A small change in workflow…

H51-B0021192 copy _8B40361 copy

H51-B0021289 copy H51-B0021201 copy

…can yield surprisingly major results. Think of this post as something of a continuation of the previous On Assignment; the reasons why will become apparent shortly. Over the last year or so – I think coinciding with switching to Hasselblad – my shooting/curating workflow has become quite different, and I think the shift in my output has as much to do with the change in process as hardware. In some ways, the change is due to hardware limitations – but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I’ve always done in the past is some level of during-shoot curation; both for technical qualities (exposure, sharpness etc.) and aesthetic/ creative ones. During personal or teaching outings, I’d be much more disciplined and ruthless in throwing away what I’d consider marginal images; for client work, somewhat more relaxed – keeping doubles and variations just in case (which has proven fortuitous in the past).

What the Hasselblad changed was that review and checking critical sharpness was not quite instant; and the H5D-generation of LCD panels left quite a lot to be desired compared to say the Nikons, Olympus’s and late-Leicas. You simply couldn’t use them for anything more than confirming a) an image had been taken; b) some overall gross composition features; c) checking exposure by histogram. In no way is the preview image representative of the information contained; I learned very quickly that the only way to really assess one of those images was with a proper monitor.

Though the H5D (and later generations) do wireless tethering to an iPhone or iPad and enable viewing of full resolution RAW images, it’s just slow and not really practical outside a studio environment. Certainly not if you’re working solo in the field and have to work quickly. A lot of images I thought worked at the time of capture simply didn’t afterwards; there was a bit too much transparency and not enough ambiguity to let the idea dominate (usually, more abstract or graphic images). Conversely, there were also a lot of images that worked which I wasn’t sure about in the field, but for the same reasons: that extra layer of transparency or bit extra in dynamic range just made the reproduction close enough to reality to be convincing. Ergo: no more field curation, at the risk of losing otherwise good images in favour of perhaps not so good ones.

Between the hardware change and a shift in balance of shooting towards more client work, I seem to have organically shifted towards a no-deletion policy; I shoot, and still check exposure with the grip histogram (or LCD RGB and sharpness at focus point for critical images) – but I no longer delete in camera unless they’re really obvious misses (focus, exposure, accidental triggering/ bad timing). Restated simply: the creative curation part has now been completely separated from shooting, allowing less gap between observation periods and a lower chance of missing something. You’re no longer thinking about the previous shot and instead focused on the next one. It isn’t quite the same as what you do when you’re starting out or using a new/unfamiliar piece of hardware; in those situations, we keep everything because we’re simply not confident enough to assess in-camera. And you’re still probably spending quite a bit of time and concentration examining the screen to try to determine if something is at all amiss.

What I wasn’t expecting is that despite the H files being significantly larger than the Nikons, I’ve actually got less total data volume to go through, even though I’m curating in camera with the Nikons. It’s probably a direct side benefit of concentrating more on the next shot: less reactiveness, more anticipation, and fewer ‘safety’ shots – and no more burst gunning; there simply is no point with. Medium format cameras are really only single-shot devices, and that forces you to choose the moment of release well. End result: the whole editing process (curation, processing and final re-curation) is now much faster, despite having larger, higher quality files. And on top of that, I think the creative output is better.

Why? Because it’s not just the during-capture priorities and mindset that’s changed for me; nor is it solely because I have to concentrate on making the one shot work. Rather it’s because there’s an enforced separation between capture and curation. I’m no longer trying to assess an image immediately after capture relative to the rest of the set that I’d also just shot – I’m both focusing 100% on the next image, and also clearing my mind to ‘forget’ the image before looking at it again to assess.

There’s also one more extremely stupid behaviour I’m surprised I hadn’t realised (and nobody called me out on): firstly, it make no sense to attempt to assess an image relative to the images you’ve just shot, because you’re not going to be objective about any of them. But secondly, and more importantly, you’re also effectively trying to assess the image you just shot against the future images you’re going to shoot in the same set or job – this is clearly impossible to do until the set is complete. Furthermore, you never know which of the individually perhaps not so strong images become valuable, and even necessary, once a set is viewed in totality. So, on top of objectivity, we also gain relativity – and the ability to sequence. The only thing is it still remains necessary to periodically ‘view the take’ so that you know which images are missing from the storyline.

The reason I’ve singled out the four images above from yesterday’s post is because this set didn’t make my first pass curation, immediately after the shoot. But in hindsight, and several days later, I put them back in the final set because I felt two of them (the orange geometric ones) covered interpretations of the subject that were more abstract and unusual – and not covered elsewhere. The lobby interior with the sofa foreground proved to be much more interesting than the more standard angle including floor, or the perspective corrected angle from the floor (but with less floor). Finally, the ‘cloud hat’ is a nice interaction with the environment: tall, somewhat abstract, but with the cloud raised over the peak, still suggestive of a strong building that affects its surroundings. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. I’m an infrequent visitor here, and I do like your workflow enough to have purchased it last year.

    If I had known you were culling in camera I would have told you to stop.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a great shooter by any measure, and I’m a worse editor. But, I came up on film — 24 exposures most of the time, 36 when lucky. I always assumed you did too and were the slow and methodical type.

