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Friday, 04 November 2016


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This may well be the most important post I've ever read on TOP!
Thank you, Mike, for reminding us that the act of making a photograph is entirely dependent on Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment", even when it's a landscape photograph. The land form may not change quickly, but the ethereal light that attracts us to it like moths is indeed a fleeting moment in time. A moment is after all just a moment. You can't return to it later on.


"You can't step in the same river twice"....

Good heavens Mike, are you me?!?
The inward looking contemplation, the desire to write vs. the lack of inspiration, the frustration with drawing leading to taking photographs, the procrastination...c'est. moi, c'est moi, 'tis I!

I had a somewhat similar experience just yesterday, where I had thoughtfully left my camera in the kitchen, about five miles away from where I was pointing out to my daughter how the warm light of the setting sun was lighting up some autumn foliage and a set of buildings, against a low, deep blue-grey thundercloud. If I'd packed the camera...

I'm getting better though. I almost always bring one in the car, I'm more consistently bringing a spare battery in my coat pocket, I finally gave in and got multiple 64 gig cards, (thousands of shots!), and I spend a little bit of time every day watching how the light changes with the season.

I know myself. If I'm not taking pictures, it's because I've got something else eating at me. Creativity takes mental energy, and if I'm drawn down low, I'm not photographing. It's my best guide for finding out that I'm really concerned about something: stopping and observing what I don't do.

John Sypal (of Tokyo Camera Style) briefly alluded to the differnce between photographing things and photographing phenomena. I think that's exactly right. Landscapes do sit still and can be photographed later if you are taking a picture of a thing. But phenomena do not stay still! The light moves! I think of one of the illustrations you included in your article " The 50mm Lens and Metaphysical Doubt", of sheets on a washing line, lit by the sun, contrasted against the siding of a nearby house below a blue (gray!) sky with the faintest puff of clouds. You wrote something about a pedestrian scene lit with grace. That kind of phenomenon.

So many people start doing landscapes, or still lifes, or some other topic, and just want a literal depiction. Which is fine, if that brings them joy, But I think the reason we started taking pictures is because we responded to the phenomenon of light on a surface, or the curve of a line, or the massing of form.

I wish you well, and sincerely, happy snapping!

Not leaving things to the last minute is my failing a variant of leaving things till later. "Deadline" is a word that gets more and more serious as I gets older.

That is a great, great essay. Thank you.

"Now, landscapes have the reputation of being lasting—a subject that's unchanging, a subject that will wait for you to take your time."

Actually, they don't last. One of the things that landscape photographers know to be true is that the landscape is almost always a dynamic thing. Quite a lot of landscape photography is done under pressure to do it now or miss it. (Exhibit A: "Moonrise, Hernandez...")

Of course, that supports your point about now even more strongly.


Well Mike at least you had your camera with you. When I leave the house the only camera I take with me on a regular basis is my phone.

I won't take my camera(s) with me unless I'm going out to "do" photography.

What I will do now, after reading your post, is take one of my "real" cameras with me everyday.

And hopefully stop if I see something worthwhile.

I prefer the term 'avoid' rather than 'procrastinate'.

Avoid implies an active choice made not to do something, rather than merely putting it off :)

Similar story...

A few weeks ago, I drove to a favorite location for some fall foliage and streamside shots. After an hour or so I was satisfied and returned to the car and drove away. A short distance from the parking lot I saw an incredible scene but kept driving. After all, I had just finished a photo shoot.

About 30 seconds later I hit the brakes, turned around, and drove back. I only had a minute or two before the light was gone but I got the shot! And it was better—much better— than what I had spent hours capturing earlier.

And it had nothing to do with fall foliage and streamside settings.

There are 2 ways to indulge in photographic procrastination:

Have a bad case of Shingles like I have now :-) or,

Don't carry a camera all the time!

