The more you shoot, the harder it gets

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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

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Comments

  1. Another aspect of raising the bar is that I’ve started appreciating you recent work much more 🙂

  2. I have been thinking this for awhile. Really well said.

  3. Love this! It’s a struggle. But I stay true to what I believe – to never take a photograph that I’ve seen before, let alone one that I already made. Beautiful stories happen in front of us every day. I just keep on reminding myself to keep my eyes open and to do my best to capture it in a unique way.

    • I used to think this was easy – but with everybody now recoding everything, you’re up against the sheer weight of statistics…

      • I agree. I think the technology aspect nowadays allows everybody to achieve greater things and ideas are more likely to succeed. In my honest opinion, it’s a luxury. Content still wins and without it – game over.

  4. Yes, “the older you get, the less you know.”

    God’s little rub on us (if one believes in that sort of thing).

    • Or was it the more you know, the less certain you are? (The more you know, the more you think you know?)

    • That’s due to memory loss. (joking).
      I totally agree. Unfortunately many people getting old, me included, have sometimes or often the feeling that they know it all, and don’t pay attention, out of contempt, to the younger ones, their thinking and actions.
      There are some young people, say under 40, that are doing wonderful things, and are progressing way above anything we did and will do. It is logical, they grew in a more advanced world than we did. They are lights in the darkness of these crazy times, where populism and intolerance are coming back from the past.

  5. I read your article with interest, but I have a different take on the topic. For one, I am not a professional photographer, and that by choice. Nevertheless, I do a lot of photography because I like to.

    That being said, I don’t find that the better I get at photography, the harder it is to please myself, and perhaps I can explain why I find this so. The key to my approach is “process,” the full immersion in the process of photographing, rather than focusing on the resulting photos or on expectations. Provided that it is done properly (and provided process that is my focus), being immersed in the process, then the results, however repetitive they may appear (or be as to subject matter), the final photo still has a freshness of the moment that satisfies me.

    It is the freshness that is important, and that always comes from attention to the present moment (IMO), and not from any amount of preparation, although I have done my homework. Of course, for me, I mix photography with meditation. We have run a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center since the 1980s, so I have over 40 years of meditation training of one kind or another.

    The particular type of meditation I use with photography is called Lhaktong in Tibetan, and it is a special type of Vipassana Meditation that is part of what is called Mahamudra Meditation. In English this is called Insight Meditation, of which there are many kinds. Anyway, its virtue is that it is non-dualistic, meaning full immersion in the moment to the exclusion of self-consciousness. I find that when fully immersed and resting in that immersion, whatever I photograph has, as mentioned, a certain freshness that (at least to my eyes) is satisfying, no matter how many times I photograph the same subject.

    To repeat: the key the photography I do (close-up), in my opinion, is attention (and immersion) in the process of photography, and allowing the mind to fully rest in the process. I find that, if in that frame of mind, the results take care of themselves and have a certain freshness, if only to my eyes.

    • Let’s look at this another way: are you just as satisfied when you look at current and earlier images? Or do you feel happier about the later ones? If the latter, then the bar has moved (but perhaps your skill level has also outrun your expectation threshold).

      • The operative word in your response, for me, is “expectation.” Since I do a lot of focus-stacking, often over 100 layers for a single image, I have a lot of time for immersion into the entire process. The more I am about the process, the more the results improve (satisfy), so, yes, there is improvement of the resulting photos, over time. However, if I concentrate primarily on the results, instead of the process, they don’t improve (satisfy) as much. Merging with the process and allowing myself to rest in that seems to allow my mind to open and for more and more of what is “beautiful” about the subject (more compositions, etc.) to appear. The “beauty” in what appears through relaxing in the process is a way in, a way into what I could only call a more or timeless, unified, or non-dualistic state, which (somehow) rubs off on the resulting photos. Hard to put into words, but that is the idea.

