I often get asked for tips on how to become a better photographer. The majority asking are parents who want to take better pictures of their own children. Others just seem hungry for a quick fix. While I could easily put together a top ten list of hints or yet another "25 Ways to Become a Better Photographer" article, I feel the most important thing anyone can do to improve is to regularly practice mindful photography.
Why offer that particular advice? See, I am a photo hoarder and it is weighing me down. I wasn't always like this. In fact, when I started my photographic journey, I took just enough shots to learn and improve as well as capture the story I was aiming to tell. Then I got a digital camera and the old shoebox of prints in the closet began to look downright organised and minimalistic compared to the collection of photographs stacking up on my hard drive.
The digital photography generation now bears a heavy load of essentially unimportant moments that we can't seem to part with, the result of automatic shutter release and the perceived lack of expense that comes without actual film to buy, develop and print. I would argue that the time wasted at the computer scrutinising between nearly identical expressions in a long series of images and worrying about what to do with the terabytes of digital negatives we keep accumulating is costing us plenty. Now some people see this ability to capture so many frames per second on massive memory cards as a great gift of modern times and in many genres like wedding and birth photography, I agree it is.
I am not writing this for those photographers nor those situations. I am writing for those who occasionally want to slow down and work on making beautiful photographs of their lives rather than just always taking tons of pictures. The people who ask how they can be more present in the moment they are photographing - I am writing this for them.
When I first noticed that I was taking way too many digital photos than I ever needed with film, I dedicated a small memory card to use for a personal photo experiment and over the course of a few days, I had taken seventy two frames. My exercise in mindful photography was born. I call it the "Two Roll Rule" after the thirty six exposure rolls of film I used to use when I started my photography business in 1995. I would shoot two rolls of film for my clients (mainly kid model portfolios) and was able to turn in at least sixty five different proofs from each session. That would include multiple locations and at least five different looks per session. I had to know when I got the shot because each click of the shutter cost me a frame of film.
The exercise is simple to do. If you have a small capacity memory card to spare, mark it "72 Frames" and consider it your two rolls of film. The best part of the digital age for me is that we can take this film out of our camera and pop it back in again if we need to! Over the course of however long it takes you, compose and expose those seventy two photographs. Consider camera settings, light and composition. Anticipate the moments and think about the story you want these images to tell.
The key is to not delete in camera, leaving the blinks, blurries and other mistakes there to learn from. When you have reached the seventy two frame limit, it is time to develop your pictures. Load the images onto your computer and evaluate how you did. Is your ability to manually set the camera a bit rusty? Do you feel there are gaps in your story? What can you imagine doing differently the next time? This self critique is where I grow the most. Complete the project by sharing the best images from your photo story online, make prints or even curate your own photography book!
I still practice this exercise. In fact, I have just returned from a trip to the US and I have a tidy sixty nine personal images to show for it. A selection of those images you see here with this article. Looking through my pictures, despite the seemingly low number, there is not a moment I feel I am missing because I have used my photos as a guide to my memories that are more deeply detailed and nuanced than could ever be captured by a camera.
The most exciting aspect of this mindful photography project for me is having the chance to help others. I have created the #my72frames hashtag so that I can follow along with your journey through social media. Please use it when you post photographs from your two rolls of digital film. I will even be featuring some of my favourite photo stories from the hashtag!
I look forward to seeing life through your lens.