I’d love to take credit for it, but Anne Duffy is the one who spotted the tree first. A beautiful tree. And like so many trees on the island of Kauai, the erosion from years of the ocean doing what oceans do, left a stunning series of twisted roots in a way that made any onlooker feel they had x-ray vision and could see through the ground. Quite a place to make a photograph of the equally stunning Anne.
Anne and I spent several hours there one morning, and I made so many photographs of her, climbing, posing, arching, contorting, along those roots. It sparked a very interesting conversation.
Anne asked the question, why did I make so many photographs, while other photographers such as Zoe Wiseman, made far fewer exposures of her when they would shoot. Zoe is a brilliant photographer and the reason we were all here in this Hawaiian island paradise to begin with, as part of her nearly annual Zoefest.
I thought about Anne’s question for a moment. Many reasons came to mind. First, the ocean is loud. Communication can be a little difficult trying to shout over the sound of waves. I’m fairly sure my only direction to Anne that morning was the occasional, “Beautiful!”, or, “Yes, that’s perfect! Hold there!”
But as I thought more about it, even without the ocean roar, I do tend to make a lot of photographs during a shoot. So the environment being too loud to direct Anne, wasn’t quite the correct answer, I concluded.
I thought a little more and said, “I don’t know. Maybe Zoe is simply a better photographer than I am.” A little self-deprecating certainly, but I’ve always admired photographers who shoot a very limited number of frames during a shoot. I’ve never been that kind of photographer, even back in the days of shooting film. Even then, I shot many many rolls of film during a shoot.
Anne graciously countered, “I don’t think she’s a better photographer than you because she shoots fewer frames. You just have different styles of shooting.”
Which was true. But I still wanted to come up with a better answer to her question. It was one I had thought about for decades, actually. Why so many images?
I even sat down with Zoe a day later to talk more about it. Zoe likes to work the model’s pose for a while until it’s just what she has in mind before clicking her camera shutter. And Zoe has something else that I don’t have, which is that Zoe used to model herself. So she has a perspective on posing that I’ll very likely never have.
Myself, when I’m photographing a model of the caliber that Anne is, I first like to leave a little room for discovery. Because I trust her to be thinking as much about what the photograph is going to look like as much as I am. And she knows what she’s doing. All of the models at Zoefest do. They know light. They know angles. They know composition. They are equal collaborators during any shoot, and I’ve come to believe that if I’ve chosen to work with them, I’d be silly to over-direct them. Let them do their thing.
Which explains why my direction during a shoot is fairly basic. Give them a place to start, tell them what my angle of view is, so they can picture where they are in the frame or how much of them I’m photographing, and just begin exploring what happens. I do like to tell them what I’m seeing or if I really like something that’s happening so they are getting feedback throughout the shoot. They always appreciate that and it helps to build the connection and collaborative nature of the shoot. I may have them adjust an arm or a leg if I see a line that needs just a little tweaking, but like I said, when working with models like Anne, she doesn’t need much direction from me to make a beautiful image.
But that’s still not really an answer to Anne’s original question. It wasn’t until I returned to California, that I had an epiphany and finally the answer to my question.
Why do I shoot so many images during a shoot?
For example, on the shoot with Anne pictured above, I made over 1,500 photographs of her up in, below and around that tree. I’m just looking for maybe five or ten really. The few that really stand out. And if any of them look too much like another I’ve picked as a final, then I usually send them into a sort of photographic cage match. Two photos enter. One photo leaves. Gotta pick one of the two.
But the reason, I’ve come to conclude, of why I make so many photographs in a shoot, is because not only am I a photographer and director, but I’m also a film editor. I’ve spent over 25 years in dark little editing suites, pouring over raw footage from too many directors to remember. Looking for moments. The one take that really hits home. The performance that works best in serving the story. The best of the best. Making order from chaos.
A large part of my editing skill set happens after the shooting is done. After the production is completed. And then away from the mayhem and distractions that are part of any healthy shoot, I can take the time in a more chill environment to really look at what we have. Hopefully the director, if it’s not me, has given me lots of coverage. Lots of options to choose from. And then I can look at what we really have. I can forget how difficult it was to get a certain shot. Put away that the client really didn’t like the female actor. All of that on-set noise. Just look at what we have captured with fresh eyes.
What’s on the screen. Is it working. If not, why not. Let’s find something else.
And in combining these roles that I might have in any given project, I’ve learned to take the advantages of them all and sort of cross-pollinate them into my own Billy method of workflow.
And that means taking advantage of whatever role I happen to have. If I’m shooting or directing, it’s making sure I have lots of choices for the editor, whether it’s me or someone else. I’m not a spray-and-pray photographer, but there are times when nature is being random with wind-blown hair, waves and what not. And then yes, I’ll shoot rapid fire, hoping to catch the right combination of everything being in place. But mostly the reason that I shoot as many images as I do is because the editor in me craves coverage. Give me as much to work with as possible.
And when everything aligns in the most wonderful, inspiring, breathtaking way, such as with Anne, overlooking the edge of the world here, it’s a truly wonderful moment to realize.