enjoyed the time behind the camera more. Shame that as a professional photographer, I spend so much time with paperwork, or meeting with potential clients.

  6. HI Ming,

    I think you can have both ways as I find photography to be one of the more flexible mediums with regard to time management. My approach to photography is a timed and considered one, however it is because of this approach that I have what many would consider a “prolific” output.
    On a heavy day I would take 200-300 images, this is a lot for me. Usual day is around 100. I relate shooting digital to film from a discipline standpoint. I think 4 rolls is plenty for a day (in the day it was) but I take the equivalent of 10 rolls of memory so its not an issue. Thinking in these terms for me all comes back to curation. My keeper rate is around 40-50%. Of which I will cull that between 60-90%. There is a lot of consideration in the curation process, and it gets more brutal as I have been developing my photographic practice. So taking 10 photos when I only need one of any given subject is a big waste of time for me. Wasn’t always the way, however as you mentioned… but once I had developed my technique/approach, it really just became a hunt for nuance.
    Development should be constant and happens naturally with time, more practice, accidents, maturity etc… The key is not to crystalize, and always be open to new approaches, ideas and criticism. This is actually harder than it sounds, because it often means admitting (at least to yourself) you are wrong or worse: P
    I have always had a disciplined approach which carried on from a more disciplined fine art practice. One thing I know is that restrictions, self- imposed or otherwise are a good thing for creative output. (Necessity being the mother of invention) I think this applies two-fold in photography.
    I think most photographers are guilty of carrying too much gear. I never carry more than 1 camera with one focal length. Curation for me happens as soon as I take the first photo of the day. The light mood, and subject are determined, the how is up to me. I find sticking to one focal length means you can shoot a more varied subject range and pull them together through rendering consistencies, angle of view and just that you are seeing in a particular way on the day.
    From a curatorial standpoint, I find I never need more than 1 image of any given subject. I find that being confident enough not to push the shutter is a freedom in itself. A freedom many fail to exercise properly or even realise.

    • Agreed, which is one of the reasons I started in the first place – you can spend ten minutes or ten hours. Actually, the first time you spend those intense ten hours, it can be too much.

      I don’t think it’s possible to say ‘I’ll just take ONLY the ten I need’ – simply because there has to be some degree of experimentation to get the perfect shot, or you settle for something a bit less. I agree that keeping ten images of the same subject unless very different is probably pointless, but you’ll need to see which of the ten works before throwing away the other nine. And objectivity so close to point of capture is not so easy. Besides, if there’s no cost to experiment anymore – I can’t imagine why you’d want to shortchange yourself.

  7. Ming interesting article. I enjoy your site because it’s not strictly “gear centric.” You have a talent at verbalizing ideas and issues related to photography. Sometime I read your posts and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve known that for a long time but never verbalized it.”

    Me, I’m slow and deliberate. I’m an ex still life shooter, and many of those habits carry through. Usually my experimentation happens in the viewfinder while exploring what moves me as the best view/angle. I shoot film, and while I don’t shoot enough that I really consider cost, my goal is something I like enough to frame and hang on the wall and still grin over for years. So getting to that step involves a drum scan, and I do consider cost there 🙂

    So, if I’m out and I’ll see something of interest and I’ll say, “let’s go take a look.” (This in it4slef depends on lots of issue. Am I late to a meeting/dressed in business clothes/etc.) Sometimes after some work I say, “eh” and move on. I try to go with an open mind. There’s a martial arts expression for this I forget.

    Last week I was driving past an old broken down house here in rural New Mexico as a winter storm was breaking. Seems as all the planets were aligning, so I went to take a look “expecting” to shoot a portrait of the house against the breaking storm. Instead, I found an interesting view looking though one of the windows into the interior. Took 3 frames, think I have something good. Takes me a LONG time to finish a roll. I really only push the button if I think the planets are aligning.

    If I get 3 -4 images a year I want to print and frame I’m doing pretty well. I have told friends and colleagues (usually machine gun digital shooters) that Ansel Adams said if you get 8 noteworthy images a year that’s pretty good. They usually respond, “Well he shot large format. He had to drive to the middle of nowhere to take a picture. He this/he that.” He also did this full time, and I do it as much as I can fit into my life.

    • Thanks. I think there’s no reason not to shoot/experiment more, but at the same time there’s also no reason to machine gun for the sake of it. The more you shoot, the less you eventually need to in order to make an idea work. You may well shoot more to change course and experiment, or shoot less because your focus tightens. I do both – depending on my objectives.

