Imposing limitations will improve your photography

Escalator Up, Metreon - San Francisco, California

Escalator Up, Metreon – San Francisco, California

I had a heated passionate discussion, a couple of nights ago, with a couple of photographer friends. We were talking about a 36 frame restriction that was imposed (suggested) during a photowalk organized and lead by my friend Alex Suarez. The parameter was that you can use any kind of camera you liked but you can only click the shutter 36 times during that walk. It was meant to replicate the of 36 frames you can get from a role of 35mm film. I perfectly understand what Alex was trying to do. In the digital world, many people shoot too many random shots, not thinking enough about the composition. Since digital is “free”, there is very little cost in taking a lot of pictures, a lot of pictures with sloppy, unfocused technique. I get it. I know what the intention of the exercise is. But I couldn’t help but have a visceral reaction against the 36 frame limitation. It went fundamentally against what I believe is the best way we learn how we become better photographers. I believe we learn by doing. And the more we practice and keep on practicing the better we get. By limiting yourself to 36 frames, I believe, you are just slowing down your progress towards becoming a better photographer.

When I first heard about this 36 frame photowalk, I thought about making a snide comment like “Yeah and I’ll also use my buggy whip and ride my horse and carriage to the event too”. I controlled myself and did not express my option to Alex. I have a great deal of respect for Alex and even though I didn’t agree with his premise, I didn’t want to rain on his parade. To me though, the 36 frame thing is an anachronism, some ancient limitation that is no longer relevant. I find digital liberating precisely because I can shoot a lot of frames and learn quickly. In the old days, how many people got to shoot 20,000, 50,000 or 100,000 pictures to learn their craft and hone their skill? Very few, I imagine. Only a limited number of professional, working photographers. These days, anyone can shoot this many frames at a very low-cost. Digital allows anyone to shoot, learn, retry, learn and shoot again. It quickens the cycle where you make mistakes, learn from them and make more mistakes. And out of these mistakes you begin to learn. You learn how to make compositions and set proper exposures. You learn what you like and don’t like. You learn to develop your own style.

In fact, I believe, the problem with most people is that they don’t shoot enough. They don’t make enough mistakes and learn from them. Now to make it clear, I don’t advocate taking a “spray and pray” approach, where people take a lot of random shots and hope and pray that something good turns out. Not at all. You do need to think about the composition and have an idea of what and why you are taking the photograph. However, you don’t have to over think the situation either. We no longer have the limitations of film. My suggestion to people just starting out, take a shot of what you think is a good composition. Now, move a bit to the right or left, and take more shots. Move up and down and take more shots. Vary the exposure. Move closer, move further away; continue with variations on the theme. Afterwards, look at everything you shot and analyze and learn. Which compositions do you like and why? Why did some variations work better than others. Are there things that totally sucked or are there a few variations that worked unexpectedly well? Learn from these and apply again the next time you go out, then rinse and repeat. Shoot, shoot and then shoot some more. That to me is the best way to learn photography as well as any other craft or skill. Repeated practice. After a while, you begin to know what you like and you start to develop a style. You can shoot less and get nice compositions. For things that I’m familiar with, I only take a couple of frames. However, whenever I explore something new, I’m back to shooting more and experimenting.

I do believe, however, limits and limitations can improve your photography. What helped me more than anything else, is the use of prime lenses. Prime lens, lenses that don’t zoom, have only one fixed focal length. You have a 50mm and you are stuck with a 50mm. I also advocate, initially, to go out with only one lens. One prime lens and nothing else. Then shoot like crazy with that one particular focal length. With repeated practice you being to see the framing rectangle on scenes before you use the camera. Your compositional eye strengthens and you begin to see shots and compositions before you press the shutter. When I got the Olympus E-PL1, I attached the Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens and never took it off. I shot continuously with this setup for 10 months. I began to see compositions and interesting things that I never saw before when I used zoom lenses. My brain basically got locked into seeing the world through this 20mm (on the Olympus, 20mm is equivalent to 40mm in the standard 35mm terms) point of view.

There are other ways the prime “limitation” helps me. You see a scene you want to shoot but realize that 20mm view doesn’t work well. With a zoom you just match the focal length to meet your original thought of how to frame the scene. With the prime you become more creative and start to problem solve. Ok, can I move closer, would that work? What if I change the concept of the image and frame it another way. Can I capture the scene from an entirely different point of view to make an interesting photograph? The prime lens forces you to break out of that standard composition and try other things because you have no other choice. Shooting this way becomes a creative exercise but on the flip side, allows you to become very fast at seeing great photographs. The image above was taken at the Metreon shopping center in downtown San Francisco, California. I’m not saying it will win awards and you may not even like it, but I’m really happy with it. It speaks to me and I’m pleased that I was able to create this image. I like architecture, leading lines and glowing lights. I was able to see this scene immediately and took several shots. Then I noticed the couple on the escalator and liked the balance of their silhouettes. I waited until they got to the right point in the frame and I fired this shot. This is the kind of image that I wouldn’t have seen in the past. My honed 20mm viewpoint saw it instantly and I was able to capture it. But I also shot several variations and was able to improve it some more. With the 20mm point of view locked in my brain, I’m now changing it up and only shooting with my 14mm lens. A different point of view and a different way of seeing things.

