Take Time to Design
January 25th, 2018 by David LaBelle

Once I saw this guy putting out cushions for chairs facing the ocean at the Gulf Coast’s Perdido Beach Resort, I quickly raced in position, got low so I could see the sky and get a clean background, and waited for him to enter the frame.
© Photos by David LaBelle

In the beginning, one of the things I loved most about photography was the magic of shooting, developing and printing my images.

Each step, each action, required attention and offered a different form of craftsmanship and satisfaction.

Being a good shooter was one thing. Being a good printer was another.

I find a loss of craftsmanship evident in almost every aspect of our modern society, including photography.

With digital photography, people can inexpensively take as many pictures as their memory cards will hold.

When I taught at Western Kentucky University in the ’80s and ’90s, and students shot mostly black-and-white Tri-X film, every press of the shutter button cost about 25 cents. Most could not afford to motor drive. They needed to consider the cost at every step.

Because of the cost and manpower required to process, edit and print film, we limited students during our workshops to 10 36-exposure rolls of film. That is 360 frames during the course of three or four days.

Some “photographers” shoot that many digital frames in a 5-minute burst without changing position or lens.

With sports and nature, shooting many frames quickly is important. But shooting a thousand frames of a building that does not move makes little sense and is the opposite of mindful craftsmanship.

We shoot more now because we can easily delete unwanted frames. But even with faster motor drives and better technology, we still miss important moments between the opening and closing of the shutter.

Thankfully, there still is no substitute for intuition.

“Why get so upset?” students ask me when I critique their work. “I can Photoshop it, straighten the tilted lines and enhance the bad color.”

I think of Ansel Adams shooting two frames of his famous moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico, with an 8×10-inch view camera. There is mindful, deliberate craftsmanship framed in an understanding of his craft and the tools used.
I am not such a craftsman, yet I aspire to be.

To encourage my students to slow down, be more deliberate and mindful, I recently showed them the award-winning 1980s documentary, “Chased by the Light,” chronicling the incredible challenge by National Geographic Photographer Jim Brandenburg to make only one picture a day for 90 days.

It is as relevant today as it was when it was made.

We can overdo anything: shop, sports, sleep, eat, even shoot pictures. Overshooting can make both you and your subjects nervous or anxious.

I know because my wife has to remind me to slow down, lest I offend her and those around me. Part of photo etiquette is knowing when and how to move and when to press the shutter—even how many frames can be fired without offense.

I catch myself overshooting when I am not engaged, not in the zone, not trusting my intuition or instincts, fearful I will miss the “moment.”

It isn’t my nature to be disciplined. I am prone to overdoing whatever I take on.

My mother use to lament that getting me to do anything was hard, but it was even harder to get me to stop once I started. I guess I am a procrastinator deluxe, with no off switch until I collapse.

In a world that feels everyday like it is speeding more out of control, it behooves us to explore techniques to slow us down so we can savor the beautiful natural gifts that surround us.

We should be grateful for the technology, but not expect it to replace our intuition.

Take on the frightening challenge to make no more than 10 pictures a day. This is a plea for craftsmanship.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.