Shoot Like An Old-School Photographer

Old Camera Closeup on Brown Wood Baclground amd a Film Roll

It’s official. I am an “old-school” photographer. You might think because I am 100% digital I am not able to be an old-school photographer. But that’s where you’d go wrong.

You see, I am indeed old. Ask anyone. And learned photography well before many of you reading this were born. I learned how to be a photographer “back in the day.” So in my mind, I am an old-school photographer.

So what?

Well here’s the what.

I benefit from my “old-school” roots, every time I pick up a camera. I think life as a digital photographer is pretty darn easy. Nearly 50 years when I was getting started, everything seemed hard. You had to buy film. It cost you money to make every exposure. You had to learn how to develop and print it if you wanted to “share” it or you had to have the money to pay someone to do that for you.

film strip rolls

When I was young, I was so broke I couldn’t afford to pay attention, so I learned the wet darkroom and while I mostly printed in B&W, I even bought a color enlarger right before I switched to digital.

I spent 18 years in a wet darkroom and made thousands of prints by hand, the old fashioned way, under a safe light.

Now, I just look at the back of the camera and see if I like the shot and if not, I make another and it costs me nothing. I can share it online for free too.

The old cameras and lenses weren’t nearly as good as they are today. Zoom lenses were so bad back then that most of us shooting for publication were prohibited from using them!

An inexpensive, pro-sumer lens that you buy today is probably much sharper and faster than those I used.

Aerial view of retro film camera collection

Anyone with a newer iPhone can make technically great images with the mere press of a button. Back in the day, we had to work at it.

That mindset that came with paying for each exposure is still with me. And that is where you can benefit if you too can think to shoot like an “old-school” photographer.

What if you can’t have the lens you want and the light is bad and you have very limited latitude in your shot? What do you do. The first thing you do is slow down.


When you’re shooting like we did back in the day, you have to slow down and be deliberate. Make every shot count. Maybe you only have one roll of film left. Maybe you’re broke and cannot afford to process more than one roll. Maybe all you have is black and white film but you wish you had color. There were always limitations back then, but we made do. What I take from that experience is to make every frame count even when I do NOT have those limitations.

You and I own every pixel of every frame we shoot. All that real estate is ours. We say what happens with it. We control it. Nobody else. So slow down and be deliberate. Act like those pixels mean something. It will make you a better photographer.


Ansel Adams used to spend a lot of time scouting. He went to places with a sketch book and recorded where the light was, and how it fell on his subject. He took copious notes. Then he came back with a camera and made a couple of exposures. Based on what he had SEEN without his camera, he composed his images WITH a camera. This is something called pre-visualization. I have tried to see every photo I make BEFORE I press the shutter button and have been that way since day one. When I press the shutter on my Olympus camera today, I already know what the final result will look like. Being able to pre-visualize the results is key to becoming a better photographer. It means you are creating not just reacting.



Learn to ask yourself why you are about to press the shutter button. This is a very powerful tool for any photographer. Knowing your why. I will never forget being on a workshop with John Sexton. It was maybe 30 years ago. We were somewhere in the southwest and I was standing in a river about to make a photo and Sexton told me to stop. He asked, “Why are you going to make this photo?” I was perplexed by the question. It was a beautiful scene. I was on a workshop to make beautiful pictures. I thought the situation was self-explanatory. But it wasn’t. John was teaching me something that was very valuable. Know your why. Pause. Ask yourself why. If you cannot answer that question with specificity, move on. Make a different picture.


A few of the photographers who have been on multiple trips with me remark that I don’t take many photos. On a trip to Bosque del Apache, I may make 40-50 exposures per session where others make hundreds or even thousands. Spray and pray was something we couldn’t afford in the old days because as I said already, we paid for every exposure. I have kept that mindset even tho I don’t have to pay for every exposure these days. This approach requires me to be selective. I make fewer photos than most photographers, but the ones I make all count. This makes me a better photographer than I would be if I just kept the hammer down and made as many pictures as I could in a given day.


There are many reasons to learn how to shoot in manual mode but one of the best is that it forces you to take most of the steps listed in this blog post. It slows you down. It forces you to be more deliberate. And most importantly, it puts YOU in control of the image, not your camera. When you shoot manual mode on a digital camera, you are shooting the way I did way back in the day. My first cameras didn’t even have exposure meters built in, let alone “shutter priority” etc. We didn’t even have auto-focus. Learn how to really control your camera. Shoot in manual mode and you will become a better photographer.

Vintage exposure meter


This one is a pet peeve of mine. We didn’t have LCD screens back in the day. We saw our images for the first time when we printed a contact sheet in the wet darkroom. Spend more time thinking about the story you want to tell with your camera and how you will go about accomplishing that task, and less time seeing if the image you just made was a “keeper.” Besides, while you are bent over chimping, you may mis all the action.


It’s hard to put yourself in the mindset of a photographer working 50 years ago if you’ve never known that reality. But pay attention to what I’ve talked about here and maybe you will get a glimpse of what that was like, and how it can help you improve today.

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