How Many Images Should You Shoot?

Finding a balance between very few and too many

There’s an old expression among professional photographers: “Film is cheap.” Anybody who’s recently done a lot of shooting knows that this certainly isn’t the case. Whether shooting print or slide film, by the time you buy the film and have it processed at a good lab, it can cost anywhere between $15 and $20 per roll.

Burning Film for One Great Shot

Professional, commercial and editorial photographers blow through film. A sports photographer assigned to cover a baseball game might set his motor drive on the “continuous” shooting mode and fire off a half-dozen shots every time a batter swings over the plate or when a play is made in the outfield. By the end of the evening, he may have shot 20 or 30 rolls of film. With so many photos to choose from, it’s much easier to get that all-important shot for the next day’s front page in the sports section.

Similarly, an editorial photographer I was writing about mentioned that he had just finished a small assignment for National Geographic. He was asked to rake some supplementary shots for an assignment that another person originally photographed. The assignment involved traveling some 500 miles and staying in the area for about a week to document specific subjects for the magazine. During that time, he shot 160 rolls of transparency film. After all that, only one of his shots was used, and it ran small, stuck in the corner of a page.

While many newspapers and magazines buy their film in bulk and some do their own processing, buying and processing those 160 rolls can still cost a few thousand dollars. Even by professional standards, that’s not particularly cheap.

But there is a certain truth in the old adage when talking about professional assignments, as film is usually the least expensive item in a commercial shoot. When you factor in fees for the photographer, assistants, crew or models, studio charges or location costs, and a myriad of other expenses, the price of film isn’t that high by comparison.

The Digital Advantage

Until recently, most casual photographers didn’t have the luxury to take an unlimited number of shots, as pros do. They couldn’t shoot as many frames as they wanted, just to come up with one optimum image. But now, with a digital camera and a computer, they have the option to shoot away.

Once you’ve purchased the equipment, there’s no additional cost to shoot as many frames as you’d like. The only limitations are the capacity of the removable memory and the need to transfer images to a computer before the media can be used again.

Even the limitation of the amount of hard disk storage space available on a computer is no longer much of a problem, since many computer systems come with writable CD drives. And more-powerful imaging systems frequently come configured with high-capacity Zip or Jaz drives. When the new hardware is paired with album software or an image database, it becomes very easy for a photographer to shoot as many images as he or she wants, without overloading the storage capacity of the hard disk.

On the Plus Side

There are both pros and cons in having the ability to shoot copiously. Obviously, positive aspects include becoming a better photographer through practice. Even the most accomplished photographers admit they lose their keen edge if they go for long periods of time without shooting.

Another positive aspect is the opportunity to experiment. You can try different styles, techniques and subject matter, without incurring additional photographic expenses. Even if you don’t find the experimentation interesting after a while, much of what you’ve learned can be incorporated into other types of photography or assignments. It’s amazing how seemingly unrelated capabilities come in handy for different kinds of photography.

The third positive aspect is the ability to be comprehensive. Instead of shooting one or two frames of a subject, which might include an overview or scene-setting shot, and a few close-ups, it’s possible to shoot a subject from many angles and capture it in as great a detail as you need, without worrying about wasted film and unnecessarily high costs.

The Downside

One of the most negative aspects of being able to shoot as much as you like is that the importance of individual shots is reduced. A characteristic that sets great photographers apart from the rest of the crowd is the ability to get that one great shot at the exact instant that it mattered, not a moment too soon or too late.

Before the advent of 35mm cameras, there were cameras available that accepted various sizes of roll film. But their image quality was marginal and they didn’t offer the creative controls that professional photographers needed. Instead, studio and commercial photographers used large-format cameras, while editorial photographers used Speed Graphics. Both types of cameras required sheets of film in individual holders. After one shot, the film holder had to be turned over or replaced.

Imagine how difficult it was for the famous police photographer Weegee to cover a crime scene with a heavy, boxy Speed Graphic. If he shot too soon or too slowly, it would take several seconds to get ready for the next shot. By that time, all the action might be over.

Even after 35mm SLRs became popular, getting that all-important frame was still an art. A photographer might be able to click off a few shots in seconds without jamming the camera, but it was still a matter of taking individual photographs. Motor drives changed all that. At six frames a second for as long as there’s unexposed film in the camera, getting that decisive shot has gotten a lot easier.

Capturing the Moment

Digital cameras take the continuous shooting mode one step further, to the point that some cameras are able to capture individual frames at almost video-frame speed. Some consumer digital models can shoot three or four frames a second. Professional models can capture even more frames per burst.

To guarantee that one great shot, a new Olympus digital camera starts shooting before you’re actually ready to take the picture, in case you’ve missed the action by the time you decide to fully depress the shutter. It stores up to five frames when the shutter is halfway depressed while you’re still making up your mind whether to shoot or not. If the shot is taken, those pre-images are saved; if not, they’re discarded. So, for each shot that’s taken, five additional shots are saved. Taking just 10 shots results in having 60 shots to choose from.

With such fast continuous-shooting modes, and a proliferation of images due to different types of automatic image capture, and the cost of film and processing being eliminated, there’s no reason to shoot judiciously. Increasingly, photographers just shoot everything, and then figure out what they want to keep. The problem with shooting that much is that you don’t do any pre-editing, and you never really hone your photographic judgment.

The secret is finding the balance between taking too few or too many photos. If you can learn that, you’re well on your way to becoming a better photographer.

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