I was reminded today, in a roundabout way on Facebook, that I’m a stingy photographer. I guess I prefer to think of my approach as not being wasteful with film — but since I don’t actually shoot film anymore, that’s sort of ridiculous. In any event, the result is the same: I just don’t shoot a lot of photographs.
I don’t normally dwell on this sort of stuff, but one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s more famous quotes was posted on Facebook: Your first 10,000 photographs are the worst. It occurred to me that I probably hadn’t shot ten thousand photographs in my entire long and semi-wicked life.
Here’s what I mean. I recently completed a series of photographs for Utata’s Just One Thing project. My contribution — my one thing — was the four miles of the Des Moines skywalk system. I spent six days noodling around in the skywalk. Sometimes I was there in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoon so I could catch different sorts of light. I was there on sunny days, and rainy days, and overcast days. Six days, and I shot a grand total of 177 photographs. That’s it — six days, 177 photos. That’s fewer than 30 photos a session. On average, each day I shot less than the equivalent of a roll of 36 exposure Kodachrome transparency film. Which they don’t make anymore, but you get my point. Not a lot of photos.
Out of those 177 photos I used twelve for the project and had eight others I’d consider worth keeping and showing people. So all in all, I got twenty worthwhile images out of 177 exposures. I don’t know if that’s a good ‘keeper’ rate or not; it seems about average for me. Would I have more keepers numerically if I shot more? I don’t know.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m so parsimonious with photography. All 177 photographs for the skywalk series were shot using a digital camera with a 16 gigabyte memory card that can hold nearly 3700 .jpg images, so it’s not a matter of space. I tell myself it’s an artifact of having learned photography using film, but I haven’t shot film in years. Surely I’m more adaptable than that. I mean, even a flatworm can learn to adapt to current conditions.
It might be the sort of photographs I shoot. I tend to shoot situations that either require patience or immediate action. Either I find the scene I want to shoot and wait for all the elements to come together in the frame, or there’s no time to wait at all — you shoot or you lose the moment. In the first circumstance I might shoot two or three exposures, but if I’ve prepared myself, that’s all I need. In the second circumstance, there’s rarely a chance for a second exposure. You’ve either got the shot or you don’t.
I’m the same way, though, when it comes to writing. Serious writing, that is — the writing I do professionally. When I’m putting words in a row for money, I try to be economical with them. Of course, when I’m just nattering away for my own amusement — like now — I’m a total spendthrift with words. Then I have no sense of moderation at all, at all. I don’t mind wasting words then; I figure there are always more words out there and I’m not likely to run out of them.
The only time I’ve been profligate with film is when I was a working private investigator and had to shoot photographs for the job. Photos of crime scenes, surveillance photos, photos of suspected arson cases, evidentiary photos in personal injury or insurance cases. In those situations, film is cheap. It costs less to have lots of redundant photographs than to have a case fail for the lack of the one photo you really need.
I have, on occasion, told myself not to be so stingy with photographs. But it never seems to take. I see the thing I want to photograph, when possible I take a moment to decide on the camera settings (aperture and shutter speed and white balance and all that), then I raise the camera and take a shot — maybe two, sometimes three. Immediately after that I think ‘Got it’ and that’s that. Or I think ‘Nope’ and then I either wait for the elements to all come together again, or I just move on. If I’ve missed it, I’ve missed it. The nice thing about photography is there’s always something else to photograph.
Right now — at this moment — I feel like I should train myself to shoot more photographs. But I suspect that the next time I find myself with a camera in hand and something I want to photograph, I’ll probably do what I always do. I’ll either get the shot or I won’t, and then I’ll move on.