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How Long Does It Take to Shoot a Picture?

In a recent conversation about photography, I found myself discussing the amount of effort that went in to shooting a particular image. There are all sorts of ways to look at how long it takes to shoot a picture, from the obvious to the not so obvious.

My camera can shoot at shutter speeds as fast as 1/8000 second. Yours is probably similar. When you think about it, that's awfully fast. An old expression comes to mind about something happening "in the blink of an eye." A picture shot at that shutter speed would be determined only by what happened during that brief moment. So, in a sense, you could say it only took 1/8000 second to shoot that picture. Granted, shutter speeds can vary based on current lighting conditions, aperture, creative intent, and so forth, but its uncommon for them to extend beyond 30 seconds or so. Anything longer than that, and you're shooting on "bulb" mode, where you have to take responsibility for closing the shutter to end the exposure. When working in that range of shutter speeds, its obvious there are two clicks for every shoot: one when the shutter opens and one when it later closes. Instead of the camera going "click!" when a picture it taken, it very distinctly goes "click ... (time passes) ... click!" So as to not inadvertently ruining a shot by touching the camera while the shutter is still open, I just stand next to it and listen for the second click.

I don't know about you though, but I'm pretty sure I'd have a hard time blinking eight thousand times in a single second. But I suppose that's not what 1/8000 second really means, now does it? A measure of my blinking prowess would be more akin to what camera specs refer to as frames per second. I have friends who more shoot birds and wildlife than I do who consider frames per second to be one of the most important features one should consider when buying a new camera. My camera will top out at 9 frames per second, so you could perhaps use this to say no given image could have been taken in less than 1/9 second. For my type of shooting though, I rarely ever come close to that pace.

But regardless of whether we talk about 1/8000 second or merely 1/9 second to create an image, I feel confident in saying it takes longer than just this. It seems fair to factor in how long it took to frame and compose a shot, or at least to prorate that time over the series of images I took there. Then there's the time to set the exposure, or at least to satisfy myself that the camera chose a good one for me. I generally shoot on full manual exposure but do occasionally go with aperture priority when shooting under rapidly changing light conditions. There's nothing worse than manually setting the exposure for a beautiful mountain lake before dawn, and only later realizing you forgot to keep up with adjusting the shutter speed to keep a good exposure as the sun started peeking over the mountains that surround that lake. Rats. Hopefully I can save them later in Photoshop.

So how long does it take to get to that mountain destination? Most of us have at least a few hours drive to reach such a vista. One of the primary reasons I live in the Pacific Northwest is the proximity it affords me to places such as Mt. Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic National Parks. But I'm unlikely to find myself at these or other cool places to shoot unless I'm specifically heading there. There's simply no way I could shoot a mountain lake at sunrise without doing so as part of a trip lasting a weekend, week, or longer. The gas and similar expenses for such a trip would potentially be deductible as a business expense, so it seems justifiable to include the travel time somehow when tallying up how long it takes to shoot an image. My camera's shutter may be able to fire in the blink of an eye, but I have to get that camera there first. We do need to keep things realistic by acknowledging that photography could be only one of many reasons why I might go on such a trip, so perhaps only some of this time should be included in my tally. I do know I take more such trips than I otherwise would, so travel time should factor in somehow.

Wildlife and bird shooters often have to spend hours on site trying to get close to their subject, or motionless in a blind waiting for their subject to come to them. That sort of time surely must count.

By now, you've probably gotten my point that there's more to this idea of asking how long it takes to shoot a picture than first meets the eye, or eye blink, if you prefer. I think you'd agree it's going a tad overboard to consider factoring in how long it took for that mountain lake to get there in the first place, so clearly there are some bounds here. But what about the years of practice it can take to get really good at your favorite kind of photography? How about the time it took you to save up enough to buy your latest camera body or lens? These things aren't cheap. There are all sorts of things one might argue should be factored into how long it takes to shoot a picture.

But even if we don't include some portion of those millions of years of geologic upheaval in our calculation, today is Earth Day, so I think it's equally unfair to discount them completely. It's wonderful that such places have been preserved and handed down to us. It would be a shame if we fail to remain committed to preserving that legacy. If we someday allow development along that lake shore, we really would need to start counting time in years because it would take generations to the repair damage such development would inevitably cause to that alpine landscape. And those birds and wildlife my friends like to shoot might never come back once forced out of their ecosystem by human development. It took nature a long time to get that way, and it would take it a long time to return to be that way if we mess it up. Even without development, a site can be damaged by over-zealous photographers and tourists. It really is in all of our hands.

So, while it is true that deciding how long it takes to shoot an image does end up being difficult to nail down in any sort of agreeable, accurate fashion. It is equally true that it really wouldn't take that long to lose the chance to take at least some pictures if we aren't careful. It can be worth thinking about that, too. Otherwise, your next picture of your favorite location just might take a whole lot longer than your last one did.

Date posted: April 22, 2018


Copyright © 2018 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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