Five Tips to Help You Slow Down and Improve Your Photography

Five Tips to Help You Slow Down and Improve Your Photography

Slowing down while taking pictures is not always an easy thing. For those of us that learned with digital, the idea of shooting only a limited number of frames per session seems unthinkable. However, doing with what we have, and pressing the shutter only when we are sure to have a picture we are going to appreciate, is a very refreshing approach. Having just recently started shooting film, here are five tips I could give a digital portrait photographer to get better results, spend less time working, and slow down a bit. 

Think of Your LCD as a Digital Polaroid

The tiny screen on the back of your camera is both your best friend and your worst enemy. It will help you make sure your exposure is dead on, but it might also distract you and make you miss a moment you’d otherwise have captured.

Just because there is an LCD on the back of our digital cameras (unless you own one of the latest Leicas), doesn’t mean we have to use it. Shooting film taught me that chimping doesn’t do you any good. Once your exposure is set, your composition, your model’s expression, and pose should be checked in the viewfinder. Not on the LCD screen.

Next time you go out on a shoot, try to limit the number of test shots and when your exposure is set, don’t look at your screen anymore. If you can’t force yourself, use some fancy gaffer tap to help you refrain yourself from chimping.

Don't Be Trigger Happy

SD and CF cards are dirt cheap nowadays. So why should we shoot only the bare minimum?

If you shoot weddings, you know how painful the culling process can be. Even for portraits, choosing 10–20 images amongst a few hundreds can be a tough task. It’s a part of the workflow that can be simplified by capturing only what you need.

Also, when selecting your pictures, I’m sure you’ve noticed that you often have a bunch that are very similar. It can be a real pain to choose between images when they are almost the same.

When using my Mamiya RB67, I don’t want to ruin my precious film, and have learned to press the shutter only once for each pose. I didn’t shoot twice the same, except when I was absolutely certain the first image was missed. Surprisingly, I have more keepers than ever before, and less culling to do because I shot less.

8 of the 10 images captured during a session

Use a Flash Meter

Small tweaks in post can be somewhat a loss of time. Having to adjust exposure in Capture One or Lightroom is one of them. Especially as it is very easy to get it right in camera. Using a flash meter will yield a great starting point — or even perfect exposure if you know your histogram zones — and limit the number of test shots required. You will also be more likely to have a constant exposure across different sets.

Not only that, but using a flash meter is one of those things that will slow you down, make you look at what you are going to shoot, and think if it is really worth it or not. If you don’t have a flash meter, there are tons of apps available for mobile devices.

Analyze What You Retouch

Photoshop is an amazing tool. You can do things most of your clients would describe as witchcraft. However, it is time-consuming. I would almost bet that retouching is the part of the workflow where photographers spend the most of their time — except for those outsourcing.

Those who learned photography the digital way, like myself, tend to rely on Photoshop for things that could be corrected with makeup, lighting, or posing. Shooting film and trying not to retouch my work before putting it out there definitely made me aware that there is a lot to be done on set.

My first intention was to shoot with the model looking at me and her head lower. However, that created strong unflattering shadows under her eyes. So we changed the pose to get something where retouching was only minimal.

However, it might mean having more people on set (makeup artist, hairstylist), more gear (lighting, reflectors, lenses), more experienced models, or just finding alternatives.

Next time you open a picture in Photoshop, analyze your work and look for what could have been done differently on set to correct what you are about to change in post. Also, be sure to show the before and after to a makeup artist to see if he or she could have done anything to help.

Give Film a Try

I never thought I would write this. But yes, give film a try; you might be as surprised as me by the result.

Not only can well-scanned negatives match the quality of most current DSLR, but it’s also the cheapest way to get into medium format and large format camera systems. For example, a Mamiya RB67 can be found for just under $300 on eBay.

A fully mechanical camera, with no electronic help (no meter, no stabilization, no nothing), will force you to work differently and think a bit more about what you are doing.

Using film for paid jobs might not work for everyone. It might be to slow paced for some photographic styles and there is no “dual film” option for backup, but for personal work I believe this is something every photographer should experience.

Some people will argue that slowing down is about self-discipline and perhaps they are right. All I know is that shooting a bit slower, thinking more about what we are doing, and connecting with our subject are all crucial. I hope the five tips above will help you as much as they help me.

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Mike Mendoza's picture

I am new to photography, yet this is one thing I tell myself over and over, is to slow down! Digital is great because you can just take so many darned photo's, but it is so much more rewarding to get the shot right the first (or second time). I need to put a sticker on my camera...Slow Down!

Robert Raymer's picture

Having learned photography on film I can unequivocally say that shooting film is the absolute best way to slow down, and it is advice I give to every beginner photographer that asks me how to improve. This gets truer and truer the larger the film format you choose. I don't shoot much 35mm anymore, but when I shoot with my Hasselblad 500c, the fully manual nature of 120 film combined with the lack of a internal meter (meaning I have to know how to use a light meter) and the cost of film plus developing/scanning means I do my best to make each shot count. (There is nothing quite like the disappointment of pulling a roll of film out of the final wash only to realize you screwed up every single shot.) With 4x5 the added expense of the film plus the extra steps (working under a hood, loading the holder, cocking the shutter) makes me slow down even more.

