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Sunset Dispute

The Secret to Becoming a Good Photographer:

Each year, the National Museum of Wildlife Art hosts a week long photo event here in Jackson Hole called Photography at the Summit. People with much deeper pockets than me spend a week with some of the top names in the photography world. On most nights of the week during the summit, they offer presentations in one of the auditoriums. Cost is only $5 per night or free with a Museum membership. In most cases, two different photographers are featured. I usually go to all of the presentations if I can.

Artistic version of an action packed image of a wild stallion chasing a younger stallion away from his band of mares in northern Wyoming. (Mike R. Jackson)


A few of years ago, Jim Richardson gave a wonderful presentation and slide show of his work. He has been a National Geographic photographer for many years. In the presentation, he said, “The secret to becoming a good photographer is to shoot a lot and delete all of the bad ones”.  I’ve mentioned the quote to people over the years and get a lot of different responses. I tend to work that way. I usually only keep about 10% of the ones I shoot each day and even try to cull them down to 5%, but it depends a lot on subject matter. Landscape percentages are different than wildlife because you can usually plan out the shot and you probably don’t need too many of the same shot. Contrary to Jim Richardson’s comments, I know a few photographers that don’t delete any of their shots. One of them lets his staff pick through the thousands he might shoot in a morning and select the ones they think are best, but he doesn’t allow them to delete any of the others. I’m the one man band here, so I can delete them if I don’t think they are the better ones.

Lookout Rock

I know a few photographers that composite multiple images, or at least take parts from “sister or cousin” images to  make one good one. They keep a lot more images just for those purposes. Some purists might frown on the practice. Other than the purists and photojournalists, many people are still trying to deliver the best image they can, so if this helps the image, they do it. This image at Lookout Rock is actually a composite of two images taken only seconds apart. Two of the goats were looking down in the base image, so I layered in just the goats from the second image when their heads were up. Neither of the two had all of them looking up at the same time, but they were all in exactly the same place on the mountain. The composite was definitely an improvement over either of the individual images. The point here, is I kept a few more images to perform the task.

Wrangler and Horse

Shooting tons of photos just to be clicking the shutter button really isn’t the issue. Magic moments can happen at any time and some of them can happen during a quick shooting burst. However, Cody Britton, a pro NRA photographer tells me he can time his shooting with minimal clicks during the most intense action at a rodeo. He’s been doing it a long time and the proof is in the pudding. He tells me other photographers right beside him often press the shutter and let it rip during an entire ride on a bronc or a bull. They’ll have a lot of editing to do but they might also have a winner. Between the two approaches, I’d probably have to fall into the second one, mainly because I don’t get to photograph rodeo that often. I’d probably let it rip at the start of a horse race for the same reason.

Shoshone Native American in a traditional Sneak Up Dance against a stormy Wyoming sky photographed by Mike Jackson (Mike R. Jackson)


For quite a few years, I used a Nikon D300 body. In 12 bit raw mode, it’d fill the buffer after about 12 to 14 clicks at about 7 frames per second.  It was easy for me to max out the buffer on that camera body in only two or three seconds. I bought a Nikon D4 about a year and a half ago (and love it). Out of curiosity, I pressed and held the shutter down as a bull moose crossed a mid sized stream here in the Tetons. In 14 bit raw mode, I was able to click off just over 90 images at 10 FPS before the camera’s shooting speed began to slow because of the buffer being filled. At the end of the 90 actuations, the camera and card were also very quick at dumping the buffered images off to the card—making it available for more clicks. Like I said, it was an experiment more than anything else. It wasn’t even a big bull moose, but he fit the bill for a good test subject.

Crossing at Last Light

Normally, I can time shots of a moose crossing a shallow stream so I capture the steps of the front leg as they take a forward step.  They will often kick up a triangle of water in front of them. Both horses and moose have awkward leg positions when they walk. I try not to shoot them, and if I do, I usually delete them on the first pass through. I only exceed the buffer on a D4 on a few rare occasions. I asked my friend and terrific photographer, Steve Mattheis , if he fills his buffer on his D4. He said he didn’t fill it very often—but he has been known to do so. One case he cited was when one of the local grizzly sow and her three cubs were all walking through flowers towards him. Of the 100 or so in the sequence, he said he only got one image in which all four had their heads up or weren’t blocking each other. Shoot a lot, keep the good one(s).

