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The lessons to be learnt from just one photo a day

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
‘Day 71: Track of injured wolf’ – from Jim Brandenburg’s best-selling book, Chased by the Light ‘Day 71: Track of injured wolf’ – from Jim Brandenburg’s best-selling book, Chased by the Light
11 Sep
2019
The move away from film has meant more pictures being taken at more times than ever before – but does that always result in better photography? Is there something to be learnt from setting yourself limits, asks Keith Wilson

Astronomically, September is the last month of summer, with the equinox on the 21st marking the end of the season and the start of autumn. Twenty-five years ago, this date provided the inspiration for a well-known professional photographer to commence a project that has since become one of the most influential photo stories of recent times.

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The photographer was Jim Brandenburg, an award-winning contributor to many of the world’s leading magazines, who chose the autumn equinox of 1994 as the starting date of a self-imposed assignment to shoot just one photo a day up to the winter solstice, 90 days later. For someone more used to shooting hundreds of rolls of film on each assignment, limiting himself to a single frame per day required enormous self-discipline, as well as an unrivalled pressure on his powers of composition, exposure and the timing of each press of the shutter. Just one press. Hit or miss. Remember too, this was 1994 when film still ruled and photographers could not immediately check the result on a screen on the back of the camera like in today’s digital world.

At the time, Brandenburg was a renowned photojournalist, famed for his now iconic images of wolves as well as other natural history studies for which he had won numerous awards. He was also notoriously reclusive, preferring to operate from his Minnesota home in the remote North Woods close to Lake Superior and the Canadian border. It was here, feeling jaded and short of inspiration, that he decided to focus his creative energies in the most concentrated, even limiting way – by making just one attempt, one frame, to capture each day of the fall in the land where he was born and raised.

‘I did it for therapy,’ Brandenburg explained to me when we first met. ‘I was exhausted. I’d won a lot of contests, Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Photographer of the Year twice in America. I just needed to get away because I’m basically very reclusive and shy. I shot 90 pictures, self-assigned, one picture per day, and I did it just for myself, then I put it away.’

It is difficult to imagine any photographer limiting themselves to one shot a day, especially in the digital era. Film cameras used to have a frame counter window to keep tabs on how many shots were left before having to reload another roll of film. Today, the huge capacity of memory cards means people shoot more freely and make far more attempts to ‘nail’ the shot. They are more likely to choose the continuous drive setting to shoot a burst of frames and then look for the best result when reviewing the day’s work on the computer. Perhaps the greatest behavioural change for those photographers who cut their teeth on film is that they are now shooting more pictures than ever. But in shooting more are they actually shooting better?

MAKING, NOT TAKING

Many photography tutors set the ‘one-photo-a-day’ project to instil a more considered approach into their students’ trigger-happy ways. By shooting less, you are forced to give more consideration to each of the factors and decisions that determine the outcome of each image: composition and framing, lens choice and shooting position, focal point and background, lighting and exposure and the speed and timing of the shutter release. By adopting this discipline more knowingly, you are actually making a photograph rather than taking a photograph. Every decision counts for more and the time spent watching and waiting improves the photographer’s powers of observation as they devote more time to noticing the changes in their surroundings.

In embarking upon his project, Brandenburg was setting himself a personal challenge; he did not expect his 90 frames of local autumn scenes would become something marketable (it was published as a best-selling book, Chased by the Light). Only the first image on the first day of autumn was pre-planned, the pictures that followed were responses to his observations of each day. Some days he simply picked a location and quietly observed the light, waiting for the right moment to press the shutter. ‘I learned something about following your intuition and your soul,’ he told me, and thereafter he decided to spend more time ‘looking rather than taking’.

This is the broader lesson of the ‘one a day’ method for all photographers, regardless of their chosen subject. Maybe you don’t need to limit yourself as drastically as one shot a day, but applying this discipline to a personal project over a set period of time is more likely to ensure that the lessons learned become engrained in your future way of working.

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ONE LENS CHALLENGE

Brandenburg’s 90-day autumn assignment continues to be an inspiration to other photographers and variations of his idea have extended to other areas of photography, even if for entirely different reasons.

