Musings on: increasing your ‘photographic luck’…
“You were lucky to catch that shot!”
I’ve heard that said more than a few times since I started making ‘serious’ photographs, mostly from – and here I’m continuing an entirely tongue-in-cheek gripe from my last blog item – non-photographers. More specifically, non-photographers who have cameras and don’t often ‘get lucky’ in the same way that they perceive that I do.
In recent months, I’ve adopted the approach of not arguing the point, preferring the “Yes, didn’t I” response to “Well, no, I did lots of preparation…..”. The trouble is that the type of preparation I’m talking about here is not the specific planning I discussed in my last article on using The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Google Earth ground level view to pre-visualise compositions. That’s a possible, and very useful, aspect of preparation, but not the whole of it, and it’s the part which is quick and easy to describe:
“TPE tells me where the Sun and Moon will be, and Google Earth shows me what the view is from any given point”;
done; simple; and it doesn’t usually engender a great long debate, unless the questioner is genuinely interested in the implicit how part of that statement. Conversely, trying to explain what I’m discussing here, the wider factors which go into being prepared to make a photograph, can end up in…… let’s say ‘a degree of contention‘.
I think the contention arises since what I’m essentially going to argue in this article is all about probability and statistics – not literally, this isn’t a mathematical treatise of any kind, but that’s what it amounts to. In summary:
if I prepare better for a photographic opportunity which may arise, the likelihood of my making a half decent image when that opportunity does arise goes up considerably. Put another way “you make your own luck”.
At its most reductive level, the old adage that ‘the best camera is the one you have with you all the time’ clearly comes into play: it’s much more likely that I’ll ‘get lucky’ if I always carry a camera. I don’t, and I know that reduces my opportunities, but pretty much everything in life is a compromise and I’m not yet ready to start carrying my backpack of kit at all times.
Understand your equipment as well as possible
That point does lead to the first and most obvious element of ‘being prepared’, however; the technical element. There’s little point in having a camera capable of capturing good images and failing to learn how to use it flexibly. More accurately, and returning to the probability idea: if you do learn as much as possible about how your equipment works, what it can and can’t do, when and how to use which filters, and all the other things which make up the technical side of photography, then the chances of getting all those technical details right, even in a rush, when the fabled opportunity arises are considerably raised. Often, that moment of stunningly fine light lasts just that, a moment, or a few seconds; fiddling around with camera controls for any longer than strictly necessary is likely to lead, as they say, to disappointment. Personally, I don’t find the whole ‘how to drive a camera’ thing terribly interesting. Important: very much so. Interesting: only in the way that any complex piece of kit is interesting – it’s not what making images is about (to me, that is – but each to their own!).
I’m not ranking aspects of preparedness; I think that all the elements I’m writing about in this item are important for improving the odds of ‘getting lucky’, but I do think that familiarity with the equipment – camera, lenses, filters, tripod, light meter; everything – is fundamental. To veer dangerously close to mathematics again: it’s a necessary but not a sufficient requirement, and it’ll increase the probability of success.
Maintain a list of compositions
Another – not the second, just another – element is having compositions in mind ready for when the light is either ‘good’ or ‘right’, depending on whether you’ve also worked out what the ‘right’ light will be for a given composition. This is a big topic. It covers a range of time, in terms of preparation, from seconds to months, or even seasons. At one end of the scale, I like to look around an area for compositions before leaping into getting the camera out; there’s little point in waiting for stunning light and then frantically hunting around for something to put in the frame. What that means in practice is that I will sometimes scout a location and not actually make any exposures. More probably I’ll take a few shots as reminders, even if the light is uninteresting. That’s where the longer term comes in: I’m gradually building up a set of notes on things that I think may be good compositions, given certain lighting conditions. The idea is that I can revisit those areas at the appropriate time of year, or when a particular weather pattern is predicted, and know exactly where to go. In theory, it means that I can hurry to a pre-planned composition and get set up as soon as the weather deigns to do what I’d like it to, and having several of these ideas ready means that there’s more chance of at least one of them fitting the weather on any given day. Again, it increases the probability of being lucky.
Naturally, that sort of preparation is easiest for local subjects. There’s a particular composition I have in mind in the Cairngorms, but I’m not about to drive hundreds of miles on the spur of the moment when the met office predicts a certain weather pattern which will suit it! That said, I’m currently working on – and when I say ‘working on’ here, what I mean is that I have decided to do this and will shortly get my act together and start – I’m currently working on making a list of possible compositions in the area of Scotland I shall be visiting in a few months. I’ll be using TPE and Google Earth for this, as well as my existing knowledge of the area and OS maps for access routes and timings. The intention is to arrive knowing where to go in response to a variety of weather conditions, both at different times of day and at those points when the rain slackens off and the midges aren’t too active.
To reiterate the main theme of this article, whatever level of compositional preparation I actually do, whether it’s on the obsessive end of the scale or the ‘here’s a list of a few ideas‘ end, it will increase the probability of coming back with worthwhile images from a trip. Clearly, in any distribution of probabilities, there is the potential of returning with ‘nothing’ – I would like to make that as unlikely as I can, in advance.
