The shooting ratio is the proportion of frames shot that are actually used (now digital, formerly negatives or transparencies). For some reason, it’s a much more common calculation in movies and video than it is in still photography – probably something to do with the studio system and cost control. And the meaning of ‘used’ is fluid, certainly in still photography. It’s more straightforward in the movies, where it means the theatrical release, of which there is usually just one version, with perhaps a director’s cut appearing later on the DVD. With still shooting, however, pictures tend to be used more than once (when they’re used at all), and in different ways and in different combinations. If a photo story were shot for a magazine, the publication might use, say, a dozen. Later, pictures from this assignment are likely to be used in all kinds of ways — or at least, that’s what the photographer hopes.
Quite different from this editorial world would be an advertising assignment, when the idea is often to produce a single final image, and yet allocate heavy resources to the production. Or again, if we consider a gallery show, the choice is likely to be entirely with the photographer and so potentially tighter. The principle, however, remains fairly consistent: the number of successful images from a shoot. Different people judging and selecting inevitably disagree about which and how many – although there’s more consensus than you might imagine in the professional world — but the aim is the same.
Is the shooting ratio useful? Can it even be a technique, or is it nothing more than a working trait? I doubt that most photographers think of it consciously, let alone do an analysis, but there are certainly huge variations. At one end of the scale is the photographer who invests all the energy in the run-up to shooting, and then takes a single shot. At the other is the photographer who keeps on shooting every possible, minute variation of a scene, from viewpoint to moment to exposure. In a much earlier posting under Observations – http://thefreemanview.com/observations/strange-limits/ – I looked at the work of the renowned landscape photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper, who not only uses an old field camera and plates (not even sheet film!), but for each assignment takes a single shot. More than that, his work ‘The World’s Edge – The Atlantic Basin Project’ has involved some seriously remote and difficult locations: http://haunchofvenison.com/artists/thomas_joshua_cooper/.
Then, in 1997, Jim Brandenburg, whose speciality is wildlife and nature, conceived an assignment for the National Geographic in which he would, over the course of 90 days, take one, just one frame per day in snow-bound northern Minnesota. No second chances. If he shot a scene early in the day then came across something stunning and unmissable later, too bad. If he fluffed it technically, too bad.
At or close to the other extreme was the American photographer Gary Winogrand, championed by John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Winograd shot street photography haphazardly and in great quantity, and would later go through the contacts to see what he had. It’s telling that he left behind on his death over 8,000 unprocessed rolls of film waiting for this selection process.
So what is normal? Is there even a normal? It depends on three things:
- The kind of camera, and whether film or digital.
- The kind of shooting
- The personality of the photographer
The equipment inevitably has some influence, just on a mechanical and technical level, although as I’ll suggest in a moment, even this can be turned into something more interesting and useful. At the slow end are the larger cameras, which take more time to set up and operate. And none more so than sheet-film view cameras and field cameras. The film needs to be loaded one at a time for each shot, and on top of that is costly both to buy and to process. All of this discourages waste. Even the larger digital cameras, using detachable backs, push for a lower shooting ratio because of the space the files take up. Among normal digital cameras, those that work off the LCD screen rather than a viewfinder have a tendency towards a time-lag when shooting, and this sets a slightly slower pace. At the fast end of the scale, high-end DSLRs are built for crunching through large numbers of frames at high rates.
The big difference between digital and film, at least on the surface, is that digital shooting is cost-free, and seemingly removes any restraint on the shooting ratio. Or does it? One cost lesson learned from video is that the editing time is also a cost. Simply looking through a large take with the sustained attention that picture editing needs, is demanding. But then, a cost-based view of shooting ratios has to take into account who is paying the bill. In the professional world, film and its processing costs did not necessarily inhibit. In fact, strangely enough, it was quite common for photographers to take a kind of pride in the quantity of film shot. First, it evidenced a commitment to hard work — keeping busy shooting, not idling. Second, for some it was a proof that they were worth it — the magazine or ad agency uncomplainingly footing the bill for their rare but always costly talent (lesser talents had to watch the costs). Things calm down a bit when you’re shooting for yourself, and when it’s your own judgment call.
The second factor, the kind of shooting, plays a crucial rôle. This tends to be practical, but calls for some careful thought. Let’s take one well-documented example from magazine photojournalism, the classic and influential Country Doctor by W. Eugene Smith, which ran in 1948 in Life, at the magazine’s heyday. It’s an example I go into in detail in my recent book The Photographer’s Story. Smith documented the daily life of a doctor in a small town in Colorado, spending three weeks on the story. He shot in black and white, and logged 2,000 negatives, of which the magazine ran 28, a shooting ratio of 71:1. Much of the ratio was taken up with Smith working around the subject in each scene, but some also was accounted for by scenes that never made it to the final edit. This is reasonably typical for this kind of photo story.
High shooting ratios tend to be more about variables than anything else. Simply put, if most of the image is under your creative control — composition, for instance — yet there’s a rapidly changing variable like rapid actions of a figure in the frame, it makes sense to shoot a lot. The more special you think the image can be, the higher the shooting ratio that it justifies. Imagine a sudden change of lighting over a scene, a change that you know will not last long, such as a late sun breaking through storm clouds. If it’s a good shot, you want to guarantee its capture, and if there’s a variable in it, even one that will make only a small percentage difference to the overall excellence of the image, there’s every reason to keep shooting.
This explains why there are arguably two different calculations. One is the crude proportion of shots taken to shots used. The other is the more refined ratio that discounts a burst of shooting aimed at one shot that the photographer has in mind. The best examples are from your own shooting, because you know what happened and have all the overs. If I take one magazine story I did for the Smithsonian magazine, on an archaeological dig at Stonehenge, the results are 1,800 frames shot and 15 used. In between, however, are the more significant numbers, namely the quantity of ‘selects that I presented to the editors (that is, the pictures I thought were worth considering) and the number of different scenes. There were 244 selects, but just 77 different scenes. In other words, I was giving the picture editor and art director a choice in each scene, sometimes a variation in expression or gesture, sometimes a choice of horizontal or vertical, and so on. So, the crude, total shooting ratio was 120:1, but the ratio for the selects and scenes (77) was a more realistic 23:1
Street photography, which like wildlife photography is one of the most unpredictable in terms of opportunity, can go either way. For example, if you’re using a telephoto lens for across-the-street shots, and you have a good position for what looks like a well-framed scene that’s just waiting for the best combination of passers-by, then it would be perfectly normal to stick around and try to improve on what you’ve shot so far. The shooting ratio is going to be high, because you’re using it to overcome the variables outside your control.
But there’s a completely different style of street shot that captures an unrepeatable and unpredictable moment. This is the province of photographers who walk rather than stay put, using a standard-to-wide lens. Generally, you either get the shot or you don’t, and there’s no second chance. In this case, the shooting ratio depends more on the third factor, the personality of the photographer. Gary Winogrand, just mentioned, left part of the shooting until the editing. Henri Cartier-Bresson was the polar opposite in technique, and shot only when the moment was perfect for him. Basically, if you discriminate about your subjects,and resist the temptation to take just averagely OK shots, the shooting ratio can be as low as 1:1. There’s another temptation, which you might also think should be resisted, and that is to see shooting austerity as somehow more pure than a working method that relies on safety in numbers. But working method is the hidden issue here. In the end, the published or displayed result is what counts, and all that the audience will ever see.