  8. Take a break and do something different? I’ve found mediation breaks or retreats very helpful in clearing out mental clutter and helping me to see more clearly exactly what it is that is drawing me to take a photograph of something. A meditation break also brings out colours; I see them just a little more distinctly though the effect fades without regular practice. Besides, I feel refreshed afterwards anyway. Just ideas …

  9. Paul Schofield says:

    I can relate to having peaks and troughs of activity – I put it down to getting bored easily. I’m in a bit of a slump at the moment after ditching digital completely for two years and just shooting film with an F3 and a Pentax 6×7. For a while, I found this experimental approach enthralling and I genuinely think that the slower, more considered process of film has helped me improve. By my standards, I was quite prolific for a while. Now I find the restrictions of manual lenses and film quite frustrating rather than creatively liberating but at least it has helped me get a better sense of what sort of images I want to produce. So its probably back to digital again with a few manual lenses in the bag for good measure. In the meantime, I’ve discovered my iPhone 5 camera and the interesting thing is that it has encouraged me to edit brutally (maybe its the ‘disposable’ quality of phone photography – the pictures don’t seem as precious as images taken on film – all that time and cash). I was moving towards this point anyway – relishing the curatorial process and feeling OK about binning the rubbish – but at the moment I love the process of blazing away with the phone and instantly editing down to maybe one or two keepers. It may be spray and pray but at the moment its helping me keep my hand in.

    • I think it’s not just time and cash but the intellectual investment, too: you’ve just got to put a lot more effort into getting a film image to work. Not just for the technical, mind you – the whole process benefits.

  10. Ming

    Nice images; the first one has a touch of Escher about it. I like experimenting, sometimes you luck in and get an image that prompts the addition of a different style to your toolkit. Variety is the spice and all that.

    I couldn’t agree more about the curating. These days I prune rather harshly as I don’t need to maintain an online collection and only ever print a few. For me, it’s all about those rare beasts – images that I’m satisfied with – and I guess it’s that scarcity that makes them special. I might add that I usually don’t shoot images without people in them and these people have their own agendas that don’t involve standing still while I take a photo. For instance, at the beach yesterday: kids, waves, changing light and a horse. I took 150+ shots, but will probably only keep 10 and half of those because friends and family ask (order) me to.

    A quick question for anyone reading this: How often do you achieve those images that make you go YES? The standouts that are – in my case – a large part of the urge to take photos. I get just a few every year.


    • The paradox is one has to shoot more to have more opportunities to make those images, but if you overshoot you may land up with fatigue either in curation or just not being able to see differently. I suppose the number of outstanding images for me is somewhere around 50 a year, but I shoot a few hundred thousand frames. Some of course don’t count because they’re for clients with a very narrow brief or they’re for testing/ calibration.

  11. My latest experiment is getting better at ETTR. However my cameras (RX100 and Ricoh GR) show an overexposed image while I am shooting ETTR. This is causing me to sometimes miss things in the frame and/or created images that are no longer balanced due to exposure… I am discarding a lot. I process them anyways and I am happy with the processing. Just not the overall image…

  12. I prefer the slow and steady approach. I’ve spent too much time trying to ‘rescue’ shots in post I’ve taken with uninspiring lighting and composition (which to be perfectly honest, is most of them) to bother pulling out the camera anymore if I’m not in an environment with interesting lighting.

    I can see the other side though. My wife, who doesn’t share my obsession for photography, takes far more photos than I do when on vacation. I feel like she does a better job documenting our trip whereas I was too focused on finding an interesting story to tell that perhaps wasn’t there.

    • I feel exactly like you do. I can go on a trip with my girl and take zero images, solely because nothing I see is interesting or “at the right light”. Then she gets mad at me for not documenting the trip… so I’ve learned to take a few more pictures for the documentation but always keeping an eye open for that “keeper”.

      Now if I am doing a photowalk it is definitely nice and slow, I try to take in all the sights, sounds, lights and shadows. For me to even lift the camera I have to see a bit of potential, otherwise like Ming said we just end up wasting time in front of the computer before finally hitting the delete key. Save some time on the front end, so I’m faster on the back end.

      • If she wants a shot…why doesn’t she take it?