I still shoot exclusively digital for paid work, and when I started with digital I definitely got into the habit of shooting fast and ending up with way more than I needed though with fewer keepers. Shooting more film again though has changed how I shoot. While I still use the LCD when shooting digital I use it much differently than in the past. Now I simply use it to check my lighting (usually in monochrome, as it helps visualizing where light is falling without the distraction of color) and to check my focus, especially when using manual focus lenses.

After getting away from it for a while though, I have felt film calling me back and now shoot and develop as much if not more film than digital, including for a number of personal projects where I would have chosen digital previously. I have to say that not only does it make the projects a bit more unique, I see the improvement in my digital work and technique as well.

Trevor Warr's picture

I completely agree. There's nothing to make you think about what you're doing better than shooting 5"x4", transparency especially. I have a cupboard full of film cameras from 35mm to 5"x4" that I keep thinking I should go back to using for my own work.

Sean Molin's picture

Having learned photography on digital, I 1000% agree with you. I ended up getting a film camera (Rolleiflex) a few years into my photographic journey and literally overnight, my shot-count dropped 2/3rds and my keep-rate doubled.

Paul Gana's picture

remember how the 4X5 film holders only held 2 sheets of film and had to be loaded in total darkness? I actually miss that

Mr Hogwallop's picture

The pics are too small to be sure but to me it looks like you used natural light, so I am not sure what the reasoning is behind recommending a "flash" meter. Maybe you mean an incident lightmeter?

Robert Raymer's picture

True, these appear to be shot with natural light, however, while an incident meter is all you need for natural light, if you ever plan on using flash in your photography (film or digital) you need a meter that is able to trigger and meter flash, hence the recommendation (I assume) of a flash meter.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

He never made any mention about using flash, either speedlights or strobe but recommends a not all that necessary item for most people, use an app or an old sekonic, a flash meter is overkill, many folks will realize that film is is alot more expensive and not quite as romantic as they hoped, and go back to digital. Obviously meters are used when shooting MFF as metered prisms are not very accurate-at least for e6.
Hell I have a couple flash meters and a couple non flash meters somewhere around here. Very rarely used these days, by me at least.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Either one works, it comes down to your photography style. But if I had to choose between the two, I would certainly get a flash meter to be able to use flash if ever needed :)

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Not to beat a dead horse but the difference is whether you are using a meter reading reflected light or incident light, not flash or continuous light as you will get different readings.
Flash is a whole 'nother thing.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Sure, but Photoshop doesn't offer as many possibilities as Lightroom. Things like the clone stamp tool are not even close to being half decent in LR.

I haven't tried 35mm film yet. However, my 6x7 negs are (almost) as good as my D810 in most case and have that "MF look" that pushed to start shooting film in the first place :)

Ralph Hightower's picture

I started photography with film and I still use my Canon A-1, which is 36 years old. I added a used F-1N so I could share lenses. When I bought my 5D III, I turned off image review since I didn't use it after the first photographs. One of these days, I will get a Mamiya RZ67 system.

Robert Raymer's picture

You will not be disappointed with an RZ67. A few years ago I bought an entire system (body, 2 backs, metered prism finder, 4 lenses) for under $1200. It is heavy, it can be a bit finicky and it has a bit of a learning curve, but once you get used to it it is very fun to shoot. The detail in a well exposed 6x7 negative is quite something as well. I ended up selling it to help pay for my D800 and then moving to the Hasselblad V system for medium format (what can I say, I love the 6x6 format), but the RZ67 is still one of my favorite systems.

Prefers Film's picture

My RB67 system cost me just under $11,000. But I bought that in a different era...

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Have a look at the RB67 as well, it's a bargain! Much cheaper than the RZ67 and all mechanical ;)

Mr Hogwallop's picture

If possible bite the bullet and find an RZ, RB are older, youngest ones are 25 years old. They are clumsier (cock shutter ans wind film are two actions) and the older mechanical lenses often have inconsistant speeds. Also the gears are weak compared to the RX which causes failure and overlap of frames or wide spaces between frames. I have had most MF systems and the RZ and 500c/m are still my favorites. I'd love to find an affordable SWC Hassy

Prefers Film's picture

You can get a used Minolta light meter dirt cheap these days. And if it's inaccurate, all you'll need to fix that most of the time is a crisp $1 bill.

Tom Lew's picture

Scanning my rolls of portra as I write this. Can't say enough how much I recommend the film thing even if you plan on going full digital afterwards. It's a whole education on slowing down and thinking.

Percy Ortiz's picture

Nice post. I think all 4 previous tips can be just resumed into one. Shot Film! Shooting film will make you do all those things: slow down, use a light meter and think about the post-production and the final output. I remember even proofing with polaroids before exposing the finals on film... ahhh miss the good old film days sometimes :)

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Great tips... Fighting he urge to just run off a ton of shots is always better in the log run

Luis M's picture

Practice using small memory cards. It's like using film in that you have a limited number of shots you can take before you have to change the card.

Larry Mockus's picture

I only know 2 Quentins and both of them are legends!!!! :)

Paul Gana's picture

I started in 35mm film and progressed to 4X5 several years ago, talk about making you deliberate in each shot. To be honest since I converted to all digital have really gotten quite sloppy and I am constantly telling myself to slow down. I do love digital for the opportunities it gives me to try different compositions and angles in a single location, but shooting just because you can doesn't translate into something useful all the time.