Obsessive Clicking Disorder*

A gesture and decisive moment at a sidewalk cafe

How many images do you click off of a scene? Why? Our wonderfully fast cameras have enabled this thing I have heard called “Obsessive Clicking Disorder”. When we see a scene that looks promising we can blast away at 5 or 10 or maybe 20 frames a second to “make sure” we get the shot.

I claim that that is often self-defeating, even lazy.

Machine gunning

So we point our camera at the scene and machine gun it for 30 frames. We are afraid we might miss “the moment”. Machine gunning is a brute force technique.

Think about the shooting metaphor. A rifle allows a skilled shooter to place a single clean hole right where he wants it. A machine gun sprays bullets all over the place in an uncontrolled way. The single rifle shot is elegant and controlled and disciplined. To me it is craftsmanship.

Those of us shooting fairly static and predictable subjects can usually take the time to wait for the right moment and fire off just one or two or a few frames. And, of course, if you are taking long exposures you’re not going to be firing away at high speed. Less can be more.


Another time where lots of images are captured is bracketing. In certain situations this is completely appropriate. Our marvelous sensors have a great dynamic range, but sometimes scenes require more. Exposure bracketing might come to the rescue by allowing an HDR compression of the range.

Do very many of your situations actually require this? I couldn’t put a percentage to my work. But I know it is only the occasional high contrast situation that forces me to use it. The extra work and the varied results of HDR processing make me try to avoid it where possible. And scenes with movement are often not good candidates.

Be aware

But what is the alternative to obsessive clicking? How can you get the shot of the fleeting moment?

To me the answer is being aware and attuned to the action going on. If we train ourselves to anticipate the “decisive moment” and be ready for it, we can capture it and know we have it. A good DSLR is fast (10-20 mSec to trigger an image capture, maybe even faster if using electronic shutter). Compare that to machine gunning at 10 frames a second. That is one image every 100 mSec. But within the regular, unvarying 100 mSec ticks a person can move a few inches or blink. You are just hoping that the odds will work in your favor. And often they do.

An alternative, though, is to focus on the moment, the gesture. You might be amazed at the ability you can learn to recognize and capture that peak time when the gesture and the eyes and everything is right. Triggering the shot then will usually get the scene you hoped for.


The incredible Jay Maisel describes this as waiting for the gesture. That is his version of the decisive moment. When we get in the flow and are completely attuned to the subject we can usually anticipate when these great gestures will happen. Wait for it. If you are concentrating, you will have time to press the shutter and get it.

“Such moments are fleeting, requiring more than fast autofocus and reflexes. It demands that the photographer be able to read a scene as it’s playing out. He or she had to understand that all moments evolve, having a beginning, middle, and end. With that understanding, the photographer can anticipate that peak moment where all the visual elements or light and shadow, line and shape, color and gesture culminate in a moment that can only be captured in a fraction of a second.” Ibarionex Perello

I find this is a wonderful and rewarding skill to learn. It is precise and immersive. You become highly engaged in the scene and the action. You learn to grasp the whole gestalt while still triggering on that perfect instant. It is a great feeling.

Have you experienced it? You know it’s coming. You are in the right place to view it. Almost, Wait for it. NOW! When you hit the shutter you know you have the shot. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment to know you captured exactly the gesture you were anticipating.

There is a time

Do I ever blast away at high speed? Well, actually no. I stopped doing that when I didn’t have any more family doing sports that I was shooting. I do use exposure bracketing at times. On occasion I even take exposure bracketed panoramas.

I recognize that there are times when any of us will take lots of frames. I’m just trying to convince you that machine gunning is a sort of backup plan, not a primary strategy.

As an example of where I would do it, I love taking images of reflections in water. This is a dynamic scene that never repeats. I may take a several frame sequence to capture variations of reflections so I can choose the one that works best for me. But by the argument I used before, this is not an attempt to capture a peak moment by brute force. I expect each frame to be an excellent image but hopefully one will speak to me as the best.

Be disciplined

At the root it is about being disciplined. Closing down our options and forcing ourselves to take one frame of the decisive moment is kind of like the exercise I recommended of going out with 1 lens. It requires us to practice and develop our skill and use our mental quickness rather than brute force.

I believe mental discipline and the ability to make fast decisions is required for photography. Learning this skill will, I believe, help us make a higher percentages of images we are proud of.

This is just my own value, but I have discovered that if I can help it, I really don’t want to spend the time editing through 500 shots only to throw 400 of them away. At some level it seems to me that I am shooting randomly and grasping at straws rather than being deliberate and disciplined about my work. Photography is an art and a craft. Training and experience and discipline will improve our art.

Try it. Let me know who it goes after you practice a while.


*Yes, it is a pun on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know that is a potentially debilitating disease that 1-3% of the population has. It is not something to make fun of and I am not doing that or denigrating anyone suffering from it. I am just using this well known phenomenon to make a point.

Being Timid

Aspen trunks as a graphic design

Aren’t most of us pretty timid with our art? We are intimidated to stray outside the safe boundaries of convention. We follow the trends or a favorite artist. At the root of it, we are too timid to be ourselves or go as far as our vision wants to take us.

