How Many Photos Did it Take?

Congratulations, you just showed me a great photo. Now I have a question: how many photos did it take you to get that one? ;~)

All us pros like to pretend we're perfect. Every shot we take is great. That's why we're a pro, right?

Not even remotely true. 

I tell a story about one three-week trip to the Cordillera Blanca in Peru that I did with Galen Rowell back in the mid-90's. As it turned out, after landing back at SFO we both did the same thing: we dropped off about 120 rolls of film to the same lab on our way driving home from the airport.  

This led me to a question: "So how many keepers do you think you have?"

Galen's answer was more nuanced and deeper than I expected. This quickly turned into an invitation to come join him as he went through his images after they returned from processing the next day. No need to ask me twice.

So first a number: 120 rolls of 36 exposure film is 4320 images. 

Galen had a very large light table he worked over, with a very large box next to it (if my memory is correct something like 3 feet by 3 foot by 2 feet tall). That box was filled with "rejects." I don't ever recall him emptying that box, though it must have happened a few times. When I asked him about it, he said it was there as a reminder. A reminder that he wasn't perfect, a reminder that ever shot cost him (these days that would be more in time and effort than money), a reminder that he shouldn't be trying to keep everything.

As he looked through images with me in tow, he explained that his expectation would be that there might be something near 100 images he'd call A images. Those were ones that he wanted to work on more because they were the best of the bunch and they would end up as gallery prints, and/or they were the ones he chose that were destined for projects that he was working on (a couple of years later that included projects that I assigned Galen in my role running a media group at Rodale). 

So, 100 out of 4320. That's 2.3%. 

Another couple hundred or more images tended to get into his B pile, which were photos that his stock image staff managed. I could always tell when Mountain Light, Galen's company, was sending Rodale images from the B pile: we just got the original slide. Most of Galen's A group ended up being converted to medium format internegatives and slides. Why? Because, among other things, on our publication's light table, a 35mm slide doesn't look nearly as impressive as something a MF or large format shooter was submitting.

So, let's say 500 more images out of 4320  went into the B pile (I didn't count exactly for that trip; that's the rounded figure I remember). That's another 11.6%. Another way to put this is that about one in eight of Galen's original shots from that trip in Peru ended up in places where they might get published. Most of the rest ended up in the reject box next to the light table.

Where am I going with this?

Two places.

First, when I do the same thing with an amateur or enthusiast photographer, I often find that the great image that they showed me is actually one of hundreds, sometimes thousands that were taken in pursuit of it. Indeed, there have been times when I've asked to see the "whole set of shooting" that ended with that prized image, and I get a resounding "No!". That's usually because the person is embarrassed at how many shots it took to get the winner they showed. 

But this is useful and informative information to know.

It should be obvious that you can be completely random with photography. That you take 100,000 shots and yes, wow, one of them is fantastic! As they say, a broken clock is right twice a day. 

Your "hit rate" tells you something. If you track it over time, it tells you more. 

Let's say that you go to the Cordillera Blanca and take 4320 shots. How many really make it into a collection that you're truly willing to show everyone? 43? Great, your hit rate is 1 in a 100. (Be realistic here: self-editing is difficult, but you need to learn to be ruthless.)

A lot of folk think that the way to get more than 43 good shots from such an expensive and exotic trip is to increase the frame rate of their camera: take more shots! Bracket! Zoom more! I'd say no for most subjects (though read on). All you're trying to do in that case is trying to take advantage of randomness. Take enough photos and one is bound to be good. You're not improving as a photographer, though. 

Someone who is improving as a photographer will look close at their hit rate and start trying to work that up: 1 in 75, 1 in 70, 1 in 65, etc... If you don't do that, what happens is that you end up with terabytes of images to import and sort through over time. Moreover, you spend way more time going through images after shooting than it took you to get there, do the shooting, and come back. So conquer your FOMO (fear of missing out) and get more in control of what your camera is doing and why.

Second: the corollary is that it's unrealistic to think that every shot is going to be right. Oh, I'd argue that it should be properly exposed, focused, and decently composed, but the best of us obsess about small things to make great images: is the wing position the best it can be (BIF), are the runner's feet off the ground (sports), is that the best smile of the bunch (events), is the framing exactly right for the subject (landscapes), and so on. 

In order to get to this fine level of obsessing on details, sometimes you do have to shoot more, not less. Personally, I love repeating situations—e.g. an Osprey that keeps returning to its nest to feed its young—because it allows me to make different decisions and try to get my timing just right. One of the hundred shots I take in that situation is going to be better than the rest. (Of course, figuring out which one often drives me crazy. But if I pay attention, it informs future decisions in the field.)

It's time for an assignment. Next time you go out on a purely photographic mission, whether it be the zoo, a workshop, or a vacation, take the time to try to work out your hit rate. What is it, and why do you think that's what it is? Do you think you can improve it, and if so, how are you going to go about that? 

I'm a huge fan of "always learning." To do that, you have to be self aware, and to be self aware you also need to do some analysis. So start your journey with some analysis of how you're doing as a photographer. If you've been collecting stuff into Lightroom, perhaps even start walking back in time and attempt to see if you've improved. 

Finally: I don't really care how many images you need to take to get the great one. 

Some great images come quickly to the prepared. Some great images take time to work out and create. For landscape photographers, for example, you might find the right place and composition, but it might not be the right light or time of year. 

So, congratulations on the great photo! Now do what you can to increase the chance that you get another.

Update: One reader suggested that their hit rate was really high. Almost everything they shoot goes in the "keeper" box for them, apparently. 

I'd argue that if your hit rate gets too high, you're not pushing yourself enough. You've essentially codified your shooting into a very narrow, repeatable process. I'd likely find that your composition is repeating, too, which means that after awhile, one of your images look any other of your images.

So there's a happy medium: you want to be experimenting and pushing yourself into new ideas and processes (which lowers your hit rate), but you want to improve your ability to come into new situations and get plenty of useful images (e.g. increase your hit rate). 

There's no perfect hit rate number. But if your hit rate is low, you need to think about and improve your craftsmanship (technique), and if your hit rate is too high, you need to experiment and challenge yourself more. 

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