So yes, imposing limitations, can improve your photography, I think prime lenses are an excellent way do this. In addition to training the eye and brain there are many other advantages to primes that I will talk about in a future post. However, if you think the 36 shot, thinking deeply before pressing the shutter, exercise works for you, by all means, try it. Truth be told, I didn’t go on that 36 shot photowalk, not because I was against it, but because I had a prior commitment. People that went on the walk thought it was a good idea so it may work for you. And maybe I should be open to imposing the 36 frame limit on myself, at least once. I can do that in conjunction with using only a single prime lens. Heck, maybe the more imitations I impose, the more I’ll grow as a photographer. Because, ultimately, becoming a better photographer is what I’m after and I know there is a lot for me to learn.

My frield Alex has a rebuttal/response to my opinion of the 36 shot photowalk that I talked about in this post. He clarifies his original intent for the exercise, which I agree that can potentially be beneficial if done only once in a while. I still resonate with my focal length restricted approach, however, you may want to try one or both approaches to add a fresh perspective and challenge to your photography.


I took this photographs with my Olympus E-PL1 with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7. Please make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure details.

See more images taken with the Olympus E-PL1 at mostlyfotos, my one photograph per day photo blog.

Ready to strengthen your composition using primes? Here is the link to the body only version of the Olympus E-PL-1. You can now get it at a really low price, $150 at the time of this writing. Pair it with the fantastic Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens, and you get a great, small carry around camera to learn from. If you are thinking of buying this camera or lens please use these links. You will get the same low Amazon price and I’ll get a small commission, which helps support this site.

9 thoughts on “Imposing limitations will improve your photography

  1. I understand the idea of the 36-frame limit, but I don’t particularly agree with it. I totally agree with your view. I’ve started imposing that prime lens limitation on myself, lately, but it’s been more because I’ve been to the place before using other lenses, so might as well go there and try out a perspective using only one lens – generally a prime (because I LOVE my primes).

  2. Well Andy – I think that maybe, just maybe, that 36-frame-lesson would have been useful. Why? First because I’m more or less doing it, with having bought a film camera again, and second (and that new camera taught me that instantly): there *is* a limitation which is useful. Spending money on each click is a great way to learn, simply because it’s a *must* all of a sudden to get everything right. So I don’t do it like you, with moving a bit to the right and left and up and down just to take a photo each time – I just take one which I hope is perfect. And if the framing actually *was* perfect, but the exposure (or something else) was *not* – well that is an experience you won’t forget that fast anymore.

    So yes, I think that maybe would have been a good lesson. Thus speaks the man who shot 20,000 frames since he got his DSLR in late 2009… 😉

    Nice photo btw!

    1. Wolfgang, thanks for your comment and opinion. Certainly by using film again, there is a pressure to get it more or less correct with each click. However, let me ask you a simple question. How do you know that the one frame you took is the perfect composition? It may be the unexpected shift or slight change in angle that turns out to be much better. You see, without experimenting and making mistakes and learning from them, you end up taking one or two frames and “hope” it’s the right one.

      I rather rely on hard work and practice than hope. But yes, I agree with you that over time, your keepers increase and you need to shoot less. Ironically, it maybe a good thing to practice a lot on digital, learn from your mistakes and then switch to film. You get the benefit of learning and practicing cheaply on digital and then be selective with film shooting. That might be very much what you are doing when you picked up film, again.

  3. Well it all depends on what the purpose of the walk was. For instance, if it was to study one or two particular subjects, then yeah, challenge yourself to get the best. It would most beneficial though with a followup meeting afterwards to see what everyone did. But if it’s a general kind of see what turns up kind of thing, then the restriction would be kind of silly. More realistic to do a hundred shot thing. Throwaways are a way of life in photography – it was in film too. I can attest to that by looking across the room and looking at the trash can holding 50 more slides I just chucked. It’s just that with digital, the overshooting can start to get pointless, and if you don’t have a good editor or mentor to look at your stuff, you’ll just be multiplying past mistakes. You would absolutely be shocked at how many out there are just clueless with regards to assessing an image and self editing. Think more, shoot as needed. Make every frame count in the best way you possibly can.

    1. Libby, you have a very valid point about self assessment. I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself, not being able to properly judge my own work.

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