      • Sounds familiar – long hours spent at the computer teach you to be more picky (also teach you what works and what doesn’t). I’ve learned to be a bit less proud, though. If the light isn’t there, I just try to get the best possible shot if the moment is worth documenting. I consider it my assignment during the travels, partly separate from my general photographic ambitions, but also complementary. It does make the girlfriend more patient if she knows we’ll have nice photos of our travels, and not just of that random guy who happened to step into nice light. I think I will also find the “documentary” personally valuable in the later years, while the pure “art” will hopefully be replaced by something better.

    • Documentary through blanket coverage perhaps?

  13. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I also go through long periods of doing nothing. Increasing the volume of shots on the days that I shoot is an objective, if for no other reason to make minor adjustments in the same subject and increase the chances of getting a sharper hand held photo. One thing that seems to happen to a lot of artists (not just photographers) is they find something that sells and get locked into it, like blue dogs or big eyes. That isn’t good for creativity, but you have to eat.

    • Nothing wrong with chasing that lsat 0.1% if you know you can get it – I will make a lot of images of one subject until I’m 100% happy, because there’s no excuse not to.

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        Well, that is what I need to push myself to do. By the way, what is your walk around/travel camera these days?

        • Travel is still a D810/Otus-based kit. Walk around…well, that’s what I’m still trying to solve 🙂

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            I hear you. I mainly use my D800 and 24-120, but sometimes I switch to a 50 f/1.4 G or 28 f/1.8 G. Most of my travel photography is walk around. It might be my whole life is walk around…

  14. So, I think both spray and pray and meticulousness have their time and place. I also think that they can happen concurrently and/or in waves.

    When I started my most recent interest in photography, my shooting was entirely (or mostly) spray and pray. It was those few lucky images (and knowing enough that my hit rate was ever so slightly higher than the people immediately around me) that kept my interest alive until I had a chance to really learn what I was doing. As I learn, I slow down more and more until I hit any kind of plateau. At that point one can either keep shooting images that are good enough for them or they can learn more and practice more. But sometimes a period of purposeful spray and pray and somewhat random experimentation can jumpstart one’s interest enough to climb out of that plateau. This has happened to me several times. I’ll go a month or two or more shooting almost nothing. Then I’ll force myself to shoot something. Sometimes it can be a specific project, which is slow and methodical. But sometimes one just needs to shoot, whatever it is, and find the image and/or images that keep them going.

    The other thing is that what constitutes spray and pray is somewhat relative. If you (Ming) and/or many of your readers were to go out and do your equivalent of sloppy, fast, experimental, prolific shooting, I’m sure your hit rate and quality of images would be vastly better than if I were to go out and do my equivalent of spray and pray. And my hit rate doing so is probably (hopefully) better than someone else with less experience than me. And theirs better than someone else and so on.

    Ultimately, I think that careful work should be the standard, but that sloppy/experimental work can be very useful in breaking out of a rut or keeping the fun alive. It can also lead to new techniques that you can later refine. I don’t think anyone should look at the two ways of shooting as a dichotomy.

  15. I am lucky enough to live in a country with long holidays, which I spend doing completely unrelated things, and I firmly believe that it increases my annual output at work. When circumstances allow, I suggest taking a week or two off to do something completely different (take a windsurfing course, renovate/furnish the new house, …). The brain will thank you with new ideas and perspectives – probably not immediately, but during the next intense photography periods.

    Another thought: it’s interesting how the way you describe your lack of (?) long term focus resembles an eager amateur with a lot to learn. How about starting a long term project with some grander purpose than paycheck or online attention (obviously not full time!) I have been toying with the idea (obviously in a much smaller scale than what you would be able to do), but always feel that I should rather practice the basics. It would probably force me to develop my style and skills more than short “burst” projects (travel documentary) but it is very difficult to maintain the focus long enough to even get started.

    • Part of the latter idea would be to shoot for a purpose that feels more important than one’s own need of development and immediate feedback from readers or clients. That could help to break out of the usual learning cycle.

    • I already have several, but they’re not mature yet (except Verticality and Dreamscape, both of which have been posted here).

  16. Under normal circumstances
    Listen to heart’s awareness
    Intuitive guide decisive moment
    Under threatening circumstances
    I choose to adapt with the flow, with priority to deliver and safety

    Sometime protocol and unexpected moment cornered my knowing mind to blank(eg.1.Sultan and neighbouring King walked at a pace faster than as usual)(eg.2.Standing nearest to a jovial mood woman Minister with my camera lowered, a ‘Penan’, no clue from where now stand two meters from her and demanding. Approaches that yield images really useful until outgrown, then not permanent, unsatisfactorily set-in and a sense of not able to control the yield flashed. May creativity of alternative way to capture arise and wholesome luck to stay breathing be abundant this very moment.