Revisit good compositions
On a related facet of preparedness: whilst visiting a place once, working out some compositions, and then pre-visualising the weather that would suit them is a good technique, it’s even better to simply revisit those places, if possible, and see how the weather affects the scene. I used to be very disappointed if I went out and failed to capture a ‘keeper’; now, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I don’t care, I’m much more relaxed about it. Considering the image above, for example: I’ve been to this site numerous times – it’s very local to me – but that’s the first time I’ve bothered to photograph it as it’s the first time the light was at all interesting for that particular composition. I’m fairly happy with this image, but I shall undoubtedly go there again, and I’m sure I’ll use a similar composition in the hope that the lighting will be sufficiently different for that to be worthwhile; ideally, it’ll be better in some way, of course. Again, having discovered and practised a composition which is pleasing, at least to me, I shall increase the likelihood of eventually using it to produce a great shot by photographing it in varying weather and at different times of year.
Stand around and do nothing for a while
Considering the probability of success in the time frame of minutes or hours, rather than days or seasons: if the weather is changeable, or it’s getting towards sunset, I’ve taken to working on a composition, getting everything as ‘right’ as I can in terms of framing and technical aspects, and then just waiting for the light to change. I enjoy just being outdoors and in a beautiful place, whether I’m already very familiar with that place or not, so I’ve never so far considered it to be a great hardship to simply stand or sit awaiting a change in the light. (As an aside, this particular behaviour is the one most likely to produce a certain degree of discontent on the part of anyone you’re with who’s not also attempting to make photographs, as I discussed in an earlier article!)
Of course, the whole ‘waiting around doing nothing’ thing can be more of a challenge in various forms of inclement weather, but it’s still worth it. The image below was taken at sunset, or ‘mid-afternoon’, as it might be called. It’s a good example of a few of the above approaches to upping the probability of success. This tree is close by and I’d photographed it a few times. On each occasion, I imagined that it could look very good in snow; so, when we actually received a little, I took myself up there with the hope of making this precise image. As may be obvious, it was rather chilly up on the scar that afternoon; minus 12C in fact. Had I not been familiar with my kit, my fingers would probably have become even colder, whilst setting up for the shot, than they did. Had I not pre-visualised and planned the composition, then I’d have spent time wandering around on what was extremely slippery limestone pavement – it’s not the easiest or safest surface to amble across when dry and warm, and it’s even less conducive to extensive exploration when covered in snow and ice! As it was, I was able to go to exactly the right place, having readied the camera with the appropriate lens and settings back at home and having not wrecked the snow by walking on it, looking for the right spot. Setting everything up took under a minute, followed by roughly an hour of standing still, becoming progressively colder as the light changed. I’m rather fond of this shot, and I sincerely doubt that I’d have made it without all the luck-inducing preparation.
Get out there, even when the weather looks vile
One final thing is worth mentioning, mainly since I’m very susceptible to this particular problem and am working on avoiding it. Planning in advance to go somewhere, knowing that there is a usable composition, particularly when the ‘somewhere’ in question is a long walk up a hill, helps to avoid crying off due to unappealing weather. The banner image at the very top of my blog is a good example of that. It was raining heavily when I set off and I had to really force myself to get up on the scar, knowing there was a tree up there and hoping for some kind of dramatic light to occur as the various storm fronts passed over. It did occur; I was ‘lucky’. That said, I was lacking in every other area of preparation for this shot. It was the very first image I took after I’d bought a ‘proper’ camera and set out to deliberately make photographs; so in many respects I really was lucky on that occasion.
I’d have been even ‘luckier‘, however, had I already learnt how to use the camera, bought a tripod, examined the area in advance, and not been shooting hand-held jpegs on full automatic…. There are better compositions of this tree and, if I’d prepared for luck, this would have been a better shot. Still, maybe the next time I’m fortunate enough to experience light like that, it will be!
I haven’t even mentioned here that this sort of preparation can help with inspiration, but this article is already quite long enough, so I’ll save that topic for another possible post. As always, I’d welcome your thoughts and recommendations for other things which can increase the ‘getting lucky’ factor in making landscape images.
Tim Smalley has a very nice piece on his blog covering some of the same ground as this. Definitely worth reading: Forget about the camera for a minute
2 Responses to “Musings on: increasing your ‘photographic luck’…”
Great piece of writing Mike… I saw myself in a large amount of that…
I, like you, have several scenarios in my head and the habit of wandering off to find the ideal viewpoint knowing that it is not for now, but for when the weather , light, river height are just right.
I start with many dilemmas in my head, in the early hours and the biggest one is , based on the knowledge inside my head, and the all the elements pointing towards the ideal shots and venues, which way do I turn at the end of the road…
But you are right, I saw very few others out at 4.30am this morning, and when I was asked to do a talk at a local club, they were amazed by the light that can be achieved at these times, and when they asked “how’ i did it, I replied, its not ‘how’… but ‘when”…
One of the benefits of being this obsessive is that we get to steal the best light and conditions… and remembering the old adage, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get!!..’
Thanks, David, I wish I’d remembered that adage when I wrote the piece, it’s a fine piece of advice!
I’m trying to reach a stage where I /know/ where to go, rather than having to guess and hope. I don’t envisage that being a sure thing any time soon, but if I carry on working on it then I hope to gradually improve my hit rate of making ‘the right choice’, eventually!