I make a lot of really, really, horrible photos. It’s an odd thing to say isn’t it? But I do. Thousands of them every year, and that is totally okay with me.
I know that most (even all) of those really terrible, poorly composed, exposed, or focused shots, are just practice. They are practice for the next image, and the next, and the next, each building until I find that one keeper in a long string of wasted pixels, and more keepers overall at the end of the day.
As I scrolled through my Lightroom catalog looking for images to accompany this piece, I found in my unedited photos many near-lookalikes. As I edit, I scroll through them one at time. Some get deleted right away because they are soft (out of focus), or the exposure is too far off the mark. Others get deleted because the composition was clearly wrong, unbalanced, or awkward. I often wonder, “What was I thinking?”
Most of the time the answer to that question, is that I wasn’t thinking at all. I had found a subject that intrigued me, and I started making photos, and thought had not yet worked its way into the equation. Scroll a few images further into the series, and things start to come together. The distracting elements, one at a time, disappear from the image. The exposure and focus are corrected, and by the time the last shot in the series appears, it’s technically decent, and maybe even a good photograph.
Those first shots are sketches, and they happen when my mind is still at play, too immature to recognize the scene for what it should be. Eventually, as I settle into the moment, the scene evolves and matures, as I begin to recognize what should and should not belong in the image.
The Freedom of Digital
With digital cameras, there is no harm in playing with a scene this way. Pixels are free, and we can shoot and shoot until our fingers are sore, or we get the right photo. When I’m shooting film however, (which believe it or not, I still do occasionally), there is no such luxury. Every time I release the shutter it’s a few bucks in film, processing, and scanning fees. If I shot with my film camera the way I do with digital, I’d be broke inside of a month.
Instead, when shooting film, I’m forced to make those sketch images in my head, and in my viewfinder. I adjust tripod heights, I inch forward and backward, I focus and refocus, and I watch my light meter like a hawk. Then, once I’m sure I’ve got what I need, I click the shutter, and cross my fingers that I’ve got it right.
Whether you make the sketch images as a digital file, or as a mental one, the result is the same. Those preliminary frames, are just that, preparatory. Embrace them, but most importantly don’t stop at the first, or second, or even third shot. Keep exploring your subject, and you may find something you weren’t expecting.
A few years ago, I was approaching the end of a ten day wilderness canoe trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. I was guiding, and so I was mostly concerned about keeping my clients safe, warm, well fed, and helping them make their own photos. My photography took a back seat. But after dinner, as my clients were heading off to their own tents on the tundra, I would often wander off with my camera and tripod. On that evening, as the trip was coming to its end, I ambled up the gravel bar away from camp. It was mid-August, and for the first time in months, the sun, for an hour or two each night, was actually dropping below the mountains that surrounded us.
The river flowed past in a gentle riffle, washing over the stones with a shushing sound, that hushed my thoughts as quickly as librarian with a finger to her lips. As the sun made its long low dive toward the mountains, the light grew sweeter, illuminating the tundra and mountains in light so beautiful I could hardly bear to look at it.
Slowly, and it took a long time, I started making images. For a while, I let my myself play with the landscape, making photos here and there, pointing this way and that. I made images of a tributary river flowing over the rocks, the winding cut gravel banks, bear tracks, and sedges growing along quiet shores. Some of those images are decent, even good, but they were still leading me somewhere. Eventually I found myself by the main stem of the river when the sun was about to disappear behind the silhouetted mountains. There, after an hour or more of play, I found the image that I had ventured away from camp to make.
I got it right, because I was there-there. I wasn’t just existing with a camera in my hand, worried about f-stops and ISOs. I was present, because all those previous images over the past hours allowed me to put aside the technical worries, and permitted me to focus on the scene at hand – the way it felt, the way the breeze moved the surface of a quiet backwater, the sound of the water hushing over stone, and the way the river’s edge wandered away toward the setting sun.
All those sketch images not only gave me permission to focus on the scene the way it needed to be, they gave me access to the moment when I needed it.
As you can see, perfecting exposure and focus is just one part of what it means to work through your practice photos. These preliminary images allow your mind to get away from all that other stuff, and concentrate on what matters. Like me, you’ll end up with lot of really horrible photos, but occasionally, they will lead up to something meaningful.