The Shots I Don’t Take

The other day I met up with a couple of local photographer friends in quest of a foliage sunrise.  Unfortunately it didn’t work out.  The sky was too densely overcast and the light dull.  Bummer.  But I didn’t drive long to get there and the meet up gave me a new location to shoot in the future.  Plus I got to hang out with two good guys who also happen to be good photographers.

Anyway, a couple minutes worth of casual conversation got me to thinking about how we grow as photographers.  Basically these days, we agreed, it is almost more about the shots we don’t take than the ones we do.  I said that when I look through prints or slides from my early days I groan aloud and wonder why I even pressed the shutter button.  He laughed and said he’s done the same.

The thing is, I know why I pressed it.  Primarily it was out of sheer joy.  The joy of discovery, the joy of what I saw, the joy of making art, the joy of just doing what I liked to do.  Second was that I had to press the button.  Any endeavor requires doing.  Well duh, right?  If I didn’t shoot a lot of film, I’d never come to understand what works and what doesn’t.  I’d never come to understand what moved me as a photographer.  In short, I’d never learn.  How can you come to understand, to know, anything without studying it?  How can you get “mad skillz” without shooting a lot?  For photographers this means more doing than observing or reading.  Skills need to become second nature because if you miss the shot of the monkey riding Pegasus with a rainbow in the sky, you’ll regret it forever.

Mostly though, it’s not about the once in a lifetime shot, it’s the quotidian.  The everyday pursuit of what moves you.  Capturing your style as well as the subject.  To me it’s knowing what translates from 3D to 2D.  Some things do and some things don’t.  But I had to produce a lot of don’ts to figure this out.  I try not to think of it as having wasted film, but as learning how to take the kind of photographs I want.  At the time film was the only medium available, new photographers these days have no idea of the agony a photographer on a budget went through with film, but that’s another post.

Here’s a good example of what I mean by not translating to 2 dimensions.

Play of light doesn't work in 2D

In reality, this vignette is pretty neat and eye-catching.  It’s a rock overhang on a small brook.  The way the light was hitting made a really neat reflection on the rock above.  Swirly and sparkly – I sat mesmerized for a few minutes before deciding to try to capture it (and all the while I was contorting into a decent camera angle, I had my doubts as to whether it would be a success).  Maybe some people would post and be proud of this shot, and I might have myself if I were just starting out, but now it’s on the reject pile.  It just doesn’t translate.

Knowing this I find myself not taking photos that I would have years ago because I know they’ll end up rejects.  What is pleasing to the eye sometimes just doesn’t come through in a photo and I’d rather spend my time looking for what will.  Practice, practice, practice.  New angles or vantage points.  Juxtapositions and slices.  It has to translate.

Here’s another one I took on a 0-degree photo meet up.

The mist too far

Now I know for a fact, because I took and printed similar shots in the 80s when I was new to photography, that I’d have set this as a keeper then.  It’s on the reject pile now.  Why?  Because it’s flat, blah and not compelling.  The mist needs to be closer to us, there needs to be something prominent in the shot to draw the eye.  It shows the serenity of the moment, but so what?

It got into the reject pile, sure, but I still shot it.  I took a chance.  I experimented.  Practiced.  And it taught me something.  Taught me in two ways; first that I should have hunted around for a better way to frame this.  I should have hunted for that compelling element that would have made the shot and kept me from wasting my time.  Maybe my brain was frozen – it really was 0 degrees out and we were all shivering.  The second way it taught me was by adding to my store of info on what doesn’t work in a photograph, that way when presented with a similar scene, I might remember and do that hunting.

Here’s a less boring sunrise from a few months later.


Sunrise on Squam lake

No, this image isn’t perfect.  It won’t make my top 10 for the year, but it is an improvement over the other sunrise shot.  Remember, I’m still practicing.

5 thoughts on “The Shots I Don’t Take

Add yours

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I haven’t been at this long and I find myself “groaning”, too, over shots I took with little knowledge about how my camera works, how to more effectively use lighting, etc. It is a learning process, as you say. I am usually a “quick-study” with regards to other hobbies and skills I’ve acquired throughout my life. Photography is more challenging and compels me to keep on taking more and more photos to get it right. Don’t know if I ever will “get it right”, but – it is the process that I am enjoying.

    1. Great post! I posted the “frustrations… ” at the forum and came here after. It’s very true , shoot to learn, and this issue with the 3d not translating is classic, but I still have to get the hang of it. Thanks

      Federico Sendel

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