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Wednesday, 30 June 2010


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Ah, the indecisive moment. Last week I spotted a young lady with a huge arrangement of balloons perfectly framed in an archway. By the time I raised the camera to my eye and pressed the shutter, I had half the balloons and half the young lady walking out of the frame.

I hate it with a passion. Often find myself sans camera when it happens too. We need the "eye cam" - that allows one to just think, register the opportunity and - then upload from the brain to the device of choice...this would be the ultimate decisive camera.

"which camera"?!!

Surely *any* camera with you would have been better than nothing.

I always have the Canon S90 with me which takes a second to fire up and is usually good enough to get something from a moment.

Oh, yes. An example of one of many "near misses" - Drifting with the outgoing tide in a canoe down Big River near Mendocino, California. Cormorant on log, wings spread to dry in the sun, backlit and glowing translucently against the dark woods. Perfect focus and the bird is nearly filling the frame as I squeeze off a burst. But the burst, instead of zap-zap-zap-zap-zap is more of a sluggish, bzzzt-bzzzt - oh,right - the camera was still set at a teeny aperture for that tripod shot I had set up earlier from the bank. The result - a very shmeary 1/4 sec version of a cormorant that isn't even convincing as an "arty" image.

My life got a lot less stressful when I gave up worrying about things over which I have no control.
I don't have lightning reactions, nor a camera with me everywhere - therefore I can't control missed shots.
What I can control is getting good shots when I'm prepared. Messing up what should be perfectly good ones annoys me a lot more.

Ha... you have it easy.

Try shooting dance photography professionally. 10 frames per second camera? Not good enough. The peak of a moving Arabesque lasts about 1/50th of a second, so using your 'motor drive' almost guarantees that the motion will peak between frames. The timing of your finger, and your ability to predict the shutter lag is everything.

You want to drive a dance photographer crazy? Making him or her start shooting with a newer better camera, with a shorter or longer shutter lag than what he is used to getting with the current gear.... that lag change of 1/10th of a second is enough to destroy the skills for a while.

You missed something by 1/4 second? What were you doing all that time???

"I don't know about you, but I miss a lot more than I get. Don't you hate that?"

Better to celebrate the few that turn out better than I could have expected.

Here we are at one of the most photographed spots in Acadia NP. I'm recovering from a sprained ankle, so I'm not going to clamber down on the rocks to get the same shot others have taken millions of times.

The light and sky aren't very interesting. I get a couple of decent shots of a guy fly fishing in the ocean, but really, it's that missed opportunity - not the right day or time - and on the other side of the continent.

But, I see these folks taking their own picture, not the scenery, so I take their pic too, 3 times. Third try is the charm.

Best shot I took at that scenic landmark, and one I continue to enjoy.

Half Full Moose

Those are the shots that fill the books that I have never made.

Wanna talk about maddening!? I've been at it for about 5 years and I'm still waiting for my first really truly great shot!
I do get the occasional 'nice' shot though and find them really rewarding. If I would get more shots than I miss it would make the ones I get less special... does that make sense?
What I do notice after 5 years is that I'm starting to see great(ish) shots even without my camera. I've been using just one fixed lens for a little over a year now, like you also suggested on these pages, and feel that it is really starting to work!
Good advice, thanks!

On this subject, this deserves another mention, I think.

Many years ago i was walking down a street, saw the old Indian man with white beard and all (guru looking); cycling towards me on one of those china bicycles.

He was wearing the Nirvana black t shirt with the smiley face.

Nothing that is worth doing is easy.

I've also noticed that after making a photographic mistake of some variety [and realising the error in my ways], within a short space of time another photographic opportunity arises that relies on my new found "skill". And I get the shot.

The best photo I ever missed was this cute little Chinese boy running after his little Chinese flag on Tian'anmen square. It would have been a poignant image of nationalism, but at the same time of innocence. I can still see that moment very vividly in my mind. Way more vividly than all those moments I did take pictures of, interestingly.

I don't think anyone, even the masters, get more than they miss…It is in the nature of the photography, especially of people and moving things…trying to capture moments in life as it happens…at least this thought is what I try and console myself with when looking at takes and finding nothing!

Yes. Yes Yes Yes. All the time. It's like they're following me.

Yesterday as I was on a pedestrian bridge looking down at three "No scooters" signs painted on the pavement, a cop on a scooter drove by. It was perfect, good composition, good light, all that. And there I stood, watching it disappear in front of me.

