Don't Shoot!

Photography is a wide-ranging field that engenders passion in its practitioners, and like all great forms of expression creates opinions formed through experience and reflection. In its early days one of the great debates was: Is Photography Art? This was the subject of many essays and heated discussions among players and spectators. Today, issues such as film vs. digital, format choices, the validity of computer generated images, photography as exploitation or revealer, and even the merits of ink jet vs. silver prints cause similar debate. We are opening this department up to readers, manufacturers, and retailers--in short, everyone who lives and breathes photography and who has an opinion about anything affecting imaging today.

Here's how to get involved: write us an e-mail at or send us a letter with a proposed topic and a synopsis of your idea. Once approved, we'll ask you to send us about 500-1000 words on the subject chosen. The idea here is not to push any product or wave any flag, but to create discussion about photo and imaging topics of the day. We reserve the right to edit whatever you send in, although we will never edit intention or opinion but only for length and, hopefully, for clarity. We reserve the right to publish your work on our web site as well, so you can join the archives and be a resource for opinion for years to come.
So, get thinking and writing and share your Point of View.
--George Schaub

T o every thing, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. This applies at least as much to taking pictures as to casting away stones, or gathering stones together. So when is the time not to shoot?

There are three answers. When you don't want to; when you can't; and when you shouldn't.

"Hold on!" you say. "I never shoot when I don't want to!"

Well, maybe you're right. But ask yourself if any of this sounds familiar. You haven't taken any pictures for a while, and you have no subjects in mind, but you have a vague feeling that you ought to take some more pictures, whether to justify all the expensive kit you own, or to justify calling yourself a photographer, or simply as a means of procrastinating to avoid doing something else.

Or you are somewhere that you feel that you just ought to take pictures, even though you don't really feel inclined: somewhere exotic, maybe, or somewhere that other people are clearly enjoying themselves, even if you are not.

In either case, it's possible that taking pictures will help you to break out of your blues, and it's always worth trying. On the other hand, if you do try, and it doesn't work, stop. Why persist, after all? This is aversion training. You are taking something that you normally like to do, and you are forcing yourself to do it when you don't want to. This does not make a lot of sense.

Relax And Look
What about when you can't shoot? Again, the very concept doesn't necessarily make immediate sense. If you are determined enough, you can almost always get a picture, even of subjects you are not supposed to shoot: think of all the unauthorized shots you see in the supermarket tabloids of celebrities' weddings, or even of executions. That the two go together is an unsavory comment on the 21st century.

That's not what I mean, though. I'm talking about times when it's better to relax and enjoy the real world around you, rather than trying to capture it on film. By all means shoot the occasional happy-snap, like all the other people with their point-and-shoot cameras, but don't try to get a Great Picture out of it, unless you really want to.

Again, there's no harm in starting out by trying to take Great Pictures, but if it doesn't work, think hard about what you are gaining and what you are losing. If you are working so hard at getting a good picture that you are missing out on having a good time, go for the good time--especially if you know in your heart that you aren't going to get a good picture anyway. Why miss out on both? Enjoy the company, the food, the fireworks display, the soft breeze off the ocean, the smell of the barbecue wafting across from the tavern, the stars in the velvety sky. There's more there than anyone could photograph, so don't try. Grok the fullness.

Stop And Think
And when shouldn't you shoot? This is the toughest of all. After all, you shouldn't, as a decent human being, take pictures that make fun of people. But if (for example) you are a staunch Democrat and the opportunity presents itself to show President Bush making a fool of himself--something which is, of course, hardly imaginable--you probably wouldn't be human if you didn't take it. Likewise, it is unpleasant to capitalize on suffering. But if by photographing that suffering, you can move public opinion in a direction that will alleviate the suffering, it is probably your duty to take the picture.

Be honest, though. You can make these judgments for yourself. You know when you are doing something right or wrong. And you know where the gray areas are: where you probably shouldn't do it, but you do anyway, or where good and bad are finely balanced but you make some kind of a choice because you have to.

What I am getting at is that most people don't have to take pictures. Professionals are different, at least sometimes: they may have to come back with a picture, no matter how little they feel like shooting or how distasteful they find the subject, though equally, it might be a better world if more of them refused, more often. But as an amateur, I know full well that if I push myself, I'll take bad pictures more often than not, while if I take time off from shooting--whether it's an hour, a day, a week or a month--there will come a time when I just can't wait to start shooting again. And that's when I'll do some of my best work.