Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Experiment

Recently I performed an experiment. I had to run an errand downtown, a twenty minute walk away. I took my camera, set up for auto exposure and good depth of field. I simply pointed it anywhere I thought a picture might be and mashed the shutter button over and over. At no time did I stop walking. I avoided looking through the viewfinder. I just pointed roughly, and mashed.

The result was about 420 exposure of random crap. Perhaps 100 were unusably blurry or otherwise useless. In what remains after straightening and cropping there might be dozen or so passable pictures and two or three quite good ones.

I heartily recommend this experiment to everyone, by the way. Its quite liberating and you shoot stuff way outside your comfort zone. Outside in the daytime, try aperture-priority, ISO 400, aperture f/8. Inside, go up to ISO 1600 and down to f/5.6, or thereabouts.

A few interesting conclusions:

I wound up with pretty good results in something like two or three distinct genres. There's some New Topographics style architecture. There's shadow play, with street markings and repairs. There's something like street:

I am not convinced that good Decisive Moments can occur this way. There's not much suggestive in my little sample, at any rate. Maybe one thing with a faint sniff of a Decisive Moment. If that. There are a number of decent or mildly interesting pictures of people, though, the kind of thing many people think of as street in these degenerate times

In terms of style, well, it was all over the place. It was possible to group pictures into styles, but this is really just lumping together pictures which randomly share certain elements. Of course all shared the fairly deep depth of field, black&white, normal-lens setup I was using, but to get beyond that the results were more or less randomized. Nonetheless, style could be imposed. The dozen or so half-decent pictures can be lumped into 3 or 4 groups which are recognizably connected stylistically.

How random was this? Could anyone go do this and get the same degree of success that I did? I rather think so, but I am not sure. It's possible that my sense of where a good picture might be helped me out here, I suppose. Mostly, when there were people, I pointed the camera and them (roughly) and mashed. When there were no people, I pointed at things that I thought "might be interesting" which might have something to do with the half-decent architecture pictures.

The photo above does suggest that at some level I know that there's a sub-genre of street that's about reflections, but I think I was just thinking "look, there are people in there, clickclickclick."

A final remark, I suspect that some photographers might actually be worse than random. My suspicion is precise: by peering through the viewfinder and thinking furiously, some photographers are at some pains to put what turns out to be one or more bad ideas into every frame. They end up shooting consistently bad pictures, rather than a random assortment of pictures, some good. I might be among these photographers.


  1. I used to send students out to shoot with blindfolds. I'd put them into groups; the person with the blindfold did the shooting and the others made sure he didn't get killed. They took turns. Most of the photos were crap and it was easy to tell who cheated and looked but some were amazing. Then I had a student come to me and tell me he went into a store in downtown Philadelphia, where I teach, and even though he'd never been there he felt he knew it, and then he realized he had made a blindfold photo through the doorway in my class. I thought that was pretty cool. Finally, a woman missed the day we did that and wanted to make up the work. she went to some suburban park and came back with 24 of the most boring shit you can imagine. Not looking requires a city, I think.

    1. What a great exercise!

      I wonder what other "picture rich environments" there might be? Suburban parks certainly seem like a bad choice. Factories? Forests? Canyons?