Stop shooting the same shot over and over again

Screenshot of a series of similar images in lightroom

Today we’re going to talk about letting go of your zoom ring, moving your feet and dealing with a habit a lot of us have, me included, the habit of shooting the same safe shot over and over again.

I realize I’m generalizing here, but most photographers have “safe shots”, shots they know how to pull off 10 out of 10 times, shots they know will please the client and shots that will put money in the bank. Now let me be very clear from the get go, this is a good thing. I know that a specific light set up, a specific vibe at the shoot and a specific way of asking questions and talking to the client will get me a specific kind of portrait, that makes people happy. I’m so dang happy that I have those set ups ready to go, because a bunch of times those shots are exactly what the client want, and other times when my head just isn’t working and I’m not feeling it, I can use those setups to make a shoot work. What I don’t like is that I have at various points, and I assume I’ll get there again, been stuck in only shooting these safe shots. It is an easy place to get stuck because you know the shots work, and you know you aren’t risking messing the shoot up. But if you get stuck there, you stop developing your vision, and that is a really bad thing. So, without more intro-ado, let’s get to the point of the thing, stuff that I know have helped me a truckload with getting out of the safe-shot-rut.

Understanding your safe-shot

Image of a contemporary circus artist doing contortion work on the floor.

My safe shot // Sunniva Byvard doing her wonderfully creepy handstand / contortion thing.

The first thing I’ve always had to do is to take a moment and think through what my safe shot actually is. Usually this starts out with looking at my past 20-25 shoots and going “oh.. these are too similar” or my awesome producer looking stiffly at me going “so… what’s with the creative rut?”. I then basically try to make a short list of what kind of shot it is that I’m stuck in. This might seem superfluous but it really helps me a lot with getting out of it, so try it out. I write down angles, light set ups, camera settings and other things that might be relevant. My notes from last time I did this are as follows:

  • Eye level
  • Straight-on perspective
  • Edge lighting with small dishes
  • f/8-11
  • Black background

It might be worth noting that this is specifically for promo images for contemporary circus artists, and for those images this setup works really well. The edge lighting shows off their impressive physique excellently, the black background has a vibe of stage-art and straight on eye level shots lets the viewer just really enjoy the artistic work of the artists without having to deal with the photographers interpretation of the situation. Anyways, enough defending my way of shooting :) So with this list in hand doing the next thing is super easy.

Make a list

Now this list, is the really important list, for me anyways. One thing I’ve tried doing many times is to just go “ok, so I have to remember to play around on the shoot and try out stuff”, but to be honest a lot of times that just isn’t enough to get me out of the rut. I tend to end up half-heartedly just shooting a little this and that with no real purpose. For me the saying about how restraints fosters creativity holds true, so I make a list of rules for a shot, and I force myself into making that shot work. Staying with the example from above I wrote down the following list:

  • Shoot from below
  • Big umbrellas only
  • Wider than 50mm
  • Larger aperture than /8
  • Light background

I then talked with a pair-acrobatics couple I know that I knew needed some new shots, and set up the shoot. I wanted to do it as a “just playing” sort of shoot because I always feel a bit apprehensive about leaving my comfort zone. This might be a useful thing for you too, so that you don’t risk blowing a shot with a paying client :). While I also did the safe shot (besides being in a light-background situation), I came home with a shot that is in my portfolio now because I adore it so much, and a shot that the artists have used for a ton of stuff and been very happy with, which is this shot:

Image of pair acrobats, male is carrying female who is doing a handstand.

Following the new rules // Tuk & Sofie doing their really cool thing!

So yay, I got out of the rut, and it paid off in a big way for me, because it basically inspired me to go wide and off-eye-level in general, which has netted me some of my best images, and moved me forwards as a photographer.

Common traps

Besides doing the above list, which is what works for me, there are a lot of things that I continually get sort of stuck in doing, and from my talks with colleagues it sounds like a fairly common list of things, so here are some common hang-ups and some ideas for moving on from them. It’ll be pretty captain obvious’ish, but it might be of help if you don’t have an angry producer breathing down your neck  or a big organized archive of your shots to use as a sampling database. Also for me just writing this list made me go “oh, I do that a lot” :)

