Some types of photography, like street or landscape photography, come out better when aided with a bit of luck, i.e. the chance of the photographer being in the right place at the right time. So the question is, is it all luck, or is something else going on?
I often talk about serendipity in photography and how it appears to play a part in rewarding the ready person with a successful image. A big part of this is that photography, unlike other forms of art, takes place in fractions of a second when all the right components of your vision come together. Also, unlike other visual arts like painting, sculpture, or printmaking, where the artist controls the entire creation – photography is the art form of capturing and presenting your vision from the everchanging, ready-made scene constantly evolving around you. This blog will look closely at what it means to be lucky and why some photographers consistently get more of the “lucky shots.”
There are several different types of luck involved when making an image. First, there are the environmental conditions, such as the location of people, sun, subject matter, colours of the sky and so on. These are completely independent and beyond anything to do with you. Second is your experience, view, and understanding of the world. We all make images based on our experience, knowledge and interpretation of our surroundings, and our thoughts and ideas form the vision of the photograph we are about to make. Third, capturing the image just the right way at the right time, what Henri Cartier-Bresson refers to as the Decisive Moment, frequently requires everything to come together instantaneously.
While the environmental conditions usually are beyond our control, there are many situations where we can improve the odds of a better shot. First, the old “Spray and Pray” works quite well in some cases, like this shot of the single file of pelicans passing in front of a breaking wave.
This may appear like a “Lucky Shot,” but it took hundreds of rapid-fire sequences and three days of early morning visits to the beach to pull off. Some people may scoff at this approach, but it is more instructive than you think. Both during the shooting session and afterward, when performing the post-processing work, I took the time to study the images, much like an artist would make and study sketches of a new idea. In the case of the pelicans, this process allowed me to learn more about the behaviour of the birds while also giving me time to think about and mature my final vision. And then, one morning, everything lined up, and I knew what to look for and where to stand for the best shot – in short, I was ready for it.
While it is not always possible to revisit a scene for several days and prepare sketches, the same idea can be compressed into a short working session using this idea of successive refinements to an image. Many often go to one location only to snap a few shots and then walk away. This rarely produces anything remarkable, as your vision and ideas have yet to have a chance to mature. To help the process, try and walk around and photograph from different vantage points and chimp a little while doing so. You will find that this process will help you think more deeply about your vision and better ways to execute it. This habit alone can make a massive difference to your work, especially if this is not something you regularly do.
Another way to increase your odds of that “Lucky Shot” is to train yourself to anticipate the outcome of whatever event is happening in front of your lens. Anticipate the future so you will be ready and have your camera pointed to where the action will be. This does take some practice, but if you stay in the same place for a while and study your surroundings, you begin to learn to anticipate what will happen. For example, the pelicans in the previous image would frequently soar up above a wave about to break and then come back down and fly along it in single-file formation. Knowing this information helped me better predict where the birds would be and point my camera to that location before the birds arrived and the wave crested.
A common misconception in photography is that it is a documentary media which records everything without bias. If that were the case, there should be no discernable difference in the images produced when you put a group of photographers in front of the same scene – and yet, you will rarely see similar pictures made in these types of situations. The reason for this, and a big part of consistently getting that “Lucky Shot,” is that photography is about seeing rather than just looking. According to Britannica Dictionary:
To look means to direct your eyes in a particular direction, whereas to see means to notice or become aware of (someone or something) by using your eyes.
Becoming aware is when we engage our brain to evaluate what something means to us and how we will react to the information. New York photographer Jay Maisel is famous for telling a workshop attendee who asked him how he, the student, could take more interesting photos – to which Jay responded, “become a more interesting person.”
Great photos are a more likely outcome when a photographer engages with the scene based on their own experience and ideas, and the person with a more intriguing background and experiences will almost always come away with more exciting photographs. In terms of luck, this frequently means anticipating what will happen. The more thoughts and ideas we have about the world, the more likely we will take advantage and predict the outcome of an unfurling event in front of our camera.
While the previous idea is based on the life and built-up experiences of the artist until now and, therefore, not a quick way to increase your luck, ongoing reading and studying of the visual arts and travel to new and foreign places will improve your photography tremendously.
Don’t buy more gear. Buy and read more books.
The Decisive Moment
As previously alluded, photography takes place instantly when you press the shutter. Henri Cartier-Bresson refers to this as the Decisive Moment:
To me [Cartier-Bresson], photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event and the precise organization of forms that give that event its proper expression.
This is often misunderstood to mean that he would only take one image at the exact right moment. This, however, is not true, as Cartier-Bresson would frequently shoot many frames while working on a subject. In other words, there can be more than one decisive moment. I am trying to make the point that photography can happen very quickly when things come together, and you increase your chances of messing it up if you only shoot one image. There are two reasons why this is so.
First, it is easy to miss a shoot in poor conditions or if rushed. Nothing is worse than thinking you captured a great image only to discover it is soft because you introduced camera-shake by rushing it. Second, when things are happening quickly, it is not the time to stop and check your work – while you are chimping away, the scene continues to unfold, and you risk missing some real opportunities.
Luckily, there are easy fixes that will solve both problems: photographer focus and bracketing. When photographing a fast-evolving scene, focus on composing and capturing the images at the expense of everything else – other than your safety. This is the time to stay focused and photograph, not the time to stop and check your work. To further improve your odds, set your camera to bracket your shots to increase further your chances of getting a sharp, correctly exposed image. You can kick this process into high gear when things unfold very fast and set your camera to continuous shooting at a high frame rate – sports photographers frequently do this. Finally, ensure your camera is set up only to allow exposure when focus has been achieved. I fail to see the point of the camera setting that allows you to make a shot of something out of focus – focus systems are so fast on modern cameras that there is no need to bypass this. An interesting side note is that the new Nikon Z9 allows you to go back in time and pick an image before you pushed the trigger. I know this sounds crazy but what is happening is that the camera is recording images for up to a second before the photographer fully depresses the trigger. This feature will help get those shots where things unfold faster than the human reaction time.
In the following sequence of photographs, I saw the surfer walking across the scene, and I knew before he got to where the sun was that I wanted his silhouette close to the setting sun. So, as he got closer, I shot a series of bracketed shots of him approaching and leaving the location I wanted to make the shot.
When anticipating shots, combining this approach with multiple exposures is a great way to increase the odds of capturing the right moment.
Capturing those great lucky shots requires many things to come together just right, including time and place, your vision, and technical prowess. However, as discussed, with careful attention and preparedness, anyone can significantly increase their chances of successfully capturing more of those wow moments.
Remember: Luck favours the prepared mind.