The Curse of Hit Rate

The photo above was captured on my last overseas photo workshop before the world closed down. That said, I am not going to rant about the pandemic and what it has deprived us of—we all know that too well. Neither am I going to write about photo workshops I hope to get going again—if the pandemic will allow me to do so.

The reason I chose the photo has to do with the photographic process, the workflow of capturing images, if you will. As much as it isn’t depicting something I could plan, but rather capturing the unpredictability of life as such, neither is it an accidental photo.

The photo was taken in La Higuera, a tiny village in Bolivia with only a handful of dwellings. It’s where Che Guavara, back in 1967, was captured by the Bolivian army—or more precisely in a gorge right outside the village. Irma Rosada, the woman in the photo, was only a girl when the world came crashing down on her village. She clearly remembers the capturing of Che Guevare, his imprisonment in the local school and the subsequent execution the next afternoon.

Today, Rosa runs the little store in the village, and the photo shows her baking bread for her store.

Everything in the photo tells the story of Irma, or adds to the story; obviously herself, the bread and the brick kiln, but also the water melon, the dirty ground, the sunset behind trees, indicating the landscape beyond, and even the bit of laundry hanging out to dry. And more so I captured Irma as she was about to empty the kiln from a batch of rolls. Her gaze, her lifted right foot, the habitual handling of the baking tray, her facial expression—all say something explicit about Irma.

The photo tells a story about Irma Rosalind. I took the photo, and it turned out very nicely. I am happy with the result. However, as mentioned, it wasn’t accidental. First of all, I was ready. Secondly, I took a lot of photos to ensure I got it.

The latter, I am not the least embarrassed to say. I take a lot of photos that are crap, not working, looks like shit and will never make it out of my archive. The thing is, I don’t care about all the bad photos I end up with. What I care about is the few left that I can be proud of or feel good about.

Too many photographers have a thing with “hit rate” and being good enough. They think that some day they will be able to take 40 photos in a day that are all masterpieces, because that is kind of the idea you get when you look at exhibitions or a photo books and see the masters’ images. You somehow think they did them all in one take.

Reality is that every photographer who ever did any master images only did a relatively few good photos and even fewer great photographs in a lifetime.

If you look through the negatives, slides or digital files of master photographers, you will see plenty of photos out of focus, too over- or underexposed, empty streets (because the subject hasn’t entered the frame yet or has left before the photographer pressed the shutter release button). Even more importantly, when you study the best photos that define history, you will see that the photographer actually captured a lot of photos of the same scene—and only one survived.

As Elliot Erwitt once said: “It takes a lot of photographs to make one good”.

If you do an internet search on “hit rate in photography”, you will find a lot of articles and posts about how to boost or increase your amount of so-caller keepers. Why would it even matter if it’s 5 percent of 20 percent of captured images that are good? What matters is how many good ones you have in the end. All the rest, and how many, is of no interest at all.

Yes, some photographers blast away and aren’t mindful when photographing, but usually I see the opposite; that is, most photographers are not photographing enough. I see that in every workshop I teach. They may capture three or five images of a situation—and think they have photographed a lot. When in reality they have hardly started.

As you can see the screenshot beneath, I took a lot of photos of Irma Rosado, to get then one I was satisfied with. That’s why it isn’t an accidental photo. And I don’t care for a second how many captures it took to get the one. So, don’t worry about your hit rate. Just photograph.


65 thoughts on “The Curse of Hit Rate

  1. Le tue parole sono molto incoraggianti, anche io scatto molte foto del soggetto per poi scegliere quella che mi soddisfa e a volte le pubblico nel mio blog.
    Non tutti sono così chiari e sinceri come te, questo ti rende onore.
    Mi è piaciuto molto come hai raccontato la storia di questa foto, è stato un po’ come essere sul posto ed aver visto Irma mentre faceva il pane.
    Un grandissimo grazie, Patrizia

  2. I absolutely love your Irma Rosada image, Otto, and the natural surrounding in which she produces her rolls👍 I also appreciate your information about history! I hope than you can soon proceed with your work the way to feel like !

  3. Dear Otto,
    thanks for the story of Irma Rosada. I wouldn’t have guessed from your photograph that here Che Guevara was captured nearly 55 years ago. It looks a kind of peaceful. The tension of the history of this place and the photo I find interesting. At least for me, photo and text belong together.
    Wishing you a great week
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. How do I like your story Otto, on how this photo of Irma Rosalind, a hard working woman shows your picture, was realised. My own experience tell me that to achieve 1 good shot, I need to take almost a whole memory card full of photos. And even then, my recycle bin can get pretty much overloaded.

