Forget The Tedious Test Shots, Get Out And Make Some Real Photographs

The majority of posts I write on 35hunter include some kind of suggestion (or sometimes more like a command!) to myself to reroute my photography path a little.

Hopefully sometimes that suggestion resonates with you too, encourages you to think about your approach differently, and make positive steps that end up with a happier photographer, making more rewarding photography.

This is one of those posts.

Broadly speaking, my photography output falls into three camps.

1. Family shots.

This is self-explanatory, photographs that document the lives and adventures of my nearest and dearest.

2. Intentional photography.

Images of objects and scenes I’ve found beautiful enough to want to capture and share. Sometimes 1 and 2 overlap.

3. Gear testing photography.

Images made purely to see if a piece of photography equipment works in a certain way, or indeed, if it works at all. The dozens of tedious test shots I’ve made of that same rusting padlock on our garden shed, for example.

I always have plenty of time and room for the first category.

The second is where I want my focus to be when I’m using a camera, but not making a family photo of some kind.

The third category is a place I’ve spent way too much time in the last six or seven years, when I could have made more photographs of the second type.

I realised with hindsight this was an unavoidable side-effect of me buying so many cameras and lenses, especially between 2012 and 2017 when I was shooting film.

Owning over 50 cameras, but knowing I hadn’t even used half of them, was not a place I enjoyed being.

So I started to find my way out.

But aside from the simple dislike of owning too much stuff and it not being used, what I didn’t realise for a long time with this accumulation of gear, was an unwanted side effect.

That is, every new camera or lens purchase was followed by a testing period, to check it worked.

So the first five, 10, 20 plus shots made with that new camera or lens were predominantly test shots.

Add this up over the dozens I bought and you have hundreds, perhaps thousands of photographs made purely to check whether something was working, with very little (if any) artistic intent or merit to them.

Once I’d moved away from 35mm film, and was focusing purely on digital – in conjunction with a major gear purge – thankfully this testing habit diminished greatly.

This year though, it crept in a little more again, with my One Month, One Camera project, and a few other cameras I’ve bought along the way.

So it’s time to kick the tedious testing to touch once more. 

My newest (to me) two cameras are making a delightful double act in my eyes – A Pentax K100D and Pentax K-m.

Plus I mostly using just three lenses across the two cameras – a Pentax-A 50/1.7, Pentax-F 35-70mm, and a Pentax-DA 35/2.4.

But I’ve used each of the cameras and lenses enough now to know essentially what they’re capable of, so there’s no excuse for any more test shots.

After all, how many times can you shoot the same back yard photographs with yet another old camera you found for a few pounds in a car boot sale – or on the online car boot sale that is eBay – just to show it works?

Especially where the images are almost indistinguishable from those made of the same scene with 5/50/500 other near identical cameras you’ve tested?

This was what (too) much of 2013-16 was like for me.

Something I also did when I started to purge my gear was stop following a number of blogs that were doing much the same – making test shots with a new (to them) camera every time they went out.

I didn’t need the continual validation and encouragement!

So moving forward, I’m trying (again) to put that era of tedious test shots behind me, and get out more often to make something memorable with the cameras and lenses I love.

How about you? What proportion of your photographic output are test shots, and how much is intentional photography with gear you know and love? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking.

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23 thoughts on “Forget The Tedious Test Shots, Get Out And Make Some Real Photographs”

  1. Yes, it’s a great idea to stop and take a look at what one is ACTUALLY doing once in a while. I have been on a similar journey Dan, and even following a set of trades that exchanged three cameras and a some lenses for a single Leica M-D, I still have a couple of MF cameras a couple of 35mm film rangefinders, three British Brownie cameras, 2 x 120 and 1 x 127, a pocket Ricoh, and not forgetting the old CCD camcorder. I also have a selection of pinhole cameras from Kickstarter style projects, 2 x Ondu, 1 x Reality So Simple.

    However, when it comes down to actually making pictures, I am re-discovering that my conjecture about introducing limitations, is good for one’s creativity, which in my case refuses to make itself known to me, but doesn’t stop me from trying. So, less actual cameras and lenses, equals more need to try something different, just to see what happens. I like the idea of being able to take a stab at photographing anything with just the one camera and the one lens, literally adapting Mike Johnston’s OCOLOY, so that it is now OCOLOL. (One camera, one lens, one life). The limitation being that the only thing that can improve is my creative skill.

