How often do you take pictures? And when you do, how many pictures do you take?
I once heard a story from Joe McNally, a well-known and highly respected photographer who has shot over 25 stories for National Geographic. He was working (for a year) on a story about the sense of sight, and over the course the assignment, he shot about 1,500 roll—ROLLS—of film. At 36 shots per roll, that’s 54,000 exposures. The magazine ran 25 photographs for the story.
Next week, we’ll talk a bit about why a photographer as good as McNally takes so many pictures. I mean, if he’s such a good photographer, shouldn’t he just have to take one shot? But right now, let’s talk about what happens to you as a photographer when you take 54,000 shots in a year.
First of all, you get the expected shots out of the way really quickly. Cameras come out automatically on birthdays and vacations and Christmas and Easter and graduations and maybe for the local parade. That will only account for a few hundred shots for most people.
If you keep your camera in your hand, and you make yourself use it, you will get bored of the expected shots, and you will start looking for other things to photograph. Hey! There’s your feet. There’s your self in a mirror. A barn. Flowers, fallen leaves, butterflies. Snap away. Photographs of your own feet will rarely be good, but it’s a phase that many photographers go through, so knock yourself out.
As you keep shooting, you will start to get bored of those first other-things you thought of to shoot, and that is good, because in the creative pursuits, the first thing you think of is probably the same first thing many other people also thought of. Why are you photographing barns, or urban decay, or flowers? What else will you move on to?
As you look for more things to photograph (because you are only up to 2,700 exposures so far), you might find yourself returning to the small things. I have certain ambitions in art photography, and I have a theory behind my images, but the photographs that I keep going back to look at, the ones that really connect with me on a personal level, are the ones of my daughter drinking milk out of cereal bowl, or playing in the sprinkler in the back yard, or of the girls jumping on the bed, or doing something else really mundane. They are little moments, unplanned, unstaged, unaware. They are moments that I would not have caught if I only took my camera out on the days that are circled on the calendar.
Those big days are important, and they are a good place for your camera to be. But those big days are not where life is lived. If you are looking to be a better photographer in order to capture something better, whether that is your family, or your friends, or the barns, flowers, and feet near you, you simply must take many, many photographs. I like to think of each photograph not as something that is going to be a finished, printed image, but as a step in looking for the right image. When I take out my camera, I don’t take a few frames of film; I take a few rolls film. I use the time photographing to understand what I am looking at, to examine it, and to try out how to see it. I can pick a final image later.
So: Have your camera out and charged with space on your memory card or with film loaded. Take pictures, every day if possible.
Homework: shoot something mundane. When the pictures turn out mundane, shoot something mundane again until you capture something striking.