Advice: Shoot, shoot and shoot a lot! Really?

A few months ago Kasia and I watched an excellent documentary about the life and work of one of the great photographers, Sebastiao Salgado, titled “The Salt of the Earth.” The imagery and narrative of this fascinating film make it a must-see for every photographer.

One moment, in particular, caught my attention and started me thinking. The camera shows Sebastiao Salgado in the Arctic shooting for his mega project “Genesis.” He tries to capture a group of walruses but they refuse to come on shore. On occasion, he and his son retreat to a small shelter. Then there is a scene when a huge, beautiful polar bear approaches them.

Most photographers in such a situation would go into non-stop shooting mode until the memory card is filled. But not Sebastiao Salgado.        

Watching the majestic polar bear approaching them, his son asks, “What do you think, Dad?” Sebastiao answers, “It will be complicated to get this story” and then continues “It’s not just a matter of getting close to a bear and taking a picture, if the framing is poor, you will just show the bear but it won’t be a photo. This spot is not good. There is nothing in the background, nothing to compose a well-framed picture.”

This is exactly why he is such a great photographer. Today, the ease of taking a photo along with the almost unlimited number of exposures (unlike in film days) cause many photographers to shoot “just in case” or “I am sure one of them will turn out well.” This mentality not only leads to a multitude of mediocre photos but most importantly it strips visual sensitiveness from a photographer. S/he produces a digital file but not a real photograph.

When watching the work of many great photographers you might conclude that every single element of their photograph works in harmony. Sometimes this harmony appears almost unreal – out of this world. Nothing is further from the truth. Such rare images require a lot of visual effort, which can only be accomplished with discipline and concentration – attributes which are never present in the blind, machine-gun style of shooting.

In fact, the best images are often created after a series of “NOs.” Even the best photographers in the world rarely capture a great image the first time on an assignment. It is a long, tiring, sometimes frustrating process of saying, “NOT THIS TIME,” which eventually leads to a great photograph.

Then there is some other advice I hear from many photographers: “Go out and shoot as many photos as you can.” This suggestion, while genuine, makes sense on the surface. In order to get better, you need to practice. Unfortunately many photographers, especially those who have just started on their road to seeing, take this advice literally.

Here are a few problems with this approach:

  • A pattern is being created in your brain and it goes like this: “If I am out shooting, I must take many images to practice and get better.” If you follow this logic – not taking photos must be bad for you.
  • Your focus turns to taking images of everything – remember the logic –practice will make you better – then let’s take a lot of photos. As a result, you skip the many steps that would actually lead you to taking a good photograph.
  • By following this logic over an extended period of time, you become numb to the idea of selectivity and good judgment – the key ingredients of a good photographic practice.

One of the most important pillars of photography is observation. Not only is this much harder than it sounds but this idea is so rarely discussed it feels as if it doesn’t exist. Observation is one of the early links in this long chain of steps that you need to take in order to capture a great photograph. When you’re busy pressing the shutter button “to practice” you have no time left for observation.

A fixation on taking photographs (pressing the shutter button) often leads to what I call the Technical Overload Syndrome (TOS). The early processes such as observation, evaluation, composition etc., are being skipped and the photographer indulges in technical considerations. “Which F-stop should I use? Is my shutter speed adequate for the situation?” Over and over again, I have seen photographers so preoccupied with technical “know-how” that it blinded their seeing completely.

What is the solution?

In short: Concentrate, connect and observe!

Have you noticed how some movie directors work on their scenes? They walk around and observe the scene from all angles, sometimes putting their hands together to create a frame. They look through it, assess the scene and move on.

Similarly, you may walk around observing the environment without picking up your camera. When travelling in rural areas observation is much easier, as fewer subjects compete for your attention. There is less noise and fewer distractions. When photographing in big cities, concentration and focus is the key. You must learn to take in every pocket of light, movement, shapes, colours, patterns and even noises. Your senses must be receptive to the right setup, which eventually leads you to creating a great photograph.

Today I would like to share with you some imagery taken during the Visual Poet Experience Workshop in Vancouver. All images were taken with the X100F.

This week I am heading to London and Berlin where I will be leading Visual Poet Experience Workshops. I hope to see you there!    



