By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE GREAT TAKEAWAYS OF THE DIGITAL ERA IN PHOTOGRAPHY is how it has greatly expanded our freedom to make mistakes, or, more precisely, how it gave us permission to make more of them.
I say, with absolutely no attempt at snark or cynicism, that the ability to take a lot of bad pictures is tremendously liberating. Mind you, the desired end product of our photography remains a body of work that we’ll point to with a modicum of pride. What’s changed is how much faster we can now evolve through all the layers of errors and bad choices that, in the days of film, used to take us years and big dollars to navigate. Now, we can simply afford to make more mistakes, faster and cheaper, than at any other time in history. More importantly, this gives us essential feedback in real time, information that is delivered to us while our subjects remain at hand and our memories remain fresh. That is a real game-changer.
Still, it’s important that we take real advantage of this great freedom, going so far as to embrace, even welcome, errors that we used to try to avoid at all costs. Instead of the mental pressure of making every shot count, we need to first be comfortable with what I call “shooting slop”, of going out for days or even weeks on end trying to anticipate everything that can go wrong with a picture, actually do many things recklessly or without purpose, and be ready to write off every image in an outing as part of the learning curve. I especially recommend this anytime you switch cameras, reacquaint yourself with an old piece of gear, or attempt to master a new lens.
When you’re adding something new to your technique or kit, you’re going to screw up a certain number of shots anyway, so why not invest some time trying everything, shooting with no set purpose or objective in mind, and be okay with burning off all those loser frames in preparation for the day when the shooting will really count? This sounds simple, but, in practice, it takes as much discipline to shoot a whole day of slop as it does to pursue a Pulitzer Prize winner.
The frame you see here is from part of a two week break-in period that I’ve undertaken with an old Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens, known colloquially as “the pancake” because of its low profile and compact size. It’s one of many, many excellent Nikon 50mm primes made over half a century, many of which I’ve already shot extensively with. But just as all of your kids has a distinct personally, the pancake, which was never marketed extensively outside of Japan, has its own “take” on things like, well, focus.
Don’t get me wrong: when you use this sucker correctly, it’s as sharp as a razor. It’s just that, after some forty years of use, some play has naturally have worked into my lens’ focus ring, so that, as you see here, merely setting a distant subject for infinity can actually take you a little bit back into blur, so that I have to, in effect, dial the ring back a smidge to get something sharp, which this shot certainly is not. But hey, it’s “shooting slop day”, where I’m in an environment that I’ve already visited a thousand times, and from which I’ve already gleaned some really good pictures. The stuff I’m shooting today just doesn’t matter.
Except it does.
And that’s my whole sermon. Fall in love with the making of pictures that you won’t fall in love with. It’s the surest route to getting to the ones you will swoon over in a lot less time. Or, to my original metaphor, you can’t become a gourmet chef until you’ve rustled up a big helping of slop.