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The Road to Perfect Photos is Paved with Intention and PSSR

One of my first 100 photos, circa 1966

David Hayden Photography

PSSR: The secret that will transform your photography - We all start at the beginning!

Thank you Walter Shewhart!

Walter A. Shewhart was not, to the best of my knowledge, a photographer. He could have been, I just don’t know. But regardless, he probably knew more about improving photography than most self-proclaimed internet gurus pushing products today. He lived from 1891 to 1967.

The thing about Mr. Shewhart is he knew more about improving most things better than the experts themselves.

“What made Walter Shewhart so special”, you ask.

Well, that is what this article is about. And I’ll show you how you can use his genius to transform your photography from snapshots to compelling images beyond what you ever thought you could produce.

Shewhart, known as the “Father of Statistical Quality Control” was an Engineer and Physicist and fully understood feedback systems.

If you think about any controlled system it has a feedback loop; take for example a simple thermostat.

  • You plan to have a comfortable temp:

  • You set the thermostat to 70 degrees. The thermostat engages the air handling system by turning on the heat or AC as appropriate.

  • The Thermostat checks / monitors the air temp.

  • When the target temperature is reached it disengages the air handling system but continues monitoring for changes that would require a change in status.

It is basically a cyclic method of Plan, Do, Study / Check, Act.

What could this possibly have to do with photography?

Glad you asked. Shewhart’s methods were focused process control to reduce variability. He was working for Westinghouse and had the responsibility for improving the reliability of their equipment. He understood that controlling the quality of the manufacturing process would reduce variation in the parts produced and by extension improve the reliability of the parts in service.

As photographers don’t we want to continuously improve? As photographers don’t we want to reduce variation so make more wonderful images and fewer dogs? (I don't mean to disparage dogs, or cats for that matter) By applying a modified method of the Shewhart Cycle, we can develop an approach to photography that will take us to much higher levels of satisfaction.

Taken in 1966, the opening image is one of the first one hundred pictures I ever took, I like to think I am better now. We all hear practice makes perfect. That is only partially true. Practice bad habits long enough, you’ll have ingrained bad habits, not perfection. A better version of this thought is, perfect practice makes perfect.

The cycle of perfect practice.

Let’s return to the Shewhart Cycle and apply it to photography. Introducing PSSR.

Here is how you can dramatically and continuously improve your photography. The key is to shoot with intention. That means having in mind a picture you would like take. Maybe you want to emulate the style of a photographer you admire or maybe just want to recreate a beautiful image you took by sheer accident.

First. Lets jump into the cycle at the study stage. What can you learn from studying that image you love? Identify a few things to get started:

  1. Can you identify where the light is coming from? Look at the shadows, the light source(s) will be in the opposite direction from shadows. You can imagine a line starting at the shadow running back through the subject to get an idea of the source of light in relation to the subject.

  2. Do the shadows have crisp sharp edges or is the transition from light to dark smooth. If the shadows have sharp well defined edges, you need hard light (light source much smaller than the subject because of size or distance). The more gradual the transition from light to dark, the larger the light source is in relationship to the subject.

  3. What is the angle of view, very narrow, kind of normal, very tight.

  4. From what angle was the reference photo taken; low, high, right, left, straight on, straight down, and so on?

  5. What is the apparent distance from the camera to the subject?

  6. Does the distance front to back appear foreshortened?


Now that you have identified a few things you notice about the reference photo, make a plan as to how you would recreate those effects. What would you use for light? How close would you be to the subject? How wide of an angle view do you need? And so on.

Write down your plan and it helps to make a quick sketch or block diagram.


With your written plan in hand set up your shot. If you use a tripod, things will be easier.

Tripods, do a couple of things. First, they slow you down and allow you time to compose your image. Second, when you come back to reshoot, you have a reference point. Just make sure of where you placed your tripod, how high it was set, the direction it was pointing and so on.

Take several photos, move around, or move your subject/ light around or both all while keeping notes. For example, Image 5: two feet above the road, center of road, camera settings, time of day, day and month, conditions, sunny, cloudy, etc. Or, Image 13: subject vase, lamp upper left, lamp 3 feet from vase, no diffuser, camera straight on but above10 degrees, F3.5, 1/30 second, 50MM lens, 2.5 feet a away . . . you get the idea.

The more details you track, the more you learn about the results of your shooting plan. It's also very helpful to pull out your cell phone or little camera and take reference photos of your set up . . . something about a picture being worth 1000 words.

Step 3: STUDY.

Now the learning begins. Pull out your reference photo and start comparison.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is rarely a good idea to compare your photography to that of others, it can be self-defeating. The goal here is not about comparing overall quality, it is about studying the details.

Ask yourself:

  • Generally, do you like your photo? What about it do you like / dislike? What would you change and how would you make those changes?

  • Is your photo approaching what you like in the reference photo? Is the lighting the same, is the angle of view similar and so on.

  • Are there distractions in the form of objects, or reflections that pull your eye from the subject? How would you eliminate the distractions?

  • Study – plan corrections, make notes.

Step 4: RESHOOT.

Based on things you learned in STEP 3, reshoot the scene / subject. The key here is to only change ONE thing at a time. Only move the light, change the shooting location, or whatever. Then make your notes. Change the next thing, and reshoot, making note of what you changed.

Wash and repeat until you have changed all the things you felt might improve the image.


With you new images in hand (so to speak), compare them with you previous set of images and the reference image. Did your adjustments take you closer or farther away from your original goal. Which changes too you closer to your goal? Which changes took you farther from your goal? Which changes took you in a new and exciting direction and where might you apply them in the future? Make notes.

After going through your new images, make a new plan to move forward. Perhaps that means reshooting your original subject until you get the results. It may also mean you learned something important that you can apply to a new subject.

Great photography is in your future.

All of us point and shoot and embrace the serendipity of grabbing the lucky shot but luck does little to improve your skills. Shooting with intention however, will greatly improve your odds of consistently getting images that are truly satisfying to you. That is important, as an artist, shoot to satisfy yourself. Satisfying others will come later, if you want.

Shooting with intention starts with a plan, doing the work, studying the results, adjusting, and repeating. It’s an iterative process that always works.

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