Practicing Decisiveness & Restraint In Photography

Over the course of my photographic journey, two concepts have become a large part of my how I shoot every day — decisiveness and restraint. Employing these has helped me to become a much more consistent and disciplined photographer, especially now as a film photographer with a finite amount of frames to expose every time I walk out the door.

First, let's unpack the definition of these words for greater clarity:

  • Decisiveness – the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively.

  • Restraint – a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control.

What do these mean in the context of being a photographer? To me they are intrinsically linked in a fundamental way, and have a lot to do with experience and pre-visualisation.

Decisiveness could be interpreted as the ability to decide on the desired outcome of a photograph at the time of or before you have actually captured the photograph. That seems rather obvious at first glance, but I have a great deal of experience being very indecisive in the past, especially so with digital cameras.

Early on in my journey, I would capture frames without thinking anywhere near as much as I do now. I would try this angle then that angle, then run over here and try another. What that lead to was an overabundance of images to choose from when I got home. I was deferring the decision making process to the editing room. I wasn’t being decisive about what I wanted to end up with.

Restraint could be interpreted as the ability to prevent oneself from simply taking too many photographs. This could be tied to decisiveness, where multiple “takes” of the same photograph are captured leading to option paralysis in the editing room. Restraint could also be interpreted as the ability to prevent oneself capturing too much around oneself, which can be the case when travelling or exploring new locations.

Almost every photographer at some point has returned from a holiday and found themselves drowned in work — the work of editing. It can lead to burn out when you have hundreds of images to browse through and select, edit and export. You just went away to relax, now you’ve signed yourself up to hours of editing!

My learning curve has thankfully straightened out to a gentle uphill stroll after eight-plus years, pray I never stop learning. Over that time I’ve learnt a lot of skills and techniques to help me photograph consistently, decisively and with restraint. This is all through thousands of hours of trial and error, studying about techniques and the technology, reading photo books, and applying everything I’ve learnt to a greater and more conscious degree.

A strong foundation in composition, lighting and exposure as well as operating knowledge of the camera(s) I use daily means that I can, for example, prepare a street photograph in my mind and capture it in a fraction of a second while it happens.

Building Blocks Of Decisiveness & Restraint

  • A strong foundation in composition makes it easy to make a composition from almost anything, quickly and effectively. Study all of the rules, break them, use them. They exist for a reason.

  • Learning to use the camera you have will make it much easier for you to exercise your photographic knowledge without fumbling. Every camera is different, but if you find one you resonate with, shoot it a lot and learn all of its quirks.

  • Being able to pre-visualise the way a film stock or processing style will affect the composition in front of you will enable you to adjust the input for the output you hope for. When you find a film stock you like, shoot a ton of it.

  • Stick to one or two prime lenses for a consistent perspective distortion. I’ve been using a 35mm lens 80% of the time for the last 4-5 years and through that has come a consistent look to the compositions I photograph. They all have the same field of view.

  • If you have a little extra time, refrain from clicking the shutter straight away. Look with your eyes, even use the viewfinder to frame up a composition, then move around. Experiment with your viewfinder until you align everything the way you want, then capture the image.

  • Make one or two frames, then let it go and move on. My negatives are full of entirely different subject matter at wildly differing times and places. Most of the time I only make one exposure then I move on until something else catches my eye. I make the decision to make this photo today, and leave it at that.

Make, Don’t Take

At some point, I began to see photography in a different light. The language I used began to change and I started to think of photography as a making process instead of a taking (and editing) process. When I started experimenting with film, this became more and more apparent and somewhat necessary.

When you change your thought process from “taking photos” to “making photographs”, for instance, it starts to become clear how that should translate into the craft itself. Now when I am out in the field, I make all my decisions before I click the shutter, then I don’t need to make any more of them.

  1. I see something interesting, whether it’s a landscape, street or portrait.

  2. I assess the lighting, moving if I need to get the subject into good light.

  3. I measure and calculate my exposure, and pre-visualise the outcome.

  4. I frame up the photograph, trying out different compositional ideas if I’m feeling experimental.

  5. I double check everything in my head.

  6. CLICK.

I’m done! Now the only process left is developing and scanning. Scanning may involve some corrections to the final image such as tone curve, but I’ve otherwise accepted the outcome as what is when I made it, which to me is far more satisfying.

I think film has done a great deal of good in giving me acceptance of the resulting negative. If I did all of the work, the negative should represent the work, at least without having scanned and prepared the image for print.

Some Video Resources

I hope this helps. The hard part is that all of this comes from a lot of experience, constant practice, failure, success and a conscious desire to want to make decisions before you have exposed a frame.

Below are a few videos that may help you along the way. Please let me know if there is anything you would like me to cover and discuss as well, or leave a comment below or on YouTube.