The Most Incredible Photograph You Can Make

Shooting film, where you have a finite (and small) number of exposures on a roll, greatly helped me become more effective as a photographer. It encouraged me to take my time more, and make each shot count, as far as possible.

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Now I’m predominantly shooting digital again, I’ve tried to retain some of the best aspects of shooting film.

One major one is the vintage lenses I use.

I can’t see myself using a modern AF lens on my DSLRs anytime soon, I’m so attached to the experience and the resultant images gained when using vintage glass, from Takumars to Pentax-A.

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Arguably the second most significant shooting trait I try to carry over from film to digital can be phrased simply.

At the moment I’m about to take a photograph, I ask myself, “Picture the most incredible photograph you can make, with this subject, with this equipment, in these lighting conditions. Would that ultimate realisation of the scene before you be worth capturing?”

If the answer is no – and it often is – then I either try to adjust some aspect (focus, aperture thus depth of field, my position) to make it better, or just walk away.

Because if the very best possible outcome isn’t going to be that good, then why waste a photograph on it? 

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Yes, I know with digital you can potentially have hundreds or thousands of images on your camera at once, so you could take seven or 77 variations of the same scene and then decide later which to keep.

The technology is there for continuous shooting and exposure bracketing and so on, that mean it’s far more likely that one shot out of a rapid-fire blast of them is going to be ok.

But that’s really not my style. Again this was honed by shooting film. 

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I’m all for frugality and efficiency and would rather get it right with one shot in camera than be sifting through dozens afterwards. (My post processing with digital is very simple and virtually non-existent.)

And by asking this simple question – Would the most incredible photograph you can make in these conditions be worth taking? – it significantly reduces the likelihood of sifting through seven or 77 versions of the same scene, where none of them are any good because the lighting or the composition or the focal length was all wrong anyway.

Or the scene was just too dull to be worth capturing (yep, I’m still getting of this one pretty often!)

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How do you decide in the moment which photographs are worth taking? Does this process and thinking change between shooting film and digital? 

Let us know in the comments below.

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18 thoughts on “The Most Incredible Photograph You Can Make”

  1. Well, usually I do not invest much time in evaluating motives and different perspectives – this is not the way it works for me.

    Usually, when walking/hiking/driving around, I ‘see’ a motive worth capturing and try to guess a valid perspective … then take the shot.

    On digital, it might follow a second one, if the immediate check doesn’t satisfy me.
    Like on my last journey to Ireland, I shot 3 films, i.e. 108 pictures and in parallel 600 digital ones.

    However, even if I have both cameras (analog and digital) with me, I more and more try shooting only the one or the other over one day. This also keeps the weight of my camera bag down.

    1. Interesting ratio of film to digital shooting Reinhold. I’d be interested to hear what the relative “keeper” rates were with each?

      I hardly ever shoot film and digital on the same shoot either, they still fill really different processes and states of mind to me, even though they’ve been slowly converging in the last six months or so. Very occasionally I might be out shooting film or digital and take a snapshot with my iPhone in between, just to see something in a different way.

  2. “Interesting ratio” … haha, indeed, but let’s make a rough calculation …

    Well, subtract 185 iPhone shots from the 600 digital ones, which I use mostly to have a GPS tagged image from the location and … believe it or not, iPhone shots sometime look quite pleasing … and you’re down to 415.

    Calculating further, that we had more rainy than sunny days – 10:5, I used my digital cam as it is sealed and I do not have to worry about getting wet. The more sunny days, the more often I would have used the analog cam. For me it was a daily unbiased decision in the morning after checking the weather forecast – or simply looking out of the window.

    Furthermore … seeing the slightly different process “analog vs digital” – as you mentioned – with analog you have to consider the fixed ISO and the limited amount of shots. So indeed, I still make more digital shots – even if I’m on a way to reduce, as also minimum of postprocessing and sorting takes a lot of time / too much time.

    So finally concluding … the ratio is not so bad at all 😉

    Regarding the keepers (which IMHO is nothing absolute) … I’m still sorting out … so far the keeper ratio is quite high for both – analog and digital. For me the final judgement day is, when I make the selection for my yearly calendar of our trips of the year, where I have to eliminate all but 12 pictures. This is sometimes quite painful … but the remaining 12 are simply the best of the year … for the given calendar orientation. This way I get the topmost rated pictures, even if I shot hundrets of them 😉

    … damn long reply 🙂

    1. I like a long and thoughtful reply!

      Yes, iPhone shots can be brilliant! I do keep toying with the idea of going for a month using nothing but my iPhone. But I like my vintage kit too much.

      That’s a great idea about 12 pictures a year, much like the famous Ansel Adams quote – “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”… I have no idea how I would choose these!

      Completely agree about trying to be more choosy in taking photographs with digital especially. I too dislike the post processing time so obviously if you take fewer photographs you have less to process. The balance I struggle with sometimes is not all photowalks are equal. One day, the weather and surroundings might mean you could get 50 keepers in one shoot out of 100 shots, another day with different weather, you could take 100 photos and only get one or two worth keeping. The sorting and post processing of the 50 shots might take ages, but if their 50 shots worth keeping, then it’s something we need to go through.

      1. Again what learned … as we Germans say 🙂

        Didn’t know that the great Ansel Adams already thought in calendar terms. But indeed it is brilliant. I like the idea of having my best 12 shots hanging on the wall for one year and having something to remember the past years highlights.

        Selecting 12 out of many hundreds is indeed not easy.
        After weeks of thoughtful selecting I finally have around 100.
        These 100 then go into a speed dating, where decision has to be taken instantly … which is a very tough job, as many good ones have to leave.