One such example was British portrait photographer Carey Sheffield’s 50:50:50 project. Also a self-set assignment, it began after she purchased a 50mm f/1.2 lens to try her hand at street photography. Normally, Sheffield shoots formal portraits, weddings and family groups, working to a set brief. This time, she decided to try something more spontaneous, but with some key parameters in place: in this case 50 portraits of strangers in 50 days using only a 50mm lens – all in black and white. What triggered the idea? She explains: ‘When I saw everyone doing these projects on Facebook, I didn’t want to do something that someone else was doing, so I bought this 50mm lens, having read it was the way to go.’

Sheffield played it safe with her first subject, photographing her eldest son on his birthday, but the next day she stepped out with her 50:50:50 kit – a Nikon D700, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 lens, memory cards, notebook, pen and model release form. Every day she posted a new portrait and story on Facebook and within a week this collection of random, anonymous faces and their potted personal stories proved popular with her followers. ‘People kept ringing me, asking me can I get it out earlier,’ she recalls. ‘They told me not to stop doing it. It wasn’t just photographers, it was general members of the public, so the biogs grew because people were also interested in the words.’

The 50:50:50 project provided both personal and professional fulfilment. ‘I thoroughly enjoyed the process. When I was growing up I wanted to be the next Kate Adie. I wanted to be a journalist. I loved to write and I did well at English, but I left home at 16, so it wasn’t possible for me to go off to university and pursue that career. This project reignited that desire. I love getting down onto the floor and speaking to a homeless person and finding out their story.’

THE VALUE OF PATIENCE

Using only one fixed focal length (prime) lens might seem too much of a restriction to some people’s creativity, but for an exercise designed to improve how you observe subjects through the viewfinder, it makes a lot of sense. In the words of the photojournalist Jon Nicolson, ‘Prime lenses make a photographer connect with what they’re photographing.’ Simply, Nicholson and other professionals believe working with the same fixed frame and angle of view attunes your eye better to the details in the scene and for making fine adjustments to the composition; as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail.

In some situations, zoom lenses can offer too many framing options and lead to indecisiveness. It is for this reason that many landscape photographers prefer to work with prime lenses, changing their composition by tilting or shifting the camera on a tripod, or merely taking a step forward or back – many have declared that ‘the best zoom lens is your feet!’

Of all photographic disciplines, landscape is arguably the one that lends itself best to a ‘one a day’ approach. Indeed, many landscape photographers continue to use large single sheet film formats, with cameras and lenses that have remained functionally the same for decades, defying the advance of digital technology.

Although Brandenburg worked with the much smaller 35mm film format, shooting only one a day meant he was aligning his approach more closely to the methods used by the large format landscape photographer. By making a single exposure each day he was not selecting the best from rolls and rolls of similar frames but creating, as he says, ‘a true original, like a painting.’

By its nature, a landscape scene requires the photographer to find a location that has the potential to be transformed by the changing light. Even harder than recognising this potential is possessing the patience to wait for such a moment to materialise, and the stoicism to cope when it fails to do so. Is it any wonder therefore that the great American landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, once declared: ‘Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.’ By comparison, Jim Brandenburg’s 90 photographs in the autumn of 1994 must rank as a bumper harvest.

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DO’S & DON’TS

DO
• Set yourself a project. It could run for a set period, such as the equinox to the solstice, or it could be timeless. The important thing is to choose a theme or subject that you know you can stick to.
• Shoot only with prime lenses. Having a fixed view puts a greater onus on you to change position to alter the perspective. Zooming back and forth leads to indecision and less precise framing.
• Review your work as you go. When shooting a personal project or theme, look at the pictures you have taken in sequence and see what gaps remain. Like a story, you need an obvious start and conclusion and a flow of connected images in between.

DON’T 
• Waste your shots. Instead of thinking that you can take as many pictures as you like, give time to every frame and carefully consider the lighting, composition and focusing before pressing the shutter button.
• Shoot on continuous drive. Firing a burst of shots means you are not considering every frame. Just take one frame at a time and only when you think it’s worth it.
• Take gear that you’re unlikely to use. Indeed, the less choices you have the better as this improves your powers of observation and speed of response to what you see. For example, the best street photographers often work with one camera and one lens.

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University of Winchester

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