The Power of Undershooting in Photography

The Power of Undershooting in Photography

Last week, fellow Fstoppers Writer Ty Poland wrote an article called "The Power of Overshooting." Ty is a great photographer, and he made some very valid points, but I must respectfully disagree. To me, undershooting is what advances your skills as a photographer.

Before I jump into my rebuttal, I must say that Ty has a great perspective; in particular, when doing a professional job with a time constraint, overshooting can be a lifesaver in that it ensures you get the shots you need. It's better to have too many to choose from after the shoot than too few. That being said, I think there are inherent dangers in such a shooting style, namely a stagnation of creativity and overlooking crucial details.

Personal Work

Personal work is your time to be creative, to explore, to experiment. You're free from obligations to produce a certain number or kind of images. If you're a good photographer, you've already mastered most technical aspects, and this time is to explore subtle characteristics of your personal vision, lighting, posing, etc. And to explore something subtle takes time and careful thought. Rarely is the first iteration of an idea as good as the second or the third, but if we don't allow ourselves time to reach those latter iterations, we're cheating ourselves. 

When you're just starting out in photography or anything for that matter, everything is new and novel, and I think shooting a lot makes a certain amount of sense in that scenario. However, once you've gained a certain level of competence, your task shifts from exploring and simply understanding global ideas to manipulating increasingly smaller nuances of your work, because those tinier details are what set you apart from the rest of the throng. There are thousands of competent photographers out there who can make a well-crafted, technically sound, aesthetically pleasing image, but there are far fewer photographers who have a distinctly recognizable look — some intangible that makes their work immediately recognizable upon first inspection, and those reputations hinge on such details.

I'll never stop shooting film, no matter how economically impractical it is. In fact, that's part of the reason I shoot it. Every time I line up a shot, particularly with a medium format camera, a thought flashes across my mind: "This costs you a dollar every time you press the shutter. Is this shot worth it?" And most of the time, it isn't, at least not for the moment. Because then, I'll ask myself: "What can you change to make this shot worth taking?" And suddenly, I begin to notice more details: that stray wisp of hair, the not-quite-perfect neck angle, etc. And after changing ten or so of these sometimes easily overlooked facets, the shot evolves into something entirely different from what it was before, and I feel more confident in pressing that shutter button. Of course, there's also the inherent limitation of quantity: you only get so many shots. I'm a huge believer in limitations benefiting the creative process. And what better limitation than quantity itself? When every shot counts, you're automatically more in tune with the process. The advantage is two-fold; not only does it make that specific shot better, it exercises my eye for detail and my creative mind in a way that makes it more intuitive in the future, so when I'm in those time-sensitive situations, I notice more and have a greater bag of tricks to draw upon, which is very important when doing professional work, particularly when under a time constraint that doesn't allow one the luxury of constructing such ideas from scratch.

Client Work

Continually developing this eye for detail has made me more confident in my shooting, and that has translated to my clients' experiences as well. Just this morning, while shooting a posed group photo, I asked the cellist to shake out her hand because her fingers looked tense, and she held it up to her face in disbelief and exclaimed: "how did you even notice that?" I laughed and told her that it's my job to notice such things, and it was clear it had gone a long way in giving her confidence in my abilities and easing her anxiety about the shoot.

There's a real psychological aspect to this. Clients are often very unsure of themselves in front of the camera, and they look to us to direct them and make them feel comfortable. If we're detail-oriented and methodical, not only does it help them by giving them the direction they need, it has a calming effect by demonstrating the control you have over what you're doing. This is particularly important during high-stress shoots such as weddings or simply with a client who has a certain amount of anxiety in front of a camera. Overshooting makes it difficult to have a conversation with your subject, to connect with them, and to really meet them on a deeper level of understanding, so you become more of an artistic partner and less of a stranger with a hunk of metal and glass pressed to your face. 

It also makes me quite a bit more efficient in post-processing. No one likes to cull hundreds or thousands of images, and that can take a significant amount of time. Furthermore, I've found that when I overshoot, I very often end up approaching my shot selection by trying to pick the images with the fewest errors, and that's a very frustrating place to be in. When I shoot methodically and purposefully, I end up selecting from the images I like the most, and that's a much more pleasant and encouraging place to come from.

Conclusion

I've found that nowadays, I take far less shots, but they're better shots. There's a balance, of course; there's a difference between undershooting and missing shots because you're waiting for some form of perfection that'll never arrive. There are also times when overshooting is called for. With that being said, though, I approach shooting with a "less is more" philosophy, and I've found that I'm working less, and I'm happier with my work. My clients are happier too; I've noticed a marked shift in both our interactions during a shoot and their satisfaction afterward. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!

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18 Comments

One complaint ive heard from people who've made the transition from film to digital is that the shoots gets less creative with digital because they routinely undershoot with digital and overshot with film.
WIth film there is no looking at the back of the screen and saying "yup, nailed, its a wrap". They kept shooting just in case and made better work when they overshot their film.

Ben Perrin's picture

I think it's the opposite. Immediate feedback in the form of a preview allows for quicker learning and for experimentation that wouldn't happen otherwise. It's a quick way of seeing what works and what doesn't. Also if you are shooting with a human subject it allows for collaboration to create the best shot possible.

Robert K Baggs's picture

This is a great argument; it's probably somewhere in the middle but an interesting thought.