  17. Love that open window!

  18. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I find, that whenever I’m doing something a bit out of the ordinary my brain wants a rest earlier than usual.
    Like when I’m walking around and taking in a new place while travelling. After a few hours I need to sit down, preferably with a coffee, or tea, and just listen to the wind in the trees for an hour or so.
    A friend used to say: “C C C, coffee – culture – coffee”.

    I suppose my brain wants to absorb the new impressions and integrate them with previous experience.
    Cf. the research showing that learning is greater when you had a chance to sleep right on it. Consider all the times you easily solved a problem in the morning after worrying it a long evening before.

    I believe the brain needs time to absorb, to integrate, and then renew the soil new ideas sprout from.
    Perhaps one can learn to intuitively feel when the brain wants one to pause, or what kind of work – what way of photographing – best suits its momentary phase of development?

    • I agree – think of it as intuition and subconscious as opposed to trying to force a solution with the tools or method you remember (probably far less than your unconscious brain has actually absorbed over time).

      As for coffee…I seem to be out of beans. This is a major problem…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Reserve, or when travelling add, some time for leisure.
        Pack “The House at Pooh Corner” and “The Wind in the Willows” (or similar) plus a tin of your favourite tea.

        This might reduce your craving for coffee…
        Don’t forget that anything turnes to poison if over-consumed. 😉

  19. Alex Carnes says:

    Personally, I’ve always had to overcome a strange inhibition when I shoot; it’s worse when I shoot people, because, here in the UK at least, people really don’t seem to like having a camera pointed at them! But in general, I question what I’m doing to the extent that I end up missing things and just not shooting. I have a sort of creative megalomania in that I THINK I won’t see the value in any art that isn’t life-changing and mind blowing – which is odd, because when other people photograph fascinating snapshots of day-to-day life, I really enjoy the pictures. Before I came to photography, I was heavily into music, and my taste was the great towering masterpieces by Beethoven, Bach, Bruckner and Brahms, so I tend to imagine I need grand scale and great complexity, which I think inhibits me when I’m out and about with my camera. I’m still inclined to measure all art against the Missa solemnis, the Hammerklavier sonata, the C# minor quartet, or Brucker’s 8th, and consequently, I just don’t shoot enough. I’ve introduced a new strategy recently that seems to be helping: when I’m composing my shots in the field, or curating at my desk, I ask myself: if someone else had shot this, would you like it? My output seems to be increasing as a result! 🙂 Honestly, it’s still a bit of a struggle though; I can judge the quality of other people’s work far more easily than my own.

    • Objectivity is difficult. I see in my students either extreme leniency and making excuses for images – and at the other extreme end, almost not being able to keep anything at all. I think the latter is a much better place to be in than the former – but you still need to go out and produce first before discarding…

      • Alex Carnes says:

        Ming – do you find you need to come back to your images a day or so after shooting or can you see straight away which are the keepers? For some reason, my initial reaction is often one of irritation because my images don’t seem live up to expectation; but if I look again the following morning, I’m often much happier. I think with all art, it’s sometimes not immediately apparent what one has done!

        • I know if I got it, but those that are anything less than knock-it-out-of-the-park need a day or so. I’ll usually do several rounds of curation before getting down to the processing. Sometimes stuff makes it back in, too.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Taagen letter ( The fog is lifting )
      by Carl Nielsen, e.g.

  20. I have never really done much of the slow, calculated, iterative approach, and the few times I have haven’t yielded “keepers”. Largely that is due to the context of my shooting…out and about with my partner, where being there with her is the point, and photography is the bonus. I have as much time to grab an image as it takes her to walk off before I lose her in the crowd/to a shop, etc! Often it is a 3 frame burst, and move on. The few times I have tried to “camp” a scene, waiting for the subject to walk into it…nothing happens (on assignment in Prague was the first time I noticed this phenomenon, and the theory has been validated since!). Also, if I go into an expedition looking for certain shots, I am invariably disappointed. I find my yield is best when I “use the force”, just carrying on doing what we are doing and letting my subconscious alert me to the scene. The time, iteration and “calculation” is spent in post (which may not be a good thing, but is a process I really do enjoy, making me feel closer to the inner-traditional-media-artist I suspect I secretly want to be). Having said all that, there is plenty of time for me to come out of this “phase” and change the way I work, it is early days for me, and I do not see anything as set in stone. I occasionally wrangle with the “what sort of photographer am I/do I want to be” questions, get neurotic for a bit, and/or have a momentary attack of GAS, but then decide to just let things unfold as they will. This is a big reason I haven’t undertaken a Masterclass yet, I just don’t feel able to set “targets” beyond “get better” yet, and in my current “phase” I am not sure you would feel inclined to reinforce / encourage what I am doing!

