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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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Slow down - Danger??
Old 07-30-2019   #1
Bill Pierce
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Slow down - Danger??

When I got serious about photography one of the first cameras I bought was an old, beat up 8x10 view camera with, I think, an f/9.5 Wollensack lens. It cost me $30. I would take pictures of my friends. Later I moved up to a Toyo G with 3 modern lenses. The camera got used professionally on occasion, but most of the time I would still take pictures of my friends. Usually I made 2 exposures using both sides of the 8x10 film holder, not that the shots were very different, but it was a sort of insurance policy. Sometimes I only made one exposure.

I wonder how many sheets of film some of the great 8x10 photographers like Edward Weston or George Hurrell used in a day. How many 17x22 sheets does Carl Weese use today. Not a lot, I would guess. I suspect Ansel Adams’ count went up when he started using a Hasselblad and 35-mm photographers had an even higher count even before the thumb wind appeared.

Which brings us to digital and pushing the button whenever you like (or letting the camera push it 30 times a second). Weston’s famous, and beautiful, pepper photo had an exposure of over 4 hours. You could say his work had to be contemplative, that he framed a good image, fine tuned that image and then pressed the button. He seems to have done that with both his pictures of peppers and people and everything in between. Today I look at work done with modern digital cameras, including my own, and think, even after that burst of frames has been edited down to just the best one, might it be even better if we just slowed down and spent more time looking and less time pushing the button.

Your thoughts and, as always, especially the thoughts of those who think I have totally lost it.
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Old 07-30-2019   #2
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I'm only capable of taking it as the moment. I'm incapable of taking pictures sequentially.
Only for gear I have to sell.
Friends, street, landscapes.. if I'm trying to take several frames - crapshoot.
I prefer to photograph not peppers, but something which is the moment I feel.
With this size of the film, been digital is irrelevant.
To get where I took about 200K frames digitally. It was learning of exposure and how to photograph which took time and re taking it many times. I used manual mode to learn it all.
Because of it, I now know which automatic mode to present. Or S16 if film.
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Old 07-30-2019   #3
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"Spray and Pray Baby, Spray and Pray"

30 frames per second is almost like shooting a 16mm movie, just pick the best frame.

I think you're just getting old Bill.

I know as I'm getting older I'm getting more joy out of shooting slower. Am currently packing for a story about 300 miles from home, and am angling to pack the "new to me" 4x5 camera for the one day I'll have when I don't owe anyone images.

Also just watched Sam Abell's lecture from B&H of a few years ago, and his philosophy of "Compose, and Wait". Hoping to have some fun with that in the next few days.

Best,
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Old 07-30-2019   #4
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Sure, and vice versa. Have a look at Don McCullin raving about the instantaneous gratification when using his his Canon EOS 5D's while at work in Calcutta. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LALtLUjSeJs
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Old 07-30-2019   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
................. as always, especially the thoughts of those who think I have totally lost it.
Bill, with all due respect, the phrase "jump the shark" comes to mind.
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Old 07-30-2019   #6
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When there is reason to go slow, I go slow. When there is a reason to go fast, I ignore it. When there is a reason I can't go at my own pace, I sell it. Looking at you, Foveon.
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Old 07-30-2019   #7
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I don't take a lot of pictures of the same subject. Usually no more than 3 or 4 frames (if "frames" is the correct word for digital). I spend a lot of time looking and then just fractions of a second shooting.

But sometimes I'll set the damn thing on 8 fps and blast away. Usually when I'm shooting from the hip or trying to catch something in action. Depends.
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Old 07-30-2019   #8
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I usually shoot with a meterless Nikon F, so I could not shoot that fast even if I wanted to.
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Old 07-30-2019   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Today I look at work done with modern digital cameras, including my own, and think, even after that burst of frames has been edited down to just the best one, might it be even better if we just slowed down and spent more time looking and less time pushing the button.

The above should be obvious, but the fact you have to ask suggests it isn’t.

It’s obviously possible to get a good photograph, even a great photograph by virtue of luck alone, just accidentally being in the right place at the right time, or being lucky with burst mode. That good photograph sometimes convinces people that they are good photographers, when they are not good photographers at all.