No doubt the people crossing the bridge for the next five minutes were wondering at the man standing there cursing himself loudly.

That said, it doesn't always have to happen like that, and I am doubtlessly overestimating my abilities to capture scenes when I think each one of these was a great shot when it might not have worked at all. But I still believe that the pictures that are almost good are actually awful. It's the ones that are almost awful that are truly great.

There's another sub-category. When you are earnestly taking pictures trying to remember everything you should consider with lighting and shallow depth of field and framing and... etc. etc. And then your wife snatches the camera (well mine does!) and says she wants to take some too, but of course she's left her compact in the car. So I am shouting to her "I've already taken that shot" and "remember its manual focus" and "no, it's not a zoom lens" and "its set on maximum aperture" but I might as well be talking Klingon. Yet when I look at the pictures later, she's caught one perfect shot among her dozens of abject failures while mine are all competent but just missing something.

They seem to happen most when you don't have a camera with you ;)

This is the reason I want something similar to what the NEX 5 offers, a compact but very capable camera. Of course it's not perfect, but considering the size, it is close to it.

Couldn't have put it better than Mr. Tanaka, except to say that I have recently been purging the 'almost' shots like the unwelcome reminders of failure that they are. I have a vast catalogue of shots in my memory only, largely from now disappeared 'last of' industrial activities I witnessed in the 1980's and early 90's. Some things are recorded, but mainly that's it, just record shots to do with the work I was in.
I get a great sense of doing 'real' photography when I'm 'on the street',those missed moments are all too familiar, and I often wonder why I didn't react sometimes even when the camera is set and hovering in my hand. Could it be that the scene is just too captivating to momentarily make a reaction - the imprint on our mind being overiding -, or that it might develop further for us then to react, or do you need to be an experienced photojournalist who does it without freezing ? Perhaps some insight could be garnered from that quarter, although I suspect similar tales would abound.
Maybe we are too old -over 45 - and being 20 again we would get those elusive moments, yeah, I bet !

The only thing to do is take 20 where a snapper would take 1. How much of the secret of getting a good shot is just taking lots of the same scene especially in these fluid situations?

Didn't you buy a GF1 as your almost DMD camera that you are supposed to carry around with you, Mike?

No problem. There are infinite photos to be taken. There is always more time (whether it's yours or someone else's). There's no pressure to get a picture. In 200 (or maybe even less) years no one will care about 1) you, 2) your oeuvre, or 3)photography in general. Ain't that nice?

I've tried to retrain myself so that I flub fewer of the fleeting moments. My normal practice is to bring the camera to my eye, then check focus, framing, and so forth, which takes time. Too often, though, I've watched the special moment pass while I checked the framing. Now, when I see a moment happening, I bring up the camera up to my eye AND PUSH THE BUTTON to take the picture. Then, I check framing and focus and take another frame. The quick shot may not come out, but it's bound to be better than no picture at all.

"How much of the secret of getting a good shot is just taking lots of the same scene especially in these fluid situations?"

That might work if you were trying your hardest with every shot. I long ago rejected the "machine gun" approach as being fruitless--shooting a lot merely hoping something good will happen is just a way to get lots more worthless shots. Maybe that's just me.


Perhaps your lament is the reason Winogrand had those bags of film and stacks of contact sheets. How many made it to a final print? Not to say he didn't have an eye. I'm sure his edit's were far far beyond my keepers.

Oh yes. Last March, I followed your exhortation to go out and capture the light of spring. You were right: the combination of leafless trees and haze-free atmosphere produced a very clean light that is completely unlike summer. Each evening, I went for walks around my neighborhood with my camera and was continuously amazed by the quality of light. Due to an unseasonably warm March (I live in Minnesota), the lovely weather had also awakened the citizenry. The scenes of spring are etched into my memory: two toddlers in matching dresses playing on the front stoop, a woman sweeping her garage and stirring up luminous volumes of dust, a girl stepping onto her porch before dinner to enjoy the fading sun, a young boy taking his bicycle out for the first time that year…

Like Ken says, I’m probably over-romanticizing things. But I swear that each of the scenes seemed preternaturally lit. I honestly felt like I was walking inside Fred Herzog’s Vancouver. The problem is I just don’t have the stones for street photography. Even though I had my camera in hand, I just felt too conspicuous to make any of these photos and was strictly reduced to the role of observer. I eventually stopped the walks because I got too depressed about my inability as a street photographer. Oh well. Maybe next year?

