How Many Pictures Do You Shoot?

Leading lines

Think back over the last month or so. How many pictures did you shoot and how often did you go out shooting? This idea jumped out at me listening to an interview with the great Jay Maisel. He uses this as a probe to find out about his students.

Who cares how many?

In reality, it should not matter to anybody else, except you, what your photogrpahy habits are. It’s a trick question in the sense that there is no right or wrong answer. At least not quantitatively.

Jay uses the question as a probe to understand his student’s style and work habits. He would rather hear that you carry your camera all the time and shoot some every day. If you say you go out once a week and shoot some he will likely tell you that you need a lot more practice. If you say you go out once a month he may tell you to go home. That would be a shame because his workshops are expensive and hard to get into.

I’m hoping to convince you that you, and only you, should care how many shots you take.


So in Jay Maisel’s experience your shooting habits are a predictor of your ability. Frequent photo practice, in his view, helps you become more experienced, quicker to see a good image, and more practiced in the technical aspects of using your gear. This all combines to make you far more capable of recognizing and capturing the best moments and gestures.

The repetition and the self evaluation that comes with it also makes us more thoughtful. We learn to see more when we practice seeing. Our ability to open up and be receptive to the stimulus around us increases.


In one sense the constant repetition of taking a lot of pictures frequently builds the equivalent of muscle memory. It is the same way a good athlete does a lot of practice. Besides their intense training a basketball star may spend hours just shooting baskets. A baseball player may spend hours in the batting cage hitting balls over and over. A soccer star may spend hours just kicking the ball around, kicking goals, taking passes.

Doing this makes them more used to the feeling of the ball or the bat. The pump or the swing of their muscles. The rhythm of the movement. It builds familiarity with the movements they want to do in a game. The motions become routine and automatic.

I believe a similar effect happens to us in our image making. There is great benefit in being out a lot. Taking lots of pictures, even if we throw most of them away. We are practicing the motions of using our camera, framing, composing, executing images. It becomes a smooth and automatic reaction. The camera controls become instinctive. Our fingers learn to find and use them in the dark, without having to think.

In addition, lots of repetitions gives us lots of opportunities for failure and evaluation. When the result we get does not match what we visualize we can ask why. This gives us lots of very personalized feedback to help us improve.

Then when we are taking “serious” pictures, this helps us work smoothly and confidently. We can concentrate more on our creativity and less on the techniques of using the gear. The camera becomes an unconscious extension of our creativity. We are adept at framing great compositions so it flows easily.


This may seem fairly obsessive. Good. I hope so. It is and it should be.

A great athlete or musician, or artist, should be obsessive about their work. It is not a simple 9 to 5 job you can just step away from. It consumes a lot of your thought and time.

In looking at examples of athletes or musicians I find that good ones may come to a point where they can say “I’ve achieved good proficiency in what I do and some fame and recognition; I can settle back and enjoy the good life.” But the top ones are driven, obsessed. They practice hours every day even if they are considered to be the best. They know that they can improve and they are driven by some internal guide to only compare themselves to their own results, not other people.

Your mileage may vary.

I talk a lot about how Jay Maisel does his work. It is because I believe we can learn a lot from him. He is a fantastic artist, an interesting character., and very open about what he does

But Jay is Jay; you are you; I am me. We cannot and should not just try to imitate another artist, no matter how much we admire them. We each are different. Each one has different vision and responds to different stimulus and motivation.

I am not trying to be a (slightly) younger Jay Maisel. Nor am I encouraging you to be that. When you find wisdom, though, it pays to study it. A wise mentor usually has something we can learn and adapt for our own life.

I was reminded of this again recently viewing a class by Jennifer Thorson. She has an interesting class on conceptual fine art photography on CreativeLive. Her work and working style is completely opposed to my thought processes or interests. I would never do the types of work she does. Nevertheless, I learned things from her that I can adapt. Part of my constant practice is to learn from the best.

Practice, practice, practice

One of my key learnings from Jay Maisel is to practice, practice, practice. Have your camera with you all the time, as far as you can. Take lots of shots. Experiment. Try new things all the time. Make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. Get so familiar with your camera that you can do most of the settings automatically.

I try to get out with my camera 4-6 times a week and shoot something each time, usually regardless of the weather. I find that when I have a camera with me, it gives me permission and encouragement to shoot. Has it made me a great artist? Well, that is an evaluation for someone else to make. Just doing these things will not do that by themselves. If you shoot baskets 10 hours a day it will not make you a Michael Jordon. But it helps.

Try it for a few weeks. Get out a lot and take lots of pictures. Try to build muscle memory. Let me know if it helps!

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

If It Doesn’t Excite You, Why Should It Excite Anyone?

A perfect moment and place

This idea is taken from one of the greats, Jay Maisel. One of his quotes, paraphrased, is “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, why makes you think it will excite anyone else?” Good advice. I try to remember it all the time, but I sometimes find myself trying to force it.

Sometimes when I am out shooting (most of my shooting is outside) I can feel it. There is a tingling in my gut, my pulse is racing, I just know I’m going to love this image and I hope I don’t mess it up. Please let the light hold for a few seconds more; please don’t let the person move until I get the picture; please let me get to the place I need to be to get the shot before things change. This is one of the adrenaline moments of photography. It is like being is a flow state when you are working. Everything aligns and falls into place. Things get easy. It is a joy.

