So many pictures

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This topic contains 13 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Pete Robinson 2 years, 1 month ago.

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    I’ve just been reading that Henri Cartier-Bresson took “only 4 pictures an hour” during the French student riots of the last century. I think Ian has previously reported that, in a long talk with Ezra Pound, he took just one shot.

    What supreme confidence! We are always inclined to take a few more shots than perhaps we need “just in case” but aren’t we cluttering up our hard drives and making it harder to find things?

    It does of course depend on the type of photography you do; action of all kinds is bound to be more demanding and probably landscape the least but I think it might be easier to delete action failures. OCD sufferers have a particular problem in this regard.

    In the last two or three years I’ve tried to be more selective in taking and keeping and more ruthless in deleting. Lightroom helps in storing economically and providing a great indexing system for finding pictures. It will even find people for you by face-recognition. All the same I have nearly filled a 500GB HD in that time.

    How do you handle the problem of taking, selecting and storing?


    Ian McNab

    This is a really interesting post, John, and it raises a lot of questions about different styles of working, how subject matter affects how we photograph, different approaches to composition and much more.

    Cartier-Bresson never liked showing his contact sheets: he said it embarrassed him that people should see all his mistakes and failures. And, indeed, in the early days he seems literally to have thrown away all but those negatives he thought successful. But after the founding of Magnum at the end of WWII, he started to keep complete contact sheets (probably for commercial reasons); and these enable us to see his method of working.

    Below, for example, is HCB’s contact sheet for a roll of film shot during a working visit to Pamplona, Spain in 1952. This particular roll was shot at a bullfight that HCB had been commissioned to photograph.

    © Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum

    (Our website is not optimised for mobile devices, so you may have to view this contact sheet on a desktop computer to see it without distortion.)

    HCB had permission to work in the callejon – the ‘safe’ space between the concrete wall around the stadium’s seating and the wooden palisade surrounding the bullring itself. From there, HCB could photograph not just the bullfight but also the crowd and the toreadors waiting in the callejon before their fights.

    It’s clear from the contact sheet that HCB was probably less interested in the bullfight than in the crowd and the toreadors. But he was there to do a job, so there are shots – of a rather routine sort – of the fight: frames 11-13, 16 & 17, and all but one of the frames from 24 to 36. (These are the actually frame numbers on the edge of the film: the roll starts on frame 2.)

    But the interesting thing is the way an idea develops from the pictures of the crowd when, in frame 8, HCB notices a group of wealthy ladies in the front row, where the toreadors’ capes have been draped over the concrete barrier. By frame 10, he has homed in on a rather grand lady with white gloves, a hat and a fan as being a particularly representative ‘type’.

    His attention then turns to the bullfight and its officials. But by frame 18, he’s back working on the idea around the grand lady, in a ‘vertical’ shot designed on a rebated square with an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ arrangement that includes a toreador in the ‘downstairs’ square.

    Next there’s a frame of the crowd, and then, at frame 20, HCB tries some vertical shots of the group comprising two conversing pairs of toreadors in the rebated square below the grand lady with the fan. In successive frames he moves to his left along this group, finally noticing, at horizontal frame 22, the toreador on the left with his hand on his hip.

    So, in frame 23, HCB places this man in the rebated square and next to him the beleaguered toreador whom he is putting straight on some point with a condescending superiority that pervades his whole posture and gesture. Above, in the ‘upstairs’ part of the design connected to the square by the sumptous material of the embroidered capes, the equally grand lady in the luxurious dress with hat and gloves holds her fan, and looks haughtily away.

    Now, HCB couldn’t possibly have known for sure that he’d got a picture that worked till he’d seen the contact sheet; but he clearly thought that there was a very good chance he had got something, and there was no point in working this idea any more; so he returns in the remaining frames of the roll to the final stages of the bull fight.

    The famous photograph from frame 23 is this beautifully drawn evocation in a single frame of a particular section of Spanish society:

    © Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum


    And I think that’s enough for now. I’d love to hear thoughts from other members about this intriguing discussion John has started. I may post more in due course.



    Ian McNab

    Just spotted this on twitter:



    I was hoping you would include some HCB contacts here, I was thinking of them as I wrote my post (I have a couple of James Ravilious’s too which I may post).

    As you have shown very well we can learn a lot from studying these and I wish we could see them all full size. Isn’t gesture important in gaining your interest in a photograph? Look at the number of shots where he might have been attracted by that, and look how engaging it is when people are talking to each other – these are powerful things we can look for in our own photography.

