A Million to One?

In Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative, Travel by David22 Comments

I got back from East Africa a week ago, my hard drives groaning with over 20,000 images. Of those only about 1500 were made during my week in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Now, I shouldn’t be doing math right now, I’m jet lagged and haven’t had my coffee, but there’s something instructive in these numbers, so stick with me. Don’t like math? Me neither, but I have a point and it’s important. Also, at the end of this there’s also a link to my latest monograph, Kenyan Light, so keep reading!  

I only shot in Lalibela for 5 days. That’s 432,000 seconds, ignoring the need for sleep. And I made 1500 images at, let’s say, an average of about 1/30s on average. That’s only 50 seconds of total combined shutter actuations. Still with me? Of those 1500 frames, only 12 made the cut. That’s only 0.4 seconds of the whole time I was in Lalibela. Very roughly, in terms of time, that is a work:product ratio of 1,000,000:1.  

A million to one.   

That’s what it takes me to make photographs I love and am proud of. And that’s after almost 35 years at this! In terms of a “keeper rate” it was 125:1. Pressing the button is easy. Hell, after Ethiopia I went to Kenya and came back with about 18,000 images and my  “keeper rate” is even lower (450:1).

I just kept pressing the button. 30 images of a leopard in a tree: he hadn’t moved an inch and I kept pressing the shutter like a lunatic. But it wasn’t pressing the shutter button that made the final 40 images I did come home with. Not really. It was patience and creativity, it was consideration of light and composition, waiting for a great moment, being willing to acknowledge when all the pieces just weren’t there. Not to mention making good choices in the edit and being true to my vision in post-production. Maybe this is why I cringe when I hear words like “point and shoot,” words that make us, the photographers, no more than button-monkeys. I don’t like monkeys.

There’s long been a debate about whether photography is art or not. Of course, there have long been debates about what the word “art” even means. I say, if you pour yourself into it, if it costs you something more than just the press of the button, you’re on your way there. Art is hard because pouring yourself without reservation into anything is hard. And photography, despite our desire for shortcuts and anything (ahem, new gear) that will make it easier, is hard. Not pressing the button, that’s easy. Too easy, actually. But all the other stuff? The creativity, the composition, the waiting around, the saying something about what you’re pointing the lens at, something more than, “Look, a lion!”? That’s hard.   

That doesn’t mean it’s not without joy and meaning. I just mean it’s not simple. It’s not easy. In fact, if we’re all anywhere close to my million-to-one ratio (and it could be we’re not. I might very well be in the remedial class for all I know) then we damn well better enjoy the stuff that is not the actual pressing of buttons, because its the vast majority of the effort in what we do. It should be something that gives us great joy, even when 1488 of our 1500 images are nothing more than sketches. Maybe especially then.  

It’s a new year and what I’m trying to do so clumsily with all these words is remind you that if only a fraction of our efforts yield fruit we’re proud of, then the rest of that time matters. It must. Life can’t only be about the very few moments that work out the way we hoped. We need the other time to explore and risk and play and to find delight and wonder.

Every second counts.   

And that brings me to a more practical point: stop beating yourself up for the 1488, the ones that don’t make the cut. They are process. They are sketches. They are necessary. Most of us will spend this coming year making an astonishing number of really dodgy images, images we hope no one will ever see. We must. What we must not do is spend the year trying to reduce that number. In fact, we should be making more. More mistakes (from which we learn). More risks (in which we find hidden surprises). And more exploratory sketches (in which we find our best work).   

No one sees the many efforts, my friend. They don’t see the failures or the missteps. And if they do, what they see is an intrepid spirit who refuses to be daunted by the odds, or the effort, and who keeps pouring themselves into the work, excited by what they might find there.  

But this isn’t about what others see. It’s about how you see yourself and your efforts and your so-called failures. Forget the so-called keeper-rate. It tells an incomplete story. Art is not found in ratios, but in the willingness to go deeper, risk more, and find the needle in the haystack. It’s found in the willingness of the human heart and mind to ignore the numbers and keep going until it finds what it’s looking for and cries in delight: “look at that!”  

I’ve put some of my “look at that!” moments from Kenya into a short PDF monograph for you called Kenyan Light. You can download it here. I hope you’ll find some magic there.   

In my absence I continued to publish my podcast, A Beautiful Anarchy. Today we published episode 18, Now What? Have you ever got to the end of something, a project or a phase of life and thought, “Well now what do I do?” This is about that. Shorter than 15 minutes, I created this podcast for people, like me, who aren’t really podcast people. I hope you’ll join me. You can listen on iTunes, or here on aBeautifulAnarchy.com.  