Remus Roman's picture

On point article Alex! I feel like if you can think like an Art Director on shoot, you can save a lot of time over the span of a project. I've caught my self over-shooting on occasion, and while the mass of content can make you feel like you'll nail a great shot statistically... it doesn't make up for the lack of proactive thinking.

Alex Cooke's picture

Thank you, Remus! I totally agree.

Overshooting has its purpose in sports, precision air shows (Air Force Thunderbirds, Navy Blue Angels) and I've been told in bird photography.

I'll continue shooting film as long as it's available and my film cameras still work. I'll get my Canon A-1 and F-1N repaired if not working. Film is what I first started using in 1980.

I've used my motor drive on my A-1 at a NASCAR race to shoot bursts of film when the pack approached where I was. I also used it to photograph a guy doing a backflip from a boat into the lake.

I turned off image review on my Canon 5D III since I don't use that feature; I'll review images afterwards, but never after each shot.

I used to shoot with a D90, i consider myself as a serious amateur, getting a few contracts to whom I fully perform in my region.

I used to pay and spray, shoot alot of images and then spend countless hours editing and culling bad images.

Since I evolved to a D750, I take the time to slow things down even in stressful situations, get a hold of what is happening. Having bigger file formats makes less images available per memory card, so at the end of the day, it helps me out to treat my camera almost as film.

Ever since I have changed my outlook on shooting, my quality has skyrocketted compared to before.

Anecdote, last saturday I had three graduates which had 1 hour sessions booked back to back.... first few shots to ''know the light'' then I simply went with it, peeking at my histogram more than my images themselves. At the end of the day I was persuaded that my last shoot went horribly wrong. I calmed down...went home...had a beer and started editing. Turns out my last shot was surprisingly awesome!

That being said, learn to slow it all down, shoot what you need :)

Thank you, Alex, I couldn't agree more. Some shooters use quantity to compensate for a lack of skill, wading through thousands of poor images to find one that's acceptable.

If you look at the top shooters, whether they started in the film era or the digital era, they tend to Think Film and Shoot Digital. That is, they set up the shot based on what's in their heads first -- as if they'll never see the back of the camera (much less tether). Then, they (often) use digital to tweak and refine the image. Joe McNally's covered this a lot in his blogs, as has Joel Grimes. There are some exceptions, like Peter Hurley, but you'll notice he's not figuring out what the image is -- he knows what he wants and the lighting is already close if not spot on. The volume is dealing with the variability of humans who aren't models to get exactly the right expressions, so he, too, is shooting film style and leveraging with digital.

user-88324's picture

Personally, I despise "overshooting" in still photography.

I agree with Baudrillard when he claims: "The instantaneity of photography is not to be confused with the simultaneity of real time....Visual flows only know change. The image is no longer given the time to become an image."

Overshooting creates a "visual flow" that emphasizes change. It doesn't allow the moment to make a stand and become a fixed moment.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

I don't even understand this conversation. Is Picasso a better painter than Jackson Pollack because he used less paint (or vice versa)?

We should just use the tools we have (film or pixels) as we need them to express our creativity. I've never once thought about how much I'm shooting while working.

I have a friend who's a top lifestyle photographer. Flies around the world shooting happy people doing fun things for huge brands. He can trigger off over 3,000 frames a day.

By contrast, I have another friend who's an editorial and portrait photographer. Has shot everyone from Obama to Pharrell. He'll rack up maybe 200 frames in a shoot.

Neither one necessarily better than the other. They just shoot what they need to do their job.

Next week's article: "The Power of Shooting Exactly the Right Amount"

Percy Ortiz's picture

hahahaha... gold!

Alex Cooke's picture

Too bad Goldilocks doesn't write for us. :)

I made the switch to digital in 2004. During reviews of old slides and negatives, I realized that the shots that generate the most activity and income are the film-based images - we're talking a ratio of about 8:1 in my best estimates.

I spend more time scanning film than ever before. I tend to shoot more nowadays, but only because the chimping aspect has made me lazy - I see the image immediately, decide it can be a bit better, then do it again until I'm happy. What a change from 15 years ago! Do I shoot more? Sure. Are my images better? My evidence says no.

william mitchell's picture

I shot film medium format and 35mm and some 4 x 5. Today I think film and shoot digital. Meaning that I think about how i well use the image before creating it. The most important "processor" is 5 inches behind the eyepiece.

Frederic Hore's picture

Coming from the film world before going fully digital in 2006, like Alex Cooke, I have continued the same practice of being selective with my imagery, of taking the time to scout locations, compose my images thoughtfully, and then taking only two or three images, bracketing as I used to do with chrome films, to achieve the best exposure possible. I will of course explore different angles, and try different lenses, if the situation warrants.

Like Alex said, spending time in front of the screen having to cull tens, even hundreds of images is not productive, so I find myself more and more culling right in the field, at time of capture.

And like Alex, I still shoot some film too. I find sunset shots with a large tonal range with the sun in the image, still reproduce better on film such as Velvia 50 than in digital, without having to use reverse GND filters. I also use a tripod wherever possible, to achieve the sharpest image at the lowest ISO.

Cheers!
Frederic Hore,
Montréal.

Descending Mount Wright, Adirondak High Peaks, New York
Photographed on Fuji Velvia 50, Nikon Coolscan 5000 scan
©2004 Frederic Hore. All Rights Reserved.

Alex Cooke's picture

That shot of the skyscraper in Chicago is on Velvia 50! It's one of my favorite films. :)

Ty Poland's picture

I think you got me with the film part, I wish I brought that up because it's a big part of learning about photography. Some good points in here!