Dusty Return

I’ve photographed horses being driven towards me. I’ve always said that taking a photo of a single animal is tough enough. Adding a second one in the scene doesn’t make it twice as hard, I think it makes it four times as difficult to get all of the players in just the right position. Three animals…maybe nine times harder. For me, the difficulty is exponential. With 20-30 horses running at you and dust blowing, the odds of getting a winner are very low. Too many things can go wrong, and unlike Cody Britton’s skills at a rodeo, I think it is impossible to anticipate where any of the 30 horses are at any one time. Shoot a lot, keep the good one(s).

The Reach

There are another couple of examples I can think of off the top of my head that make sense to shoot in bursts. One is a swan flapping or stretching. The “event” lasts about 3-5 seconds. The shots I like the best are when the wings are fully extended or when they are at the backmost reach. I find it almost impossible to click a single shot at either of these two positions. Instead, press the shutter release and let ‘er rip for the whole stretch. With a D4, it is possible to get the whole thing at 10 frames per second. With a D800, I might be able to shoot through the whole event at 4 frames per second, but I have a lot of holes in the sequence. When back at the computer, I can pick the three or four that show the best action and angle and delete the rest. Another similar shot is a fox or coyote “mousing”. There might be several optimum shots from one good jump, but it is very hard to anticipate and capture just the best ones.

Morning Pause

Usually, the best ones just jump off the page when viewing them in a program like Lightroom, Aperture or Nikon ViewNX2. Those are the keepers. I don’t do it, but I’ve considered opening a folder of images in Lightroom, selecting all of them and clicking X to flag them for possible deletion. Then, when I go through them, I’d unflag or Pick any image that jumped off the page. In actual practice, I leave them unselected and flag the ones I don’t want to keep. I can delete them anytime. The ones that do jump off the page get a P for pick. It doesn’t take too long to go through a thousand images them using the Flag/Pick option. The ones that get neither designation become candidates for a additional culling or picking. Everyone does it differently.

Grand Return

Having the images culled down to the 5%-10% keepers saves hard disk space and makes it even easier to find specific good images. Keywording is much easier, and submissions to the US Copyright Office is much quicker with only a few images. Lightroom can start slowing down if it has too many images to keep track of. Backups are quicker, too. I just checked the actuations on my D4 and D800 camera bodies. Over roughly a year and a half, the D4 has around 290,000 actuations. The D800 is about eight months old and has just under 50,000 actuations. Add them together for a total of 340,000 images. If I kept 10%, I’d still be dealing with 34,000 images in that period! Or even if I kept only 1%—the very best—I’d still have 3,400 images and hopefully most those would be very good.

Morning Moose


Photography is such a personal endeavor. No one can, nor should be telling you one way is ultimately the best way. Ed Richardson let around 200 people know his “secret” at the Summit a few years ago. I am just passing along what I heard him say and then tried to personalize it based on my subject matter and circumstances here in the shadows of the Teton range. No doubt digital cameras changed the concept compared to film days. The battery in my D4 lasts for four to five thousand images and I can get a lot of them on a fast 64 gig XQD card. Other than the wear on the camera, it doesn’t cost much to shoot “heavy”. I never know when the animal is going to turn that extra half an inch and I get catch light in their eyes, or a ripple in the water is perfect, or any one of a thousand little touches that make one image slightly better than most other images.

Ed Richardson’s quote could be taken differently, too. At least in theory, the more we photograph, we get more familiar with the camera, lenses and tools of the trade. This is especially true if we analyze a lot of the images we delete and try to figure out what could have been done differently to make it a keeper. For example, if you are photographing grizzly bears, the bulk of the time the camera is in the horizontal or landscape orientation. Occasionally, one will stand up to get a better view. The photographers who’ve already paid their dues will likely be watching for them to stand and know to immediately change to the vertical or portrait orientation. The event happens for only a few seconds and only a few out of group of people set up side by side will get the shot. Previous experience “can” make anyone a better photographer, but there isn’t much of a shortcut to gain the experience.

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