        • Interesting. I have to work the other way around: too much process and the images lack something. But 100 layers – you have far more patience than I! Perhaps I am not using enough source files 😛

          • Perhaps the word “process” is getting in the way here. By “process,” I mean something like getting “in the zone,” if you are using the word process to mean “mundane” or rule-ridden. Let me approach this from another angle. When I go out to photograph (in the studio, it is much the same), it usually takes me some time before I synch with the moment, until something beautiful catches my eye, after which (usually) that moment of insight (or deeper relaxation) opens up the floodgates, and more and more I can see the beauty in everything. That is what I intended that word process to mean, the process of photographing rather than any expectations on results. I may not have communicated it well.

            • Makes sense when you put it this way. I also take it that means there are days you just don’t get into the zone at all?

              • Days when I don’t make the zone? Sure, but not so much. It’s not linear. The main reason I photograph IS the zone. I don’t have clients to satisfy. However, it is not quite as simple as that, either. To make a long story, short: years ago, during a hard time for me (and my family) financially, I took to nature photography (which I had done as a kid) as a way to get away from the other concerns. For six months straight, unless it was raining, I was out before dawn watching the sun come up, soaking wet and crawling around in the fields doing close-up and macro photography. Six months straight. During that time, something happened with my meditation training, such that, along with seeing the subject through the lens, I realized that the “Seeing” itself was as important as any object I was looking at. In other words, I was also seeing the Seeing (and finding rest in that), not just at the bug or plant I was photographing. And when I did, I achieved a sense of luminous clarity I previously was unaware of. I became addicted (so to speak) to the clarity, such that if I wanted this particular clarity, I had to grab a camera and go photograph. In fact, it took me about a year to separate the new-found clarity from the process of photographing, so that I could achieve in other things that I did in life the same kind of joy and concentration I was finding in photography. Again: hard to put into words, but I am trying to. The particular clarity is a form of “realization,” are permanent, so it is not often that I don’t reach the zone.

  6. Ming, yet another very fascinating and thought provoking post from you. There is certain Zen in it. At least as far as my very limited understanding of Zen goes. In one sentence – if you’re one with your gear, one with yourself and your ideas, and one with the surroundings – you’d be likely to produce a good photograph. If something is bothering you, be it some ergonomic issue or something on your mind/soul that throws you off-balance – it just won’t go.

    My current most difficult struggle is that of emotion. I feel emotion, I try to photograph so as to reflect it, and when I get down to processing, I oftentimes still remember that emotion. The problem – it does not pinch my viewers… And after a while, usually, relatively short while, I forget and then I cannot recreate that emotion, and so I might edit and arrive at different version of the edited image that is rather far from the original idea… All in all, much struggle in a good sense of the word “struggle” – ultimately it lets me escape away from my daily routine and my main profession by which I earn my living – programming, which I love dearly but which is total opposite of photography for me.

    Sorry for the rant… Once again – many thanks for keeping me on the bounce, so to say.

    • All about finding the zone. Ergonomics are less of an issue than creative or subject matter issues: if you know the result is already a bit compromised before you shoot, then you simply tend not to because you also know the result isn’t really going to satisfy you; like a little stone in your shoe, eventually there will be blood… 🙂

      Emotion: maybe it simply isn’t strong enough for all images? Or it’s another thing you’re forcing rather rather than reacting to when you find it?

  7. Ming,
    A lot of this, I think, depends on how much and how often you shoot. I haven’t really had the the opportunity to shoot properly for several months. It would be a luxury (for me) to shoot every day and a dream to be able to shoot non-stop in a place you love for weeks or months on end. That said, what I do find is when I do get a chance to pick up a camera, I find myself going in the opposite direction, i.e. shooting intensively for a short period (of say 5 days) and finding that this is so easy and wishing I had even more time as the days go by. I guess on some level it corroborates what you’re saying. In a way, it’s the difference between being an amateur and a pro.

    • I think it also depends on not just how often but what you shoot, too – it’s worse if you’re always on the same subject matter because it’s simply easier to explore and exhaust all variations. I suspect it’d be a lot easier for me to make a motorsport image I find interesting as opposed to a watch image, for instance.

