Why Shooting with the Joyful Abandon Approach Can Improve Your Photography

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A few months ago I was at a keynote speech given by a famous photographer and workshop leader (you’d know him). He had a lot of great advice to give, but one thing that he said still bugs me. He told us a story about one of his students who, at the end of a wildlife workshop, exclaimed that he’d captured over 8,000 images. In his keynote speech, this famous photographer laughed at his student for shooting so much, since he himself had only shot 800 images.

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Shooting with a goal

I never like it when a workshop leader pokes fun at his students but, as he explained further, his reason for telling us the story was a pretty good one. As a workshop leader he would always set a daily goal. He would decide ahead of time what he wanted to capture and then he’d focus on making those images. He coached his students to work that way too.

I love the idea of setting a goal and having a vision. Setting goals is part of how we improve our photography. Every fall the squirrels descend upon my backyard tree and gorge themselves on nuts. During this time of year, I stealthily make images of the little rascals. I don’t shoot aimlessly when I work on this project. My on-going goal is to capture soft golden light, creamy blurred backgrounds, sharply focused eyes and engaging expressions. Squirrels move fast and I’m neither as speedy nor as stealthy as I’d like to be. I shoot a lot of frames when I work on this project.

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But…

You knew there was a but, right? The singular vision of this workshop photographer might not work for all of his students. As great a teacher as he is, the first morning you head out together, you probably won’t have enough information to have an instant vision of the work you want to make during the workshop. You might even struggle as you climb the steep learning curve of wildlife photography – and you may shoot a lot as you learn.

Plus, shooting with a goal doesn’t equate to less shutter clicks, it equates to more focus. You might need even more shutter clicks than you usually do, depending on the goal you’ve set yourself.

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This big cat, photographed at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, is one of the few images I’ve made there that I’ve been pleased with. Most of my images from the zoo don’t fulfill my vision. This one does because the she-lion is engaging with another lion (out of the frame). Her eyes are sharply focused and the background is not only blurred, but it frames her beautifully, and emphasizes her coloring.

I easily shot several hundred images of this lion one afternoon, to get this single image. Shooting my backyard squirrel project helped me define a vision of how I wanted this image to look, but it still took me a lot of frames to reach my goal.

Developing authentic vision

The way the keynote speaker made fun of his student for “over-shooting” bothers me because shooting wildlife images from inside a jeep or blind, elbow to elbow with four other workshop photographers, while steadying a super zoom lens, isn’t exactly easy stuff. Once you start to learn the technical aspects of this type of shooting, your authentic vision might kick in as early as Day 2 or 3 of your workshop. If it takes you all week to get comfortable with wildlife shooting techniques, your vision might not kick in until well after you get home.

Personally, that delayed vision is why I encourage photographers to shoot with what I call the joyful abandon approach. I especially recommend the joyful abandon approach when you’re visiting somewhere you’ve never been, or learning to shoot in a new way. Imagine that you do finally fully develop your vision well after you’ve finished your wildlife workshop. Won’t you want a huge pool of images to ensure that you have the raw materials to realize your vision?

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I’ve traveled to Florida dozens of times but up until a few years ago, I’d never visited the Everglades, or ridden in an airboat. Even with an amazing guide explaining the ecosystem and gliding the boat slowly up to known alligator dens, it was a technically difficult shoot. With the movement of the boat and the reeds, my camera struggled to grab focus where I aimed.

The result? I shot. And shot. And shot some more. I’m grateful for all that shooting, since this is the one image I walked away with (above). It has that blurred golden background I love and – key for me when I shoot wildlife – that engaged expression, and tack-sharp focus on the eye.

Build your portfolio

You may never again have a chance to return to that wildlife workshop location, but your workshop leader does. He has the luxury of going annually with his students. He can take years to develop vision, shoot with measured patience, and build a portfolio of the 25 best wildlife images anyone has ever seen.

You, on the other hand, should shamelessly fill memory cards so that when you arrive home, you have access to a massive database of images that might yield 200 shareable gems. It will take work to cull those images and get to those gems, but it’s worth it, isn’t it?