Sometimes, though, it seems like you can’t find a good image anywhere. You look and look and nothing excites you. It is a natural tendency to force it. To talk yourself into believing it is better than it is. Yeah, I can make something out of this in Photoshop. This will composite with something and it will get better. It’s really not so bad. It is actually kind of interesting…

All artists probably have a lot of self talk in our heads telling us all kinds of things. This wishful dialog can be dangerous, though. It can fool us into settling for mediocre instead of holding out for a higher standard. Mediocre is always going to be mediocre. No amount of wishful thinking is going to magically transform it into a portfolio image. Be realistic with yourself. Sometimes you just have to pack it in and move on to someplace else.

However, nothing is black and white (except black and white prints ☺). The muse, if that is how you view the creative spirit, works in strange and non-obvious ways. Sometimes you don’t get the tingle in the gut at the time. There are times when a scene just calls to you without necessarily exciting you. I have learned to go with it and shoot what seems interesting, even if I don’t fully understand why. This is not the same as trying to make something out of nothing.

Sometimes looking at images later on the computer, maybe weeks or months later, the light bulb goes on and I realize my instinct was drawing me to something very interesting. Maybe I did not get “the” shot that time, but it opened the idea and the vision. If possible, I will go back to the location later with this new inspiration and capture what the little itch was trying to tell me.

The basic idea from Jay Maisel still applies. If it doesn’t excite me, why should I expect it to excite you? Maybe I am sometimes slow to pick up on the excitement, but that is part of the creative joy. You, the audience, deserve the best, the exciting ones. I should never try to pawn off mediocre images on you just because that was the best I could find at the time.

Ephemeral Moments

Ephemeral moments come and go in an instant. But those short moments often make all the difference between an interesting image and a plain one. It is a unique advantage of a photograph to be able to record fleeting scenes. It is a challenge for the artist to recognize and capture them.

Ephemeral means fleeting, transient, short-lived, brief, momentary. In a sense all of our life is ephemeral, as the Bible says in James 4:14 “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.” Setting aside the more existential viewpoint for now, I want to focus on capturing brief moments.

For a photographer, capturing brief moments is both a technical problem and a mental problem. The technical is easy: choose a vantage point giving good framing on the action, arrange for the lighting to be sufficient and of the quality you want, select a lens to fill the frame with the subject, use a fast enough shutter speed for the result you want, then just wait for the subject to do something. ☺

Obviously it is much deeper than that. Many books and tutorials have been created on how to do it. If you’re a Creative Live follower I suggest this short class by Steve Sweatpants. What I want to talk about is what’s going on in the photographer’s mind.

To capture ephemeral moments the artist has to be aware, hyper-aware, of what is happening around them. If it’s a couple that interests you, one small gesture lasting less than a second may make all the difference. An interesting reflection may be completely altered when the sun pops out from the clouds for a moment or if a colorful bus drives by. Be ready. That old car coming down the street may be just perfect when you notice it is moving toward a framing by a building in the right light with complimentary colors – wait for it.

For the artist it is a mental process. I have to really “be there”. I have to free my mind of everything else and let it be receiving and evaluating input constantly, waiting for my mental processing to trigger a recognition of a significant moment. With practice I can get fast enough to recognize and compose and adjust camera settings and capture the fleeting moment. When you first start be ready for frustration. You beat yourself up constantly with the realization that there’s a great picture there, but it was over, like, 2 seconds ago. If only you had recognized it in time to act on it. It takes practice.

Part of the fun of it is the mental challenge. I have to forget about everything else going on. Email doesn’t exist; Facebook does not exist; being cold doesn’t matter; ear buds are distracting. I have to be entirely focused on the scene at hand. With practice, you learn to anticipate better. After observing behavior for a few moments you anticipate that the person or object will move a certain way or direction. You plan it into a future shot. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does and it makes for better images. If you are really there in the moment you will pick up the rhythm of the dance and move with it naturally. And it gives you a lot of satisfaction.

I believe one of the best modern masters of this is Jay Maisel. View his web site here. HIs philosophy is to “go out empty.” Meaning that he goes out to shoot without any preconceived notion of what he is looking for. He sees what is there and tries to make something of it. He would go walking around New York City every day with his camera. I don’t know if he still does since he moved out of “the bank” (a great story to look up). In regard to leaving your preconceived notions at home, Jay says “You can be looking for a long time and while you’re looking you’re going to miss everything that’s really there. The less specific the demands you place upon yourself are, the more open you can be to what’s in front of you.”

Being open to what is in front of you is a key to capturing ephemeral moments. Be there. Be in the moment. The world around you is a beautiful and joyful place. Go out and react to it.


Gesture has become an important concept to me. I was introduced to a more broad meaning of it by Jay Maisel. Jay is one of my favorite photographers to follow. I hate him for his work (it is so good) and he is an abrasive New Yorker with an outspoken opinion on everything. But I tend to agree with his opinions.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says gesture is “a movement usually of the body or limbs that expresses or emphasizes an idea, sentiment, or attitude“. Boring, but we know what that means. We see people using gestures all the time. It is instinctive to us. Jay has taught me to look for and be more aware of those gestures. It is usually a key instant, a decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson would say. Looking for moments punctuated by gestures has improved my candid people photography immensely.

But even more important to me, Jay expanded the concept. He says that almost anything can express gestures: trees, buildings, lamp posts, anything. I look at it as an implied relationship between things. That has broadened my creative vision. When I can find it, I now look for more than just an object in isolation. I look for implied relationships between it and other things in its environment.

The image with this post is a good example. I see an implied gesture between the tree and the cloud. I know, this is just silly anthropomorphism and the tree is not aware of the cloud. In a pst life I used to be an Engineer; I’m used to cold rationalism. But don’t take it away from me. Seeing the tree as being curious or longing to touch a cloud makes it deeper and alive for me. And I will pretend like it is true. Finding and expressing gestures has become part of my creative quest. The artist part of me wants to believe it is real.