    Practise can be carried on anywhere, you don’t even need anything other than the room one is sitting in to see what happens when one presses that button… The more one does it, the less one needs to look at the results too, as we know from Mr. Winogrand and Mr. Koudelka. I would suggest that the camera testing that you mention does more than pay lip-service to practise too, it is indeed useful to snap your shed padlock.

    1. Thanks Stephen.

      CCD camcorder? Sounds intriguing, which model is it, and do you use it?

      I agree that in any creative pursuit, we only really let our creativity off the leash when we impose limitations. Whether that is in the equipment we use, the subjects, the type of photography, or a combination of all of these.

      Too many choices in any area can be creatively stifling and a overwhelming, and when you multiple the areas, the options multiply too.

      I remember even having say six cameras, six lenses and six film emulsions. 6x6x6 = 216 combinations!

      Actually yes I agree that a study in photographing very limited surroundings can be fruitful. I’ve tried the one room fifty photographs challenge a couple of times, and it’s always fun and makes you look for photographs in places you haven’t before.

      Yes even photographing the same object -like my shed padlock – over and over again can be interesting, as long as you are doing so with specific intention, knit just time and time again with different cameras to check they’re working.

  2. Funny to read this post today. The weather has been so nice here lately and I’ve been doing a lot of test shooting lately. I’m going through years of accumulated gear and deciding what to keep and what to sell on, and it’s actually been pretty interesting to me, probably because I’ve done it so seldom. It’s also incredibly time consuming, but at least it’s gotten me out of the house and doing something.

    1. It is a good approach if you’re whittling down a collection, want to find out which of your gear you enjoy most, and want to sell the rest.

      The problem for me was when there was no end point, I was buying more than I had time to test, and then rarely going out to take “real” photographs with a camera I knew and loved.

  3. I don’t own as many cameras as you did in the past, but I do own all formats. The constant switching between formats, auto, manual, 35mm, medium format, large format and digital probably promotes the same sort of thing that you went through on your testing binge. I do enjoy the challenge of it, and perhaps that’s my niche. So rather than fighting it, I’ve accepted it, with the requirement that if I buy a new/used camera I must sell a camera from the same format! Oh well, still finding my way…

    1. Martin I think that is a sound approach – a one in, one out policy. I have utilised something similar during certain phases.

      The trap I fell into was buying something new (to me) with the intention of comparing it with something I already had that covered the same base, and then selling the camera/lens that I liked least.

      Trouble was, too often I liked both, just in different ways, so the collection kept expanding and the testing pattern kept recurring.

  4. I am pretty much done with test photos per se. I did try a possible replacement for my regular medium speed film, but all I did was replace the old film with the new one and continue working as usual. I did stand develop the first roll, which I often do anyway for high contrast subjects, because it is more forgiving of exposure variations.

    1. But I imagine Doug that because you keep so many other factors constant and predictable, you know exactly what impact the change of that one variable has on the outcome. So you can then make a judgement about whether it’s something you enjoyed enough to repeat.

      1. The issue with trying a new film is that the exposure, developer and developing time all interact and can affect the result as much as the film stock. Fortunately, I’ve found that exposing any black and white film at box speed and stand developing it for 60 minutes in Rodinal at a 1:100 dilution always produces usable, if not optimal, negatives. So indeed, the differences I see in the resulting prints can be directly attributed to the new film.

  5. I owned and used a Minolta x-700 for over twenty years. I never really thought about buying another camera. Lenses, yes, but not another camera.

    I’m pretty good now, with three cameras. But I still find myself wanting a fourth (medium format) and I stop myself from buying more 35mm.

    Why the desire to keep getting more cameras? Did people feel this way in the 1960s? the 1970s? I don’t think so.

    1. I do think it’s because of the age we live in and being constantly pummelled by advertising, and more specifically the need to upgrade all the time.

      I was reading a post about the new Apple Watch the other day, on a website that predominantly focuses on classic mechanical watches. The writer said that with something like the Apple Watch you have to almost commit from the outset that this will be an evolving range of products you invest in, as a newer, more sophisticated version is released every year (I think this is the 5th generation). It’s not a one off purchase.

      Whereas owning a high quality mechanical watch, you invest once, then perhaps have it serviced every few years, but don’t have to pay the same initial outlay time and time again. It’s an investment for life.

      This is how things used to be, like you with your X-700. It probably didn’t even occur to most people who bought an SLR in the 60s and 70s, and even into the 80s, that they would buy another in the near future. It was a purchase that they intended to last them years, decades, and of course, like classic watches, there are plenty of vintage cameras still in daily use.