    • I think you’ll be in the ‘use the force’ and ‘channel the scene’ mode for some time – that’s the whole Stage 3 concept – but eventually you’ll find little niggles that leave you wanting more…and then the control and staging and curation comes…

  21. What I like about your posts is that you’re good at expressing what most people “know” by practice but are not eloquent enough to put it in words, it’s the reason that I enjoy your most “philosophical” posts and sometimes reply to them.
    There are various sides to photographic “skill” or “art” (choose whatever word you like) and their differentiation doesn’t rely solely on how good a photographer one is but rather they reflect the personality of the photographer.
    Still, my opinion is that there are some basic conditions that have to be met in order for one to elevate his/her skill/art.
    Firstly, shoot as much as you like. Even when you don’t feel like it, shoot. Practice makes better, ten thousand hours blah blah blah.
    Secondly, undertake projects in general, and in particular projects that contradict your favorite field and assumptions.
    Thirdly, and I think that’s the most important condition, always do only a superficial curation of your pictures, mostly on technical considerations and let others do the serious culling.
    To conclude and try to answer your question, there’s not one single process to apply to all in order to elevate one’s skill/art but there are some guidelines that could help.
    As far as I’m concerned, being strictly an amateur and all, I only have kept my first condition so far, naively believing that in the future the rest will follow. But that could just be procrastination.
    P.S. 1 On a different note, I have discovered that the equipment I use can be liberating. I KNOW that a good photographer will create with anything in his/her hands but I need equipment that doesn’t hinder me in practicality or quality.
    P.S. 2 I think I stayed relevant to your post, but I’m not so sure now, it’s just that when I read it, these thoughts came into my mind.

    • Thank you. I agree with your first two points, but I’m not sure about letting others do the culling…how can they know what you intended? Input and opinion is always useful, but remember *you* are the creator…

      • My view here is based on the assumption, that creativity is an instinctive process. Intention is driven from inside, and whatever I create might be art or not, still I WANT to do it. But art is always in the eyes of the beholder. If I expose my creativeness to others it’s for the sole reason of their opinion. Otherwise I could create a ton of personal work and delete it before I die. Who would know If I’m an artist or not? And would i care about it?

        • That’s a much deeper question. I’d actually question that if you must show your work to justify what you do, then is it for recognition or for the art? If it’s for the sake of creating, then the satisfaction comes internally from the act and you don’t really care what others think. I’ve got a lot of images I make for myself because I’m compelled to, and enjoy both process and output, but I never show them to the public – I honestly don’t see the need.

          • (smiles…)
            If I could disentangle the need to be recognized from the drive to create and see what is what, I’d be a much wiser human, if human at all 🙂 This is how deep this question is.
            I think we get satisfaction from both. I enjoy looking at a photograph I took, because it speaks selfishly to me, it pleases my inner aesthetics if you like. But when/if the same picture gets a distinction from others I feel more. After all, I’m only human…
            P.S. I didn’t use the word “instinctively” lightly, “subconsciously” might be a better substitute.

  22. Excellent article, thank you. I recently looked at your Flickr stream and found it a bit depressing – you are both prolific and maintain very high quality. I could fill a screen grid with quality images, but just your recent images scroll down and down and down with no quality reduction!

    I shoot for fun and have come to realise I need to shoot as regularly as I can, but not shoot too many frames. Too many and the post processing and curation becomes overwhelming, a chore and ultimately I break the feedback loop that is part of the appeal. Too little shooting and my ideas don’t work and I have to rediscover what I can do.

    As a reader of the site I sometimes fear you are too prolific. You seem to me to be a high achiever who needs to keep experimenting to retain your interest. I see this in your move away from reviews, gear experimentation, developing new looks / processing styles and unwillingness to compromise on commercial shoots you describe. I come for the articles and photos so don’t care what gear you use. I do fear that one day photography itself will no longer pique your interest and readers will loose you to something else. Part of me believes this will happen, so I’m enjoying as much of what you post as I can in the meantime.