2018 © Oli Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.


16 thoughts on “Advice: Shoot, shoot and shoot a lot! Really?

  1. First I want to thank you for not just sharing your work but also for being so open with your thoughts
    It is unfortunate that some people are not open to different styles of photography. The whole point of life and Photography or anything is to keep pushing boundaries and to push yourself to what you wish to reach in life. Again thank you.

  2. With all due respect, I do not find your sample pics to be visually pleasing. Many of them are underexposed and too dark (mind you, I’m not speaking to dynamic range and I’m not hyperfocused on technicalities…I only shoot JPEGs and do no post processing whatsoever). I see a lot of pics from the “street photography” that are shot this way and perhaps there is something to this genre that I’m missing, but to my eyes, these pics are neither technically or emotionally fascinating.

    1. I respect your opinion. I disagree with your statement that “they are too dark.” The only sad think is that you know my name and my work but somehow you don’t have courage to share your name and your work. As you probably know, I am always open for a good image-centered conversation. Unfortunately, it is not possible with someone who is afraid to use their own name.

      1. I agree with anonymous – you yourself talked about the ’emotional punch’ in a photo in another blog post as opposed to fiddling with raising shadows and recovering highlights in PS all day long (strongly agree). I see no ‘hook’, ’emotional punch’, ‘message’ or whatever we call it. I even struggle to see what’s in many of the photos.

      2. Appreciate your honesty. I am well aware that my photography is not for everyone.

  3. I do love how I have to look and look at some of your images to figure what they are!
    And I’ve recently started trying not to yake a shot just for the sake of it…hopefully it will help my ‘seeing’!

    1. “I do love how I have to look and look at some of your images to figure what they are!” – this is such a wonderful complement! I really appreciate it.

      Looking forward to hearing from you and seeing your imagery!

  4. Dear Olaf,

    first of all, great photos, especially the one with the wrapped present. The buildings in the right corner of the frame complement the present in a perfect way!
    I’ve seen this movie some time ago and I was fascinated by this wonderful character and images of Salgado.

    I heard this advice a lot, shoot every day and shoot a lot. And I think this only comes true when you are beginning and get to know your camera. I am with you, that photography is observation and concentration. If your subjects and light complement each other, then you need to hit the shutter release. But if you see nothing, the best thing would be to do something else than shooting just for the sake of it and take mediocre pictures.

    I think, that in times of digital photography, people tend to shoot a lot more than in the film days (some even shoot in continiuous mode in street photography). In the first place, digital photos are “for free”. I doesn’t cost you anything if you hit the shutter release button. On the other hand, when you’re hsooting film, every frame costs you money and therefore you will not waste too much frame and have to concentrate a lot more. However, the instant feedback of shooting digital might be better for beginners in order to learn the basics of photography (ISO, shutter speed and aperture).

    Recently, I started shooting film. And I can’t really explain it, but it is so much more rewarding when you get only one good picture out of one roll then when you have one keeper, out of 100 digital photos. For me, the slower pace of shooting film sharpens my senses much more and I will eventually dive even more into shooting film.

    Please note that my point is not the never ending discussion about film vs. digital, I am just talking about the different workflows.
    I am looking forward to Berlin!


    1. Absolutely agree with you Kevin. I’ve been recently back to manual focusing, as in my early 70’s… what an incredible pleasure when you see in the screen the image you slowly and carefully shot, sharp focused! All the process slows down, becomes pleasant and just a single image is worth all a day shooting 🙂

    2. Kevin,

      You are right on with your observations! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Looking forward to meeting you person.

      See you soon,


  5. Keep pushing this Olaf. Exactly my thoughts as you know. The message will eventually sink in. I’m doing 6 one day courses this year on “the mind matters” and people are flocking to them, so the spark is definitely there. Come to Australia and we’ll have a coffee, or wine, or scotch, or all.

  6. Post processing: painful task in which we, students, try desperatly to make “just in case” shots better, wasting so much time, effort and motivation.

    One of my clear faults. I guess many students too.

    Great advice, Olaf. Thank you very much!

    1. It is always great to hear from you Robert! I am preparing more material/articles about this very topic. Stay tuned.

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