Taking multiple frames of the same motive? Yes, with systematic variation

It is possible that Henri Cartier Bresson took only one frame of each motive and that he never missed a shot, as the myth has it. It is also possible that the sun will not rise tomorrow.

Don’t get me wrong. Maybe Henri Cartier Bresson was a rare genius in this sense, or maybe this myth is just a myth. My point is this: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter to you when you’re out shooting great pictures. Forget about it.

Fire at will

When you’re within reach of a strong motive, shoot frame upon frame! Do this until you feel absolutely certain that you’ve caught the best frame that is possible for you in the specific situation.

Of course, there’s no point in repeating the exact same shot over and over again. That’s not what I mean. But there’s also no point in trying to save film. Not if it means taking an ever so tiny risk of missing out on a photographic opportunity.

Remember: There is no film in a digital camera! Additional frames don’t cost you anything.

(Maybe you could actually calculate a cost greater than zero for each individual picture, dragging into the equation the cost of electricity for loading the camera’s battery, a tiny share of the cost of your computer’s hard disk and your lenses, and so on. It’s just that it lacks interest in the photographic context. It’s not an issue – as it used to be twenty years ago when the cost of film and development and printing really meant something.)

Don’t be a passive shooter

When I ask you to shoot frame after frame of the same motive, I expect you to be an active force in the creative process. Don’t just sit back and hold down the button for ten seconds. That’s not what I mean. If all shots of the same motive look exactly the same, you could have settled for just the first one.

The whole point in shooting multiple frames is that it gives you a chance of covering your ground and filling in the blanks. Make sure to give the motive a thorough treatment!

Only by systematic variation from shot to shot can you minimize the risk of photographic failure.

By systematic variation you try to frame the motive in every way that can possibly be relevant, so that among the frames you shoot there will be one that is better than all the rest.

Remember: For a picture to be great, good is not enough.

First: The first attack

When you see an exciting motive, maybe you’ll lift your camera to your eye and make a quick attack on it? By all means, do that.

I don’t see a problem here. Like this, at least you will have something to show if the motive suddenly disappears.

Or maybe you perform a quick photographic planning in your head and make a really strong effort already in your first frame? That’s fine too.

Maybe you choose one of the above methods depending on the situation. If you know right away that the photographic situation is already about to dissolve in front of your eyes, even a short consideration can mean failure to catch it at all.

Regardless of your initial response to the photographic stimuli, once you’ve made that first attack, once you’vre secured at least one frame, that’s when systematic variation comes into play.

Systematic variation – how to do it

So, what factors should you vary between shots of a promising photographic motive? What am I talking about?

Here’s a list of things to vary when you try to cover up all aspects of a picture:

  • Angle
  • Perspective
  • Exposure
  • Focus
  • Moving objects

Varying the angle

Your first shot of a motive may have been from the view point of your right eye. That’s where most pictures are taken, for natural reasons.

Once you’ve done that, start questioning this choice of view point. What’s so good about it, except that you don’t have to bend your old knees?

Try other angles. By all means let the inspiration guide you, but also, think back to what you’ve learnt about good pictures – here at the site or elsewhere.

Use your photographic knowledge to find the angle that will make your image fantastic.

Varying the perspective

By moving in on the object, and less often by moving away from it, you can change the perspective in the resulting image. Thereby you change the impact of the objects and forms that are present in the image. That ARE the image.

Changing perspective means modifying the relative size of the objects in the image. This is done by moving your ass.

Remember: Changing the zoom setting does NOT change perspective. It changes the crop and that’s it.

Example: William Eggleston’s classic picture of a tricycle certainly wouldn’t be as strong without the choice of an extreme perspective. Then it would be just another shot by a tired parent trying to go after his or her own interests for a little while. (Eggleston is also known for having shot just one frame of each motive, by the way.)

William Eggleston Tricycle
Memphis 1969/70 by William Eggleston

Child on tricycle
A less creative choice of perspective (but I like it anyway)

Varying the exposure

With one ore two shots tucked away safely on the memory card, start questioning the exposure settings.

Did you nail it? Is there a potential problem with the exposure in this motive?

Several exposure problems are present in all or nearly all photographic situations. You must be constantly aware of them and take every chance of defeating them if you want to come home with great images.

Over-exposed skies are probably THE most common failure of othwerwise good photos. If the sky is present in the picutre, and you’re not explicitly taking a picture of the sky but rather of a person or structure on ground level, you can bet that the sky will be white as snow.

It has to do with how the camera’s exposure meter works and with the dynamic range of the camera’s digital sensor.

The sensor can only cover that many exposure steps. Meaning that if the motive contains very dark areas and very light areas, the camera simply cannot expose all areas correctly. It’s not in its power. It’s physically impossible.

Logically, then, the camera must choose some areas that will be over or under exposed.

Typically, the camera will make sure that the face of the person you’re portraiting will be correctly exposed. Thereby leaving the sky over exposed, and possibly some of the shadows under exposed.

But this is not a choice that you want to leave to the camera. You as a photographer must intruct the camera. Help the machine in this decision.

In this situation, unless you specifically want the sky to come out plain white, you need to stop down a step or two. Force the camera to give a measaure of love to the sky, to preserve at least some of the detail in the cloudy blanket above.

Unavoidably, this will push the person’s face into a darker area of the histogram. Not a problem, normally it will be easy to lighten it up in your imaging software. Most of the time there will be enough detail left in this area of the picture.

At the same time, some of the shadows might black out completely – if there are any deep shadows in the image. Most of the time this won’t be a problem. If it is a problem, you may have to give up the sky and leave it all white.

Again, your camera’s sensor cannot handle any amount of dynamic. But if you try several exposures, you’ll have a choice of pictures to work with when you get home. You’ll have all the time in the world to reach a decision then.

Varying the focus

Obviously, you won’t put the motive out of focus. That’s not what I mean.

Focus can be varied in other ways. You can vary the depth of field, and you can vary the position of the motive in the depth of field (in the front or further away).

One very cool way of working with the focus is called “hyperfocal focusing”. This means you focus the lens in such a way that the depth of field stretches out all the way into infinity. Word by word, it means you focus on a spot behind the motive, thereby moving it further to the front in the depth of field.

With this setting, a new motive will be in focus instantly without the need to re-focus – as long as it doesn’t get too close. Which gives you a great measure of freedom for composition. It also makes you a quick as a rat when it comes to spontaneous shots of children or street motives.

The closest distance that is sharp depends on the focal length and the F-stop of the lens you’re using. Typically you’ll have sharpness from 3 meters or 6 meters or so, up to infinity.

To find the right answer for your specific equipment, you need to look it up in a table, or use a DoF app in your smartphone.

Remember: It doesn’t depend on the brand of your equipment. This is all physics and has nothing to do with technology or marketing.

Varying moving objects

When your motive involves moving parts, such as people or cars or birds or boats, shooting several frames is a way of varying the position of these objects.

The typical example being when you have a perfect frame of a place and are just waiting for an interesting character to show up and take a beautiful position in the picture.

And with that, we’re back to Henri Cartier Bresson and his “philosophy of waiting”. He was truly a master in this respect. Also.

Beneath the bridge
This picture wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t waited for someone to cross the bridge