    • The funny thing is that I’m now curating more tightly than ever; perhaps that’s what creates that impression? Reality is we all need inspiration – I’m inspired by the results, the tools are part of the process, but if I do eventually stop it’ll be because of the trolls and other negative fallout…

  23. I think I get better shots when I go out with a specific subject in mind, especially if I’m going to a specific place for the sole purpose of taking photos, even if it’s something as simple as “on the way home from work I want to capture building xx in early twilight”. My keeper rate is fairly low as a percentage, but I do generally get what I’m looking for.

    If I go out “for experimentation” or just carry a camera with me during day to day life, I take a smaller number of shots, but a much broader range of subjects, and it’s pretty unpredictable whether I’ll come back with anything I like. More often, I’ll make of note of photos that almost worked, in order to go back to the same place another time and try again. I’ve realised this is the same even on holiday, I’m happier with my photos if I visit a place at least twice, once to get an impression and play around a bit, and then to go back with a goal in mind.

    So I think the two approaches are both necessary, just not at the same time, or I get confused….I even try to keep my cameras separate in my mind – one is for deliberate, methodical photography; the other is for carrying with me everywhere and experimenting. But, that might be because I don’t yet have the hardwired instincts to respond quickly to the unexpected…

    PS: for those 6,000 Melbourne shots, approximately how long do you spend curating them, both in terms of actual work hours, and elapsed time after the trip until you have your final selections? I’m trying to review my curation workflows, and looking for some benchmark figures 🙂

    • I think experimentation of any kind will always result in a low keeper rate. And it’s just as important to know what works as what doesn’t, and why it doesn’t. Such is the nature of the game. As for Melbourne – not long; I had to do it as part of the last day of teaching at the workshop 🙂

      • You reviewed 6,000 photos in a day, whilst running a workshop!? I’m almost as impressed by that as I am by the photos you post here! The keeper rate per se is not so important to me, unless I’m obviously taking hundreds of shots and *not* getting the one I want, but I’m finding increased volume makes it harder for me to filter my own work quickly, which is gradually making me slower and slower to come up with finished albums / sets of photos….

        • Sorry, I wasn’t clear: I did that during the last day, live, for the postprocessing/ critique session. 6000>10.

          • Ah, thanks, I see! But now I’m curious, does that mean the other 5,990 are of no further use to you at all? Or just that they weren’t relevant for that workshop session? I’d imagined that from that 6,000 you’d have multiple sets / albums around different themes (as with the Havana and NZ photoessays you’ve posted here). This is generally what I try to achieve (not always successfully) with my travel photography.

  24. If you’re on a 4-day time limit to complete a project, the slow considered approach may not be a luxury you can afford. If you have a month, things may look very different — though that too in itself can induce laziness. In short, time constraints (at least for me) are an important variable. That’s where and why, I guess, pros have a significant edge on amateurs: time allocation, i.e. more time to be be obsessive. But I imagine burn-out is a major issue.

    • Agreed – but as an amateur, you can always keep the project burning for another weekend. As you say, that’s not the case if you’re on assignment…

      • Depends of course where your project is. If it’s outside your doorstep, yes. If it’s an air flight away, not viable — at least not for me.

  25. Ming, I shoot as a learning amateur – photography is my hobby and helps to step me out of my daily work and into different thought processes and routines, which is therapeutic for me.

    One of the things that attracted me to shooting Pentax DSLRs was the wide availability of old lenses that are relatively inexpensive, and have different ways of ‘drawing’ the image – either via the glass set up, or the coatings, or the aperture blades or focal length etc. The same sorts of options are of course available with Nikon and Leica bodies, and with mirrorless cameras and adaptors to use old lenses.

    Using old lenses with particular drawing styles, and limitations is an interesting challenge – but I enjoy it. I of course own some very good modern lens that I use often when I am wanting the images they enable, but sometimes I will just grab an old lens (which will be manual focus) and put it on the camera for a day or a week. I find the challenge refreshing, and also that it makes me think differently, which is all part of the fun.

    Just food for thought for you following this reflective article.

    • I think we all go through that experimentation stage for a while, until we discover which kind of rendering style suits our work/personality the best; I certainly did. But I’ve now come to the point where I want my capture system – cameras and lenses – to be as transparent as possible, so the nuances of composition, light and subject come through in full.

  26. Richard Papp says:

    Hi Ming, This article seems to have disappeared from your site … link does not resolve. Cheers Richard


  1. […] I suppose it’s therefore also somewhat fitting (and perhaps a touch ironic) that I celebrate being prolific by discussing the opposite. It seems it’s simpler to do it than talk about it, but equally […]

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