Monday, October 5, 2009


Contact Sheet, 2009

“To have a good idea, you must have lots of ideas.”

Linus Pauling

Is the goal to take fewer, better pictures or to make lots of images and consider the merits of each later on?

I’ve written about this before. It’s a question any group of aspiring photographers talking shop will eventually discuss.

When we shot on film, extra shots translated into expense. It wasn’t so expensive that it would break the bank. But it was costly enough that you were conscious of how much film you were using. Before you made the first serious print you made a contact sheet. You peered at each shot through a magnifying glass and made editing notes with a crayon. Then you went back to the darkroom to make prints.

That all changed with the advent of digital capture. A single memory card in your DSLR camera can hold seven hundred or more RAW images or thousands of JPEGs.

When digital capture came along a lot of people thought the process of creating finished images would be so much faster. You’d take your pictures. You’d throw them up on the computer monitor and Voila!

Turns out its not that simple. There are still lots of steps involved in creating finished digital images. When all’s said and done I don’t know if the time required is any less than it ever was. It’s just different. (But at least your fingers don’t smell like chemicals.)

But that still doesn’t address the original question. Is the idea to go out and shoot a relatively small number of technically and artistically strong shots, or go out and shoot whatever strikes you and worry about editing later on?

The easy answer is that there is no answer. Each person’s style is different. The person who takes just a few very good shots doesn’t come back with a lot of choices. The person who shoots willy-nilly spends hours in front of the computer monitor sorting through the stacks.

I used to worry about my ratio of pictures-kept-to-pictures-taken. I tried to improve the ratio by being more thoughtful about the pictures I took. I even tried going out and purposely limiting myself to just a dozen or so carefully considered shots. I wasn’t happy with that, either.

After years of grappling with this, I’ve arrived at an understanding with myself that if I see something that attracts my eye I will take a picture of it and not complain about the time it takes to sort through all the pictures I end up with. I try not to be wasteful, but I do try out different perspectives and interpretations of a scene.

Contact Sheet, above, is a good example. I attended a media briefing last week for an upcoming schooner race down the Chesapeake Bay. I didn’t have a specific assignment. I just shot what caught my eye. In an hour’s time I shot 130 pictures using two cameras. When I went through them, I culled the original 130 down to 45 shots. The 45 would be good pool to work from were I putting together, say, a magazine story about the event. But out of the original 130 than became 45, there are only two or three I think are really worth showing.

So much for improving the ratio.

Someone once asked William Faulkner what he found to be the toughest part of writing. He responded:

“Killing off your little darlings.”


  1. I just shot my sister's wedding. She and her bride just wanted pictures of people having fun - not traditional wedding pictures, so I treated it like a photojournalism assignment. (In fact, they wanted no photography by anybody during the ceremony.) I shot some pix at the rehearsal dinner, some before and after the ceremony, at the reception and at the county registrar's office. I wasn't shooting like a maniac - I have a decent "pro-sumer" camera, not a DSLR, and I had to keep adjusting the exposure and flash intensity with the waning light (although I don't think I would have shot more if I hadn't had to fiddle so much) - but I still took nearly 350 pictures. (I don't delete anything based on what I see on the screen on the back of the camera.)

    I whittled that down to about 130 for the brides, so they'd have a generous sampling. It took me a week to crop and PhotoShop them.

    Not all 130 were winners, but sometimes even imperfect pictures of perfect situations are precious to the people involved. Still, I'd say that 98% of them were well exposed, composed, etc.

    I whittled some more for family members who weren't able to attend; whittled more and still more for various deceasingly important uses - until I got down to about 25 pix that capture the essence of the weekend. I don't doubt I could whittle a bit more still... but not down to two or three.

    Chris, not only are you an outstanding photographer, you're also a master little darling killer!

  2. Hahaa--I've read that Faulkner quote before. Classic. I wonder, though, if others sat with you, and looked at those same images, if they'd select other "winners." They all look good to me!

  3. ps
    I just read Terry's comments and agree that "sometimes imperfect pictures of perfect situations are precious to the people involved." I think your photos are all probably far superior to the average (read--people like me!!) photographers!

  4. Well, how's that for a Freudian slip! I said I culled my wedding photographs repeatedly "for various deceasingly important uses" - when what I meant was decReasingly important uses. Although it probably wouldn't have mattered to the deceased users whether I'd shown them all 350 or just the handful...