But, whatever makes someone happy, that’s worth something, to them at least.
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Old 07-30-2019   #10
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The reason why I can't get along with digital photography: I walk around with my Fuji X-T3, take tons of photos, but when I get home I need to download and review hundreds & hundreds of files! What was supposed to be fun is real "assembly belt" work all of a sudden.

Better experience: I see an amazing landscape/tree ..., set up my Mamiya RZ67 on the trip wait for better light, wait longer for even better light, wait longer for the perfect light, and then I press the shutter once: CLUNK, followed by an eve louder THUMP when I advance the film. One frame only and I'm in photography heaven!
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Old 07-30-2019   #11
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I was just looking at a photo from my niece... the concept is much different from what I would take, and forget about what my dad photographed in the 30s-40s. Times change, our perception of why, what, how we photography continually morphs. The shelf life of an image has shrunk due to sheer volumes. Still no excuse for not taking the best photograph that you can or maybe that's outdated as well.

It might be genre specific, but who are the most interesting working photographers today?
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Old 07-30-2019   #12
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It might be genre specific, but who are the most interesting working photographers today?
For me: Sally Mann's wet plate collodium photography.
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Old 07-30-2019   #13
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With a few exceptions, I don’t take multiple shots of the same subject anymore. There will always be more subjects after all, and my photography isn’t about subjects, but rather about capturing (often fleeting) visual impressions that have some special drama, composition, and light.

So for the type of photography I like doing, the first shot is almost always the best. Changing angles, distance, etc., will invariably ruin the spontaneity and composition of the image that caught my eye in the first place, so I might as well just take the first picture and stop.
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Old 07-30-2019   #14
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When I see a good picture, I take it..

As you know Bill some subjects lend themselves to a contemplative approach and some require quick reflexes on the shutter button. Sometimes you don't know when peak action is going to happen (my personal experience photographing waves; or my daughter's soccer matches, where fractions of a second often separated a good from a great picture). So, it depends..

But generally speaking, one of the reasons I went back to mostly shooting film (apart from the look of film, which I really like) is that it forces more shooting discipline. That's been a good thing for me as I get a much higher proportion of keepers with film.
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Old 07-30-2019   #15
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If I remember correctly, Weston used the extra-long exposure on the pepper photograph because he actually fashioned a special "pin-hole" kind of aperture for his camera in order to get the whole thing in focus.

There is also a story, I think, about Ansel going up the mountain with only 12 exposures and only getting the shot he wanted with the 12th. I remember Szarkowski commenting, "He never made that mistake again." i.e. only bringing twelve sheets.

In any human endeavor I think it is true that, on a personal level, the more you put into it the more you get out of it. For some people, that is spending hours with editing software. For others, it is setting up the camera and waiting for the light to be just right. What matters, I think, is not so much the format but the earnestness of the endeavor.
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Old 07-30-2019   #16
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I kind of shoot my digital cameras like my film ones. Take the photo, and trust the camera has recorded it as I saw it through the viewfinder. I don't bother to chimp except to see if I missed an angle I was planning on getting.


Drive use is quite sporadic, but I'm glad it's there when I need it. Most of my film cameras that can take a drive I made sure to equip with one.


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Old 07-30-2019   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by benlees View Post
When there is reason to go slow, I go slow. When there is a reason to go fast, I ignore it. When there is a reason I can't go at my own pace, I sell it. Looking at you, Foveon.
As long as the camera allows me to dictate and vary my own pace as and when I require I`m happy.
I rarely use burst even when doing action shots (unless I want a sequence) but if I choose to I want a camera that will allow me to do so.
It`s all about options for me.
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Old 07-31-2019   #18
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I've never used burst. And as far as I'm concerned, all those modes on digital cameras--"scene" mode, "face" mode, etc. are just pointless clutter on the dial. I either use aperture priority, or manual shutter speed. I like my M9 and Fuji X100 for their film-like shutter speed dials with only the speeds plus "A" for aperture priority. I don't use auto-bracketing, either. It's too much to think about.