      The upgrade cycle these days for me veers between being comical (how people get sucked into it, the new gimmicks the ad teams come up with – just watch a couple of TV ads for hair/beauty products) to terrifying (how many items in perfect working order are discarded for a new one).

      1. I replaced my x700 in 2002. I had been in China. Many of the photos were blurry. I “upgraded” to a self focusing camera. (Olympus). Digital cameras were really that great then. I remember talking to the store clerk that this Olympus would be the last camera I will ever buy. It was that good, she said. It was great. But I don’t even remember the model anymore. It was gone in two or three years when I switched to digital

      2. It would be interesting to know what your last Olympus AF film camera was… So when you switched to digital, did your upgrade cycle shorten? Or did you have your first digital for a long time?

      3. I can’t remember what Canon I had. So much plastic. Lacked soul. My digital DSLR was a Nikon D70. I had it for a few years. Took great photos. I never upgraded it. Ended up
        Trading it in and getting a Canon AE-1. (I had a little canon s90 for awhile. But didn’t like the tones). Returning to film was (is) fun. It also led me to the Fuji x100s and now x100f.

      4. Ha, must have been pretty forgettable, you said it was an Olympus before, now a Canon. There was an era of the last film SLRs that were very plastic and soulless, across virtually all brands.

        Interesting to hear you traded in a DSLR for an SLR – the vast majority of people would have gone the other way in the early to mid 2000s. Always good to hear about people returning to explore film (or for the first time) to see what it can offer them.

  6. hi. what do you think about being a guest blogger on my blog and writing an article about using “photography as mindfulness”? I don’t have many followers, its a personal blog & I am planning on promoting it more next summer. but I am interested in the idea. I know everyone thinks mindfulness is sit down meditation and breathing, but I’m on a personal journey to apply the “trend” into everyday life practice stuff. Get back to me on your own time, no rush. enjoying your perspective as always a fan, mel. PS its NOT the readcountcraftblog listed here. haha

    1. Mel, I really like the idea of mindful photography, it’s something I do all the time. Mindfulness can be practiced through all sorts of daily activities. However I don’t write guest posts, so will have to decline your kind offer.

  7. Hey Dan,
    nice to see there’s a man with the same thoughts and problems. I am so f…… tired of G.A.S. !! I just stopped analogue photography these days, packed all the stuff in a BIG box and “Farewell”. So much waste of time, money and energy just to understand, the Nikon gear i had before is the best for me. Now just photographing.
    When i need a little of analogue feeling , i’ll take my D200 with an old 70’s Micro-Nikkor AI-lens or otherwise a D50 with a very nice autofocus zoom lens (28-105mm). The Pictures they made are amazing right out of the camera.
    My best wishes to you and take it easy.
    Greetings from Germany

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think the problems start when the funs stops. There’s a campaign over here to prevent and help with gambling addiction, and the slogan is “when the fun stops, stop”. It’s like with buying too many cameras.

      Trying a few different cameras/lenses is great fun, I still enjoy it. But it all too easily slips into a compulsive gathering up of any camera that’s remotely interesting and before you know it you have 5/15/50 cameras and not enjoying any of them. The fun has stopped.

      Even though I only have a handful of digitals now (nine I think, at last count), I’ve put all of them in a box under the bed, aside from the three Pentax DLSRs I bought most recently (and even one of those, the K30, I’m hardly using as I much prefer the K100D and K-m). I don’t plan to sell the other cameras, I really enjoy them all, but physically putting them out of sight has helped me forget about them enough to fully enjoy my DSLRs.

  8. Interesting observations Dan. I sometimes test lenses by attaching them to my Canon EOS 1100D. There is a spot on the front porch where I shoot towards a large tree that has a lit of shrubbery in the background, with the light coming from behind that That way I know if the lens is one that I want to use, or perhaps pass on for someone else to enjoy.i have been given a number of old film cameras recently, and my method is just to see if it appears to function normally, and then go out and shoot a roll of film…I shoot a variety of things anyway nice so the results will tell me if the camera is good. But I think I may have enough cameras now, any that I don’t want to shoot regularly I will try to find good homes for….

    1. Steve, it’s definitely useful to have a couple of favourite locations where you know what photographs can look like, with the right light and set up, to give you a benchmark for when you have new gear.

      I just found I was getting so much new stuff that the majority of photos I was taking were test shots, which is not how I wanted to invest my precious photography time!

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