The Skinny on Shooting ‘Fat’!

Old Course, St Andrews

Less than a decade ago the average National Geographic assignment would produce approximately 500-800 rolls of exposed film over a 2-4 week period. This translates to about 18,000 – 28,800 frames for a layout in the magazine that will publish only 10-15 photographs for the endeavor. Those images that are chosen owe at least some of their existence to the images that did not survive the edit, but were an integral part of the process that produces the great photographs of NG Magazine  Where a photographer would pack 50+ bricks of film on assignment, they now carry a fistful of 8-16 GB memory cards, a laptop for downloads and editing and a back-up hard drive for insurance. The volume of photographs are limitless with digital memory, so why are people still conservative when photographing with this reusable resource.

Professional photographers, on average, consider maybe 1.5%  to 1.7% of their images will be keepers. At last years Superbowl ,  approximately 16.000 images were shot by 12 photographers for Sports illustrated and only 75 were considered SI quality. Getting the great photos is a game of percentages and odds. You’re only after that one great image,  you may capture it in the first few shots or it may show-up after an hour of working the subject through.  When shooting ‘fat’ you are not aiming for a specific number of frames but rather resisting giving yourself a limit.  Ansel Adams is said to have left behind hundreds of negatives that he regarded as not up to his standards, just to get the few that embody his work as we know it. A good photographer is not measured by the volume of photos, but by the size of their computers Trash folder.

The mindset a ‘Fat’ shooter exercises allows them to work a situation to its fruition, explore every option and angle with a subject. This does not mean firing away randomly, hoping you catch something in the lens. There is never only one definitive way of photographing anything. I have seen new photos of many famous places and people where the photographer engaged the subject with a fresh approach, capturing a moment, emotion or scene in an interesting and unique way. This is not accomplished by sacrificing just a couple of  frames here and there, but by shooting with a blind eye for anything but your subject. Resist packing-up until you ask yourself what else you could do here and now, instead of wishing you had shot more later. A good photographer could shoot less frames to capture great photos, but doesn’t. Not letting-up until your camera won’t shoot only to realize the memory card is full, then continuing the shoot on another card puts you in the zone where outstanding photographs dwell. I am no stranger to quick in-camera edits when I have used all the memory available to me and still want more. Thankfully memory is relatively cheap and a 16 GB card is the same size as 8 GB in your pocket. If you let yourself become absorbed in the process it allows your mind to see and identify new possibilities and focus on little else until you are satisfied with your efforts or out of memory again.

There are those who choose to shoot JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) files to maximize the amount of images that can be acquired. The Jpeg does have the advantage of smaller files, sufficient quality for many applications, are more easily transmitted and suit photographers with neither the time or inclination for post processing files. The downside is your photography will always fall short of the images potential. Then there are those not willing to shoot more than a couple frames of anything, usually from the same position and perspective. Somehow the idea of maximizing the quantity of captures available yet hording empty memory space, like it was a scarce commodity, is becoming commonplace, when the opposite could not be truer.

Why RAW (unprocessed digital negatives) instead of JPEG ? First, with digital memory there is no difference in cost to the user while they benefits are substantial in post processing. Of most importance is the fact that a JPEG is a degenerative file which discards information immediately to create smaller file sizes, while a TIFF (Tagged Image File Format), from a RAW file conversion is not a compressed file and contains all the data that the cameras chip recorded plus some additional information tagged on (i.e. sharp, settings) from the initial capture. What this means to a pro or serious amateur photographer is that in post he will have 65,536 levels of brightness with a 16 bit TIFF (from RAW) versus 256 level of brightness with a JPEG file, which the camera converts to 8 bit mode to reduce the files size. This is extremely important when working with shadows and highlights in any significant way. The bottom line is you can always convert a TIFF to a JPEG if you need to reduce the file size, but by shooting RAW you will have the advantage of working the image with all the information the camera initially recorded.

If you are going to shoot ‘fat’, editing is a necessary and vital part of the photography process.  A heavy shoot will increase the chance of capturing that one great photo and strong editing skills will allow you to process large volumes of images to find those gems in the rough. The hiking society I am affiliated with has a website where members can upload photos from hikes they attend. There are a few who shoot plenty of frames, 150 -200, but insist on uploading the entire unedited camera onto the website while most members upload an average of 10 select images. Members who log in to view the event photos are quickly overwhelmed with 250-300 photos. A seemingly endless barrage of boring repetitive images that bury interesting creative photography within it. Most ,including myself , can’t endure looking further than 20, as the essence of the event is lost. If the best were being saved for last they would never be seen. Less is more when you are trying to show your skills as a photographer, but to have a few great images sometimes requires shooting past the line most are content to stop at, selecting the few that stand out and deleting or archiving the rest. It takes less than 3 seconds to formulate an opinion of a photo and less than 10 images to evaluate the photographers skill and creativity. The saying, ‘your only as good as your worst shot’, is good advice before you seek viewers time.

The editing process has also been streamlined with software specific to the editing task. Although every photographer has there own work flow most will do a quick pre-edit, rotating images and quickly selecting, or flagging, those that immediately draw attention or were of importance. The second edit is where flagged images are opened and scrutinized, while similar photos are compared to further reduce the collection. Being your own worst critic is a tough hat to wear when editing your own work, but if can see some direction from the rejected images it is not all in vain.

How many times have we had to view someones unedited photos only to hear excuses like, ‘I don’t know why that ones there’, or ‘those are just more of the same’. It is only with an audience that these photographers suddenly realize we do not want to see uninspiring photography. The aim is to be able to show your best, not your best 10, then 30 satisfactory photos followed by 50 bad ones. To leave them wanting more rather than a poor opinion of your editing and photography skills. If you’re going to show a bad image to your viewers, in their eyes, you must think it’s good. You will be judged, better to do it to yourself while editing instead of by others later.

The skinny is to allow yourself the opportunity for great photography by utilizing all that is available to you to make the photos that deserve to be seen. Most of the shots that survive the edit are not frames one or two but images captured later when you engaged the subject from a different angle. See the opportunities and commit the time and digital memory necessary to maximize and exhaust your skills and creativity. Edit. Then edit again, and finally edit again honestly. If it’s not interesting now it won’t be any better when you show it to others.

Make it RAW! Shoot it ‘Fat’ and trim it later.

“I am always satisfied with the best.” -Oscar Wilde

One thought on “The Skinny on Shooting ‘Fat’!

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