BUT, when I go on a "Photo Trip", I am all Jay Maisel. Stop, stop, stop - shoot, shoot, shoot. My photo trips last a week or more or are confined to a nearby weekend camp, where photography shares equal time with just having a good time.

Now in the local area where I live, within a 25 mile radius, there is a lifetime of photographic opportunity. Here, I do take my chances and go out without a camera just to checkout potential opportunities. I can do that better without the temptation in my hand or on my tripod. Once I have done this sort of ground work, I wait for the right light and weather and go for the shot.

Michael Reichmann's (RIP) hour long LuLa video interview with Jay in Jay's (72 room!) building in New York is fun viewing.

I have had something similar happen to me, one time not too long ago while travelling along a busy four lane highway in southern B.C. early in the morning I zoomed past a small lake beside the highway, the highway was in a low lying section of the valley, where the fog was just lifting. The lake water was perfectly still, glass like, and the rising sun was breaking through the fog creating a dappled effect on the rolling hills that surrounded the lake.

There was one small entrance way to a pull off beside the lake, but by the time I saw it was too late ( at 100 km/h ) and by the time I saw a suitable and safe place to turn around the light had already changed and the picture was gone or at least the one that I had envisioned was gone, but the picture will always remain in my mind's eye, sometimes roadside photography can be very challenging!

I used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect. :)

Wise reminder to us all, Mike...

Patti Smith can write about nothing, the excellent M Train. Recommended.

Yesterday, I was driving down the George Washington Parkway, surrounded by bright leaves, crisp sky, and precious little traffic, and thought "if I could record this beautiful fall drive..."

No single photo could do it justice. Even a 20-minute video wouldn't capture the focused-moments of stone bridges and unobtrusively cute exit signs. Memory is all I have for things like that, and I've yet to take a photograph that contains all that I remember. Just sketches...

"When you see it, shoot it. Get the moment. Shoot it now."

Amen to that! I experienced a dose of this myself very recently during a trip to NY, a place where I had often missed opportunities for a potpourri of reasons. But this time was different. This time I had the time and a good tool. And I managed to bag lots of wonderful moments. (You can see a few just watching the first few images on my web site's main page slide show. )

To borrow a popular security slogan, if you SEE something SHOOT something! NOW.

[Ken, it's time for a book. I vote for the title "Ken Tanaka's Chicago," 50 pictures more or less, one to a page, 10x13" or thereabouts, not too thick, and throw some money at it to get great paper and great repro. Not the pictures that show the city best, just the pictures that show you out observing with your camera the best. Really, I'm serious, it's time. --Mike]

That's why I like to shoot on dull, rainy days. The light does not change much over time. I have, for my Pen F kit, an old 50~90 f3.5 zoom. It is large and heavy and so is not included in a walk around vest. However sometimes I just cannot stand where I would need to in order to frame what I want. (With 35mm half frame you try not to shoot loose and crop later, for obvious reasons.) So, sometimes I just have to return to the car to fetch it and the tripod or, even come back another dull day to get the shot I envisioned. Oh yes, I've returned on sunny days also, it's the same....but different.

"Never go back. Shoot it now. When you go back, it will always be different."

How true this is.

I have often gone back to a spot to "reshoot" a scene perhaps with more suitable gear and things are never the same and the trip back proves to be a waste of time.

Perhaps because some places have a photographic magic that vanishes on a second visit.

This should be the called Maisel's law of photography as it is very similar to the more famous Murphy's law.

Been there. (haven't)Done that (yet).

Yes, a great essay, Mike!

To that list of ephemerals such as light, atmosphere, storm clouds, time of day, I would add the fleeting nature of one's own experience. It has happened more than once while out and about, that I have stopped and kicked myself for not having brought a camera with me, and my wife has attempted to console me by saying that I could come back later, tomorrow, etc., with my camera. But even faced with a subject that might be no way changed in the interim, the prospect of trying to re-create that instant would be so much a rote exercise. You only get one initial reaction, and sometimes it's to reach for a camera. For me, once that moment has passed, my motivation is GONE.