Since your workshop leader has been on this type of shoot over and over, all that familiarity gives him increased comfort, and that increased comfort opens the portal for him to be more focused, and more creative, while shooting fewer frames. Plus, he already owns all of those classic wildlife images that you’ll still want to bring home. He has the luxury of pressing that shutter button once every 15 or 30 minutes. You don’t. You have work to do and a portfolio to build.

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A wild horse rolling in dust is a classic, portfolio-building wildlife image. Over the years, I’ve easily shot a thousand frames of rolling horses, but for me, this is “the one.” The experience I’ve gained from shooting with joyful abandon taught me just where to stand and how to compose my image. To maximize the dust and light beams, while capturing all four legs in the air, a well-defined face, and a highlighted mane.

I continued to shoot as this horse lumbered back up to his feet and was rewarded with a glorious, dusty shake too.

Keep shooting with joyful abandon

While I’m using a wildlife workshop as an example, since that was this keynote speaker’s specific remark, this idea of shooting with joyful abandon really applies to any opportunity to shoot, anywhere, even if you’re not on a workshop.

Whenever I travel to a new-to-me wild horse range, I carry massive amounts of memory cards and storage, and I shoot with absolute gleeful, joyful abandon. When I have a chance to return to that same wild horse range, I still have stacks of memory cards and storage, plus a more informed, authentic vision of the images I’d like to capture. I continue to shoot with joyful abandon and I promise you, over the course of a week, I’ll shoot far more than 800 frames.

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Making images isn’t just about how many frames we shoot, or how many keepers we get, it’s also about the process. Every single frame you shoot is part of your process, and that process helps you develop your unique vision. Whether that vision is focusing on the big picture or honing in on small details, or documenting grand moments or capturing subtle tender ones like these foals with their mothers, shooting with joyful abandon will help you achieve it.

The shooting with joyful abandon approach is how I’ve developed my vision – and how I continue to develop it and stay passionate about shooting. How do you develop your vision and fuel your passion for photography?

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Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lara Joy Brynildssen

is an avid equine, wildlife, nature and travel photographer. She is crazy about her two cats, loves her new Canon 5D Mark IV, and never refuses a sip of limoncello.
Follow her at www.LaraJoy.us.

  • Frédéric

    I do exactly the same when I’m on holiday. I come home with thousands of pictures and it’s a long process to go through all of them but I would really hate to realize I don’t have the “right” picture because I didn’t shoot enough.

  • Carol Parker

    THANK YOU!!!

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Exactly! Besides, I love culling images. And editing. It improves my photographic vision plus I get to relive the experience too.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    You’re welcome! I love it when I can share my ideas with like-minded photographers.

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  • phem22sm1

    Awsome article. I’ve been struggling with the fact that I take so many photos of a particular scene when I go out shooting landscapes… I mean A LOT. This article is reassuring of my technique because at the end of the day, my goal is fulfilled when I get that one beautiful shot that coincides with my vision; no matter how many frames it took.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    You’re welcome! I love it when I can share my ideas with like-minded photographers.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    I understand! A lot of photogs out there think that shooting 5 frames to get 1 amazing shot is the goal. I don’t think you need to limit yourself especially if you do have vision. This joyful abandon approach differs from “spray and pray” because you’re looking for a specific look or quality in your end result. I know many macro and landscape photogs who shoot the same scene over and over. They bracket with aperture and also with shutter speed. They know exactly what they want but till they get home and see it on their large screen, they don’t know if they got that “Ahah!” moment. Besides, how else would you want to spend your time? I say be joyful and shoot to your heart’s content.

  • Krittin Boonsuya

    Thank you for the knowledge and a nice tips. #jm20216

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Thank you for reading Krittin!

  • Another great article, Lara Joy…I totally agree with this approach! I mean, after all – digital storage and SD cards are cheap, why not capture everything you can while you’re at a “once in a lifetime” location? 🙂

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Thanks Jim! Exactly! Memory cards are cheap. It’s not like it was back in the days of film processing so we can shoot as much as we want – and accelerate our learning curve by doing so too.

