One of the most common mistakes I see in photo classes is that students don’t shoot enough. I don’t mean that they don’t spend enough hours out taking pictures, I mean that when they see a potential subject they don’t shoot enough frames of it. Many people have the mistaken idea that a good photographer walks into a situation, sees their subject, determines how best to shoot it, takes the final shot, and then goes home to wait for that image to appear on the cover of a magazine. Alas, this isn’t true. To get good results, you have to shoot a lot of frames of your subject. This process of working your subject can be a difficult one for some people to learn, but here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

I was walking on the dry lake bed of Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park, when I saw this cloud over the horizon:

For whatever reason, it caught my attention, and so I tried to start composing a shot with it. Of course, the odds were very small that I was standing in the very best place to shoot this cloud at the moment it caught my attention. So, I began to move around and continue to shoot, to see what I might come up with.

I started out from this same spot, with slight reframings, moving the horizon up and down, but those shots were barely any different than the one you just saw. This is often the case when you begin to work a subject – you start too timid, afraid to step out of your comfort zone.

Deciding I needed something in the foreground that was as strong a compositional element as the cloud, I moved forward to try to work something up with those small bushes:

This helped, so I shot a few frames, raising and lowering the horizon. At this point, I wasn’t thinking about whether any of the shots were keepers, I was simply trying to grab frames of any possible idea that I might have, with the idea that, when I got home, one of them might turn out to be a winner.

I began to wonder if maybe it was wrong to have something in the foreground. After all, the majesty of the place where I was standing stemmed largely from its emptiness, and empty space often works as compositional weight. So, I walked to the left, until the bushes were out of sight, and shot this:

This was a lucky accident, because by moving here, that small rock moved into frame. Realizing that it might be the foreground element I needed, I took another step to the left:

Ultimately, this was the shot that would become my final image, but I didn’t know that at the time, and so I kept shooting. I shot slight differences in framings, and also shot multiple copies of the same framing. It was windy, and I was worried that I might have sharpness problems, so to improve my chances of a particular composition being sharp, I shot multiple frames of it. Fairly quickly, though, the cloud began to break up:

And that’s when I knew I was done. And so, I continued walking until the next thing caught my eye.

When I got home and imported my images, I found myself facing a big mess of thumbnails:

This part of the process is often overwhelming and demoralizing. Overwhelming, because now you have to choose, though I often find the choice part fairly easy, because there will be one frame that stands out. I can get demoralized, though, because most of the shots are bad. And so, it becomes easy to worry that one is a “bad photographer.”

The tricky thing about photography is that, technically, every image we produce is a “finished image.” It may be a lousy image, and it may have technical problems, but it’s still a complete, photo-quality image. Therefore, it can be difficult to see that many of the shots that we take are akin to sketches that a painter creates. One of the key differences is that a painter knows their sketches are just that, and so they don’t beat themselves up if their sketches are not beautiful, perfect images.

When you’re working a shot, you’re sketching photographically. And just as a painter can rarely get by without their sketching process, so too does the photographer often have to work their shot to come through to a good final image. The trick is to remember to do it, and to remember to go easy on yourself when get home and see all of your “sketch” images.

Because this particular shot was largely an exercise in geometry and composition, and because color was not really a factor in my compositional thinking (despite the fact that the muted pastels of the desert can be very beautiful) I decided that this image would work better in black and white.

As I mentioned earlier, it was not the very last shot that ended up being my final choice. While I didn’t keep those later shots, I’m glad that I kept working, because very often it will be the very final image that is the one that stands out.

Here’s the completed image, after some tonal adjustments, and conversion to black and white:


Of course, instead of actually taking all those shots, you could simply move around your scene and look through the viewfinder. But we use a very different eye when shooting, than we do when looking at final images, and so it can be extremely difficult to judge the quality of a shot while in a shooting frame of mind. Fortunately, shooting digitally is cheap.

Obviously, there are some times when a fleeting moment presents itself, and you simply have to shoot it, and move on. Great street photographers are masters of identifying “decisive moments” and capturing them in a single frame. However, I would argue that they are still working their subject, because for every one of those great decisive moments, they also shoot a lot of less compelling images. Their subject is “the street” and they shoot hundreds of images to get those one or two great shots that we ultimately see.

Working your shot does not make you a wimpy photographer. It is, in fact, how the pros do it.

Read more material on “working the shot” in Chapter 9 of Complete Digital Photography