Why Shooting Regularly Matters

Old Mescal Bronc  | Beebower Productions

Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

It was without a doubt the most embarrassing moment of my short life.  I finished a photo assignment and realized there was no film in the camera.  As I sat in the car and contemplated my options, I broke into a cold sweat.  What kind of photographer forgets to put film in the camera?

I’d just started my college summer internship at a newspaper.  I knew I had no choice but to drive back to the lady’s house, admit my mistake and beg for a “do-over”.  I was so worried about the whole situation; I ignored the woman’s directions about approaching the house.  I was supposed to stay in the car and honk so she could retrieve her giant German shepherd from the yard.  He was a giant, over 100 pounds of protective dog.

In my shock and horror over my atrocious error, I skidded into the driveway, flew out of the car and rang the doorbell completely ignoring the furry goliath.  The dog, which was used to folks taking him seriously, stood in the yard swiveling his head between my open car door that dinged and me ringing the doorbell.  I think we were both shell shocked for completely different reasons.

I could have cared less about the dog.  All I could think was, “No film.  Seriously?  I’m never going to make it in a real job because my current boss is going to kill me.”

I’m happy to report I did finally get the shot on film and the woman was very gracious.  She never did tell my boss about the mistake.  That was a relief because I sure wasn’t going to mention it.  Lesson learned:  Obsessively checking your camera for film before arriving at the shoot is a great idea.

Practice Makes Perfect

My internship disaster illustrates a great point.  You should shoot everyday to keep your skills sharp.  As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.  (You knew I was going to work that trite but true phrase in here somewhere, didn’t you.)  I’d taken a couple of weeks off between the end of my college semester and my internship.  Bad idea.

Photography is a complicated business with many moving parts.  Obviously you need film in the camera, but there are many other things like choosing the right exposure, composing the best picture, determining lighting and speed in shooting that require attention to details.  The more you practice shooting, the more those details become a habit.  Then you’re better equipped to handle problems when they crop up (and they will).  

Dad’s classic Western photo “Old Mescal Bronc” required him to be at the top of his game. In addition to the basics like composition and exposure, Dad had to direct the model, the wranglers and make sure he wasn’t trampled by a crazy horse. (The hooves were about three feet from his face by the end of the shoot.) There was no time to figure out how the camera worked. Dad needed to know his gear inside and out in this situation. The problem was getting the best picture and staying safe. Regular shooting allowed him to do both.

Other problems you could encounter involve equipment malfunctions. Your camera meter dies and you need to know what a good exposure on a sunny day would be.  (This really happened to me.) No problem.  You’ve been shooting sunny beach scenes all week, so you know from experience what will work in a pinch.  (It’s ISO 100 at f16 and 125 second in case you’re wondering.  You can calculate many combinations of f-stop and shutter speed once you know that starting point.) 

Hummingbird Daze

Some photo shoots are so technically challenging, you really need to practice daily before undertaking them.  

Black-Chinned Hummingbird at a bat-faced cuphea bloom

Black-Chinned Hummingbird at a bat-faced cuphea bloom

Dad started photographing hummingbirds a couple of years ago.  If you’ve ever seen hummingbirds zipping around a garden, they are fast little buggers. The average wing beat of hummingbirds found in North America is 53 times a second.  

Most hummingbird photos fail to stop the wing action.  Dad was determined to learn how to not only freeze the wings, but also how to illuminate the amazing colors in the birds’ iridescent plumage.  

Over a period of about six months, he began developing his technique.  It required regularly shooting and accessing his progress on his Mac.  In the evenings he’d do some more research on shooting techniques and tweak his equipment.   The next morning he was out shooting again.

Eventually Dad found the right equipment combined with the right technique to capture the pictures that satisfied him.  The equipment list is pretty long.  You need to know how to run flash slaves, use Canon Speedlites on manual settings and anticipate the birds’ actions on your photo set.  Shooting everyday helps you overcome all of these obstacles when you’ve spent a lot of money to reach a great hummingbird location like Madera Canyon, Arizona.

Dad says, “Gazillions of little things go together in order to take the hummingbird pictures.  If you don’t do it regularly you forget stuff and your shoot fails.  Then you really begin to hate yourself because you know you could have done better.”

How “regular” is “regular”?

We recommend taking pictures a minimum of once a week, but daily would be ideal especially if you’re a beginner.

Dad said, “Even if you only shoot pictures of targets on a backyard fence or wagon wheels rolling down the street, just shoot a lot of pictures.  My brother Gordon used to say film is cheap so make sure you got the picture by shooting a lot.”

Dad and I don’t shoot as often as we’d like to simply because we have a business to run.  There are blogs to write, photos to process, prints to make, website meetings to attend, new products to develop and on and on and on.  You get the idea.   Small businesses are built with a lot of sweat equity.  Nonetheless we try to shoot a minimum of once a week.  

I actually schedule time on my calendar for photo shoots.  Not only do I pick a day and time, I also choose an assignment.  For example, one week I might be shooting a landscape near the ocean and the next week wild turkeys in my neighborhood.  I like to mix up different types of shooting to keep all of my skills sharp, including thinking outside the box in creating shots.

Burning Stick  | Beebower Productions

Burning Stick | Beebower Productions

Dad captured this classic Old West photo because he was noticing everything around him and considering how it might be turned into a photo.  “Burning Stick” was a last minute deal.  Dad and his model spent the night at Sun Valley Ranch in Colorado where they were doing a big commercial shoot the next day.  

Overnight a storm dumped several feet of snow on the ranch.  The next morning Dad got up and noticed the perfect spot on the cabin porch for this photo.  If he hadn’t been in “photo” mode, observing the warm porch light, the blue tones to the snow and using his imagination to create this shot, he would have missed out on a picture that’s still very popular today in his Old West photo collection.   Shooting regularly matters.  It helps you recognize a good photo when the opportunity appears unexpectedly.

The School of Hard Knocks

So not only does shooting regularly keep you up to speed on using your camera gear and good composition, it also helps you recognize great pictures you could take.  I’d rather shoot on a daily basis that visit the school of hard knocks.  You can bet I never made the “no film” mistake ever again.  In fact, I obsessively checked for film after that fateful day.  

Obviously someone else made that mistake at Canon. In the latest cameras you can’t take a picture without a media card in the camera.  Brilliant!  Now I just need to check the f-stop, shutter speed, lighting, composition….