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  • Good article – and one I agree with even though at least half my shooting is with film; a medium inherently designed to work against the joyful abandon approach. in truth, I think it’s important to approach photography with the least number of preconceived notions. I may take 12 frames with my film body and switch to 100 with my digital – and back again. Whatever it takes.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Richard, you are right. Back when I was a film shooter I was keenly aware of shooting fewer frames so that I didn’t have to process 20 rolls which, as a student, I couldn’t afford to do anyway. Chemicals and paper are expensive and the time factor was a killer too. I think that shooting digital has given all of us an immense amount of freedom. We all learn faster and make better images too. But I envy you still shooting film. I miss it sometimes.

  • terry mckenna

    This is an excellent point. In fact, as a landscape photographer, I find that you really do not know a site at all the first time you shoot. You can plan, but in the end, it is good to capture even the unplanned – and to view it on a large monitor – to see what else is there that you may not have expected.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Hi Terry, Yes! For sure this approach applies to landscapes. I was in Iceland a few years ago to shoot landscapes and while some of my images are very beautiful, I am keenly aware now that I was jet-lagged and overwhelmed. I did shoot a lot but wish I’d shot more – both with more focus and more experimentation too, for those “unplanned” instances.

  • Mark Miller

    Great article. Even back in the days of film, I was taught that film would be the least expensive part of the process. That holds even more truth today.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Thank you! Buying the film wasn’t too expensive but all that time processing sure was wasn’t it? Culling images is time consuming too but at least I can do it with my feet up and no stinky chemicals…!

  • Robbie Kirkpatrick

    Great article and I agree 100%! I have a small riverside park that I go to about 20-25 times a year and have been doing it for 4-5 years. I continually find something new in each season. Your approach gives me plenty to sift through after shooting and points me to where I could shoot again but differently. Thanks.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    That’s great that you have a beautiful park you can go to again and again. I see an exhibition in your future showing a retrospective of all of your park images.

  • Lee

    I always, always overshoot. I may take up to 10 shots of the same image, just to get a minuscule difference in eye contact, facial expression or posture. I’d rather go to one of my favourite spots, shoot 400+ images in a couple of hours, and then sift through to find just that one that you hadn’t noticed through the viewfinder, than miss out on opportunity. We aren’t limited by the cost of film, or development. We’re only limited by time these days, realistically. Plus, you always learn something from the ‘not so good’ shots, that might assist any future shoots.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    I always learn from the not-so-good shots too. Sometimes I even keep them as a reminder for the next time so that I remember what I did wrong and can re-attempt the perfect shot.

  • glennsphotos

    Great advise. I enjoy shooting photos with my daughter who has really got into photography this year. She will shoot photos of everything and sometimes i question her about what she is photographing to try to focus her. But then i remember that her age i did the same and everything was interesting and all angles were photographed and i believe that that is all about being open and creative. As we get older and more established sometimes we forget to be as creative as when we are just seeing everything. We learn tried and true and that may limit us from being creative. I look at my daughters photos and at times she stuns me with a truely beautiful photo taking in a very unique way that i would have dismissed because im not as open. Thank You

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    That’s a great story and excellent advice to stay open to different ways of doing things because you may never know what sort of amazing photograph you’ll capture.

  • James Ruddy

    If you were using film the advice to be more aware and careful about how many shots you take is very good advice, but with digital you can do the same but take as many as you want without worrying about the cost of film and processing…so why not take more? It just makes sense to click away and pick the best of the lot.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    For sure! It makes more sense with digital to click away and then learn as you cull.

  • There is always a cost. For digital it’s in terms of time rather than film. 8000 photos is a lot to sort through. Especially with RAW shots from a many megapixel camera.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    This approach really isn’t about cost, per se. Though this method is time-consuming, it can be very high-yield in terms of images. It’s also about truly enjoying your experience while you shoot and – very importantly – it’s about learning and defining who you are as a photographer when you cull and process your images. You can learn so much when you carefully review your images and evaluate why one is a standout and others are just OK. I’m assuming too that most everyone who reads dPS is into their equipment and has a good computer with a good screen that processes today’s big files pretty quickly. One of my favorite parts of my day is when I can take a coffee break and edit my images…

  • James Ruddy

    If you look at time as a valuable commodity that needs to be rationed or spent more wisely, then you do have a point. However, I’m retired and don’t have anything else that I’d rather do, plus I enjoy sorting through them. I’ve never taken 8000 photos at one time though. A days range would be more like 200-500 depending on the setting.

  • Lara Joy Brynildssen

    Exactly!

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