Photography and a Machine Gun

The ‘machine-gun’ approach to photography – by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good – is fatal to serious results. – Ansel Adams 

I need to slow down.

One of the reasons I switched primarily to film is that I wasn’t giving enough thought to each photograph.  With digital, I would shoot, chimp, and fire away.  Shoot a thousand frames?  No problem.  I’ll find one I like and fix it in post.  Film by its very nature changes that thinking.

For my style, that’s fatal, as St. Ansel said.

But even now, shooting dozens of frames instead of hundreds or thousands on a shoot, I find myself still rushing.  When ideas rush in quickly, I flit from scene to scene, thinking I’m in the zone.  I’m not.  It’s like a funhouse mirror of the zone with many scattered images, but only one True One.

I need to slow down. 

To carefully ponder the light, my exposure, the possibilities, every millimeter of the frame.  To paraphrase Freeman Patterson, every single thing in the frame either adds to or detracts from the photograph.  I need to constantly repeat the mantra in my head  – simplify, simplify, simplify. What was it that made me want to stop and take the photo?  Was it a color, an emotion, a pattern, a curve?  Now, remove everything else and enhance whatever that is.

Slowing down allows me to be in the moment.  I need to remind myself that a clear mind is not only open to possibilities, but also allows me to escape the world and connect with my subject.  That could be the beauty of nature, of a beautiful woman, or of a wabi sabi tattered window.

I need to slow down.





  1. I have been telling myself exactly that for a while, but when confronted with a subject matter that’s especially exciting, it’s hard to beat the adrenalin.

    I tell myself one way to combat that is to keep revisiting it so that the intial novelty wears off and I can stop being excited long enough to think deeper about it. I’m still in the process of seeing how effective that is.

    Have you found any approaches to slowing down that you’ve found worked for you?

  2. Hi Charlene,

    When the situation allows it, I actually use the revisit method that you described as well.

    Unfortunately though sometimes, especially while traveling, you don’t have that luxury.

    I’m my own harshest critic, so when I get home after a trip and see what I’ve got, invariably there are photos I see that I then kick myself for not diving deeper into. I don’t enjoy that feeling! So over the years when I’ve found a scene or situation I really like, I take a deep breath, try to clear my head, and then start going through the mental checklist that I mentioned in the post:

    What drew me to the subject?
    What can I do to emphasize that?
    How can I remove (or add) anything to the frame to either simplify or accentuate that quality?
    Now, what do I need to do to my exposure to capture that essence?
    Dive deep, then play – experiment – try.

    I literally have to force myself to think about those things.

    It’s not easy, for sure.


  3. I feel that pressure to “get the shot” and “shoot quickly” can come from outside too. I was at an Civil War era event this weekend which was pretty rich photographically. There was one particular guy who had the gear and the manner of a photographer that may have been covering it for someone. He was snapping away almost “machine-gun”-like at various angles as I was trying to get images of the same thing. I could feel his rapid movements and shutter-depresses infiltrating my process. I tried to fight it and intentionally slowed down and backed away until he had moved on and then went back to composing my own images more carefully. Even then the residual feeling left from that interaction made me forget to go through a checklist such as that you describe in your comment above Mark.

    I think there are also situations which demand slowing down and composing more carefully and those would most likely include nature or landscape photography. Events with action though, even relatively slow action, start to encourage you to speed up subconsciously and that’s what is hard to fight. How do you adjust in each of those situations?

  4. Good point Ed, I think you handled your situation well.

    There are certainly situations like action or sports photography where this is less of an option, but still not entirely ruled out. I think most of the questions that I ask myself (that I mentioned in the comment above) still apply.

    For example – I’m photographing a football game. Tons of action on the field. Now, if you’re there reporting the game, you’re going to fire away at will, trying to capture specific moments. A high speed motordrive is a must in this case.

    But what if you’re just there to shoot it to capture football and get some good action shots? Then you can ask yourself the questions: What do I want to emphasize? What can I do to isolate that thing? Where do I need to position myself to do that and what should I do to adjust my exposure to empasize it? It’s the previsualization.

