Slow Photography in a Fast World

Charlotte Gibb
Why slowing down your practice can unlock your unique creative voice.

For most of its two-century history, photography has been a slow and deliberate medium requiring a great deal of patience, technical expertise, and expense.

The craft changed drastically when digital cameras appeared on the scene.

Digital photography made it easier for the average person to make a good photograph. Even our cell phones are now equipped with cameras so astonishingly advanced, making a properly exposed, in-focus photograph is practically foolproof. With digital development, the medium exploded. Photo tourism became a thing. Photo-sharing apps made it seem like everyone was a photographer. The craft of photography transformed from an approach that was slow and meticulous to one that is fast and instant.

However, over the last decade or so, there has been a movement afoot that has been gaining momentum among the nature photography crowd. It is a quiet rebellion of sorts. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the slow photography movement.

Fast vs. Slow

To the purist, slow photography is about using film cameras, preferably large format film, rather than digital. Working with film inherently slows down the entire process of making a photograph, forcing the photographer to take their time studying the subject and making creative decisions before releasing the shutter and exposing a precious piece of film. But, there’s also a deeper context to the movement that is not limited to the type of camera you use.

Slow photography is about regaining something in ourselves that is often lost in a fast world — the experience. When we bring a camera along on our journey, we lose something of the experiential part of being in nature. It is inevitable. We can easily end up experiencing nature through the back of our camera, and missing in front of us the very thing we are there to admire.

It’s not that fast photography doesn’t produce good results. There are countless gorgeous photographs depicting storms or fast-moving natural events, where the photographer certainly had to move quickly and decisively to capture a miraculous image.

But, fast photography can also lead to disappointment if results are always the primary goal. For example, a long-planned trip to photograph the annual light display at Yosemite’s Horsetail Fall may end up in frustration if the conditions aren’t perfect, which is often the case.

In slow photography, the process itself is central to the joy of the activity. And the result – a beautiful photograph – can become secondary to the thrill of discovery and creative choice.

Slow photography is first about the experience, rather than a means to an end. If you did not have a memory card or film in your camera, would you still enjoy the practice of exploration, discovery, and creative engagement? When I think about my other creative endeavors, such as playing guitar or writing, I don’t care one whit if anyone listens to me play nor reads a word of what I write. I invent songs for the pure pleasure of doing so. It is the same with photography. After I’ve thoroughly wandered, explored, considered, and composed, when I finally click the shutter, that little thrill of excitement is just the icing on the experience.

When I am “in the zone,” time seems to stand still. Whether for five minutes or five hours, when I’m out in nature, time seems to fly by. Similar to a meditative state, such openness inevitably results in a creative streak. Chances are, I will make an interesting and unique photograph that’s the foundation for the next steps of the creative process: post-production in the darkroom or digital darkroom, and finally, the making of the print.

So, although creating a great photograph is satisfying, the process of creating is at least as satisfying. That’s the great appeal of slow photography. It has less to do with the quality of the camera in your bag, and more to do with the quality of your experience and connection with nature.

Canon RF 24-240mm lens, 1/200 sec., ƒ14, 100 ISO

 Photo ©Charlotte Gibb

Practicing Slow Photography

When you arrive at a beautiful scene, take a minute to thoroughly study and appreciate the natural beauty before you get your camera out of the bag. Take notice of what catches your eye. What is the essence of the scene? Then, break it down to its compositional elements — lines, shapes, colors, texture. For example, a pine tree is a triangle. If you consider the trunks of the trees, they are just lines. A framing card can help you visualize a scene and start to break it down to what you want to include in the frame, and what to exclude.

One needn’t own a film camera to practice slow photography. While digital cameras provide a dazzling array of automatic features, switching to manual mode will slow down the process. More importantly, it will give you greater creative control. It’s these technical decisions — focal length, shutter speed, aperture, ISO — that are the final critical ingredients to the image that you alone envisioned.

Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ2.8L lens, 1/40 sec., ƒ16, 100 ISO

 Photo ©Charlotte Gibb

Exploration is Key

This slow approach offers new and additional ways to unlock creative energy. Rather than ticking off the shots from a local guidebook, you might revel in days, weeks, months, or even years exploring and studying a single place. Exploration is key, because when the curious mind is driving the bus, a deeper understanding of the subject and a unique connection to nature and place can be discovered. Once a broader relationship and affection for the subject is formed, more beautiful and meaningful photographs will emerge.

Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ4.5-5.6L USM II lens, 1 sec., ƒ16, 100 ISO

 Photo ©Charlotte Gibb

Slow it down, and allow the process to take you there.

Charlotte Gibb

Charlotte Gibb is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Charlotte and our photography conferences she’s teaching at, click here.

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