I’ll admit first off that this sentence is both somewhat disingenuous and incomplete: the more you shoot, the harder it gets to make something you’re happy with. Still confused? How about now: the more you shoot seriously, the harder it gets to make something you’re happy with. No, it’s not clickbait: it’s a personal observation from my own photography. And I think it’s both a good thing and a good barometer of whether the work you’re producing is really for you, or for somebody else. Knowing the normal demographics of this audience, the majority of readers are producing work purely for themselves – not for a client or crowd. (The actual/personal reasons for the production of images may be something else entirely, of course; none of us are beyond the siren’s lure of social validation and fame.)
I actually think the reason is analogous it’s the nature of the acquisition of knowledge: the more you know, the less certain you are. Rather: the more certain of the uncertainties one becomes; awareness of the limitations of knowledge and definition become clear. From a photographic analogy, once we’ve passed the various thresholds of getting the technical basics right (exposure, focus, shot discipline etc.) and the point where we can make the images we want to make more or less most of the time – then two things happen. We start to think far more about the subjective representation of a scene, our own subject and aesthetic biases – there’s no right or wrong. Worse still, the only way to get some sort of certainty over one’s own preferences is to experiment and expose yourself to a wide variety of interpretations, during the course of which it’s quite likely that you’re going to land up more confused than ever.
Assuming something passes the minimum bar of catching your interest – and you stop to photograph it, or you actively seek to photograph it – how many times is a single photo enough? How many times do we make variations of a scene or subject ‘just in case’ or because we see other alternatives? Providing the opportunity isn’t a transient and unrepeatable one – I think the answer is probably almost always. Yet, the one that survives curation is often one of, if not the first image that we shot. (At least, this is the case for me; I can almost always see at least three or four possible compositions, in the same focal length; much worse if it’s a zoom). There are two things happening here: the good news is that one’s vision is ‘open’ – we are hopefully noticing and making full use of all of the elements in the scene as given to us, but not allowing ourselves to get overly distracted.
On the other hand, being too easily distracted is the possible result: we land up ignoring our instincts. And in photography, instinct is the bit that not tells you when to push the shutter, but the sixth sense that determines if an image is balanced, or if there’s that extra something to raise the image to the next level. Soul, I suppose – but in the eyes of the beholder. The first image we shoot represents our instinctive reaction to the scene and subject elements, which in turn includes all of our own subconscious preferences, biases and experiences.
Here’s the kicker: it isn’t harder to make a ‘good enough’ image, or any image at all – if anything, that’s too easy. It isn’t even hard to curate out; that just requires a bit of space and objectivity after the capture. What is harder is making a different and therefore outstanding image to anything you’ve previously done. For obvious reasons, the more you shoot – especially a single subject or location – the harder it is to not repeat yourself. Worse, the more practice we get at a certain genre or subject, the more our compositions and presentations tend to be self-similar: this is of course the development and maturation of a personal style. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to pigeonhole oneself into making images that are too similar. I think of it as the autopilot factor: the more you do something, the easier it becomes to repeat, but simultaneously more difficult to break out of habit.
For obvious reasons, this is antithetical to creativity. We essentially need to repeat a task under similar but slightly varied conditions in order to master that task to the level at which we can perform the mechanical execution portion on autopilot, and have enough mental bandwidth remaining to insert some variety and personal interpretation into the result. Yet we must not repeat it so often or in so similar a manner as to result in a foregone conclusion, which results in a boring, if consistent, presentation.
It’s one of the reasons why my own photography can come across as somewhat schizophrenic at times: I shoot a very wide variety of subject matter and styles, to the point that I’ve been accused of having no real focus or discipline. I actually strongly believe that this is the only way to photograph in a manner that’s sustainable and fosters personal creative development. We must still shoot/compose with regularity, and enough regularity that we’re not fumbling for a baseline. But we must have enough perturbation in the stimulation so that it doesn’t become repetitive and our brains don’t tune out and go into automatic. I don’t think the continuum works: I’ll either do tonally controlled and precise B&W or color-driven, shallow DOF and timing/human-driven cinematic: not both, and not something in the middle, because it would almost certainly land up being very poorly defined conceptually and an ugly compromise. But at the same time, I’ll switch between the two on the same shoot – even if I don’t land up submitting one of the groups to the end client or keeping them in my final curation, it forces me to reconsider the scene from a slightly different interpretation – which in turn can lead to me finding a better or previously unseen perspective for the other style/objective.
By the same token, if I see something on a shoot that doesn’t fit the brief – I’ll still shoot it anyway. Sometimes having that little break can be both good training for one’s eyes and force a different perspective later – even if it’s only a subconscious nudge. I actually think that’s also the best approach to general ‘flaneur’ or exploratory photography too – the kind of thing where you travel without a specific shot list – it’s still important to have at least a coherent overarching idea in mind, to which one tries to adhere – but consciously deviates for variety. I think of it as having your eyes open to serendipity, which of course can’t be forced – you can’t look for the unexpected or unpredictable, because by definition – that’s impossible.
There’s one last key to this puzzle: stop when you know you’ve got the shot. That may be after one, or after one hundred. You might not get there, and you might actually need to acknowledge that the shot you had in mind might be impossible. A failure provides information about one’s limitations (or the limitations of situation or hardware, too). It also makes post-curation much, much faster. For my own work, I tend to look at the sets in reverse: with experience and/or immediate curation, the last one is usually the one I want, because I stop when I know I’ve got the shot (but I’ll of course check the first image, too – just in case). Hit the mental reset, clear your eyes, and start looking afresh – you never know when the unexpected element is going to be the one that makes the shot. MT
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
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