News and Views from Dave Wilson

The Value of Self-Imposed Limitation

by on May.28, 2012, under Photography

This shot was taken during a wedding I attended recently where I decided in advance that I would take a single lens (50mm f/1.4) and only shoot black and white all night. I think it’s probably my favourite shot of 2012 so far.

Tiny Dancers

I’ve been following an exchange between two of my local photo buddies this week that has me thinking about the issue of artificially imposed limitations on our photography. By way of background, Alex Suarez recently held a photowalk during which the rule was that participants could shoot no more than 36 exposures. Andy “Atmtx” disagreed with this limitation but noted that he finds limiting lens use to a single prime to be a valuable exercise. Rather than summarize the whole thing, you can read Andy’s post here and Alex’s reply here. These are guys I very much respect so, rather than disagree with one or other of them, I will agree with them both (partly).

Let’s be honest – photographers these days have it really easy compared to the days of 35mm film. We’re pretty much all gear-obsessed, coddled by our camera’s automatic features, slaves to our LCD display and histograms, and trigger happy thanks to the fact that every click costs us essentially nothing. All of this combines to provide an environment in which there is a whole lot less incentive to learn. You can get decent pictures without knowing the process required to do it. Rely upon your camera to set the shutter speed and aperture. Shoot 100 bracketed shots to get one that is right. Set up your flashes using the LCD to to judge power the instant after you press the shutter.

While this is a lot of fun, it’s also somewhat dangerous since it leaves people stunted in their photographic learning. If you start with 35mm film, you have absolutely no choice but to understand the basic, critical concepts involved. Without knowing how to use a light meter, set the aperture and shutter and calculate flash power from guide numbers and distances, you just can’t get any kind of shot at all!

But if we don’t need to know this stuff now, why bother taking the time to learn it? The point here is that you DO need to know this stuff if you really want to master the craft – to get beyond the “happy accident” point to a place where you can truly control your images and create the photograph that you imagined when you pressed the shutter.

So what does this rambling have to do with self-imposed limitations, you are probably asking? One of the problems with photography these days is that the number of variables you can choose between when taking a shot is enormous. ISO, aperture, shutter speed, metering mode, lens choice, white balance, composition. All of these vie for our attention while out shooting and the time taken to make all the required choices can cause us to rush and not really think about what we are doing. By imposing limitations on the number of choices, we can spend more time concentrating on the other variables and really consider them in depth.

Andy promotes shooting with a single prime lens and I agree with him that this can be a very valuable exercise. When I first started shooting, I had no choice – all I could afford was a Minolta 50mm f/1.8 and I shot with nothing but this for a couple of years. By sticking with a single lens, you are very much more aware of your composition choices and have to physically move to frame the image the way you want. I often like to go out with my 50mm and the camera set on monochrome. This removes all colour-related variables too leaving me to focus on form, texture and geometry in the pictures. It sounds like a limitation but give it a shot and I bet you’ll enjoy it – removing some of the myriad of choices is surprisingly liberating.

Alex’s 36 frame limitation (which, I suspect was intended as a fun challenge for one particular photo walk and not something he suggests people do on normal photography outings) is another limitation that can, I reckon, act as a very useful exercise. By limiting the number of exposures you can make, you are forced to consider all composition possibilities very carefully before picking the one you like best and shooting the image. It also makes you consider the exposure a lot more – do you rely on the meter or dial in under- or over-exposure based on your judgement of the overall brightness of the scene and the areas you want to be correctly exposed? You could do this by shooting a bunch of brackets then picking the best, but knowing how to judge the scene and second-guess the meter is a vital skill and this kind of exercise promotes that.

Limiting yourself during every photography shoot is obviously not a good thing to do but, when you have some time, decide on some arbitrary limitation and spend an afternoon working within the new boundaries you have imposed – shoot everything at a wide aperture, stick to a single lens, shoot with a lens that is not the one you would normally use for a given subject (telephoto for architecture, wide angle for portraits). I bet you’ll find you learn something and enjoy the process too. You may even end up with some great shots.

After I had initially published this post, my writer wife noted that this kind of limitation is something that writers have been doing to improve their craft for centuries. By setting limits on the form or length of a piece (whether that be a 1000 word short story, iambic pentameter, haiku or even a limerick), writers and poets are forced to hone various aspects of their craft – exact word choice in the case of syllable-limited forms or the ability to edit and write concise prose for short stories. While the limitations may seem unreasonable, each serves to teach a very valuable lesson that will help improve the writer’s overall grasp of the craft and exactly the same can be said of imposing limitations in photography or any other art.

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6 Comments for this entry

  • Jan Winther

    Absolutely gorgeous shot! Great expression, great pose and the light on the girls makes her look like an angel. Beautiful.

    About limitations, its probably a healthy thing to try to limit your self once in a while. I used to bring all my cra.. gear when i went shooting. The last couple of times I just brought my 50mm. Of course during a walk I will at times I wish I had a wider, or a longer lens with me, but my limit said (and my back) was to only bring one. I think differently when I dont have the zoom option. I get close and concentrate on the details. Its been a fun experience.
    Jan Winther´s last blog post ..Spring time

  • Allex Suarez

    Superb photo, Dave. The backlit hair is great.

    A great analysis of the merits of limitations. Love your wife’s take on the same for writers.
    Allex Suarez´s last blog post ..About the 36-Frame Photowalk

  • jpemberton

    One of the “limiting” excercises I like to do every so often is to take the handmedown Petri rangefinder that I learned photography with, load it with a roll of plusX and spend an afternoon shooting with that. Keeps me focussed on the details of what I am doing and brings back a great sense of nostalgia feeling 19 again blowing off college classes, feeling young and free…

  • Bob Lussier

    A very good read, Dave. Putting a new limitation on an old, familiar photo subject forces you to look at it differently. Last year I did exactly that at the Stone Mill in Lawrence — a place I’ve shot over a dozen times. I walked away with some great images.
    Bob Lussier´s last blog post ..New Walsh Home Scene of Happy Party

  • James Howe

    Great shot and wise words!
    James Howe´s last blog post ..Guggenheim Museum – NYC

  • Michael Tuuk

    Great picture! I’m with you. There’s some value in imposing limitations for learning and practice. Whether shooting a prime or limiting exposures it makes you think. I read a great article some time back about “accidental photographers” who get great shots by accident but then can’t necessarily reproduce the shot when a client points to something in their portfolio and says “I want a photo like ‘that'”. I need to dig that article up…
    Michael Tuuk´s last blog post ..Wouldn’t Mind Some Rain

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