Thanks for this essay, it has renewed my flagging commitment to not only carry my camera, buy maybe actually stop the car once in a while. (And I must get up off my procrastinating seat and become a TOP patron!)

If you had photographed the Portugese family with a film camera, maybe- just maybe- the negative would remain extant until printing. I do like the photo. I think editing digital photos (i.e. delete) should wait until the whole load in transferred to a hard drive somewhere. But we can always to do that tomorrow.

Jay Maisel is right abut a lot of things, and says deceptively simple things that if you put them to practice, will make you a better photographer. The Shoot it now, Never go back, because it will always be different" is certainly true. But I think the more important part is the 'Shoot it now' ( if you see a good picture) (and then,be ready to shoot it)
He also says he never shot a good picture that he wasn't terrified of losing..... Meaning pictures are ephemeral, he sees one unfolding and tries to catch it before it's gone.
I agree with the "Never go back " for the Same Picture,because it won't be there....but a different one may. Especially with landscapes there are places I go back to again and again. They ARE always different , sometimes better, sometimes worse. Going back can allow a place to reveal itself over time, in all it's aspects. Jay really does carry a camera everywhere -even around the same neighborhood every day--and takes pains not to be looking for a specific thing, but rather be open to what he finds --or what finds him.
That to me is the real treasure of his advice. A better deeper way of saying f/8 and Be there. His process of carrying a camera, (so you can shoot it now) and being truly open withot preconceived notions of what kind of picture you want to make, is transformative.
It takes a while to learn to carry a camera, while not looking for pictures as much as finding them. One of those subtle differences that can mean the world.
We all do the things you describe above, it's human nature. The purpose of our trip is for something else--it's in our head, the pictures interrupt the linear thinking. Learning that it is an opportunity to be savored rather than an interruption takes a change in mindset. But one that can be very satisfying.
Thanks for the post.


Today I drove around town seeing one scene after the other. Th sun is out, the leaves have finally turned and everything looked majestic in the early morning light.

But I could only enjoy it all in the moment. These old country roads are narrow with ditches on either side and numerous signs -- "No stoppping out standing". There are no side streets to park and walk back. There are no nearby parks to pull onto and walk back.

The scenery just has to be enjoyed for what it was. In the moment.

Great points, and I've done it too. This would also mean that you can return to a favorite location and get a different, slightly different anyway, photo each time.

Regarding the procrastination thing, watch this if you haven't seen it, a Ted talk, really good. Might not help you stop, but might give you some insight and realize you aren't the only one -


Ah! A kindred soul.

When I am without camera, or time to stop, I just look at the scene, and do a mental "click."

Sort of satisfies the need, if you know what I mean.

Nah. You'd have another shot of leaves and clouds now. It'd all fine as it is.

"Whatever your aim, fight the impulse to procrastinate. When you see it, shoot it. Get the moment. Shoot it now."

Excellent advice Mike and we all should heed it, but we should also be aware that missed opportunities will always be recalled as perfect opportunities as we have only our less than perfect memories to rely on and as humans we tend to exaggerate that which we can't have,the angler always feels the one that got away would have been the prize catch of the day.

I keep meaning to stop procrastinating.....

Not only did Ansel make prints of 'Moonrise' over several decades, he changed his interpretation of the image dramatically over that period, as evidenced by this 34 year sequence....


So, he got the shot....but not an example where he 'visualized' the print in its final form(s).

On the other hand....
I've been lucky enough to have had many visits to the Tetons and have shot the the Morman Barn many time but was never satisfied as they were very much 'tripod' holes. Until several years ago when there was a raging forest fire many miles to the east and fair weather to the west. So pre dawn up and at it.

Was so rewarded in near freezing weather. Sun rise light shining through the smoke painted the Tetons in the best red light ever. Great to have been there. The other years were a great rehearsal for the main event.

