Musings on Photography


Posted in process by Paul Butzi on December 1, 2009


Everyone’s read that when Garry Winogrand died in 1984, he left behind a huge pile, literally thousands of rolls, of exposed but undeveloped film. Winogrand needed, I guess, a significant period of time between when he made the exposure and when he looked at the photos – time to let go of his emotional investment so that he could judge the photos objectively.

Good for him. I am not Winogrand – couldn’t be, don’t want to be. I’m me, and my process is different. These days, it’s as different as it can possibly be.

These days, it boils down to this: I go for a walk, with the dog and the camera. I take photographs along the way. In November, each walk worked out to slightly fewer than 50 exposures; I suspect I need to go for longer walks.

And when I get back, things happen in a sequence – Kodak and I go into my workroom. He gets a biscuit and goes outside to sit on the porch. I make a cup of tea and sit down at the computer, and with the walk still fresh in my mind, I download the images and look at them. Unlike Winogrand, who wanted time for his impressions and aspirations for the photos to fade so he could view the photos objectively, I’m trying to look at the photos while the sights, sounds, and smells of the walk are still filling my head.

I’m trying to close the feedback loop as quickly as possible. I have a theory that doing this will move me toward making the photographs I want to make, and I’m giving it an experimental test.

My thinking here all stems from a fundamental problem in training – the longer you separate the reward from the stimulus, the less effective the training is. For training, instant feedback is good.

I put this to good use when training Kodak, my dog. All of the things I’ve trained Kodak to do, I’ve done with a clicker – when Kodak does the right thing, I squeeze the clicker, and it makes a click. Kodak knows that the click is a marker – he’s done something he’s going to get rewarded for, and the click means the treat is coming. This solves the problem that, if you try to actually give the dog the treat when he does the right thing, what he remembers is what was happening right when he got the treat – and that was usually looking at the treat in your hand. So we substitute the click. There’s nothing magic about the clicker – it’s just a way of letting the dog know, the very instant he’s done the right thing, that he’s done something right and he’s about to be rewarded. With the clicker, you can make the delay between the behavior and the dog realizing he’s done the right thing very very short. In essence, you close the feedback loop.

It turns out I have a clicker on my camera – I can chimp the image right after I make the exposure. What I’ve found, though, is that this works for the first image, but the problem is that instead of getting into the flow of making exposures, I get pulled out of that flow by looking at the images on the camera’s display. So now I put off the feedback, just a bit. There’s a balancing act, there, and so far waiting just until I finish these morning walks seems to be just about right. 15-20 minutes of strolling and photographing, and then viewing the photos right away seems to be a sweet spot.

2 Responses

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  1. julie said, on December 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    I always felt that when people encouraged you to leave as much time as possible between shooting and editing that you’d be as well editing someone else’s pictures, because that connection to the event would be lost. If I can paraphrase, to see if I’m understanding your thought process… you take your pictures and then edit them within a shorter timeframe because you want to put as much of your experience into the process as possible?

  2. Bryan Willman said, on December 1, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    The other problem with chimping is that even the best screens on even the best cameras are very poor tools for judging anything subtle. And on at least one camera I own, images that look quite doubtful on the camera screen will often turn out to be very very strong when converted on the computer.

    In other words, the camera viewscreen is an *unreliable* clicker…

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