    I’m glad the Hassy slowed you down. 🙂

    • I culled two things: the obvious misses (e.g. timing off, exposure off, out of focus etc.) and those experiments which didn’t work – it may well be an experience thing that leads to fewer failed experiments as much as anything…

  2. I guess I’ve always been a little contrary to the prevailing digital “wisdom” of the moment. Starting out 40 odd years shooting with slides and when there was no way to check on the spot, I never changed that habit when I switched to digital in 2010 (yeah, always the late adaptor). Never “chimped”, never look at my LCD, just through the viewfinder. The major change since switching to digital (Olympus) has been adjusting the exposure in camera based on the what I see in the viewfinder (and histogram). Curation comes later, sometimes as long as a few days after shooting depending on what’s going go. I find the distance in time from the actual shoot gives me some perspective and emotional distance from the heat of the shoot as I’m often doing documentary/photo journalism in intense situations and can get caught up in it emotionally. Works for me, but of course that may not be so for others.

    • My sole rationale for looking now boils down to this: what if you made an avoidable mistake that ruined a shot that could have been repeated/fixed then and there?

      • Yes, of course that is a good reason for looking if the situation permits, but for me these days, I’m often running/moving as fast as I can (which to be honest at 72 years old is not so fast as it used to be) to stay ahead of a march or get into position for a shot or being told by the authorities to move along, so there’s little time to look. The downsides of this approach are, as you say, avoidable mistakes and hundreds of files to sort through as I tend to shoot a lot of any one scene to make sure I got it.

  3. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Of course you are familiar with name Julius Shulman. Good example of careful preparation, waiting for right light, couple shots per take and presto. No need for super high ISO or n-picts per second.

    • Depends on your subject, but I generally agree – you can shoot documentary just fine (but will need higher ISOs in the dark) – see the Thaipusam stuff…

  4. Casey Bryant says:

    Your new methodology reminds me of mindfulness meditation. Indeed, I see parallels in the benefits you’ve described here. Who knew that ‘chimping’ could potentially be so counterproductive to photographic flow? Thanks for sharing–this is something we all could benefit from trying.

    • I think the tricky part is balancing off the counterproductive ‘second guessing’ aspects against not taking advantage of the technology to avoid obvious misses – if focus is slightly off on a static subject or exposure is cooked, it would be silly not to shoot again, for instance.

  5. Makes a lot of sense.

  6. Kudos for candor on the hardware limitations. A bit of strategic input which bodes well for future iterations, yes?

  7. nopriors says:

    Very nice article Ming. Many times I will go out at imagine I only have a roll of 24. Or I will go farther and imagine I only have four shots left on a roll. Of course my application is for only the joy of creativity and love of the subject and the equipment.

  8. This makes a lot of sense. While shooting film, I take less frames and have a much higher ‘keeper’ percentage.

    • I wondered the same about film – but I’ve since come to the conclusion it’s a combination of a few things:
      1) film is more forgiving of focus, shake etc. because it’s simply a lower resolution medium, and the transition between ‘critically sharp’ and not is gradual, not binary;
      2) the associated cost makes us pre-curate more when composing
      3) the associated cost makes us more reluctant to bin frames
      4) we’re prepared to give an imperfect medium more latitude if that’s a known (and desired) characteristic of the medium

      • richard majchrzak says:

        interesting differences

      • Associated cost? What would that be?
        The limitation of digital is it isn’t analog.
        We have to accept it for what it is.
        We haven’t moved along if we define our photography by resolution.

        • Associated cost of analog? Processing, film etc. Digital has far fewer limitations than analog, but for some reason analog is often held as sacrosanct…

          • The associated costs? Instead compare absolute costs.
            Harry did say he has a high percentage of keepers.
            Instead, we go out with our digital cameras, click, click, click…
            Then we go home, spend hours on our computer looking for a winner.
            Maybe we print a few, because it is so easy, use up some expensive
            Ink and paper. Print a few, toss a few, until we get it right.
            No winners? Maybe we need a new camera or lens.

            Sacrosanct? As well applied to the digital folk trashing the film shooters who mostly just go about their business,
            for the love of what they are doing. My guess, mostly from people that have never shot film.

            • Absolute costs I think are similar or lower with digital, especially if you’re running a business – there’s simply no way I could be competitive or profitable if I only shot film commercially; clients won’t pay or wait especially if there aren’t any specific pictorial advantages they’re looking for with film.

              • When I load an A12, there is a good chance of having one great shot and 2-3 good ones in the roll when I wind it back up. Just a lot of care goes into those few shots. (Or, I loaded it backwards on the take up reel, and one would have been good, but it’s just a roll of unexposed-until-you-unloaded exposure now.) I haven’t shot 4×5 in awhile, but it’s the same. If you have one bullet, you must hit your mark.

                No, you can’t shoot ana…, an…., an…, anal…, film for commercial work. I don’t think cost is the problem, as much as folks think. It’s time. Digital is just way faster.

                • It is actually cost. On a heavy assignment, I’ll shoot perhaps 2500 frames of MF – that’s 200+ rolls – and at current prices for film and developing, clients would baulk. I could do the scanning but that would add significantly to the time taken; or get it scanned and add even more cost. But the biggest issue is there’s no instant backup: you could have gotten the shot just fine, but if the lab messes up… 🙂

  9. I recently came to a similar conclusion but from a different angle. I started using a calibrated incident/reflective lightmeter on every shoot. I find it very liberating to know I am creating consist accurate exposures. I produces fewer but better images. I realized, for me, in camera review and curation had become a distraction akin to driving whilst obsessively checking the rear view mirror. Without it shooting becomes a more uninterrupted free flowing film-like experience with increased concentration on the present.

  10. richard majchrzak says:

    these four arranged pictures work very well together indeed

  11. Top Left and Bottom Right pair well

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