I take a second shot when I think the first one may not have good enough. Later, I sometimes can't see the difference between the two. It usually happens when I grabbed the first shot impulsively, and want to make sure I'm putting enough care into it, whether film or digital. More usually, a second or third shot will be from a different camera angle, or framed differently, as I continue to move around and explore. I wind up with too many shots, because I find it hard to throw away or delete the extras. I'm often not confident about which one is "best." Unless, of course, one is obviously inferior to the others.
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Old 07-31-2019   #19
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I've never used burst. And as far as I'm concerned, all those modes on digital cameras--"scene" mode, "face" mode, etc. are just pointless clutter on the dial. I either use aperture priority, or manual shutter speed. I like my M9 and Fuji X100 for their film-like shutter speed dials with only the speeds plus "A" for aperture priority. I don't use auto-bracketing, either. It's too much to think about.

I take a second shot when I think the first one may not have good enough. Later, I sometimes can't see the difference between the two. It usually happens when I grabbed the first shot impulsively, and want to make sure I'm putting enough care into it, whether film or digital. More usually, a second or third shot will be from a different camera angle, or framed differently, as I continue to move around and explore. I wind up with too many shots, because I find it hard to throw away or delete the extras. I'm often not confident about which one is "best." Unless, of course, one is obviously inferior to the others.
Perfect! Well said.

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Old 07-31-2019   #20
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I stopped using my last DSLR, the otherwise wondrous D700, after a day of shooting vintage car sports, and with over 600 images I winnowed it down to about 5 I was happy with. It struck me that all I was doing was pressing the shutter and spraying, there being nothing I was adding to the AF and the continuous firing.

Using a film rangefinder or TLR (my return to film was with a Rolleicord) did slow me down - I'm not sure slowing down to master the controls and take exposure readings of itself made me better, but it was trying to get better images because they took so much effort.

I have made a partial return to digital since with the Sony A7s (I use it for macro where the ability to check focus etc matters a lot more) and with the Fuji XT30, but I try to use them as film cameras with the bonus of being able to chimp.
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Old 07-31-2019   #21
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I hate editing!
I have always hated editing a shoot.
I moved from 35mm to medium format for less, slower.
I was doing model portfolios and headshots..
Is the Rollei slow?
No! I am being careful..roll of 220 lasted 18 months.
23 of 24 exposures were worth making large prints.
Street-shoots with tiny P/S camera but seldom more than 1 exposure for image.

Is slow better, not really, but see my earlier words comment.
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Old 07-31-2019   #22
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I don't understand the "I go out with my digital camera and come back with 500 shots to edit" approach. I've gone on a two week vacation and never filled a single card. I've gone out for the morning and and come home with three shots on the card. And I still get a lot photos that are pretty darn good.

Just because it's a digital camera that can shoot a million frames doesn't mean you have to do that. I suspect those who do this have no idea what they're trying to accomplish in the first place.
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Old 07-31-2019   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Today I look at work done with modern digital cameras, including my own, and think, even after that burst of frames has been edited down to just the best one, might it be even better if we just slowed down and spent more time looking and less time pushing the button.
Could work for some, but I prefer going out on the streets and just trying and trying quickly... it is when my most unpredictable shots happen. Also, by photographing a lot I am always looking for ways to keep it fresh. AND I like editing. BUT Spending time seeing is more important than how many photos you are making IMO. Even if you walk around all day and take 400 photos...you are only photographing sparingly compared to the time walking and spent seeing. There is no one way to do photography...though many think there is only one way. There is only what works for you.

It is truly a personal decision. I think slow, contemplative photography is best for some. Of course, as you say, camera choice is certainly a reason to slow down too. You can't be fast with a large format film camera. But for others, the opposite is liberating...small camera and mobility while shooting a lot in more chaotic situations.

