Musings on Photography

The Too Precious Image

Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on October 24, 2009


Back when I was working in large format film, I spent a lot of time on each image I printed. It was all about getting everything just right.

There are still times where I spend a significant amount of time on a single image, but it’s pretty rare. Part of that is that I’m much faster in Photoshop, and I can get the overall curves adjustment the way I want in a very short time. But I do a lot less local adjustment of curve shape to balance get things the way I want these days.

Part of that may be that I’m just making a lot more exposures, and if I sit down at the computer, often I’m limited not by how many images I have on which I want to work, but by the number of hours I’m willing to spend at the computer instead of outside with the camera. If I come up against an image that I can’t seem to get right, I mark it as ‘interesting problem’ and move on. Someday, maybe this winter when the weather is inhospitable, I’ll go back and tackle those. Or maybe not. There’s such a thing as working too hard trying to save the ‘too precious’ image. Sometimes it’s better to let go.

I struggle with this, still; there’s a sense of regret when I imagine what I wanted when I let the shutter go but I find that it’s just not going to work out.

There are an infinite number of images out there for me to capture. For right now, it seems more productive to look at the image I really wanted but which just is not coming together, and think “So, what’s wrong, here?” for a few minutes, extract the whatever lessons I can from the failure, and then just let it go. There’s the same scene tomorrow, a day older and with different light, and with me being a day older and perhaps more clever. Or perhaps not.

The one thing I do know is that there will still be infinitely many photographs for me to make, tomorrow. It’s not as if flogging a dead horse today is some sort of dues I have to pay so that I ensure an ample supply tomorrow.

2 Responses

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  1. Tommy Williams said, on October 24, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    I am finding that I am going in the opposite direction–I am spending more time per image than I used to. And that’s driven almost entirely by a new printer.

    In the past, I printed very few of my pictures, preferring to share them online. I’m learning as I print that there are a lot of things I notice once a picture is printed that I miss on-screen, even on a 1920×1200, 26″ monitor. I don’t know if I automatically ascribe more value to the picture because it is printed and that makes me notice more, or whether there’s something intrinsically different about the print. It’s not the detail, because I’m noticing things even in prints on letter-sized paper.

    Yet I also feel the need to go out and make more pictures and let the ones that got away just go on. Sure, I still have the files to work on in the future but the chances that I will go back are slim.

    And the picture you have posted: I am intrigued by how often pictures you post here look like ones that I am drawn to make myself but don’t understand in the least. There needs to be some kind of selection applied to the frame when putting this together but I have no model in my head of how to do it. I try to just look through the viewfinder and move until it feels right (trying to adopt Doug Plummer’s approach) but I can find a nearly infinite number of compositions that feel right. I don’t know if it’s a matter of sitting still and studying what’s before me until I can find the hidden sense of it or not, but I never know which scenes are worth that opportunity cost and which aren’t–it seems I can’t determine that until after I have already spent the effort.

  2. Tim Parkin said, on October 25, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I don’t know where I stand but I imagine it’s at the ‘more time’ end of the spectrum. I suppose I wonder how many significant images I want to make in my life. I’d rather have a back catalogue of a small number of good images than a huge archive of images. I suppose if I post process 8 images a month it’s a pretty good output. This still means about 100 images per year or 5 books per decade! How many pictures do you want to be remembered for? (r.e. Opportunity cost – I’d rather spend ten times as long on one composition than take ten versions of it. Although I know I’ll get it wrong sometimes, at least when I get it right I know I will have fine tuned it all I can)

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