Photo by Justin Bettman
First of all, I’d like to thank Scott and his team for inviting me to write a guest post. I’ve used the tips, tricks, and advice from other photographers’ posts here for years. It’s an honor to be asked to share.
I’d like to discuss a shooting technique that I’ve been using in my practice for years and believe has helped me develop as a photographer and artist. That practice is limiting the number of frames I produce.
I come from a film photography background where I was limited by the number of frames on the roll and how much film I could afford to buy at the time. Before going out, I would calculate the cost of every frame in my mind. This would make me hyper-focused on nailing my exposure, and concentrate on my framing. As I moved from a 35mm camera to a 4×5, this practice became even more critical.
As I moved into digital photography and memory cards got larger, I found myself shooting thousands upon thousands of frames. It wasn’t unheard of for me to come back from a days assignment with a 1000 images. I wanted to cover my bases to make sure that I got the shot. While shooting a lot gave me coverage of the assignment, I wasn’t as happy with the work. First, I didn’t want to sift through thousands of images. When I was shooting film I was excited about every single picture. Second, I felt my work was getting a little sloppy. I was so focused on shooting that the connections with my subjects weren’t as sharp and my framing wasn’t, in my opinion, as dynamic or exciting.
One day I sat down and thought about my practice and made a list of things I needed to improve on (this is something I think everyone should do this at least once a year). Something that came out of this list was how I missed the limitation of film. I thought about how silly that was, because nothing is stopping me from limiting myself. This new limited image approach had to be tested on a personal shoot, not a paid one, and I had the perfect event coming up.
Armed with a Crown Graphic 4×5 and 30 sheets of film, I drove clear across the country from New York to Nevada. I removed the capability of compulsively documenting the entire trip and forced myself to select particular people, interactions, and experiences. In the end, I loved the limitation. I was back to spending half a day with a potential subject (some I didn’t even end up photographing) and waiting for just the right light to fall on the scene.
I continued the practice in India, a location that I knew I could quickly rack up tens of thousands of images from. For a month-long trip, I brought ten rolls of film which left me with 360 frames in total to make. My friends and colleagues thought I was insane, but I was excited to take on the challenge, and in fact, I brought back one roll unused.
After that trip, I was feeling comfortable making fewer frames and started to incorporate the practice into my paid assignment work. In the end, I re-sparked my creativity, and I think I’m producing better photos than I was before. So I challenge all of you to limit yourself on a trip, or project. Start off with something simple like a weekend adventure and limit yourself to 10 images. I think you’ll surprise yourself with how focused you become. If you take the challenge to let me know how it goes!
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