    It is hard to judge these without a loupe on them, I would not have easily picked out 23, but what an elegant comment on the people there that image is, as you say. The image is also beautifully composed with the lady at the top of a triangle. The serendipity too – the lady’s fan covering her companion’s face is not only a gesture  but it isolates her in our vision perfectly. There is much to say and, like all resonant photographs, it repays lengthy study – I cannot help feeling that the “club” approach draws us away from allowing that detail which keeps us looking, keeps us interested in the work. I invite you to imagine how this image might be cropped, dodged and burned, or even how the same scene would have been treated by a photographer with a long lens. If a subject is interesting and the visual design is suitable we have less need to do these things.

    What do the rest of you think?



    Martin McGing

    If that image had been entered into a club competition the judge would have said “I don’t know what I supposed to be looking at, tell me again what’s the title!”  Now I actually like that image, it allows me to wonder around and enjoy the detail and emotion.  Club photography judges certainly dictate what is acceptable and what is not.



    Ian McNab

    Here’s Robert Frank, in a rare interview (he rarely agreed to give interviews) of only three and a half minutes, talking about how he photographed the pictures in his famous book, The Americans. His comments about his working methods are interesting, and relevant to our discussion here.


    Ian McNab

    I’ve been thinking about Martin’s reply to this thread all afternoon. He’s right, of course: Cartier-Bresson’s picture would not be rated highly by the standards of club photography. But if a picture that’s among the most highly regarded photographs taken by one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and influential photographers would not be rated highly by the standards of club photography, what does that imply about the standards of club photography?




    Yes, interesting isn’t it? I think at club level it would stand a better chance than in a competition judged by a non-communicating panel, such as we have at national level. The trouble with the “national” system is that the pictures are only viewed for seconds and so only the superficial features of the image get through to the judges. There is barely any thinking time.

    At club level there is a bigger range of work and the judge has more time to look at the images properly. I am sure the picture in question would “grow” on anyone. It presents more of a challenge because it doesn’t fall into a regular category, where a lot of judges automatically bring to mind a list of tickboxes in making up their minds about a mark – nature, studio portraiture, motor racing all have these. I mischievously think sometimes that the ultimate result of this approach is to wind up with virtually identical images!

    I tend to think now that our competitions are a chance to show our work to our fellow members, the judge is an independent commentator who, hopefully may at least pass on a few tips and make the evening entertaining and (hesitation) educational.

    Be independent, build your beliefs, respect what others are doing and try to understand, support our competitions but don’t do anything just to please judges, set them a bit of a challenge.


    Martin McGing

    I try not to overthink my photography and simply take images that please me.  I enjoy club photography and in many respects you can draw comparisons with images that feature in club competitions and images that feature in our papers.  The iPad edition of my daily paper includes various pictures of the day, my favourite is sports photography.  Blurred backgrounds, tight cropping, placement and narrative go hand in hand.


    Ian McNab

    John >>> Your advice about the attitude we should have to club competitions is very sound and helpful. The important thing is not to be limited by the formulaic approach to photography that competitions tend to encourage.

    Speaking of which, I’d like to return to Rob Frank. We started this discussion using Cartier-Bresson as an example of one approach to photography. Interestingly, when Robert Frank, a Swiss photographer, arrived in New York in 1947, one of the first discoveries he made was the work of Cartier-Bresson, which was on show in the famously ‘posthumous’ 1947 exhibition at MoMA. (The news of HCB’s death in the war that had reached MoMA fortunately turned out to be premature by about six decades.)

    Frank was initially impressed by the work, though later he came to disapprove of Cartier-Bresson’s artistic detachment: “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.” And Frank’s revaluation of the documentary tradition represented by LIFE Magazine, of which Cartier-Bresson was perhaps the greatest exponent, was damning: “I developed a tremendous contempt for LIFE… That was another thing I hated: those goddamned stories with a beginning and an end. If I hate all those stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end then obviously I will make an effort to produce something that will stand up to those stories but not be like them”.

    Shortly after arriving in America, Frank started worked as a fashion photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. But he soon left to travel in South America and Europe, returning to the USA in 1950. In due course, he studied with Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar and founder of the “Design Laboratory’, whose list of students reads like a roll of honour of 20th century photographers: Irving Penn, Lillian Bassman, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, Tony Ray-Jones and many more. Brodovitch encouraged experimentation, originality and disregard for accepted formulas, summarised in his famous, oft-repeated instruction to his students: “Astonish me!” And though Frank, who had been photographing since he was fourteen, and had trained in photography and graphic design in Switzerland, certainly had extensive technical expertise and experience, he increasingly abandoned the accepted norms about how you should make pictures and how you should do documentary photography. The result, manifested in his ‘magnum opus’, The Americans, was a revolutionary watershed in 20th century photography.

