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A Process for Working the Scene: Sketching

Final picture of the Marin Headlands, taken after taking a series of sketches

My final picture, taken after a series of sketches (below)

Some photographers never carry a tripod. It slows them down and gets in their way. Other photographers always shoot from a tripod. These photographers usually prefer being slowed down, and are very precise about the pictures they take.

If you are one of these types of photographers, this article isn’t for you.

Rather, this article is for those in the middle – those who often carry a tripod and just use it whenever it is needed.

Freedom vs. Precision

If you are such a photographer, there is always some tension between wanting to freely roam around and try different compositions on the one hand, and wanting to make your pictures the absolute best they can be, on the other hand. If you use a tripod, your movements are hindered. You might miss something. If you don’t use a tripod, your photos might lack clarity and sharpness from slight movements during the exposure, or you might be forced to use a wider aperture or higher ISO than you would like. As a result, there is always a little bit of internal tension over whether to use the tripod.

The Sketching Process

There is a process that will help you with this, and it is borrowed from the art world. It is to first create “sketches” before you take your “final” shots. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Taking the Sketches (without a tripod)

When you arrive at a place you want to photograph, first walk around with your camera (no tripod) and just take any picture that occurs to you. Just consider these pictures sketches, and have the mindset that you will delete these pictures and take final pictures later. If you are in a low-light environment, crank up the ISO (don’t worry about noise since you won’t use these pictures anyway). Work the scene, and take pictures from every angle and perspective you want.

Example of sketching - a series of pictures taken in Marin Headlands as sketches before taking the final shot.

A series of sketches taken while walking around in one part of the Marin Headlands.

Step 2: Examine Your Sketches

When are done with that process, sit down and go through the pictures you just took on your LCD (ignore anyone who calls this “chimping“). Pick out the best pictures.

Keep in mind that sometimes you will strike gold in step 1 and will have captured something remarkable. That’s just fine. But most of the time, you will move on to the next step to take your final shots.

Step 3: Take Your Final Shots (with a tripod)

Now get out the tripod and go take your “final” pictures. You can take your time and get these pictures just right, knowing that you have already explored all the various angles and perspectives. If you raised the ISO for the sketching process, be sure to reduce it now. Similarly, stop down your aperture if you were shooting with a wider aperture than you wanted.

You have now freely explored the scene, and then used a tripod to make sure you used exactly the right settings. The tripod assures maximum stability for your camera during the exposure process. It also ensures that you can use exactly the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO combination that best fits the scene, without compromising to avoid camera shake. The results should be the best you can get.

This process isn’t for everybody, and it is not for every situation. On occasion, however, you will find that it allows you to “have your cake and eat it too” when it comes to freedom of movement and precise pictures.

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