    Even Andy Biggs, a fantastic wildlife photographer in Africa, talks about “planning” a wildlife shot just as you would a portrait. At first, that seems counterintuitive – how can you plan a wildlife sighting? But you CAN plan how you’ll use depth of field to isolate your subject, what you need to do to position yourself properly, etc.

    Hope that helps.


  5. Slowing down and paying attention–being “present” is a term I hear often–is critical to making better photographs.

    But I have to be very careful with explicit checklists and asking myself questions like you propose. I am analytical by nature and my best photographs come when I fight that nature rather than embrace it. When I deliberately ask and try to answer questions like, “What’s drew me here?” “How can I best emphasize it?” and so forth, I end up with either absurdly reductionist photos or photos with absolutely no life or energy whatsoever.

    I have to relax and work so that I don’t let myself think verbally, and then apply the criteria when editing. That doesn’t mean that I shoot willy-nilly and without thought, but that I try to respond to what I see and adjust the framing through the viewfinder until it “feels” right even though I can’t allow myself to articulate why it feels right at the time.

    So for me, slowing down is taking the time to be calm and to become aware enough that I can sense when a picture has the right feel. And it also means being willing to move on and not hang on shooting the same thing over and over again with little minute, meaningless adjustments. If I can’t feel it, then I can’t feel it, and I need to move on.

  6. Great post, Mark. The desire to slow down, to really *look* again, is one of the main things that brought me back to film, as well. My approach and motivation may be a bit different than yours, in that I’m not thinking *as much* about individual shots as I am about capturing the essence of a place (or whatever I’m shooting), or the feeling it gives me, etc. This is something Eddie Soloway talks a lot about, and he’s a big proponent of returning to a place over and over again and just sitting and looking around and getting a sense of the place before even raising camera to eye. It’s a luxury, for sure, but so worth it.

    Last spring I led a field workshop that I called the “Three-Frame Shoot” — the only rule being that during our 90 minutes together, participants could shoot no more than three frames. I chose my location really carefully (someplace with a variety of subject matter, but all of it a bit on the boring side) because I didn’t want to out-and-out torture people (lol), but the attendees really loved the exercise. And they each did produce three interesting photos, so I guess it worked for them!

  7. Wow, that 3 frame shoot sounds very interesting. I might have to try that. I’m a big fan of Eddie Soloway too. I agree about capturing the emotion of a place (I think I mentioned it, but I should have been more emphatic about it). That, to me, is the most difficult thing in photography. Capturing emotion and conveying that to the viewer via color, contrast, light, composition, content whatever it takes.


  8. You’re right, with digital it is far too easy to keep snapping away without any consideration of composition or exposure, as Photoshop is right around the corner. I haven’t shot in film, but the way I see it is that you have 36 shots only and you have to make every one count.

  9. Good post Mark – thanks and an interesting discussion. My biggest challenge is staying still long enough to see more than the superficial. When I an travelling or going on a photo outing I am always afraid to miss something so don’t take the time to just ‘be’. When I did a workshop with Steve Simon last spring, he had my number – my assignment was to stay in one place in our market for two hours – very difficult for me but a great learning experience.

    I was at a friend’s wedding last month and had a challenge of not being mobile (broken ankle) so no moving around to get good angles – just shoot from a chair – another learning experience and good for me. We can surprise ourselves sometimes when we have limits.

    The three photo thing sounds like a fun challenge — gulp

    Your questions are thoughtful Mark – asking ourselves ‘what drew me to the subject’ and how to capture the essence. It is about being more conscious and having clarity about why we are doing something – in this case taking a photograph.

    Thanks for starting this discussion

  10. totally agree, shooting film requires photographers to (hopefully) stop & think (for a split second) before shooting. Whereas many digital point & shoots, especially without a viewfinder, encourages users to wave the camera around snapping away carelessly in hopes of getting a shot – in focus.

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