I lead a photowalking group here in Austin, Texas and like to mix things up a bit. I recently hosted what I called a 36-frame photowalk. It meant you could only press the shutter 36 times during the photowalk. The idea here was to take people out of their element. Push them out of their comfort zone and yank that security blanket away from them. What security blanket? The one where shooting lots of variations gives them the comfort that they did their best to capture the subject.
Shooting lots of variations is a great way to learn and strengthen photographic composition skills, I use that technique all the time, as should any serious photographer. I argue, however, that you grow more as a photogrpher if you make conscious, deliberate decisions about your images as you are shooting them. When we shoot variations of a subject, we sometimes get in an autopilot mode (or "the zone" or whatever you want to call it). Variations are a good thing. In my photowalk execise, I never said you couldn't shoot variations (I should add that when I shot film, I frequently shot variations of my subjects). I would just expect you to think through why you are taking the image. I'm not talking about over analyzing the situation, I'm just talking about actually analyzing the situation--actively see what you're doing and make conscious choices in production as opposed to making selections from your choices in post-production.
Ansel Adams once said "You don't take a photograph, you make it." This is what I was driving towards with my 36-frame exercise. Getting you to be more consciously involved in the images that you are making rather than rely on taking a bunch of shots and hoping that you got something good. Some folks refer to this as "spray and pray."
Limiting the number of frames that you're allowed to shoot in this exercise makes each frame count more. It makes you give more thought to each and every frame. It forces you participate more in the process of making a photograph. If you are simply approaching a subject and then going through your repertoire of variations to later pick the best one, then you're not making a photograph, you're taking a photograph.
Having some intent behind the images you create separates you from the pack. It means that you've developed the skill of not only visualizing, but also executing on that vision. If you just photograph everything that strikes your fancy as you wander the world you're more of a treasure hunter than a photographer with intent. Don't get me wrong, that's a lot of fun to do, I do it a lot and end up with some great images. But when you approach a subject and give it a critical view, ponder the posible compositions and study its form, I argue that you'll make the best image that you can. How do you make that happen? Start by slowing down (hence the reason for limiting the number of frames).
My good friend Andy felt he understood the premise of my exercise but disagreed with me. I didn't know about his feelings on the matter at the time. Andy did not come to the photowalk. A month and a half later, after he had what he characterized as "a heated discussion" with some photographer friends (I was not party to this discussion), Andy informs me that he had mentioned me in a blog post and disagreed with my point of view. Aside from being a good friend, Andy is a marvelous photographer and I respect his work as well as his thoughts and opinions on photography, so this raised an eyebrow. Take a look at his post and then return here for my thoughts below.
I get it. I know what the intention of the exercise is. But I couldn’t help but have a visceral reaction against the 36 frame limitation. It went fundamentally against what I believe is the best way we learn how we become better photographers. I believe we learn by doing. And the more we practice and keep on practicing the better we get. By limiting yourself to 36 frames, I believe, you are just slowing down your progress towards becoming a better photographer.
Learning by doing is exactly what I was trying to get everyone to do. But the "doing" was not more of the same as Andy wants. Instead, I was trying to get everyone to break their comfortable shooting habits and get more involved in the creation of each individual image. This was a one-time exercise for one morning. I was not imploring everyone to do this as a regular course of practice. They could go back to their usual ways as soon as the photowalk was over. One morning's exercise of really working through each and every frame I believe is a superb way to boost "your progress towards becoming a better photographer." Now, if you participated in this photowalk by just doing the same thing you normally do, the only difference being that you stopped at 36 frames (say 10-15 minutes into the exercise) then that would have been a horrible way to spend your morning, a huge waste of your time, and a sign that you didn't get the point of the exercise. I was not just trying to slow the shooters down for the sake of slowing down or adhering to artifical limits. It was meant to be a mechanism by which to force the thought process mentioned above.
To me though, the 36 frame thing is an anachronism, some ancient limitation that is no longer relevant. I find digital liberating precisely because I can shoot a lot of frames and learn quickly. In the old days, how many people got to shoot 20,000, 50,000 or 100,000 pictures to learn their craft and hone their skill? Very few, I imagine. Only a limited number of professional, working photographers. These days, anyone can shoot this many frames at a very low-cost. Digital allows anyone to shoot, learn, retry, learn and shoot again. It quickens the cycle where you make mistakes, learn from them and make more mistakes. And out of these mistakes you begin to learn. You learn how to make compositions and set proper exposures. You learn what you like and don’t like. You learn to develop your own style.
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! I think Andy entirely missed my point with the whole 36-frame photowalk. I usually shoot tons of frames when I do my photography. I've rolled the odometer on my camera several times. I shoot a lot. I'm not saying people should limit themselves to shooting small quantities of frames in general for their whole photography practice. That would be nuts! But there is value in doing it once in a while. This was a one-time exercise to break people out of their ruts, make them stretch out of their comfort zones and give them fresh perspectives. Art teachers sometimes assign students to create a drawing using their non-dominant hand or with the page upsidedown. They don't expect you to go through life as an artist working that way. They are just shaking things up and making you see the world differently.
As for the anachronism, I chose 36 because it was an apropriate quantity for the planned event. Since we were all photographers, I figured some could identify with the quantity rather than saying 35 or 40 frames.
In the comments below Andy's post, Andy responds to a comment by wjlonien, by posing a question and giving his answer:
How do you know that the one frame you took is the perfect composition? It may be the unexpected shift or slight change in angle that turns out to be much better. You see, without experimenting and making mistakes and learning from them, you end up taking one or two frames and “hope” it’s the right one.
By pre-visualizing, you don't rely on the "unexpected." To me Andy's reliance on variations reads like relying on "luck." You're just putting more coins in the slot machine. Luck is a good thing and I'll take all of it that I can get. But if you give more thought to the process, you can make your own luck.
Anyway, the point was not to shoot less as a hurdle or obstacle to overcome. The point was to make each and every frame count more. By putting yourself in an active mindset when shooting, it helps you have a fresh approach to your work when you return to your usual high-volume shooting that digital has afforded us. When you feel the effect of the execise has worn off, it's time to do it again.