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Opinion: A Challenge to Slow Down

By Scott Hays

While it may feel good to blame the lady down the street with a high-quality camera for our business troubles, it’s time to consider the contributing factor that we have the most control over. Ourselves. There’s nothing you can do about camera manufacturers improving their product and making it affordable enough for enthusiasts to attain. You can’t blame people who are enthusiastic about photography and want to make it the source of their livelihood. We were all at that level once. But we can examine ourselves and refine our technique and force the competition to rise to our level rather than letting ourselves get sloppy and only equal theirs.

Before digital, we had to wait until our film came back to see what you had accomplished. When we shot a senior session, most of us were pretty content with shooting a roll of 24 exposures, maybe 36, and then setting an appointment for our customers to come back to see the results. Now, with the aid of immediate feedback, the practice of shooting hundreds of images and culling them down to “the good ones” has pervaded the profession. It has allowed our artistic brains to get lazy.

Though I still love shooting digital, I have begun to shoot wet plate style as they did in the 19th century. No, it’s not a superior method of photography, but I find it fascinating. It can take up to an hour to prepare, shoot and finish one image. No built-in light meter, no light meter period. You take your lens cap off, count or look at your watch, and with experience you learn how long to expose your glass or tin plate. It can be anywhere from three seconds to 30 minutes if not longer. As there are today, there were specialists. There were portrait photographers, and the photographers who made what we would consider a head shot, which were the size of wallet images today. There were landscape photographers. They had one thing in common: the image took time to set up and prepare. If they wanted to shoot away from their studio, they had to have a mobile darkroom. Once you expose your plate, you have approximately five minutes to process it.

So how does this apply? Somehow the machine-gun shutter has become the norm. What do we accomplish by taking four or more shots of the same pose? What would happen if we started to take only 15 to 20 images in an entire session? Our clients aren’t expecting a couple of hundred images; they are expecting to see an incredible finished product. Is it the client who wants to see us acting like a fashion photographer at their child’s senior session, or is it that we don’t trust our own abilities? Slow down.

When photographers had no choice but to get it right the first time, they made beautiful portraits. Granted, it wasn’t our 21st-century style, but you can shoot in whatever style you like, refrain from overshooting, and still create incredible work. We have a choice, yet we are choosing to lose sight of what photography actually is. Photography isn’t taking pictures, it is the study of light.

Challenge yourself on a day when you don’t have a client. Go to the park or a visually interesting location, and only allow yourself to take 12 images. Take a friend or family member and shoot portraits. Use only manual settings, and under no circumstances should you view any of the images until you get home and download them. You will learn so much about yourself and your photography. If you still have your 35mm film camera, go pick up a roll of C41 color or black-and-white film. Take it out and shoot a roll of 24.

This exercise will help you believe in your abilities again. It will tell you what you need to work on. The first time you can’t look at the back of your camera, it will feel almost like an anxiety attack. If you have never taken on an exercise like this, grab a photographer friend and go out together. It gets a little amusing. Do this once a month. You will be amazed by how much your images improve when you slow down and think before you shoot.

As photographers, we need to start shooting for quality not quantity. How you do that is solely up to you. If we are as comfortable with our knowledge of photography as we all believe we are, we should slow down and use our knowledge of the foundations of photography. That’s an impressive photographer. It just might impress your clientele as well.

So when you preparing for your next session, or come back from the exercise I mentioned, think about how you are shooting. Ask yourself if you are shooting with deliberation. Can you slow it down? Can you become a better artist?

If you would like to comment on this essay, please post on our Facebook page or send an email to Senior Editor Joan Sherwood.