    1. Your experience only confirms what Elliot Erwitt said. It may take me about 100 photos to get one good – not that I am thinking in terms of hit rate, but that is just my average over the years. Approximately. However, I never delete any photos, not even the misses or the really bad ones. I just don’t know what I could use in the future…

  5. Great shot, I feel the move in the picture. It’s so true what you write about the amount of pictures taken compared with the reasonable good ones.

    1. And as long as we are OK with taking a lot of photos and not expecting them all to be fine, than it’s not a problem. It was a little different in the days of film, when every frame cost money.

  6. A wonderful photograph. I love how it captures the everyday lives of these people. The man tending his bread, the kiln with a loaf still in there. I really love the melon in the forefront. It draws the eye there, to the color. Marvelous Otto.

  7. My art teacher told us to paint like crazy cuz there may be one good one in the batch and better to get rid of the dogs in the process. It is good to be mindful but yes there are a lot of bad shots nonetheless. Thanks , it is good to remember this when I feel the urge to compare myself with other people’s photos. They may have practiced more than I and I will do better than I have before. Thank you for telling Irma’s story, it really completes the photo and helps me appreciate the photo even more. I recently saw a photo of Annie Sullivan with possibly Helen Kellar and it told the story that Helen said she owed everything to Annie, but Annie said they owed it all to a cleaning cleaning woman who gave her kindness when she was locked up. Annie told the story of her being locked up and a cleaning woman who kindly offered her some food, , gained her trust and helped to heal her.

    1. I think your art teach was quite wise. It’s really about not holding on to ideas before they have proven some traction. It’s too easy to compare oneself with master images you find out there, without thinking how much work actually went into creating them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Jane.

  8. Great description of the process.
    My photo files contain thousands of shots that some day I need to take the time to delete.
    I’d say less than 1% of my photos are seen by anyone other than me.
    I cherish the ones I share because I know the work that went into them
    and I remember the feeling, that meditation that occurs when you’re near the shot,
    or when you do get it, or when you see it on your computer screen after downloading.
    Sometimes I know in the moment when I get THE shot –
    everything comes into synch – my eye, my mind, my heart, my camera and lens,
    and most importantly, the subject. It’s all one.
    That’s my favorite part of photography – that and when I’m alone staring at my computer screen
    and first seeing a good shot!
    As always, thanks Otto!

    1. That moment you talk about is worth everything, isn’t it. Certainly all those other 99 percent. We live for those rare moments, because the are rare – for everyone. Thank you for sharing, Mary.

  9. Thank you Otto for sharing your great image, the story behind it and the encouragement taking as many shots as possible in order, later, to be able to choose the best one.

  10. I agree whole-heartedly with your comments on the hit/miss rate. I vaguely remember that the first time I went for a long walk with my first DSLR in January 2011, I only ended up with one interesting/pleasing shot out of 500+. Over the next 7-8 years since taking up photography as a hobby, I always took about 7-8 images of a flower for example…….from every angle. (Admittedly, part of the reason was poor eyesight and I wasn’t quite sure what ‘worked’) AND I won’t begin to add up the number of bird shots I took where the bird had flown away just as I pressed the shutter button leaving a blur of wings or an empty bush/tree.

    I think we forget that even award-winning National Geographic photographers make many photos of the same subject and then spend some time in photo editing to bring out some subtle highlights before they end up with the publishable image. Then there is the fact that they may have spent 3 months or more tracing a rare specimen of bird, animal or plant before they actually see the first one.

    Love the image in this post. I am drawn to the many individual parts which tell the story of Irma and her lifestyle – clothing and place or work.

    For me, the primitive nature of the kiln with its overhead tin roof shelter is very interesting too.

    1. A lovely comment, Vicki. Thanks for putting it out there. As to award-winning photographers, almost anyone take a lot of photos and spend a lot of time bringing out the best to create the one good image.

  11. Oh yes. There is much to love about this photograph. And I love that you, just like me, take many images to get that one special one that you just know is the right one. I think it is purely fluke to get it on the first shot! Well explained, too.

    1. I often find that it’s either the first or one of the last photos in a series that will be the one I choose. But I never know before it’s all captured, so I will always keep shooting. 🙂

  12. I’ve never heard the term ‘hit rate,’ but I do remember commenting to a photographer friend about how gorgeous his photos were, day after day. When I asked how he managed it, he said, “It’s easy. I only post the good ones.” Lesson learned! Personally, I never delete in-camera, but I’ve learned to cull the over and under-exposed, the out of focus, and the simply unsatisfying immediately. That still leaves me some images to work with, without the risk of depressing myself with so many bad photos!

