Musings on Photography


Posted in landscape, large format, process by Paul Butzi on March 28, 2007


I’m still pondering this whole issue of whether Large Format photography is inherently contemplative, or even more contemplative than other formats.  I finally managed to find an excellent thread on the Large Format Photograpy website, which is well worth reading in it’s entirety, because lots of different viewpoints are expressed and there’s no flamewar.  There are 57 posts in that thread, and there are a broad range of views expressed.  It’s well worth reading.

I still agree with what I wrote on that thread:

…for years, I put up with the meager photographic output that I got when I exposed just a few sheets of film per day. I felt my photography was going nowhere and very slowly.

Then, on one trip to the Olympic Peninsula, I decided to chuck all that stuff, just as an experiment. My goal on that trip was to return with the largest possible pile of exposed film – and screw the whole ‘tuning’ the image thing. If I saw three compositional possiblities, I would expose film on all three. No longer would I spend countless minutes with painstaking focus, agonizing over zone placement, etc. Instead, I’d set up the camera, make the darn exposure, and then move on. If I botched the focus, well, tough.

Before the trip I did a little practice. At the end of the practice, I could set up the camera and make an exposure in about a minute.

On that trip, in one morning, I exposed over 50 sheets of film. Lesson number one was to put more than 50 sheets into the pack when hiking in. My goal was to set up the camera and make an exposure whenever I found something interesting. No ‘editting’ at exposure time. My goal was to get over the threshold where you look at something and ask yourself the question “is it worth spending 15 minutes on this?”. With practice, that question becomes ‘Is it worth spending 2 minutes on this?’ Trust me, you’ll capture far more interesting photographs when the threshold is set at two minutes than when it’s set at 15 minutes, not to mention better results in fleeting lighting.

Now for the bottom line – I got several great shots from that trip – more than any other trip to that point. I got lots and lots of shots ranging from ‘really good’ down to ‘darn good’. On top of that, I got perhaps half a dozen ‘what the heck was I thinking’ images.

I say forget the whole ‘contemplative’ thing. Practice ruthlessly with your gear to the point where you can set up, expose, and tear down in minimum time. You don’t have to always make exposures in a rush but the practice will mean that most of the time you *aren’t* rushing. Assess your gear for how efficient it is. If your meter is too fiddly and it takes more than a few seconds to make an exposure decision, ditch the meter on Ebay and buy a simpler one. At least for B&W work, exposure boils down to a simple decision and a fast way to mark the film for your development choice. I have labels pre-printed with ‘N’, ‘N-1’, ‘N+1’ etc which I just slap on the readyloads. I don’t fill out lengthy exposure records, take careful notes, or any of that stuff anymore.

And the real bottom line is this: on those trips where I have practiced and can make exposures quickly, I come back with more images, and better images. On those trips, I have more fun, I feel more satisfaction, and often I find myself swept up in a ‘flow’ which is really gratifying. None of that would happen if I continued to take 15 minutes to set up each exposure.


I think it’s a mistake to equate ‘slow pace’ with ‘contemplative’.

If I spend a morning on the beach, and my process is that I just wander where my attention draws me, taking three minutes to make an exposure every fifteen minutes or so – that seems pretty contemplative to me. At that rate, I’d make 4 exposures an hour, or something like 16 exposures in a four hour morning of photography. At that pace, things seem unhurried. 12 minutes out of each hour are spent fiddling with the camera – 48 minutes are spent looking at things. In other words, you’re spending 80% of your time *looking* and 20% of your time setting up and making exposures.

Note what happens if it takes you 15 minutes to set up the camera and make an exposure – suddenly, four exposures an hour means that you’re spending 100% of your time on setup, and 0% of your time looking. It’s hard to be alert and attentive to your surroundings when you’re spending 100% of your time on setup.

So what happens is that you end up slowing down the pace. To get back to the 80% looking, you ease up to the point where you take one exposure every hour and a quarter. The results of your four hour foray have been reduced to 3 exposures. It’s tough to attend to what’s around you when each exposure you make represents 1/3rd of the morning because each exposure represents such a huge investment.

What I’ve learned, I think, is that it’s important to be able to make an exposure quickly and with little effort for two reasons: 1) it leaves more time for ‘contemplation’, and 2) it lowers the threshold between the impulse to make a photograph and the act of making it.

But don’t just consider what I wrote.  Go and read the entire thread.

5 Responses

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  1. Guy Tal said, on March 28, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I guess it’s been on my mind too:


  2. Mark Hobson said, on March 28, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    The notion of whether a given format is more or less ‘contemplative’ seems rather strange to me.

    Other than more or less time ‘thinking’ about and executing the mechanics of a given format, why would anyone spend any more or less time ‘contemplating’ what to picture or how to picture it?

    Of course, that assumes that cost is not an issue.

  3. Bryan Willman said, on March 28, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    One suspects the “contemplative” line comes from three places.
    1. Historically view cameras where even bigger (8×10 and up) and so were expensive in both money and resources (weight of holders, etc.) So people would naturally be Very Careful, which would lead to being “contemplative”.
    2. One of the most famous photographers ever, Ansel Adams, argued for pre-visualization, planning, and a generally organized approach. He was famous as a view camera guy (though he shot sx70 and hassie and so on.) So the “be like Ansel” gang would naturally want to work carefully with big cameras.
    3. “Contemplative” might be like “conserving the car”, “picking the right moment”, “waiting for the opportunity” that is, code words for screwing up, being uncompetitive/ineffective, or not really being very focused on it.

  4. Guy Tal said, on March 29, 2007 at 5:56 am

    Actually in all the Adams texts that I read I could not find any reference to “pre-visualization” (he uses “visualization” to describe the ability to determine what the print will look like while in the field but never pre-visualize in the sense of contemplating a scene). If you know of such a reference, I’d be very interested to read it.

    In fact he has alluded to often capturing images on a whim (“sometimes I do get to places when God is ready for someone to trip the shutter”). Reading the description of how he made “Moonlight, Hernandez” would indicate he just barely caught the scene from a moving car and scrambled to just barely manage a couple of exposures.

    The first references I could find for “pre-visualization” in the contemplative sense are in some older articles by Galen Rowell.


  5. Bryan Willman said, on March 30, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    Uh, I don’t know that Adams used “pre-visualize” versus “visualize”, and “pre” visualize is kind of redundent (what would be the point of post-visualize.)

    But I recall Adams’s books talking about the zone system, and picture of him holding a framing aid. So it was clear he was interested in getting the best result on the first try (organized rather than random)

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