When all is said and done, what really matters is are you making compelling photos on a consistent basis?
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Old 07-31-2019   #24
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Well, even in my old film days...wait a minute, I'm still shooting film.
OK, no matter. Even though I meter I still have a tendency to bracket exposure to get the best, most printable frame. As far as multiple frames that is my main objective. I still shoot 35mm half frame so I feel free to knock off several shots.
For 4X5 all I have been using is paper and that is cheap enough to bracket also if the need arises.
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Old 07-31-2019   #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by giganova View Post
For me: Sally Mann's wet plate collodium photography.
Thanks for the introduction... I took a look at her work including a video or two... she's good, I like her work... gives new meaning to slowing down... Casey
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Old 07-31-2019   #26
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Quote:
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I don't understand the "I go out with my digital camera and come back with 500 shots to edit" approach. I've gone on a two week vacation and never filled a single card. I've gone out for the morning and and come home with three shots on the card. And I still get a lot photos that are pretty darn good.

Just because it's a digital camera that can shoot a million frames doesn't mean you have to do that. I suspect those who do this have no idea what they're trying to accomplish in the first place.
Ah we can end the conversation right here... Seriously nothing else needs to be said anyone that you didn't say... Thanks... For dare I say it common sense...
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Old 07-31-2019   #27
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Yesterday, I sent 60 frames of color film to be developed at BlueMoon. After the trip to the post office I went for a morning walk. I took my heavy DSLR and took 18 shots. All turned out to be junk.

It was almost three months to finish those 60 film frames, I'm hoping they aren't all junk. Also, when I was younger I shot like I did on my walk (thinking I could, by serendipity, get a masterpiece), but film was relatively cheaper then ($1.49 for 20 exposures: film, development, and prints).
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Old 07-31-2019   #28
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Nothing wrong with going slow. Equipment makes no difference.

https://youtu.be/PFHleM14e4A

Camera used was my still wonderful Olympus E-1 DSLR. It will go as fast or as slow as I want to.

I'm on frame 10 in the latest roll loaded in the Voigtländer Perkeo II. Maybe I'll make another exposure today. It's been a week and some since I loaded this roll.

G

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Old 07-31-2019   #29
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When shooting film, I sometimes get a bit too contemplative and intensely focused and sort get into a tunnel-vision zone (totally oblivious to what's going on around me) and after taking the shot, I notice I am working up a sweat. Working a bit too hard. I need to relax more.
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Old 07-31-2019   #30
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I've never used burst. And as far as I'm concerned, all those modes on digital cameras--"scene" mode, "face" mode, etc. are just pointless clutter on the dial. I either use aperture priority, or manual shutter speed.
...

I take a second shot when I think the first one may not have good enough. Later, I sometimes can't see the difference between the two. It usually happens when I grabbed the first shot impulsively, and want to make sure I'm putting enough care into it, whether film or digital. More usually, a second or third shot will be from a different camera angle, or framed differently, as I continue to move around and explore. I wind up with too many shots, because I find it hard to throw away or delete the extras. I'm often not confident about which one is "best." Unless, of course, one is obviously inferior to the others.
Same approach here. I use a digital camera in the same way I use film camera, probably after more than 40 years shooting only film (before digital) this is an attitude eradicated in my DNA

I shoot a lot of Polaroid for various reasons one of which is that due to the high cost I need to shoot carefully. A few years ago I went on a journey on the italian isle ofIschia for two weeks and only brought a Polaroid camera and ten film packs, which means 80 shot for two weeks, average 5-6 shot a day! I had to be careful, keeping in mind that I had to bring back home my experience with that limited number of frames. Some of which probably had technical faults...but it was a liberating experience !

To be honest with digital I shoot a little bit more than with film, but it means 10 max 20 % more because I take more "risky" shots.

But we should not demonize who shoot "gun" style if they is made within a certain logic, if we look at the contacts of many famous (analog) photographers we can see how they were taking photos from multiple point of views or more shots for a portrait in order to find the best espresso (and avoid the closed eyes).

In this view editing becomes more and more important!

robert
PS: by editing I mean simply making a selection and discard the bad shots, not as commonly intended post processing which is a different things.
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Old 07-31-2019   #31
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Slowing down is maybe going slower and shooting less, but might be more of the same. I go out for a walk with a Leica and might shoot nothing. But what I do shoot is likely still the sorts of things I shoot usually. These shoots are little different whether I take a digital or film Leica.