  • The standing-up-straight eye level shot – This is probably where most people start, and a lot of people stay. I imagine that for most people reading a site like DIYP this isn’t the case, but it still bears mentioning. I think that for most people this hang-up stems from this basically being how we experience the world, so that is the most obvious way to shoot it. Bryan Peterson once relayed an exercise in a podcast that I think is an awesome way of moving on from this, and a good thing in general, which basically consists either taking a prime, or taping down the zoom ring of your zoon at an extreme angle, and then just walking and crawling around in your home looking through the camera. Not only will it open your eyes to completely new ways of looking at things, it’ll also make you comfortable with your lenses. All credit for this exercise goes to the amazing photographer Bryan Peterson, but I feel comfortable relaying it here since he explained it in a publicly available podcast :)
  • The 200mm headshot – If ever there was a safe headshot this is it. And that is because this shit works, it compresses aaaaaaall the facial features and is such a nice way of making faces look pretty, but it is also a damn chain and ball around a lot of people’s feet,    and it is depriving you, and have deprived me, from getting really personal, intimate head shots. The solution is pretty simply, don’t bring your 70-200 f/2.8, only bring your nifty fifty and deal with it :) I promise you you’ll discover an entire world of really intimate personal head shots. Obviously this only works if you actually fill the frame with the fifty instead of bringing your D800 and cropping to the center 10th of the image area 😉
  • The 85mm 1.4 eye shot – Another classic place to get stuck is in this wonderful place, and don’t get me wrong, it IS an amazing place to get stuck because the images are awesome. David duChemin has probably done some of the best of this work ever, but for a lot of people it ends up being a crutch because really… when the eye is the only thing in focus you don’t have to care that much about the face. Well in fact you do, duChemin is a good example of how to do this, but it is still a tempting thing to do to work around “complicated” faces. Again the solution is pretty simple, force yourself to be at f/8 and deal with it.
  • Rembrandt lighting – If you read around the internet for photography tips, and since you’re here I’ll feel free to assume that you do, it sometimes, to me at least, seems as if there is this magic law that says that rembrandt lighting is the one true way of doing portraiture. It just isn’t. I mean, rembrandt lighting is awesome, and if you have ever looked at Night Watch for a split second you’re probably as much in love with Rembrandt’s amazing painted light as me, but you should be locked into to “Rembrandt lighting”. So simply give your self a rule that goes “no 45 degrees to the side, 45 degrees upwards key light”. If you don’t use Rembrandt lighting at all, or don’t know it, you should familiarize yourself with it though, there is a reason for it being so referenced and used.
  • Being ruled by thirds – This is one I’ve been suffering from a lot, I have a slight tendency towards OCD and placing stuff on the rule of thirds lines reeeeally satisfies that part of me, but breaking free from it is important. It is also one of the harder things to sort of free yourself from, because, at in my own case, it is so ingrained in my way of composing in the viewfinder that I really have to actively force myself to not do it automatically. Also people use this rule in different ways, some people are super focused on getting points of interest in the intersections, others are more about stuff being in one of the rectangles of the rule etc. Anyways, for me the best way of dealing with this rule has been to simply be aware of how stuck I am on it. And usually good images are somehow following it, so it isn’t a bad rule at all, it just should be set in stone in your work :)
  • Predator-vision center-focus – Whenever we, as human beings (no offense to you if you’re from Glorbnark), look at things, we center our vision on said things. For a TON of starting photographers this translates into images where the only thing given thought is the subject in the center foreground of the image. Slaying this hang-up is, for a lot of people, the first step on the way towards actual composition. A good way of dealing with it is to tell yourself to look at the edges of your images before you press the shutter release. Always, always, always look at the edges of your image.

I’m sure tons more could be added to this list, so shoot away in the comments section and let’s build the list. I’ll be happy to edit the list and grow it over time.

As always I hope this was of some use, and if you think I’m completely off-base then let me know, I always appreciate a good debate and I’m always looking to learn myself, and being told when you’re wrong is one of the best ways to learn stuff :)

  • aaronbrethorst

    So why not nail the safe shots in the first 30 minutes and then go nuts? I’d much rather make sure that I have something that the subject and I both will love before experimenting with something that may or may not work out.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      This is also totally what I would do in a client situation. In my example I set up a shoot with some friends because I had the opportunity, but you’re completely right, and I obviously should have mentioned that point. Thank you for making it! :)

  • Carlos Serrano

    Juan Carlos Lazo lol

  • Juan Carlos Lazo

    Hater Carlos lol

  • Color Experts

    amazing work! keep it up!

  • Rick Scheibner

    50mm head shots? On a crop sensor, maybe. When I start getting too close with my FF/50mm setup, though, features start getting distorted.

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    Another great post Andreas. Thanks! Also, what’s this podcast? I’m always looking for things I don’t need to read. 😉