I've been a procrastinator all my life. I keep meaning to do something about that.
Procrastination—putting things off till later—doesn't mix very well with photography. To the best of my knowledge, Jay Maisel is the strongest sane voice regarding this, in his book It's Not About the F-Stop, which I recommend for all photographers, especially young ones or beginners of any age.
Jay writes short. He's pithy. He packs a lot of wisdom into few words. The short section titled "Shoot It Now" ends with the line, "Never go back. Shoot it now. When you go back, it will always be different."
I chose photography in part as a corrective. It compensated for many things for me. My frustration with drawing, for one. And I needed a subject to master and make my own—intellectually I'm a generalist, ranging broadly but not deeply, and I was an expert in nothing. (I still know very little about photography; I just know more about it than most people do.) I needed to learn the culture of something in order to give a useful core to my thinking, my experimenting, and my observations...but it had to be something complex that had a lot of different facets to it. Photography fit that bill. And I needed something to write about—I love to write, but you can't write about nothing. (Well, Proust could, but most people can't.) Mostly, I was introverted and cerebral and tended to get lost in my head. I needed something to get me out of the house and out into the world. Photography served that last purpose particularly well.
I also chose photography because I had no aptitude for computers, and I needed a field that didn't involve computers!
But another corrective was this: I had an entrenched tendency to put things off till later, a tenacious mental habit of always thinking I'd forego doing something now and instead wait until some unspecified "later" when I would ostensibly be able to really do it well. Oh, the wonderful things that I've put off, the accomplishments I've never gotten around to! I'm getting much better at that as I get older—my current kitchen has never been left messy—but to be honest it's something I still struggle with.
A case in point happened just yesterday. I was driving down to Bath, New York, to the aptly named Bath Plumbing. As I drove the winding road along the shore of Keuka Lake I was thinking to myself, this is it—this is the most beautiful Fall day I've ever experienced, Number One, never better. When I got below the lake and away from the crowding woods, on the flat valley floors that offered vistas to the rising hills, I saw a spectacular sight—a vast hulking mountainside completely covered with peak Fall foliage, brilliantly lit by the slanting sun, with a huge stormcloud behind it.
Now, I'm pretty much the furthest thing from a Fall foliage photographer, but even I will stop to pick up a twenty-dollar bill lying at my feet.
So what did I find myself thinking? Wow, that's really stunning...I should think about stopping to photograph that on the way back from Bath.
Remember Jay's words: when you go back, it will always be different. I drove on a ways, wrestling with myself. Finally I thought no, I'm going to shoot it now. I turned the car around and drove a mile or so back.
You know the upshot. I looked for a spot, parked the car, got out—and the hillside was shrouded in shadow. The sun had gone behind a vast, magnificent cloud.
So I waited.
And when the sun reappeared, ten minutes later, the dark cloud behind the mountain was gone. And so was my picture. The picture that had been right there was no longer anywhere.
Now, landscapes have the reputation of being lasting—a subject that's unchanging, a subject that will wait for you to take your time.
Don't believe it. Don't believe it for a second. Had I screeched to a stop and leapt out of the car I still might have missed the picture. Or maybe I would have gotten it. But I would have had a chance. Sometimes you have to be just as quick shooting landscapes as you are shooting kids or sports.
Whatever your aim, fight the impulse to procrastinate. When you see it, shoot it. Get the moment. Shoot it now.
Someday I will learn!
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Mark Hobson: "When the wife and I are traveling by car—to a specific destination or just to enjoy the beautiful place in which we live (the Adirondack Park—I live in a park)—the wife always adds at least 20% more time than the the navi estimates to reach our destination for, you guessed it, my picture making. And every time I stop for picturing, the navi lady asks if I am having a car problem or experiencing heavy traffic—she never asks if I have stopped to make a picture."
Jeff: "Reminds me of Ansel's famous 'Moonrise' shot. He saw the scene and pulled his car over despite the end of a day's shooting, couldn't find his meter, had to quickly remember the brightness of the moon to estimate exposure, in addition to getting his view camera set. After the first shot, he pulled his film holder to get a second exposure just in case, but the foreground light went dark. I wonder how much money he made off that split-second."