    1. Your photographer friend knows what makes a good photographer. As for deleting in-camera, I would never recommend it, first of all because it’s impossible to judge a photo on the camera’s screen, but it might also screw up the memory card if you start to delete single images. In fact, I don’t delete discarded images later, either. 🙂

  13. Enjoyed the blog Otto. I too wonder how some of the really good landscape photographers who post on Instagram get all those great images – and I find I am starting to get bored with it. It seems like they post every image they shoot and lots of them are very similar. I believe like you do that only a few good ones come out of a large batch. I did enjoy the story of Rosa above – excellent photo!

    1. Thank you Syd. I do see some of the same things as you observe. Some photographers find their style and stick to it. And then it gets boring after a while. I think it’s partly due to not being conscious about the need to constantly develop, but also the business advise that you need to be consistent for instance on Instagram.

      1. I guess it is a matter of what your motivation is. If you are using social media to make a living, it may mean the risk is too great to be exceptional with your “really good” photography.

  14. A very interesting post Otto. Technological advances have dramatically increased the range of image choice. I’m not sure that these advances have been matched by a corresponding improvement in the over all quality of picture making.

  15. Before reading your words, I looked at the photo … not glancing, but looking at it wondering about the story. I noticed the glimmer of sun behind the trees, think this could be early in the morning. … then I read and smiled.

  16. I enjoy learning more about your process, Otto. I always learn something, and in this case, it’s nice to recognize that even someone with your professional skill takes dozens of photos to find “THE one.” In this case, you really do have a winner. I love the story you’ve included about the era of Che Guevara. It adds a little mystique. But the photo, stand alone, is a story in itself. You have a real gift for highlighting people in their daily lives, and I always appreciate them. I hope it won’t be long before you can again begin to travel freely. I hope that for ALL of us!

  17. yep, tons of snaps, then i squint at all the thumbnails to see which blur calls out to me… i haven’t printed out a proof sheet since i was a teenager, at first that’s what I thought I was looking at, with all your thumbs… it’s a lovely picture and it would have taken me MORE snaps to get that shot lol nice article! xoxoxoxoxoxxox

  18. Great points that I agree with 100%! Like you I’m happy when I can get something I’m proud of rather than having a large number to show. I’ve counseled beginners to only show their bests but social media has many showing everything they shoot. Bombarded, we don’t need to see more we need to see the best. I am not shy about deleting any from a shoot that I know I will never do anything with. There is no magic number that makes one photographer better than another. Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” (The key word is ‘significant’.)

    1. Absolutely in line with you. And you are right, in that in social media we get overloaded with images. The keyword is quality instead of quantity. Or significant photos, as Ansel Adams said.

  19. Like you, I end up with plenty of uninteresting photographs. In looking through my archives recently, I noticed that on some occasions I ended up with more good pictures than on other occasions. At times it’s been because I found a subject that was intrinsically photogenic. Beyond that, however, I suspect taking photographs is like any other activity we engage in: on certain days we’re more attuned and better at what we do than on other days. In any case, digital photography makes taking photographs inexpensive, so there’s every incentive, as you said, to experiment and take more rather than fewer pictures of a subject.

    1. No doubt, some days we are more inspired – or whatever you like to call it – than other days. But even on the best days, there will be plenty of squandered photos. I like to see it as sketches on the way to a final image, like the Canadian photographer David duChemin talks about.

  20. I love the spirit which is present in all of your photos:) I should completely agree with you, this is true with everything 100 bad works will lead to one good one and it even does not matter, all the joy is in the process:) Thank you for all of your beautiful works:)

  21. Great point you make here Otto and indeed it is a great photo of Irma. Your photo tells a story in the most vivid sense without any words needed and yet your text definitely gave us more of an insight. The art of a master.

  22. The Erwitt quote is a good one, and so is your reminder to work the scene thoroughly and not just take three photos and move on. Everything in modern life pushes us to be super quick and not to spend time going deeper into anything. It’s really hard to slow down! Thanks for the great advice, Otto. 🙂

  23. When I first went digital I shot thousands of images just to push the envelope of the camera and see what it would do. I experimented a lot. Now, with all that behind me (Tangential..oh, god I miss the histogram was I the only one who used it? I learned so much from that.) as I said, with all that experimenting behind me, things are a bit more intuitive.

    At the end of the day there are many photographers and many styles of working. I still like to challenge myself.

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