Finally, in May this year I am hosting a weekend conference about photography and creativity in Vancouver, and sharing the stage with my friends Brooke Shaden, Sean Tucker, and Jeffrey Saddoris. There are still a couple seats left and I’d love you to join us at The Created Image 2020.


  1. Kenya is a country I dream of visiting! These images have just made that desire so much stronger! Thank you for sharing these wonderful images.

  2. David. B R A V O. I immediately shared your Kenyan Light with my students.
    On the topic of the time invested in our craft, the shokunin of Japan, masters of pottery and woodcraft and many other arts in Kyoto and throughout the country, are god models for “keep going until you found what your looking for” as they take generations to make their masterpieces. cheers, mate, Jim

  3. Your undaunted spirit is sparkling in the middle of this grassland, David. You have shared captivating photos in the Kenyan Light. Thanks for honestly sharing the keeper rates. That’s a great insight from a brilliant photographer to help us keep going. I loved the sunset picture and the one with the gentle giant.

  4. Hi David, am from Kenya thanks for taking such beautiful pictures of our beautiful country 🙂 Can’t wait to see the rest of your work!!

    1. Amazing and inspiring.

      You and your work just seem to speak of the essence of the moment and the spirit of those within it. Only wish I could make the trip to Vancouver!

      Keep inspiring us and making great stories.

      Thank you.

  5. Pingback: Episode 461 – 99% crap – Shutters Inc

  6. I found your blog and Instagram feed very recently, after it was mentioned by someone in my camera club. As a novice photographer, I really struggle with understanding how to create photos that tell a story while wrestling with all the technical details I have yet to master. Your photos are an inspiration to me… the stories they tell are so clear and that I feel I am finally beginning to understand the difference between using a camera to capture a memory vs capturing a feeling. Thank you!

  7. David, your images are astounding. I so much enjoy watching your travels. I cant wait until your new book comes out. I have missed seeing your blog and am glad you are back for however long until your next journey. Keep after chasing the light and bringing us along for the ride.

    1. Thanks for that, David. You just made my evening. The new book, The Heart of the Photograph, should start shipping from Amazon around March 17!

  8. Great post, thanks! The digital age really gives people the luxury to take lots of photos w/o using resources or processing film. So, yes, more than ever abandon the idea that there is some kind of “batting average” in photography and cast a “wider net” to see what u catch. Also, it’s a good practice to smash the, “what will other people think” filter when taking pics. that’s true in all art though, i guess. thanks again!

  9. Kenyan Light is vibrant proof that any ratio would be worth it!
    How you could calculate so meticulously being jet-lagged and uncafeinated is astonishing! Really inspired by the concept of taking photographic sketches.

  10. What a cool story and photo, David! I’d never heard of this amazing place & its incredible buildings. Thank you for sharing this rich piece of history!

  11. As the adage goes: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.
    But a written text can sometimes communicate a concept better than pictures, like in this case. As you say, David, we – the audience – only see the final product, not the struggle and discarded images.

    I have been taking ‘snaps’ since the mid-seventies and for the last 15 years as a professional. When shooting for clients, I often arrive home after a shoot with between 100-500 photos – deliver a final 25-30.

    The other day I went for a ‘recce’ at a hotel a day before the actual photoshoot for one of my clients. I took a picture on the fly with my iPhone, as I often do as a reminder of light or composition. It came out dark and moody and was not really what the client need, which was never the plan anyway. But for me, it was a spontaneous moment that has given me new ideas for future photoshoots.

    Nice pix from Kenya. I especially liked the giraffe and cloud-photo.

  12. Thanks for your last letter… just read it again now and it still goes straight to my heart – something I only recently tried to explain to an internet friend, how I feel about photography, how I see it…

    It’s a good feeling to know I’m not alone 😉

  13. So true. A while back a fellow photographer and friend asked me as we were beginning a road trip to the high desert in Eastern Oregon, “how many images would you have to come back with to consider the trip a success?”

    Giving the question a little thought, I replied, “doesn’t matter, I have a decent portfolio, so even if I only got one or two keepers, it would be a success for me, just enjoying the journey. “

    The less pressure one put upon oneself, the more likely one will be successful. Came back with a number of “keepers,” but I still meant what I had said.

  14. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs from Kenya, David.
    Also, thanks for being open about your keeper rate. Many of us get discouraged over having so few keepers, but your perspective is hopeful.

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