Don’t Miss

Lunar Rainbow on Yosemite FallsOne Sunday morning, while reading the newspaper I ran across an article about a photographer named Neil Leifer. The headline read “A famous photographer now has an Oscar in his sights.” I did what I usually do when reading the paper and gave it a quick skim. I was primarily looking to see what genre of photography he practiced in an effort to decide whether I wanted to invest additional time reading the article. Very quickly, I was able to determine that he was a sports photographer, which did not interest me much. As I was turning my attention to the next page, just by chance, I happened upon this quote:

“What separates a really good photographer from the ordinary is, when things happen – when you get lucky – you don’t miss. I didn’t miss.”

My reading stopped dead with that line just echoing. Landscape photography is a craft that relies heavily on luck. Sure, we try to remove as much of that as possible but there is only so much we can control. We plot the angle of the sunrise, we can use a GPS to at the exact right spot at exactly the right moment but it all comes down to luck. How many times have you been standing on a mountain waiting for a colorful sunset that never materialized? If luck was with you, and Mother Nature put on the show of a lifetime, did you capture it or did you miss?

Frequently that elusive magic light that we try so hard to capture lasts only for a few moments; sometimes seconds.  To make successful images you not only have to put yourself in a position to succeed, you have to execute properly when “luck” strikes.   It’s that split-second decision making that we need to practice to the point that it becomes automatic.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out shooting with a group or individual, witnessed something amazing, and had the photographer standing next to me miss the shot. When shooting with film, I can see that being a possibility but I just can’t understand how you do that with digital.  One of the primary benefits of digital photography is the ability of the equipment to provide instant feedback. If you’re not getting the results that you want, adjust and shoot again. Don’t wait until you get home to realize that you missed the shot.

The image in this article is of a lunar rainbow on Yosemite falls.  It is an amazing phenomenon to photograph because you can’t see it with the naked eye. You have to understand the conditions necessary to create it, put yourself in the right spot, focus your camera in the dark and then get the long exposure right.  The only way to know if you’re on the right track is diligent use of the LCD on the back of the camera.  Sometimes the old film shooters will heckle you for “chimping” but I say heckle away. I’d rather get the shot.  Using all of the tools available to you isn’t cheating, it’s being smart.

How to “not miss”

  • Know your equipment.  If you are fumbling around in your camera menus looking for something, you are not making images.  If you have equipment that requires you to use a “work-around,” replace it.  That cheap tripod is not a bargain if it moves every time you breathe on it.
  • This dovetails with the previous post but know the placement of the controls on your camera.  If you have to pull out a flashlight every time you want to change a setting, you’re going to annoy the photographer standing next to you.
  • Learn to read a histogram and check it often.  Your camera’s histogram is the absolute fastest way to tell if you have blown the exposure. 
  • Take a shot or two before you think that you need to.   If you’re waiting for the light, frame things up and take a shot or two.  Pay close attention to the edges of your frame for things that might weaken your composition.  When the light starts to get intense, you are likely to miss that “tree branch” poking into your scene.  A few test shots also let you dial your exposure in to make sure that you are in the ballpark.
  • If you are using auto-focus, practice controlling the focus points so that you can do it quickly.  If you’ve only got a few seconds to get a shot off you want to make sure that you and the camera agree on what should be in focus.
  • View your scene in all three dimensions.  Don’t just push the shutter and hope that you got the DOF right.  Know your lenses and make use of the DOF preview on your camera.

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