I hope this does not apply to you. It would be great if I am just preaching to myself. Probably not, though.

Playing it safe

Safe doesn’t get us in trouble. Safe doesn’t get us criticized for being weird or different. If our art is safe we will get nice comments on social media.

At some point in our lives we will confront a dilemma, though. If our vision takes us in a direction that is no longer “conventional” we have to decide which path to follow. Do we play it safe and stick to what everybody likes or do we go where our vision is taking us?

Going our own way is not safe. Just like starting a business is not safe. Or making investments is not safe. But if done well, these things usually lead to greater freedom and satisfaction than remaining in our safe boxes.

If you keep denying your artistic values you will eventually either give up your art or lose your creativity. That seems a very high price to pay for safety.

Who are you trying to please?

Maybe I talk about this too much, but I keep making the point that the main audience I need to be concerned about is me. I would love for people to like my work and give me praise and buy my prints for their walls. But if they don’t and I still like my work, I’m successful. It is hard to remember sometimes, but I know it is true.

Let me remind you that I am talking about what we call “fine art”. If you are a portrait or wedding or commercial photographer you do the work your clients want. They hired you to do that for them. You try to put your own creative spin on it, but when it comes down to it, the client calls the shots.

In this fine art world I, as the artist, am called on to be creative, to boldly give my own interpretation. To make it my vision. If I am holding back because I’m timid then I am probably not pleasing myself or my clients.

Don’t worry about making other people happy. If you intend to photograph as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway. (Paraphrased from Stephen King)

Are you willing to be an outcast if necessary to be pleased with your art?

Be bold

Timid is safe. Timid doesn’t discover new, creative things. We should, instead, take chances. Be bold. Go for it.

I give you this advice, but I have recently discovered that I am still too timid. The epiphany startled me when I realized I am not fully following my vision where it wants to lead me. After giving the advice, I found out I was still timid. I apologize.

I won’t go into detail, because my vision is mine and wouldn’t do you much good, but I realized I am still too conventional in my subject choices and post processing. I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but I have resolved to loosen up and take more risks.

The realization that I have been stopping short of where I want to take my images was a blow to me, because I thought I was being pretty bold. It was a wake up call, but it had the feel of a discovery that was true and freeing. Long years of studying conventions of composition and post processing were deeply ingrained. I have to break through and let my imagination take me to new heights.

How will I know if I have gone too far? It will be when I decide it’s too far. Then I may back off some.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.TS Elliott

You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far. – John Paul Caponigro

No fear

I will try to keep this in mind as I start to experiment more. I know that there will be a lot of mistakes and failed experiments. But that is the only way to learn when you’re making a path where no one else has been.

The magic is in you. I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad photography. Remember that the best photographers understand that YOU is more important than NEW. The magic is in you. – Jay Maisel

I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it. Garrison Keillor

It’s time for me to seriously question reality. It is fearful but exciting.

This will be an interesting journey. A growth period. A time of stress but joy. I’ve been there before and I trust my creativity and vision to take me through this to come to a new place. I hope you will come with me through the adventure.

Let me know where you are in your journey and what you think!


Making art out of a glass wall

Most people would say that copying is wrong. They would acknowledge it as plagiarism or even intellectual property theft. Yet successful things are usually copied. This could be visual art or books or products or fashion or almost anything. Less creative people copy the work of more creative ones.

I’m not going into the plagiarism issues except to say that reproducing someone else’s art as your own without attribution or acknowledgment is always wrong. Give credit to the originator.

Copy to learn

We generally start out copying artists we admire. This helps us to perfect our craft and analyze how they created the work. We can study their composition and lighting and equipment choices and editing to see the decisions a good artist made. It is educational and can be enlightening. When you are learning something new I recommend copying examples you admire at first.

Don’t stay here. It should be a learning experience that you quickly move on from.

Studying and even copying other artists helps you build your mental catalog of scenes, ideas, tips, how-to tricks, possibilities, and aesthetics. They are all parts of the wonderfully complex experience of developing your own style. Your style will contain elements of other artist’s styles, but only pieces. Not a direct copy.

Don’t copy, steal

Picasso famously said “good artists copy, great artists steal“. Steve Jobs also quoted this frequently. It is believed Picasso meant that a good artist will only copy what someone else did but a great artists will adopt (steal) the parts that resonate with him and incorporate it in his own art.

This gets at the myth of creativity that deludes many people. The reality is that there is little true creativity in the world. Anything we create builds on things we have seen other people do. Accept that. Use it to your advantage by being more open about stealing bits from others. How you modify it or combine it with other ideas is what makes it your own.

I struggle with cynicism, but the idea that there is little true creativity is comforting. It takes off the pressure to feel like I have to come up with something so “out there” that nothing like it has ever been seen in the world. I can’t do that regularly. I don’t think many can.

However, I can be quite happy with an occasional “wow”. If I can surprise and sometimes delight myself and my viewers, that is enough. That is creativity.

Who do you want to be?

Don’t waste time trying to be someone else. When we copy, we are just being a pale shadow of them. It is not really us. What audience are you trying to win praise from? The only praise that really counts is our own.

