Photography preserves the split-second moment forever, but try slowing down before you go into preservation mode and think about what it is you’re really wanting to photograph. Start writing before thinking and you end up with a muddle. Ditto when we are “writing with light” – photo (light) graphy (writing) – before thinking about what you really want to capture.
The traveler in our earlier example, the one who failed to catch the pleasant sense of the bread shop and baker, had the ability with any camera – a Brownie of long ago, the Instamatic of my teens, and most anything today – to photograph exactly what was desired. However, before the camera was raised, the photographer had to know what he or she wanted to preserve.
A few quick examples now of planning before taking a shot: In Texas one summer for the “Hotter‘N Hell Hundred” bike ride, I watched racers on a circuit for a while to find the spot where the evening light caught their wheels as they leaned into a corner.
In Tombstone, Arizona, like all the other gawkers, I marveled at the cowboys walking the streets dressed in dusters and packing six-shooters. Lining up a good composition of the O.K. Corral from across the street, all I had to do was wait – for almost 40 minutes – for a gunslinger to pass by.
Of course, this doesn’t always work. Stagecoaches were bouncing up and down the street, as were motorcycle riders and the two friends I was traveling with (they were threatening to leave me in town, car-less, if I didn’t hurry up).
Most often, however, patience pays off, as it did when I was shooting rafters in Canada recently. I took a position on a rock cliff not far above where I’d noticed rafts catching a rapid. After only a few minutes, I not only caught what I’d planned for, but a priceless expression of glee.
I find when traveling that it’s the faces, at least as much as the places, that I want to preserve – but not with just any expression. For example, I wanted the smile and the eyes of the biker shown here, but at the same time and while looking at the camera. It took a couple days on a week-long ride in Georgia for this biker to feel sufficiently at ease to smile toward a camera the way I’d seen him smile toward friends. I got the picture by thinking ahead and making it happen. Sometimes a shot is pure serendipity, we just happen to be there at the right time. More often there’s some thinking involved.