Why Digital Photography Can Feel Like A Curse

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There is such a thing as too many photos.

Spinning Desktop (2010) by Antonio Roberts.

(Online Development No. 2)

With our digital cameras in hand, it is easier than ever to generate new photographic imagery at a quick pace, not to mention swiftly editing and sharing these pictures to the world. These days, it is the norm for us all to keep thousands upon thousands of images conveniently accessible at all times. Can you imagine how awestruck the Houston brothers, inventors of rolled film and its holders, would have been at the sight of a DSLR? Perhaps they would have said today’s easy-breezy photography is ‘too good to be true’, in which case they may have had a point.

We seem to be shooting more and more, but that isn’t entirely something to celebrate. As glorious as our new-fangled apparatuses may be, there have certainly been downsides to go along with the newfound ease and immediacy.

If we were to take a look at the photographic practices of most, I suspect a troubling pattern would begin to emerge: I feel we have adopted a heavy-handedness in our shooting methods, especially as compared to the era of analog photography, when each image was more precious. This habit of shooting to excess is not as harmless as some may assume it to be, given how rarely it is discussed. Many of us are in a kind of denial as to the self-sabotage that we put into play when we grow accustomed to photographing in excess during each session.

Here is a list breaking down the most relatable traps in our misguided thinking:

1. Firstly, we get trigger happy. Not with a gun, of course, but with a far more tempting click of that big, juicy button. All our problems start with the same rationale: Why take your chances on only one photo of that special moment when you can stretch your shutter speed to the limit? Sure, that makes sense at first, until you want to upgrade your camera body and find out that no one is interested because you have a high shutter count––yes, just like with cars, the mileage matters when it comes time for that resale down the road. Our equipment is far too expensive to be wearing it out this way!

If we know about this mechanical wear and tear, then what reason do we have to continue this way?

2. We tell ourselves we need duplicates. Having “backup” shots of every minute change in pose can certainly yield some advantages when it comes time for editing: You may be able to swap Aunt Linda’s sneezing face out of that family picture and replace it with a better #yaaasssgirl angle taken seconds before. Don’t get me wrong, I am familiar with that relief… In the moment, you are grateful that you planned for the worst and even take the opportunity to gloat about your editing superpowers. The reality is that these instances occur pretty rarely, and yet we find ourselves developing a habit of shooting “just in case”! (We’ll return to that later.)

Having said all of that, the worst consequences of the above habit actually appear after we’ve put down the camera and the editing tools.

Allowing Mistakes to Happen workshop
By Antonio Roberts.

3. More images = more storage = more expensive. No one can deny that the storage of images can become a real pain. As our cameras have gotten more sophisticated in the gathering of intricate visual information, it is unavoidable that every bit of image data still adds to the size of the file. And if you are shooting in the largest file format of .RAW (preferred by professionals), then you will soon find that these heafty gems can add up. Not only will you need to buy bigger SD cards for shooting, you will also need to find more space for storing your images as you continue your photographic journey, and––well, you get the idea. Whether you choose to place your files on the cloud or on external hard drives, the reality is that each image ends up having a literal price. And it should go without saying that most creatives tend to have very little money to spare!

Admittedly, I can understand the counterargument, which is that good quality imagery is absolutely worth it––a valid point that I myself have used for reassurance whenever it comes time to purchase more storage. But irregardless of the finances, there is a bigger cost to pay…

4. We get overwhelmed by the mess. No matter how organized of a photographer you may be, I can guarantee that we have all dreaded the backlog. Even if you don’t mind the extra costs of additional photographs, the sheer numbers of photos you are dealing with, even from a single shoot can easily become too much. (This is especially if you are dealing with bridal, sports, or general event photography where subjects are behaving unpredictably.)

At the end of the day, whether we are photographing for a client or just ourselves, we need to sort through all of the images and pick out the very best. This process, which preferably includes the deletion of images, is also known as “culling“. Many people feel overwhelmed by this culling stage, especially if they have difficulty deciding between an excess of similar shots. Of course, there are those of us, myself included, who find joy in picking out favourite shots like bright berries from a sunny field. It can be a delightful process, to be sure. However, irregardless of your feelings about culling, one thing soon becomes clear: Culling takes time. I don’t know about you, but precious concentration time seems to be the one thing I can never find enough of, no matter how hard I try!

That said, knowing just how far most of us passionate creators will go to do what we love, it is certain that we will push ourselves to “find the time”. But try as we might to push further and further up the growing mound of digitized imagery, exhaustion is sure to be found just around the corner.

5. In the end, we lose focus. Of course, this is likely untrue in the literal sense––in fact, perhaps we may misguidedly feel we have improved simply because of shooting to excess at every opportunity. Instead, what happens is a loss of appreciation: for our judgement in the moment; for our images as we cull and store them; for our time and energy as we repeat this cycle. Instead of being able to efficiently finish up one project and then focus on planning the next photoshoot, we get slowed down by all the excess images we so unthinkingly add on with each extra click of the shutter. Before you know it, this habit can lead to lack of interest, loss of motivation, and general burnout and discontent.

That’s why, like others, I have come to describe this unsustainable habit of excessive, anxious photography as “overshooting”; both because the origin of the problem is in, quite literally, taking too many photos and also because the reasoning behind that overcompensation is based in miscalculation and fear.

So although digital photographs may lack material weight, please be wary, because they can become a real burden to bear. Ultimately, when we overshoot out of fear, what we love falls out of sight.

“But what is the solution to overshooting?” I’d hate to leave you without any guidance, particularly since this bad habit and all of its unappealing consequences can be avoided. Good news: The first step absolutely lies in becoming self-aware (hence this post) and then developing a desire to change this behaviour for your own sake, more than anything. I’ll admit, this area is something I am working on improving in my own practice, and it can be easily to slip into old ways. So, I will likely write more blog posts around this theme and detailing more specific solutions, but for now, meditate on the following:

Sometimes less is more! This is the simple phrase is really the antidote to overshooting. It is the all-encompassing mindset needed to counteract in-the-moment impulses (when you feel the urge to shoot backups for your backups juuuust in case things are blurry) and after-the-fact doubts (if you’re hesitating over that delete button, it is probably safe to be rid of the picture anyways). If you stick to this reassuring mantra of “less is more”, I suspect you will find yourself with a lower shutter count, more file storage space, and a lighter load overall.