I was taking photos of one of the fountains in a park in downtown Indianapolis, and a fellow at the edge of the park saw me with the camera, and he started a mad dash as though he were going to leap into the fountain - and stopped just short. I was so startled, and it was so funny, that I missed the perfect moment to click and capture him as he appeared to be leaping into the air... it would have been magnificent. I'm so frustrated that I missed it. Since then, I've been working hard on "click first, ask questions later!"

Oh, yes, I know all these. Definitely.

My own most-annoyed moments come when I find that I have taken five nearly identical bad pictures, though. That one, I really feel IS my fault. Not quite reacting fast enough, or anticipating what could happen, are only sometimes my fault. "Working" a situation, looking for different framing and composition, frequently gets me better shots than my first try. Sometimes, due to subject changes, a series from the same spot will show an interesting variety of expressions or positions or whatever. But when I get five in a row the same -- I just wasn't paying attention.

I don't have anything substantive to add to the discussion so far, aside from saying that I feel your pain.

This is a somewhat different subject, but I know exactly what you mean, and in some sense I think it's because we haven't really earned those pictures. They're really not ours to take. I mean, when Peter and David Turnley did their McClellan Street project, they worked those few blocks for a year, got to know all the families, earned peoples' trust, gave them prints. So they become accepted and nobody minded when they took their pictures. But when we're just walking around, we haven't done any of those things--haven't paid our dues for the right to take the pictures we're seeing.

Successful projects are often the result of photographers laying extensive groundwork which will allow them to photograph more freely. Bruce Davidson didn't just walk into peoples' apartments on East 100th Street and start shooting. (Insert many more examples here.)

So I'm not so sure it's just a failure of nerve you're talking about--I think in a sense it's our realization that it's really not quite right for a stranger to intrude and just grab a picture that isn't really his to take. Does that make any sense?

Bear in mind I'm not much of a street shooter myself, so I might be the wrong guy to be listening to on this subject.


Sounds like everyone can relate to this one Mike !

Even though I've resigned myself to the fact that I can only photograph what I'm prepared to photograph (I won't kick myself for not having a tele when I go out with just my 28, instead I'll look for what can be photographed with a 28) I still kick myself at times for not being ready for certain opportunities. Sometimes it's not having a tripod. Sometimes it's not having a camera at all. But it's the ones you describe - where you should have been ready, where you were almost ready - that are the hardest to accept.

On the last day of a vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains, my wife and I hiked a trail not far from a visitors center and weren't expecting to see much. On the way up we saw a rattlesnake (first encounter in the wild and very exciting !) On the way down, I had my gear in my backpack and we saw a bear with two cubs clamber up the hill in front of us, cross the trail and keep going, but not before one of the cubs climbed a tree and looked at us like it was posing for a postcard shot. My wife reminds me to this day "all that gear and no picture". I tell her it was too dark in the woods to get a good picture anyway :) (That was pre-digital).

Anyway, I agree that photography has enriched my life by teaching me to see and appreciate the moments I'd like to photograph even if I don't get to photograph them. And it's rewarding to be at an event, to notice something, to shoot it, and see that someone else noticed it because they saw me aim my camera. For all the misses, there are plenty of times that I'm shooting something that others aren't even seeing.

p.s. I took a picture of the tree so I can tell people "this is the tree that we saw a bear cub climb" and to remind me to be prepared :)

I was travelling with two buddies once; we had one day to tour the island of Nassau in the Bahamas. For some reason none of us had a camera, a fact we bemoaned early on, but we went on to search out photo ops all day, referring to them as "the best picture you never saw".

This is what so frustrating about your typical digicam - You see a good shot, frame it right, press the shutter and ... wait *forever* until the camera decides it is time to take the shot, which is usually after the moment has passed.

But when you do get the shot, ain't it sweet? Without the bitter taste of missing the picture yet again, those occasional triumphs would not make you feel anywhere near so good.

Dear Mike,
I'm sure it is maddening, but why should it be? How many people can actually 'see' such moments? If you have captured them successfully then perhaps I and others would see them too, but you will always remember those moments anyway.

Happens all the time, especially when I try to do street photography. See the shot, raise the camera, it's gone.

