In today's age of fully automated digital cameras, I find it difficult to seriously think about every picture I take before I press the shutter button. The experience is, from what I can tell, completely different with equipment like a manual film camera or rangefinder camera: I have used an all-manual film SLR and it forced me to think about every picture I took. How do I replicate this using my digital SLR equipment?
You need discipline and a goal.
Most digital camera users take hundreds of shots without thinking much. Tons of shots are almost the same and most are unmemorable. I also know pros who shoot thousands of photos per day. That's a huge number! The great thing about digital photography which I tell my students on the first day of classes is that experimentation is free. However, shooting without thinking does not teach anything, its more like playing the lottery. You're going to eventually get a few good shots but you wont be able to repeat it or control it.
Most people are surprised how few photos I take and I actually plan to take fewer because I gave myself a goal of not shooting the ones that would get culled. I used delete 9 our of every 10 photos I shot and have been striving to reduce that number of trying to recognize in advance photos without merit. It's tough but I am down to deleting 7 out of 8 now. The strategy to do this takes discipline:
- Position carefully
- Inspect every edge and the content of the frame.
- Search for highlights and shadows, decide where to meter.
- Set exposure parameters depending on the mode.
- Don't forget White-Balance. Take a reading if using custom. Even with RAW for a better preview.
- Watch motion in your frame and focus.
- Shoot and review.
- Analyze what could have been better.
- Repeat as needed.
Obviously this needs to be adjusted for different situations and things with rapid motion generally take more shots. Even using burst mode you must anticipate motion not to run out of buffer before the height of the action.
Putting your camera in Manual will certainly cause you to think about shots more, just as it did with film. Of course with film, you had 36 chances, with digital you have 400+.
This factor alone reduces the 'risk' of each shot, but also brings with it the freedom of experimentation: no longer must you strive for the 'perfect' shot each time, but you can easily try different approaches, compositions, lighting, etc. I for one prefer the digital realm over film for this very reason.
I personally leave my camera in Av, which forces me to consider composition and depth of field with each shot. I must also pay attention to shutter speed, based on subject. I find I am considering the mechanics of each shot more, and I have the freedom to try multiple compositions in each session as well.
In addition to Itai's excellent advice - you're going to have to force yourself to some limit imposed by yourself and not the equipment. It will require some measure of self control. When shooting for practice and yourself, consider imposing a shot limit "I'm only going to shoot 36 shots today and then I'm done." Also, film was not limited by just the size of roll of film, but the cost of developing - impose the limit that you're going to get every single shot printed. Then you'll start seeing dollar signs when you click the button and think more carefully.
When I first bought my Rebel XS I didn't know anything about photography and so I ran around shooting in full auto and it resulted in nothing interesting whatsoever.
However, now that I want to learn more about photography I tend to take pictures with a goal in mind, usually attempting to recreate an interesting shot that I've seen online. So my process is "read about new thing online" and then go out and take pictures until I get the shot I like. That way I'm always thinking about something when I'm taking the shots and as I experiment trying to get the shot I like, I learn how the different elements of exposure and composition change the shot (I'll have many nearly identical shots with only minor variances)
I fully agree with all the advise above, particularly previsualizing and having a goal in mind beforehand, as well as forcing yourself into good habits by setting your camera to manual mode.
However, that advise also implies that it is bad practice at all times to shoot lots. I think this advise is not to be used in all occassions. If you have a static landscape or a scene that you can stage, do make it a learning moment for your photography.
As for uncontrollable events, wildlife, sports or in situations where you have little time, do both: prepare AND shoot lots. One does not exclude the other. I'm mostly into wildlife photography and as such an opportunistic photographer. Capturing the subject sharply before its gone takes precedence over maximizing the learning moment in photography. My girlfriend does think before he shoots wildlife. Yet often the subject itself is long gone, but when its not, her photos are better. I need to be more like her and she needs to be more like me :)