Musings on Photography

Exposure Resistance

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on October 11, 2006

“Life is short, the Art is long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult. Fortunately, film is cheap.” -Paul Butzi, after Hippocrates

Several years ago, when I was teaching a workshop on the WA coast in a spot which is arguably one of the most fertile spots for photography on the planet, I had a student in the group who just wandered around, not taking photographs of anything. When I tried to encourage her to make exposures, she was very resistant. She told me that she wanted to go home with at least one really great photograph, and she wanted to to keep looking until she found that one really great photo. When she found a good scene, she resisted making an exposure, saying that it really called for a color image, and she’d just loaded her camera with B&W film, or some similar excuse. She had ten rolls of film in her pack, and despite my encouragement to view going home with even a single frame unexposed as a missed opportunity, I think she exposed less than half a roll of 36 exposures the entire weekend.

Rather to my surprise, this isn’t an uncommon attitude. The big problem with this parsimony is that making exposures that aren’t great gives us photographs to look at; if the photographs are bad, we can try to figure out why and then avoid those mistakes. But even more than that, in my experience the actual making of an exposure seems to prime me for making another. Making one photograph leads me to the next one; if I can get started in a good location, those connections can form a continuous chain that draws me through the scene, photograph after photograph, in a kind of ‘flow’ that is my favorite photographic experience. Sometimes the flow lasts for just a few minutes, but sometimes it can last for hours.

It can be hard to break down this student resistance to making exposures. No amount of explaining that film is cheap seems to help. Even students working with digital cameras, where exposures really ARE free, often suffer from this malady.

The only thing I’ve found that seems to help is to have students pick a time and place, then go to the place at that time with the understanding that they can’t leave until they have made, say, 300 exposures. They don’t have to be good photographs, or even mediocre ones. It actually works best if some of the photos are not very good. The goal behind this exercise is to try to train the student to set aside that internal censor which wakes up and screams “What the heck are you doing? That looks like crap!” just before the student hits the shutter release.

My first point is that our ability to judge if it’s crap at the moment of exposure is poor at best. My second point is that often in the act of making that exposure, we come to understand what we need to do to make the photograph we’re really looking for, and if we just give up and walk off, we miss that opportunity.

The metric for measuring our success shouldn’t be the making the ratio of good photographs to bad photographs as high as possible; it should be getting the largest number of great photographs. If we have to make 100 bad or mediocre photographs to learn how to make the next great photo, then I say “let it rip”, and get busy on those 100 bad or mediocre photos asap. The sooner we learn the lessons of those bad photos, the sooner we get to the good ones.

3 Responses

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  1. Gordon said, on October 11, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    I once watched a National Geographic documentary where one of their photographers described the vast number of exposures (30,000 or so) he’d take on the way to finding the 10 images that would be used to illustrate the final magazine article.

    A lot of those exposures he described as ‘sketching’ : working out ideas, exploring concepts and generally getting the compositional ideas together, to tell the story.

  2. Paul said, on October 12, 2006 at 8:40 am

    A man after my own heart! It takes a while to warm up to the idea that you are trying to express, then, at some point, you get that image that you saw in your mind’s eye.

    I had a similar experience at a workshop that I was attending. I tried to help one of my fellow students get out first gear. She was looking for the perfect shot, but couldn’t find it. Once I convinced her to “let it go”, she started shooting and came back with a few that she liked.

  3. chantal stone said, on November 6, 2006 at 8:22 am

    The metric for measuring our success shouldn’t be the making the ratio of good photographs to bad photographs as high as possible; it should be getting the largest number of great photographs.

    Point taken!
    I get what you mean here Paul, and I, at one time, was afflicted with the same malady….it was almost like I was afraid to shoot because I was afraid of the wrong shot. But after hundreds, if not thousands, of the wrong shots, I began to notice there were a few of the ‘right’ ones sprinkled in between.

    I love your idea of ‘flow’…I get like that too, it’s a wonderful, almost trance-like place to be, where there’s nothing else, just me and the camera, working in harmony, everything else seems to fall into place. I find now that it often takes 50 or 60 exposure before I get into a good flow, but once I’m there…its heaven!

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