Afew years ago, the Bellagio in Vegas had an exhibition of Adams photos. Included were 4 different prints of "Moonrise" with vastly different looks. I tell that story often to illustrate that what many do in Photoshop today has a precedent.

SO what you're saying is that I should be cleaning the house instead of reading this? And the same thing yesterday?

Nah! I'll get to it later.


I am lucky, because thanks to the nature of my preferred genre of photography -- long-exposure, nighttime photography, where the subjects are usually illuminated by streetlights -- I frequently can come back later and get my shot. Unless a bulb burns out or a car accident takes out the light pole, the scenes I photograph very rarely change from night-to-night.

There are exceptions, however, as I was reminded late last night, when I found a 40-cubic-yard dumpster sitting in the driveway of a house I wanted to photograph, but had skipped the night before, because I was tired....

I am reminded of two things, DeWitt Jones wrote in an article many years ago that sometimes you just need to take the photograph with your mind. The ephemeral nature of light came always be captured but we not always be able to share. This is OK.

Secondly, I was told that during the course of my wedding (oh how I wished I could have done the photography) I should just stand back from time to time, either alone or with my wife, and take a mental picture , consciously record the scene in my memory, for instantaneous playback whenever I wanted. Those "images" persist with me till today.


Your story is probably the biggest reason so many people get into landscape photography. We hopefully all experience that incredible moment when nature teaches us to be grateful, and from there inspiration unfolds.

It will indeed always be different. But I think a good exercise to go back, even if one got the shot, to observe how the place and situation changes. For landscapes it can be quite instructive.

This does bring to my mind the opposite problem that sometimes happens to me, namely getting too caught up with a subject, losing the ability to think clearly about the resulting photographs and not making enough progress towards new subjects before time runs out. At home I will look at the photos and conclude I should have moved on much earlier. I guess it would best be described as over-enthusiasm.

This sort of reminded me of the Ted Talk by Tim Urban around procrastination...thought you might get a kick out it:

I put off reading this column for as long as I could Mike - the first time I've ever put off reading one of your articles! And I've put off reading all the comments. But now, finally, I'm writing to say you nailed it. Ouch.

Shoot now. I like it. As I look back on my work over the years the most gratifying aspect of my photographic efforts are the subjects I shot that no longer exist and are impossible to duplicate now.

Grand old barns that tumbled under the final snow load. That old Ford in the field that was not there the next time I drove by. Owning these shots make my efforts seem worth while.

Naturally, that's good advice. Even if it ain't perfect take it anyway as you may never get another chance.

However, I find that I often go back to a spot to try to get a better photo than I saw during the first visit. Sometimes I go back again and again and takes dozens or more photos until everything comes together and I get something that I think is the best I am going to do. Even then I will occasionally go back in search of something even better.

Often I know I just missed the best light, or the scene does not develop the way I want. And this time of year at Tokyo's latitude, the light changes very, very quickly---the shadows get longer, their angle chances, the area the light hits changes by the second almost. So I'll take a shot when I see it, and then hang around for something better or different. I'll often even return the next day or over successive days or even the next year at the roughly (or even exactly) the same time to see what I can improve. It is often well worth the effort.

I had a moonrise experience once. In Fresno:


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.

Big thanks to the folks who mentioned the Tim Urban Ted talk. I thought it was terrific and, hopefully, I can learn from it -maybe tomorrow.

I have kicked myself for this tendency all my life, but I learned to live with it.

I tend to procrastinate because I am normally busy. I hate not finishing the job at hand, so my focus is seldom drawn away from it. Multi-tasking has never been my strong point, but I don't consider this a bad thing.

With photography, there are always opportunities, but what makes a good view and a good image are not always the same. I have wasted my time trying to capture some spectacular scenes, instead of enjoying them. Sometimes it is better to leave the camera in the bag and just enjoy the experience.