      Your finding a 5-day shooting break intensely creative actually supports this theory: it’s a break from what you normally do. If you only shot, then it might not be so fluid by day 30 or 40…

      • If you feel you’re still getting results you’re happy with and have not exhausted all your creative juices from shooting the same subject, why change? Plenty of time to explore other places, genres, subjects, styles etc. In fact, I’d go far as to say that you should try to extract as much as you can from what works for you, and when you hit a creativity threshold it’s time to move on and rethink. If you’re approaching that stage in your development, it can be reassuring to know that you can diversify. If you’ve already tried “everything” so to speak, that could be depressing and time to focus more on your career as an accountant! 🙂

        • A good question, and one I think that brokers the whole specialist vs generalist argument: I believe that to be a good specialist, you need to be a good generalist so that you have the knowledge and experience to apply to the edge cases. On top of that, advances in one field are often inspired by approaches from other fields.

          Accounting: been there, done that, wanted to poke my eyeballs out with chopsticks. Not only is it boring, but you only get to play with somebody else’s money. 🙂

          • I’m trying to think of the great photographers (not that they need to be the ultimate reference point) and I’m not sure many fit into the generalist camp. Many, if not almost all, are specialists — at least in terms of the kind of stuff I like to shoot.

            • They landed up being specialists, of course. How did they know what they wanted to shoot before trying several things? Kubrick was a PJ before a filmmaker, for example. Salgado’s people work is probably his strongest, but it’s also clear he’s shot landscape (Genesis) and industrial stuff (Workers, channel tunnel project) – see what I mean?

              • I’m not sure Salgado’s landscape stuff is evidence of stronger people photography. It’s highly speculative to suggest that there’s a link. For what it’s worth, my hunch is that the link is very tenuous.

                • It’s not: but the point is he still tried it (and probably decided he was better at shooting people) – who’s to say how much of the environmental/contextual element came out of that work?

                  • Salgado – at least in his published work – sees himself as a documentarian/photojournalist, returning again and again to issues of humanity and the environment, human injustice and suffering. “Genisis” is his response to what he has seen. Wenders’ movie makes this clear. Many of the photographers we revere seem more driven by their subjects than by photography itself. Sometimes by a kind of aesthetic monomania.

  8. Wolfgang T. says:

    In our world today, with Millions of breath taking pictures, nobody looks to them longer then a few seconds. Do you know how much photos you shot and how often did you look at them after development. I think here is the problem! People are blunted looking at pictures, they never see the quality behind the work.So I can say I do the job only for my Satisfaction, thats all not more and not less.

  9. Another, good, robust and thought provoking piece Ming, thank you.

    I think some of that fact that improvement brings harder work, is mechanical… like the racing driver seaching for the final 10th of a second, is working harder, to get less, than they were when they were a second off the pace and a class novice – I think the initial gains and improvements in photography come easier than the later ones. (Not that I claim to have reached them you understand)

    Also of course, with the web… more people see our shots and offer feedback, much of which can be conflicting

    FWIW, I think each of us, owes it to ourselves to be honest… what did we see, and how did we want to portray what we saw in the final image?

    Did we manage it?

    I feel this way, because I feel that having creative control of the output by understanding the input is an important skill, and one that we will always be learning (well I will anyway!)

    I guess that in one context or another, we’ve all had a shot that the audience likes waaaaay more than we did… it’s good the audience likes it and we like the fact that they do, but it somehow feels a little fake, no?

    • Thanks Adam. No question: diminishing returns is present in everything. But I’ve seen and talked to enough talented (and sometimes very successful) photographers claim they know nothing and are nowhere artistically, and others who claim to have conquered all but have some glaring gaps – go figure 🙂

      Photograph, like all art, is so subjective that only we can be the final arbiter of good or bad – especially if we are shooting for ourselves. As for audience reactions – sometimes I wonder how much of it is because they simply haven’t developed that ability to objectively assess, or worse, are afraid to go against popular opinion? 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I think it’s because people start with “opinions” and if they don’t check themselves, they begin to believe that their opinions are the only valid ones. And although I’ve never seen any statistics on it, I suspect that most people are afraid to go against popular opinion. The tragic aspect of that is that “opinions” are a peculiar phenomenon, poorly understood – they can provide a platform for discussion, amongst reasonable people – but all too often, people who are less reasonable seem to think they have the right to belt you over the head with their opinions, while denying you the right to express yours, or – horror! – override theirs with yours! It’s all nonsense – opinions can never be “right” OR “wrong” – they simply agree or differ.