Slowing down to use medium format or large format is more than just slower: it’s different photography altogether. On my annual coastal holiday the first year I had the Hasselblad I wanted to use the tripod and I saw subjects on my familiar walking routes I’d never paid any attention to before. Knowing the tonal subtleties I am likely to capture and display creep into my thinking about the subject and it’s worth almost automatically. The Rolleiflex, I read, has a particular effect on many photographers, some dubbing it the most sympathetic camera to human subjects. All these considerations can come under the rubric ‘slow’.
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Old 07-31-2019   #32
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Probably some 15 or so years ago I was at a professional portfolio review talking to an agent. There was a photographer taking pictures for who knows what and he was behind me. Rattattatt, rattatt, rattattattattatt... Finally I turned around and said "maybe take just one good one?" which cracked the agent up to no end. That sums up what I think...

It all depends on how you make photographs. Some people make them on purpose and some people make them on accident.
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Old 08-01-2019   #33
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It all depends on how you make photographs. Some people make them on purpose and some people make them on accident.
Are you implying that if you shoot a lot, you only get good photos by accident?
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Old 08-01-2019   #34
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I hate editing stills, so I take as few photos as possible. If I want to shoot faster than I can with my thumb winding, then I'm shooting a motion picture camera.
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Old 08-01-2019   #35
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For quite a few years I always had a camera with me and shot fairly impulsively. Occasionally I would have a subject i mind or a plan but mostly not. I got some good photos and a very few great ones.

In the last couple of years, I still always have a camera--the one in my phone--but I have been trying to be more intentional when I am out to make photos. Whether that means I have the 4x5 camera or my RFs or SLRs or just the phone, I am working slower and less haphazardly. I am shooting fewer photos and liking my results better.

But, most of what I like to photograph is fairly static--landscapes, still lifes, and the like--except for the light. That always changes so I do need to be decisive and, sometimes, quick. I never was much of a run and gun sort of photographer.

Rob
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Old 08-01-2019   #36
Ronald M
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I think the same over 4x5 and digital. Why wear the camera and get a bunch of photos to cull or clog your computer.
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Old 08-01-2019   #37
jsrockit
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Phil_F_NM View Post
I hate editing stills, so I take as few photos as possible. If I want to shoot faster than I can with my thumb winding, then I'm shooting a motion picture camera.
Phil Forrest
But this is the thing, shooting a lot isn’t always about using the motor drive approach. It could be just walking the entire day during some really good light. It could be just seeing a lot to photograph that day. I never use any continuous shooting modes, but I do spend a lot of time photographing. I love photo and I love editing.
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Old 08-01-2019   #38
PRJ
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jsrockit View Post
Are you implying that if you shoot a lot, you only get good photos by accident?

Read what I wrote. It is pretty clear.
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Old 08-02-2019   #39
kuuan
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my main concern is having fun while practicing my hobby taking photos. Later I am happy too if anyone out there, usually on the internet, likes a photo of mine.

Happens that I have more fun when using a manual lens, purposefully choosing focus plane and aperture, but also appreciate getting the result immediately.

However I have noticed that people, of whom I take a photos kind of "on the street", are used to and sometimes expect the photo to be taken faster, and by the time I do take the photo expressions already may have changed.
That has made me think to get a fast auto focus set up just for those moments, but my preferred process of taking the photo still wins over a potential improvement of the result
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Old 08-02-2019   #40
Dan Daniel
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In the first issue of Aperture, in the '50s I believe, Minor White has an article discussing 'post-visualization.' A dig at his friend Ansel Adam's 'previsualization,' obviously. But the idea was that sometimes you don't really know what you are doing until you are done and get a chance to look over the images.

Now this was a time when the huge number of shots you could take on 35mm film before having to change the roll or plate was still new. So running off five or ten shots quickly could be done.

Probably more than most mediums, photography has overthought the role of planning and slowness. Because getting decent photographs is so easy, we are very insecure about what we are doing, what is our role in the image and what is the technology's role.
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