Is this egotistical? Maybe. But at some level all artists are egotistical, because we feel we have something worth sharing with the world. I believe that if you don’t love what you are doing you will not persist in trying to share it. Being an artist is hard enough. If you don’t really believe in what you are doing, then why do it?

I love the story Cole Thompson shares about the hurtful critique he got that changed his life. Please forgive me for copying it here, but it is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard:

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

How about you (or me)? Who are we trying to be the world’s best imitator of?

Much more satisfying to be yourself

I’ve been there and I am thankful that I have grown beyond it. I am completely my own person now. I look at other artists work with admiration, and with an eye to steal the ideas that resonate with me. But I am not interested in copying them. It would give me no pleasure.

I will not be satisfied in being an imitation of someone else. I will proudly present my own art. My own point of view. Whether or not it is accepted and regarded by others I can take comfort in knowing this is me. This is my vision. It is who I am.

So if you are copying other artists, fine. Learn from it and never present it as your creation. But move on and get to the place where you can take all those bits you have stolen from others, process them and your ideas through your own mind and spirit, and bring out something new, because it is you. You will be much happier with the result.

One Lens

Deliberately restricted to only a 50mm lens

We photographers often lug around so much stuff it ends up getting in our way and hampering our creativity. Let me recommend occasionally challenging ourselves to try a minimalist approach. Start with sometimes only going out with one lens and one camera body. One lens? Are you serious?

Yes. Some interesting things can happen if you really go with it. You learn to see in new ways.

Which lens?

Does it matter what lens you use? I don’t know. But probably not. The exercise is about discipline and mental training. Don’t take a 14-400 mm lens (does such a thing exist?) to make sure all your options are covered.

Just pick a good lens. When is the last time you used that 50mm prime? Yeah. Mine is usually not even in my camera bag. That is one reason it is a good one to choose for this exercise. For many of us, our lowly, unappreciated 50mm may be our sharpest lens. Just because it doesn’t cost a lot doesn’t mean it’s not good. These lenses are usually excellent.

The image with this post was taken on a “50mm-only” hike. I’m sure I would have framed the scene a little different if I had my normal zoom, but this made me think. And I like it. 🙂

The lens is not the key, though. If you have a telephoto eye then a 70-200mm might be the answer. Better yet, maybe a fixed 105mm if you have one.

Limit yourself

Limit yourself?? That seems absurd. After all, as creatives we do everything we can to remove limits. To envision new things. To create.

Much good art happens as a result of exploring the limits of a medium. If we walk around festooned with multiple camera bodies and several lenses we definitely are not about limits. We’ve got everything covered. We are confident we can always get any shot we see, right from where we are standing. That is, if we can get the tripod set up and figure out which lens to use and get it installed in time before the moment is gone.

But if we limit our self to one lens a different mindset happens. If you’re really in the game you quickly learn to visualize the field of view the lens sees. Now we start to reframe the composition process. We work to the limits of the lens we have instead of picking the one we want to use at the moment. Now we begin to be drawn to scenes appropriate for what we have. Eric Kim says “By limiting your field of view, you are forced to capture reality into your limited frame in an interesting and novel way.”

Limitations can actually be very creative and enabling. The composition isn’t right from here, move. Yes, actually use your feet as a composition tool. Can’t take that shot because it requires a super telephoto? Don’t bother with it. Find a better shot that works with what you have. You quickly adapt to screening out the “not applicable” things and zeroing in on things that will work. It can be quite freeing and creative.

Get out of your comfort zone

One of the benefits of the exercise is that it gets you out of your comfort zone. Things that get you out of your comfort zone are usually useful. They may be uncomfortable (hence the name), but they can help us to see and perceive better. As artists I believe we owe it to ourselves to push the limits and try new things.

One very uncomfortable question is “what if?” What if I used a wide angle instead of a telephoto? What if I used a long exposure instead of freezing the action? What if I got down low and shot up to this subject? I’ve only got a 50mm lens, how can I creatively capture this subject? These kinds of explorations help us to break habits of always approaching shots a predetermined way. Consciously forcing ourselves to look at things differently is very healthy.

See with new eyes

This is what this is all about. Seeing with new eyes is part of what is required to be creative. We have to put things in perspective – usually a new perspective. Walk around it to see another side. Take a different viewpoint. Change the lighting. Change our approach to capturing images. As artists we owe it to ourselves and our viewers to bring something dynamic and interesting to our images. I believe we have to always be looking for new paths, new insights.

Stretching ourselves is always good, if we learn from it. Just like stretching and flexibility exercises are good for our bodies. They keep us fit and slow down the effects of aging. Creative exercises to stretch our mind and vision is at least as beneficial. Our bodies will age regardless but our minds can be sharp until the day we die.

But a challenge here is to learn from it. We get stretched by things that happen to us but we tend to shrug them off and try to get back to normal ASAP. But it is useful to ask what can we learn and change in our lives? It is healthy to force ourselves to stretch.

In the same way, an exercise like restricting yourself to one lens is a mental exercise, creativity training. It can stretch us and help us get new insight on our vision. And you will appreciate not carrying so much stuff. That in itself is freeing.