You can't always keep what you've got. Learn how to become your best film critic, and mercilessly edit your shots to give yourself the best exposures.
Apologies to Pat Benatar & Eddie Schwartz aside, today’s photographer is suffering from image overload. A digital camera can shoot and store thousands of pictures and, unfortunately, most shooters keep every shot. Film photographers are just as bad with the common sentiment of “I paid for that print and I’m not going to throw it away” forcing them to keep every print and fill every shoe box. Well, it’s time to loosen your grip on those bad exposures and learn how to become your best critic.
Let’s look at an historical example of world-renowned photographer W. Eugene Smith and learn what happened at a “typical” Life magazine shoot. In 1948, Smith was assigned an article for documenting the life of a doctor in Colorado. This assignment later became the critically-acclaimed Life article Country Doctor. During his three-week assignment, Smith shot 2,000 negatives. This total was edited down to the 28 photographs which eventually accompanied the article. That was a ratio of 2000:28 or roughly 71:1. In the vocabulary of photographers, this is called the shot ratio. And, believe or not, that’s a pretty good shot ratio for a photojournalist.
There are extreme polar opposites to Smith’s shot ratio, however. For example, the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson was claimed to have an incredible shot ratio of 1:1. Similarly, Cartier-Bresson is also claimed to have said that your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. Go figure, right?
So what should your shot ratio be? Budding professional photographers strive to hit a 36:1 to 23:1 pace. Me? My best ratios have been 24:1 for 120 film, 31:1 for 35mm film, and an embarrassing 45:1 for digital shots. But my shot ratios came after thousands of self-curated photograph rejections. In other words, I became my best critic.
In order to become your best critic, try to remember these four important self-jurying criteria:
1. There is no “normal” shot ratio.
2. The kind of camera, and photographic medium, film or digital, can affect your judgment.
3. Your style of shooting can alter your shot ratio; “burst” photographers have high shot ratios.
4. Your personality as a photographer should evolve into being an extravagant photographer and a frugal editor. In other words, shoot more and edit a lot more.
As an example of a typical photograph editing process, look at the included images from a baby portrait session. In total, 4 rolls of 120 Ilford Delta 100 film were shot. That’s 48 exposures of the little tyke. From those 48 negatives, four contact sheets were made. On the contact sheets, a china marker was used for ticking the best portraits. Rejections were based on bad exposures, uneven lighting, eyes closed, crying, looking away, etc.
Finally, although two exposures were selected, the parent eventually chose one photograph. The result was a 48:1 shot ratio, a relieved baby, and a thrilled parent.
Regardless of your curatorial technique, however, strictly adhere to this one great piece of advice from “Mr. Zone System” himself, Ansel Adams, “there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs “ Amen!
Above all else resist the temptation of keeping everything. Don’t get caught up in a photograph “crime of passion” and keep everything that you shoot. Adopt a strict image editing policy and you’ll soon be singing to the tune of “hit me with your best shot; fire away!”