Mike replies: Daniel Grant, writing on Artnet, says, "In 1996, Adams biographer Mary Alinder estimated that 1,300 prints of Moonrise, Hernandez had been made over 40 years—often produced by Adams whenever an order for a copy came in, most of them done in the 1960s and ‘70s—worth a cumulative $25 million." The value on the secondary market has been much greater than that; Grant notes that the presale estimate for a 1970s print offered at Sotheby's in 2011 was $300,000–$500,000. The highest price ever hammered for a "Moonrise" print was $609,600 in 2006.
Joe Holmes: "Yes, what Jeff said—that Ansel Adams story sets the standard for me. Slam on brakes! You can read Ansel's telling of it. I, too, had too many of those 'I'll shoot it next time' moments, so that I've finally trained myself not to fall for that. Remember what Elvis sang. 'It's now or never.'"
Manuel: "Photographic opportunities don't have the habit of popping up whenever we need them. Once lost, they're lost forever. Which is not bad, as it assures uniqueness to the photographs. (Would we value that famous picture if all Parisian police officers would routinely jump over a pool behind St. Lazare's railway station?)
"This entry brought a little episode to my mind; not exactly a case of procrastination (I can't help thinking about Lee Morgan when I read this word!) [I have that on vinyl, CD, and as an MP4 file —Ed.], but one of opportunities never repeating themselves: some three years ago I was walking by the seaside on a sunny sunday afternoon, camera hanging from neck, when I saw this rustic family sitting on a concrete wall by the beach and facing the sea. It was a typical Portuguese countryside family, which added strangeness to the landscape and made for a scene Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau wouldn't have disdained. I got close and shot the rustic family; I rejoiced, imagining I had a keeper there, but then, as I was going through the routine of checking the pictures taken so far and deleting the failed ones, I accidentally erased the photo of the rustic family! Even though I was alone, I swore loud when I realized what I had done. (I screamed the portuguese equivalent of the f-word...)
"As this mishap occurred shortly after I took the photo, I went back to that spot to see if the rustic family was still there. As you might have anticipated, they had already left. The portuguese equivalent for the f-word came to my mind again, but this time I was able not to shout it. I went back home—the debacle made me lose my enthusiasm and end the photographic session earlier than expected—and posted an entry on my blog asking my readers if they knew of any means to retrieve the lost picture from the memory card. Fortunately one of the readers informed me there was an application for that. And it worked. But the Portuguese equivalent for the f-word haunted me again when I realized the picture wasn't that great. (Well, you can judge for yourselves.)"
Mike replies: Hmm, maybe not a stone hit, but good to look at. My eye went right to the six boats and the boy and bird on the rocks. The activity of photographing is so interesting, isn't it?
John W.: "Years ago I was in charge of a group of foresters working in China to help train some Chinese foresters in modern forestry techniques. At one point we were each assigned a trainee interpreter. One day we were all walking through a new plantation when the trainees started asking their assigned experts what they were 'experts' in. Each explained their various expertise. Finally my trainee asked me about mine. I told her I was more of a generalist. She thought for a while, then her face lit up and she said, 'I understand. An all-round genius.' I never heard the end of that, and one of the wise-asses even had cards made up for me with that title."
Terry Letton: "Mike you have picked up a mirror and I think we all see our reflection in it."
John Camp: "Several years ago I was in Washington D.C. when a bus passed me and suddenly jerked to the side of the street a hundred feet away, and the panicked passengers began piling out. I realized then that the bus was actually on fire, with fire running up the back of it, and fire actually dripping onto the road (burning fuel, maybe diesel). People were yelling, 'get back get back,' and so on, and then the fire truck arrived, with the back end of the bus now fully involved in flame. The firemen put it out in a couple of minutes with foam (or maybe some kind of powder, I don't remember.) About the time they started the cleanup, I remembered that I had a camera hanging off my shoulder."