Have you folks ever heard of drawing, or painting, or collage? If you are more comfortable on the computer, well, lot's of you use Photoshop, which has all kinds of tools for drawing and painting and digital collage making. I mean come on, there are many ways to get those images that you missed with a camera, the ones that haunt you, onto paper and into a frame. Try it sometime, it's FUN!!!

Mike: Sometimes I wonder if some shots are just better left as memories than captured in a photo?
Simple example: I have a large field where each day I 'run' the dogs. I have Ibizan hounds. These are the graceful super models of the dog world. They have speed and moves that even the best wide receiver would envy. I have gone out many times armed to the teeth with my camera gear intent on capturing the aerials and pure speed. But now, I just watch. I get more joy from the experience when I just observe. The camera seems to isolate me from the experience.
I carry a camera everywhere, every day. Never miss. But more and more I find myself watching and appreciating and, yes, even relegating some shots to memory rather than capture. I think it has made me a better photographer.


My missed moment is a whole roll of film on the Leica M6 I bought because of that darn article I read on some blog about shooting with a Leica for a year. I missed a whole roll because I didn't get the film into the take up roll correctly. I didn't realize it until I pulled the film out and had it processed (it was about the fourth roll of film through that camera for me). Fall, lots of good light, they were building a new power substation in the building behind where I work, so what I thought were some very good shots of construction workers putting up new poles.

I'll never know. That roll lives in my mind every time I walk past those spots.

...and then, back a ways, there is the "harder I press the shutter button still won't let me fire the camera without film" that occurs with the once in a life time shot for crying out loud right in front of you just take it that's all you have to do to get the job at National Geographic or at least a pulitzer.

Thanks Mike. McClellan Street was definitely on my mind during those walks last March and I'm completely on board with everything you wrote. Laying groundwork is probably one of the most important and most neglected aspects of photography. This is good food for thought if I want to get better results next time.

David Hurn (Magnum) estimates that he needs 20-30 36-exposure films for a seven-picture essay. One exhibition-quality image occurs every, say, 100 films. Page 100 in his book "On being a photographer". Read it!

There are two categories of misses: one is the technical miss where the image is a bust for one reason or another but the other is when you are confronted with a great opportunity and don't have a camera. The really dedicated photographers avoid this by never going anywhere without a camera.
I have a mental gallery of some of those shots that I have missed. One was a middle aged woman who was dressed to the 9's, including a fur coat, sitting on the stoop of a brownstone in NYC holding an ice cream cone in each hand with no children in sight. That was 30 years ago and I can still picture it.

'I coulda bin a contenda', methinks.

Live for the moment and enjoy.....

I long ago realised that the all the 'great' pictures I have missed live on in my memory and become greater with time.

I can take them with me where ever I go .....

All the pictures I've taken I have to keep looking at to remind me what I photographed!

The picture might be missed but the moment was not .... you still had to be there.

Another story of one that got away....
I was taking photos of dragonflies on a pier when I saw, in the viewfinder, a fish jump up and grab one of the dragonflies. Unfortunately all I captured was a perfectly focused, perfectly exposed fishtail splashing back into the water....

Some good practice with this... shoot some Division 3 college basketball games. Easy to be close to the action, lots of practice just missing, a few great shots at the end of the season!

Yup. [sigh]

Some of the stories and memories here are reminding me of Will Steacy's The Photographs Not Taken, a short collection of photographs not taken by well-known photographers: http://www.thephotographsnottaken.com/

For some reason, Steacy's entry is elsewhere: http://willsteacy.blogspot.com/2008/01/photographs-not-taken.html

Some are beautiful, like Laura McPhee's: "...I console myself in two ways. First, I know that most photographs taken are a gamble at best. Second and more important: I remind myself to find the pleasure in this moment, a time in which the red sky passes to black, children create unanticipated rhymes, and the stars fall closer to earth.”

Unrelated, but there is yet another flip side: Doesn't the camera also gift? Catch something you weren't consciously trying to capture when you pressed the shutter, but makes you happy?

I'm still smiling about Bruce Stinshoff's "the indecisive moment".

We all miss so many incredible photos. The important question is: do you miss fewer than you missed yesterday, and more than you'll miss tomorrow?


Every second of every day we are
surrounded by hundreds of 'great
shots'. Missing most of them doesn't
bother me at all.

I have several missed photos burned into my memory - sometimes they're the images you recall better than the photos that you do manage to catch.

I'm reminded of Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane:

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

I can shoot, or I can watch....but I can't do both...sometimes life demands that we experience the moment, rather than capture it.

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