  3. Interesting conjecture here Dan…
    Why indeed do we choose to shoot one scene over a different one?

    Because if the very best possible outcome isn’t going to be that good, then why waste a photograph on it? I’m not so sure about that. Oddly enough, my methodology over the years has changed very little. I am still as enthusiastic about lifting the camera to my eye on instinct. Motives for one scene over a different one is something that no-one can quantify, and no-one ever will. What one can do however is gain some truths from the results. At least that is what I have come to believe.

    As I’ve mentioned to you before, I feel the print is the logical conclusion of the image making process. Having something tangible in your hands that you can interact with on a biological (and intimate) level is what we should strive for. And in the endeavor to reach that stage, I try to live by the rule of shooting on instinct! and shoot everything, from every angle if you feel you want to. Then go home, and divorce yourself from the images. Set them aside and do something else. Then come back when the emotional connection has gone off the boil. When you feel you can look at your images with as much objectivity as possible, you THEN do you editing. And be RUTHLESS. Whittle down your images one JUST ONE IMAGE THAT will be your strongest image! Just ONE! THAT is all you can ask for.

    I one day hope to make another great image to go with the 2 that I already have 😉

    1. Anton, thanks for your thoughts.

      Yes, and with those shots you made on instinct that in the end don’t work, you can hopefully learn from them, and hone your instinct further. There is a strong argument for this approach!

      I just found in the past, especially with film where it matters a lot more (due to the cost) with every roll I shot maybe a quarter or more of it I was thinking afterwards “Why did I even bother to press the shutter button?”

      Funnily enough, moving back to digital (especially with the Ricoh compacts) I am more experimental than with film, because if it doesn’t work out I just delete the file, there’s no other consequence or cost.

      With the prints, you’re far more evolved than me down this road. Just before Christmas I had a few prints made (only via a mainstream online place where we always get family and holiday photos done), and loved how they turned out. One is actually framed and in our bathroom.

      But it’s something that’s far from a habit for me, at this stage. I kind of don’t know what to do with them once I have them.

      That is excellent advice about editing, allowing time to grow distant from the images. All too often I get home and straight away upload the photos to my computer. Just because I want to keep all my files organised, as much as anything. I don’t then share a load of photos immediately, but tend to review them over the week or two after, so I do have a bit of distance. But a little more I think could be beneficial.

      Who was that photographer where they found hundreds, maybe thousands of undeveloped rolls of film in his house after he died? Maybe Winogrand? Shows how much more important the process of making is than the end result, for some.

  4. yes, I think for Winogrand and Maier, and I’m sure many more, it must be such a compulsion that seeing the images are not even part of the bigger picture (no pun intended). I used to image that Winogrand sometimes went out with an empty camera… but then I saw him loading his M4 now and again.

    I truly count myself lucky to be able to find such a wonderful form of expression (making images). Something as simple as a fallen leaf, a cup, blade of grass can be interrupted in so many ways by so many people all walking down different paths.

    I love putting family snaps up on the wall. Far too few people do that.

    1. Ha, I’ve done the empty camera thing a few times with film… OK, not intentionally, just I haven’t loaded the film properly and not realised until I’ve hit frame 30 of a 24 exposures roll… But despite not having any physical evidence of my photographs, the way they were seen by my eyes and in my head was no different to if I’d have capture them on film too. For me, the process is a huge part, maybe 80% or more. Having a image you’re proud of afterwards too is the icing on the bun.

      I think many (most?) people just don’t experience or appreciate art on the level that some of us do. I know that sounds very pretentious and stuck up to say! But I could wax lyrical about a close up of a decaying leaf, all the elements I like visually, and the symbolism and the emotion. The average viewer would say “pretty leaf”, or worse, “why didn’t you take a photograph of a leaf that was still alive and green?”…

      My wife is a huge lover of family snaps, we have probably 25 in our main living room, including a multi-framed one of our wedding photos. I found it strange for some time, but have got used to it and actually enjoy it now.

      You’ll probably recoil in horror at this Anton, but I was looking at those digital photo frames the other day, just so we could have say 20 photographs of the kids on rotation, rather than just one physical print.

  5. hey, those digital frames are brilliant, and so easy to use. I think for pics of family and friends, and those special holiday moments, it’s just PERFECT!! Far too often our images are hidden away on a blog, or some curated website, far away in a dark corner of the InterWebs.

    “why didn’t you take a photograph of a leaf that was still alive and green?”… THAT question I know very well 😀
    I have been known to hide old bouquets of flowers that I bought my misses, just to make sure she doesn’t toss them out when they start waning…. #justassad 😉

    1. Ah I didn’t think you’ve be a fan of the digital frames. The only thing holding me back initially is the cost, but I guess it’s the equivalent of buying multiple wood/metal/plastic frames so good value in the long run. Absolutely about images hidden in dark corners, I know that while we do have a lot of photos displayed, there are thousands more (even though I’m not especially prolific in taking family photos) on my HD that could be seen more often.

      I’ve done a similar thing with flower bouquets, just pretended I’ve not noticed them dying and taken a few close ups of the decaying leaves and fallen petals when no-one else is around, ha ha.

    1. Anton, I remember seeing this post and photo at the time. I think it was around the time I was dabbling in street photography and we “met” on the Street Hunters community on Google+. If I could do this kind of street photography more, I would!

      How do you stand now, in terms of sharing online, and where you are with your photography?

  6. Trying to “Picture the most incredible photograph you can make, with this subject, with this equipment, in these lighting conditions. Would that ultimate realisation of the scene before you be worth capturing?” may well freeze me in my tracks with creative anxiety, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway — pardon the pun — on my next trip. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Dan.

    1. I think if we focus on whether the scene is worth capturing at all, rather than how we can make the very best photo and getting everything “perfect” is the key. Good luck, let me know how it goes!

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