There are already millions of spectacular scenic images on Flickr.

When I allocate time to focus on photography, I tend to do so on foot. I pick a location, park the car and walk around looking for what makes a good image. These are seldom obvious things. In fact, most often they are coincidental juxtapositions that mostly go unnoticed. Sometimes one has to wait for them in a suitable spot, hoping they will happen. It's a bit like fishing.

Sometimes you get a bite.

Often you don't, but half the fun is exploration. If I don't find a good image, I often do find some interesting places that I didn't know about.

...When you see it, shoot it. Get the moment. Shoot it now...

And it happened to me just yesterday. I was driving on the Interstate through the fog and, suddenly, just enough sunlight filtered through to create a "fogbow." I exited the highway, stopped, and got the shot. Within minutes the light had changed again and the fogbow was gone—and I was back on the road.


Well, here is an interesting (to me, at least contrast) -- I failed to take a photo that I should not have taken in the first place.

Today is Marathon Day in NYC and my annual tradition is to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge from the lower East Side of Manhattan to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Along the way, I photograph the bridge itself. It does not compare to the Brooklyn Bridge but it does have a few of its own charms.

Anyway, the pedestrian walkway drops down to Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, along the Marathon route. I always walk south on Bedford out of Williamsburg and into the Fort Greene/Bedford-Stuyvesant area. This is a neighborhood populated by Hasidic Jews, very orthodox, and a very insular community.

While I do not take photographs of the residents -- they do not like or appreciate it and I do respect their wishes in this regard -- I do like to look at the faces of the residents to try to figure out what they are thinking about all the commotion. On this one day a year, a very straitlaced community is invaded by scantily clad men and women running up one of the main streets in the area.

So, with my camera tucked away I am walking down Bedford Avenue. In the first floor window of a brownstone were three little Hasidic girls watching the runners with intense concentration, their expressions identically ones of fascination, confusion, and amusement.

It was a great photo -- actually it would have been a great photo. But I would have been in a lot of trouble had I stopped and taken it. I will never have another chance to take that photo -- and I never had the opportunity to take it in the first place.

My first time in Tokyo (back in my Leica M-6 days) I went to the Meiji shrine and realized there was a traditional wedding in progress. I immediately sprung to "decisive moment" mode and got several pictures that I was very happy with.
But then, in all my subsequent trips to Tokyo over the years, whenever I went back to Meiji shrine, there was always a wedding going on! I learned to think, "ah, it's alright, I'll get it next time". Too lazy to pull out whatever digicam I was carrying, and certain that these ceremonies will always be going on and looking very similar, I chose to postpone photography.
I guess this is also a lesson about being a wide-eyed first-time tourist. A lesson I wouldn't have learned if I had procrastinated on that very first time around :)

Sign me up for a preorder of Ken Tanaka's Chicago !

Re: procrastinating ... I figure I'll take the time to take all those pictures I don't take the time to take now (parse THAT one, Peter Piper !) after my daughter goes off to college.

That's the plan and I'm sticking to it (at least 'til she goes off to college).

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.

Crowding woods!

Mike, that's a wonderful description, but I must ask. Were you born in the 19th century?

And if you were not, you do your Dartmouth education proud.

While it's true that procrastination is a terrible habit when shooting, more procrastination in the process of reviewing and editing shots would most likely result in better photos. I'd revise the statement to "Shoot it now! But don't look at the shot until you are different."

Great and useful to me (hopefully) TED talk, thanks for the link

My take on the frustrations of a traveling landscape photographer on too perfect roads in Europe:

When the view is right, the light is not.
When the light is right, the view is not.
And when the view and the light are right, there is no place to park the car.

That may be different on rural roads in upstate Näew York

I saw a Moonrise print in a Santa Fe gallery - admittedly in 2007 - with a $1 million price tag.

Photography IS procrastination. Shoot it now, look at it later.

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