Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 1997/08/14

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Subject: What's Your Failure Rate?
From: Donal Philby <>
Date: Thu, 14 Aug 1997 16:38:08 -0800


Hit rates depend so much on what you are shooting and how close to the
edge of the cliff you are willing to walk.  

  Much of my corporate work is carefully lit, polaroided, approved etc. 
So the hit rate is pretty high technically, but even then a challenge to
bring everthing together such as every person's expression and gesture
that works.  And the lighting, if powerful, is usually precise.  Models
can't move much or be out of the light--like movies out of the 30s and
40's with really directional light.

On more casual documentary photography I look on the experience as a
writer taking notes and asking questions.  I just keep exploring and
exploring, angles, timing, lenses, whatever, even working beyond when I
think I have something useable.  

On my recent project I burned  200 rolls of film and have really 2-3 pix
really worth saving.  Many others will be used and have commercial
value, but only 2 or 3 are really knockouts.  For each of the 2 or 3,
three or four rolls were exposed of which 4 or 5 useable frames emerged,
and one gem.  Granted, all were riding the edge of failure
technically--either pull it off or fail.  

But there it is.

The biggest problem with having all the budget cuts these days is that
there is little room for failure.  And generally if you are not on the
edge of failure--artistically, technically, compositionally,
emotionally--your pictures are going to be boring.  So we need to budget
time and film to create failures on the way to success.  

In a recently attended presentation by Douglas Faulkner, the celebrity
portrait photographer, he described having a month to travel with
someone to do a portrait for Life magazine 20 years ago.  He mentioned
having discussions about a wonderful event happening, but where
something just didn't quite come together.  So the staff would shrug
there shoulders and say well maybe next time.  Today, he said, he is
expected to get these results in a few minutes and no failure
permitted.  Which is why we get safe superficial portraits mostly
contrived with gimmickery.

You want me to be creative??  Give me a high failure rate and a low hit

Donal Philby
San Diego (where, after traveling five weeks in the Pacific Northwest, I
finally saw a cloud)