    In 1953, Frank travelled all over America for nine months on a Guggenheim fellowship, and exposed over 750 rolls of film from which he selected the 83 photographs that comprise ‘The Americans’ . You can see many of the contact sheets of this work in Frank’s archive at the National Gallery of Art. (Click the link to go to the site, and then double click on a contact sheet to open it in ‘Loupe’ view; double click repeatedly on the image of a contact sheet to enlarge it. You can then use the little loupe navigator to home in on a particular area. You can drag the navigator by its top bar if it’s in your way.)

    Here, for example, is the contact sheet containing one of Frank’s most famous photographs:

    (click on the above image of the contact sheet to go to the web site and use loupe view to see it in more detail.)

    This contact sheet comprises 18 frames from a roll, but the strips are out of sequence on the sheet: if we number them 1 to 4 from the top down, then the sequence they were taken in is 2, 1, 4, 3. Unusually, in this contact sheet Frank, who was clearly walking by the Mississippi, spots a single interesting activity going on, and then ‘works the scene’, moving round the person who is the centre of the action, photographing from different view points as the action unfolds. On other sheets, he appears to work differently, noticing something that sparks an idea – perhaps a flag, or a group of people – and he then works on the idea in a few frames before moving on. But here we have 13 frames of sustained examination of this strangely-dressed religious figure carrying a cross. When reviewing the contact sheet in the process of editing the work, Frank has marked three ‘possibles’; but it’s frame 11 that makes the final cut and appears in the final version of ’The Americans’

    And here is the picture:

    Notably, Frank makes the figure the important, strong vertical in the frame, which tips the horizon so that it slopes at a disturbingly precarious angle; but the solid horizontal of the river bank restores the stability of the picture, and Frank thus pulls off a masterpiece of composition.


    Frank’s contact sheets give us fascinating insights into his way of working: his choice of subject matter; his way of investigating a scene; his practice of varying point of view and vertical and horizontal orientation, trying different framings and even different exposures. And they also reveal his willingness to crop heavily when printing, which he indicates by the crops that he marks on the contact sheets with red chinagraph pencil.

    The American photographer Eric Kim has written a very well-informed and informative illustrated article about Frank and his working methods, which is well worth reading both in its own right and for what it contributes to our discussion here.

    But I can’t end this post without also encouraging you to watch the seven-minute video of Joel Meyerowitz talking about ‘The day I met Robert Frank’, which reveals in a way nothing else could the precise elegance of Frank’s way of taking photographs and its profound impact on a young man who became another of America’s greatest living photographers.



    Ian McNab

    It does of course depend on the type of photography you do; action of all kinds is bound to be more demanding and probably landscape the least…
    In the last two or three years I’ve tried to be more selective in taking and keeping and more ruthless in deleting. Lightroom helps in storing economically and providing a great indexing system for finding pictures… 
    How do you handle the problem of taking, selecting and storing?

    Perhaps we should come back to John’s original questions. I think you’re right, John, that the number of pictures you take in a sequence of shots depends on the subject matter, with sports and landscape likely to be at opposite ends of the frequency spectrum, as you suggest. But I think subject matter plays a rather complex and subtle part in the number of pictures we take, so perhaps we should look at that in more detail another time.

    I just wanted to contribute to the discussion about the more practical side of working methods. You may know the sort of work I’m doing at the moment; I suppose that, following Friedlander’s preference, you might call it ‘social documentary’. Tod Papageorge describes it as making pictures from the stuff that presents itself in public places, a bit like an artist making a collage from the bits he or she finds lying about.

    I try to photograph moments of action or of interaction between people: gestures, expressions, movements, etc. ( Anyone unfamiliar with the body of work I’m building up can see the pictures here.) It’s in the nature of this kind of subject matter that you have to work quickly, framing and shooting in one swift movement, because the moment evaporates very fast. There’s rarely time to focus, so I set the camera at the hyperfocal distance for f/8, and a speed of at least 1/250s. Of course, you sometimes get the framing off, or the timing slightly wrong; and though you may have a feeling that you’ve just got a picture that may work, you can’t be sure till you’ve looked at it on the computer.

    Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to get at least one OK photograph every day. Most days, I take between 10 and 20 frames, and get between two and five useable photographs. On the other hand, I sometimes work in a busy location with lots going on, and I shoot more. An example would be a four-hour session at Macclesfield Treacle Market, where last time I shot 116 frames (a little over 3 rolls of film, in old money!); and from them I got about twenty reasonable, useable photographs.

    I shoot ‘JPEG + RAW’ on my Fuji cameras, so there are two image files for every frame; though these days I hardly ever use anything but the jpegs, because the Fuji BW jpegs are so good. I import the files into Lightroom, the jpeg and RAW version of each shot side by side. I then filter the view to show only the jpegs, and go through these, flagging the ones that look like ‘possibles’. I then switch to a view that shows only the flagged files, and sweep through the pictures repeatedly, with greater and greater rigour and ruthlessness, unflagging the least good shots in the diminishing pool of ‘possibles’ each time.

    When I reach what seems to be the final set of OK pictures, I edit them – usually fairly lightly: small exposure adjustments; some mid-tone contrast; a bit of dodging and burning.

    The files are stored on an 8Tb NAS, which is a RAID array and so has c. 6Tb of actual storage; and I back this up weekly to two 4Tb USB drives, in a ‘grandfather-father-son’ pattern (with the NAS as the most recent data – ‘son’ – and a USB drive for each of the other two generations).

    I have tended to keep all my image files except for technical failures; but a year or so ago (when the NAS, which stores most of our personal and family documents and media of all kinds as well as my pictures, was only 4Tb) I started to get a bit pushed for space, and deleted a pile of image files from four or five years ago that I was never likely to use or revisit. I keep thinking about dumping the RAWs as I don’t use them now, or culling the JPG and RAW files for my ‘unflagged’ images, but I worry about having second thoughts when I revisit them in the course of selectiing pictures for various purposes, such as compiling the book I recently made. There are currently about 900Gb of picture files on the NAS (not all of them photographs taken by me!)




    Lightroom tells me it has just over 5000 shots taken with my 100S and about the same taken with my XT-1. That is in 2.5 years. Reading about RAID arrays – my HDs need updating; my first 4 were 0.3GB, 0.5GB, 0.9GB and then a heady 1.2GB. I took 10,00 pictures with my first serious digital camera – a 995 Nikon and the selection now sits in a tiny portion of one hard drive – still also existing on about 20? CDs. I started saving to DVD when I changed to a Canon 350D (for which I spent about £60 for a half Gig chip!

    I am just the opposite, shooting jpeg and raw yes, but deleting the jpegs. Using Lr is a boon. When I was using Ps alone my indexing and storing was just on date and place basis and some of my files, well, if  anyone remembers The Toboganeer that file was 500Mb. Adobe have never sought to economise on disk space!

    But – we want to hear from others too. What would be an up-to-date storage system? One like Ian’s? Is anyone using Cloud storage?


    Martin McGing

    I use lightroom to manage my images and I keep my raw files on external hard drives.  This seems to work for me.  I rate all of my images 5*, 4* etc. and I delete (previews and raw files) that fall below my standard.

    I do not use Cloud storage for my images.


    Pete Robinson

    I’m finding this an interesting post that illustrates how we have changed our photography from using film to digital media. When I used to use expensive slide film I was very careful to try and make every shot count. I did my utmost to get the technicalities right, exposure, focus and composition otherwise mistakes could be quite expensive. I stored my slides and negatives in folders which would quickly fill up the shelves and I didn’t like to throw any away. I had boxes of prints all over the place. I’m sure we’ve all got similar stories.

    Now in the digital age with modern cameras and computer technology, clever software and high capacity storage, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to take, edit and store more images. However, I think it’s a case of quality not quantity and I try to  things right in camera before pressing the shutter. One of the main advantages of the digital world is if gives me the opportunity to experiment more with different techniques and exposures and to try fresh angles.

    Getting back to the main point of John’s post, my work flow is to photograph in RAW , then import into Lightroom and convert them to DNG which reduces the size a bit. I then skim through them and delete the obvious duff images. I then apply a basic preset to all the batch so I get a better idea of what the finished processed image might look like. I edit each photo, then rename and keyword them. If I want to print any or use them in a PDI competition I’ll edit them in Photoshop.

    I have an external 1TB USB drive that I use for backing up. I only switch this on when I want to use it. Then I’ll delete the original photos from the memory card by formatting it in the camera.

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