When I was eight, our family went on a two week driving vacation from Indiana to the Black Hills, Yellowstone, and the Colorado Rockies. I’d been taking black and white photographs with my Brownie Hawkeye and making contact prints in a darkened bathroom. For the trip, I wanted to try color film, which cost a lot more. My parents and I worked out a deal: they would supply me with one roll of film for the trip, and pay for the processing upon our return. I agonized over each of the 11 exposures that I made (once the shutter went off by accident), and when the film was developed I was amazed that there were eight prints that I really liked, a big increase over my usual batting average. Viewing each negative as precious made me concentrate on what I was doing, and that improved my photography.
The late Fred Picker wrote at length of the photographic discipline instilled during his time as a portraitist, when economics forced him to use a single sheet of film for each subject. At the other extreme there’s the working style of the fashion photographer, who, in the film era, kept an assistant busy just loading and unloading backs.
It is true, at least while the mirror’s up, that exposing a picture interferes with seeing. It’s worse than that. Tripping the shutter is a distraction to getting the non-time-dependent parts of the picture right, and the act of releasing the shutter and possibly popping the flash distracts the subject. But it’s a trade off; if something wonderful happens and you don’t make an exposure because you’re busy getting the corners just right, you lose. Then there are the situations where there’s just too much going on for the photographer to be able to find the one decisive moment — group portraits come to mind — and many exposures is the obvious strategy.
In the field, some people use their cameras like sketchbooks. When you look at their contact sheets, you see them trying out an idea here and another there, then settling in on one and exploring minor variations, picking out one approach and ending up with three or four nearly-identical images; then it’s on to the next subject. Were the preliminary exposures and those dedicated to ideas that didn’t work out wasted film, or were they necessary to achieving the final result? Could the same result have been achieved without releasing the shutter for the exploratory images?
When it comes to tripping the shutter, between silly extremes of profligacy and parsimony lies a broad range of exposure-making that can yield good results. The number of exposures should be considered as part of an overall technical style, which includes the choice of camera and lighting, whether or not you use a tripod, etc. It seems obvious that you should pick a style appropriate to your subject matter and your intention. An architectural photographer with a hefty tripod and a view camera will make fewer exposures than a sports photographer with a small SLR, a monopod, and a 500mm f/4 blunderbuss.
However, there’s something that trumps matching approach and subject. Nicholas Nixon has made a career of out of capturing available-light, intimate portraits in the field using an 8×10 camera. Sally Mann has a highly successful series of similar images photographed with comparable equipment. Neither one has the option of banging off exposures a mile a minute. I would consider their equipment choice a considerable handicap in making the kind of images they’re producing, yet both create incredible work. Jerry Takigawa uses a 35mm camera to make studio still-life photographs, another choice that seems counter-intuitive to me. I don’t know if he’s taking advantage of the capability of his camera to generate many exposures easily, but Jerry produces great results with an unusual equipment selection. It seems to me that more important than matching the technical style to the subject is matching it to the photographer. The secret seems to be in finding a style that fits your personality and your vision, regardless of whether or not your approach is conventional.