Musings on Photography

More on Quality and Quantity

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 5, 2006

There’s much interesting reading in Chantal Stone’s post here and in the comments of her readers.

Chantal writes: “This brings up an intersting topic for discussion. Does quanity equal quality? Or does quantity inspire quality? By shooting all the time, of course one will improve as a photographer…practice makes perfect afterall.”

It’s not so much that I’m advocating the idea that quantity is the same as quality. What I’m advocating, really, is the idea that if improving the quality of your work as a whole is a goal, then one very successful but non-intuitive approach to realizing that goal is to work toward quantity, and not quality.

Paradoxically, I find that I get my best work when I stop worrying about quality. If I stand there behind the camera and tripod, and think “Right. Now, I’m going to look for the really excellent photographs, and ignore the not very good ones”, I come home with nothing but dreck. If I go out with the camera, and I just photograph everything that captures my attention, I become more involved with the process, my linear/rational mind gets out of the way, and I come home with better work (and often with a few positive suprises).

This is related, I think, to exposure resistance, where we try to edit our work at exposure time. My personal experience is that I’m a terrible editor when I’m behind the camera. That’s not the time for me to be thinking about whether I’m getting good stuff, or bad stuff, or stuff that’s good enough. It’s the time for me to be taking the photographs I find, as I find them, and leaving the editing decisions for later. It’s not the time to be thinking about the future, it’s the time to be right there, in that spot at that moment, not just looking at what’s around me but actually seeing it.

Chantal also writes “But isn’t true improvement measured by the ratio of ‘good’ images vs. how many images taken?” I just completely disagree with this. I’m not even sure how much I think improvement ought to be measured by the number of ‘good’ images. If I’m making the photos I want to be making right now, and the work is progressing – that’s success. If I am progressing by coming home time after time with nothing but crap, but I’m slowly learning what I need to learn to make the photos I want to make – that’s STILL success.

There’s also stuff in Chantal’s post (and more in the comments) that seems to be about mistaking quantity of work for number of exposures of a single scene. It’s an understandable confusion, but it’s not what I’m getting at when I say “Quantity is Quality”. I’m not advocating hooking an intervalometer to your camera, setting it to release the shutter once a second, and then holding the camera strap and swinging the camera around your head until the memory card is full. I’m advocating doing what you do now – if that’s portrait sessions, do more portrait sessons. If it’s landscape photographs, go out into the landscape twice as often. Just doing the same thing but releasing the shutter twice instead of once for each photo won’t do much.

2 Responses

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  1. chantal stone said, on November 6, 2006 at 8:14 am

    Thanks so much for the mention…*honored*, really…and I love how this topic is inspiring so much dialogue. Anytime people begin to contemplate their own shooting habits, I think it’s a step towards progress.

    I actually agree with you about how ‘working’ a given subject/scene in multiple ways can improve one’s photography. I’ve noticed this in my own work.

    I shoot film, so the expense of taking multiple shots at one time was a factor, but once I made the commitment to become a better photographer–at all costs–I started to shoot more freely. With any given subject, I may shoot several rolls of film, and end with just a few workable prints.

    Success, for me, is when I start out with something in particular in mind, and I finish with a print that fulfills my vision. Sometimes I get it from one of the first shot. More often, it takes many, many shots. Either way, the act of shooting is pure joy, and the end result is very rewarding.

    What I found most interesting in the comments I received from that post, was that many people confessed their best images would come from those initial shots, even after working a certain subject many times over.
    It reminds us to trust our instincts.

    Thanks for a great post and discussion.

  2. Lisa Call said, on November 7, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    Quote from the book Art and Fear:

    The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

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