        The role of a “true critic” is to provide an expert appraisal – unfortunately all too often, critics live up to the mantra that “those who can, do – those who can’t, criticise” – it’s one of life’s sweet ironies that finding a “true critic” is about as hard as finding a “true artist”.

        If we are shooting for ourselves, we can generally appraise whether we achieved our goal and approve of the result.

        Other people can’t climb into our heads, though, so they have no idea what we were trying to achieve and will apply their own measures to appraise our photos. That can be – and often is – a bitter experience. It always reminds me of the “war” that broke out between the French Academy and the Impressionists, over the notion that shadows should be black (the official line of the French Academy) or whether, instead, they should be blue, taking their colourings from the sky (as the Impressionists believed).

        • “…it’s one of life’s sweet ironies that finding a “true critic” is about as hard as finding a “true artist”.”
          Now that you mention, I wonder if they may be one and the same in some ways. Both require expertise and skill…

          “Other people can’t climb into our heads, though, so they have no idea what we were trying to achieve and will apply their own measures to appraise our photos. “
          But some of that is our responsibility, too: we need to adequately communicate our ideas using the available tools and means common to both creator and audience, otherwise it’s all lost 🙂

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            The litmus test for a “true critic” is whether the experience leads you to a higher level in your work.

            And yes, I agree with your second observation – although at times the “audience” is too self-obsessed or too obtuse to see what you’re seeking to communicate, those people should be the exception. I’m not at all sure why we’re saying such things in this context – I am constantly left spellbound by your work! 🙂

  10. The kind of photography I do (street/urban) is all about the moment, so I can’t really relate on shooting 1 or 100 photos and find the right one among them. It’s usually 1 shot and that’s it, it’s my job to have it right 🙂

    However, I totally agree on the main topic of this post. But I’d say this situation is a good thing. It means that you’re raising the bar as a photographer, you’re raising your skill after each shot you’ve shot, and each shot you’ve rejected later on. You get harder to satisfy, it means you have to get better on the field, whatever you shoot. Being critical on himself is a must, but we also must try not to be overcritical 🙂

    I really prefer to be “eternally unsatisfied” with my work and progress, rather than staying in my confort zone and keep being mediocre.

    • We need the near misses and the practice to train for the critical shot, I think. Sometimes you get one chance. Sometimes, more. Sometimes, situations develop and get better…

  11. you have a point here. I recall, when I still was taking photographs for a living, the more I knew about the craft, the more I was aware of the shortcomings of my own work.

  12. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Is part of it the fact you set such a high standard, and you’re very demanding in relation to your own work? Of course that’s more necessary in your case, because you are such a highly rated professional photographer. While that doesn’t make it easier for you, it does help to understand what you mean.
    If you will forgive me for suggesting it, you are rather harsh on yourself. I derive enormous pleasure from studying all of the photos you post on this blog, and if you were to ask me what you could or should do to improve them, I’d be at a loss for words – unusual, for me 🙂

    • I don’t know – well, perhaps it’s one of those self-reinforcing cycles: you have to be demanding to be good? That, and the need to stay competitive by being good, rather than the political games most of the industry here seems to enjoy playing…

  13. I can relate to many things in life, great article!

  14. Anatoly Loshmanov says:

    Thanks for article. I agree 100%. This is true not only in photography.

  15. Feels like these sentences contradict: “Yet, the one that survives curation is often one of, if not the first image that we shot.” And: “I tend to look at the sets in reverse: the last one is usually the one I want, because I stop when I know I’ve got the shot.”

    • They don’t, because if you curate immediately after shooting – you think you got it with the last shot. But with the benefit of some sitting time, it’s usually the first one you prefer.

  16. Great read and beautiful photo.

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  1. […] morning when I came to work, I read Ming Thein’s blog for a few minutes (this article in case you’re interested), and then I decided to take a photo of my work […]

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