Saturday, May 17, 2008

Capturing 'once in a lifetime' photographs again and again. What does it take?

Everyone has to find their own way of seeing the world. I photographed this youngster at a Brass Band festival in Delph, a small village in England.

How do photographers get those great shots? Most writers focus on the obvious answers like photographic technique – composition, lighting and enhancing images in the digital darkroom. Obviously these are important but there's something perhaps even more important that barely gets a mention.

So let me a share a few 'secrets' about getting 'once in a lifetime' images again and again. It all comes down to luck. You were there and everything fell into place perfectly, just at that moment just as you pushed the shutter button. Look at many of the astounding photographs of our time and what do you think? Yes, that photographer was darn lucky to be there at that moment.

Why are some photographers luckier than others? Well there may be an element of pure chance but on the other hand there are several strategies you can use to improve your luck. As Samuel Goldwyn said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

It takes determination, perseverance and effort to make good images. You need to prepare your mind as well as your camera bag. Here are the strategies I use when preparing for an editorial assignment. The principles can be applied to any photographic mission.

The first thing I do is work out what the story is really about. I try to nail down the essence. Then I develop several themes that will help me tell the story visually. Depending on the type of story and depth of coverage there may be up to 15 themes. The next step is to think of picture ideas that fit under each theme. Breaking everything down like this gives you a systematic, logical and targeted approach.

Research is critically important. I try to find out exactly what I am getting into. Having an idea of what other photographers have done provides a benchmark. I know you have to do better. Editors don't want to see me producing the same image as another photographer did. They want to see something unusual that excites them. I aim to take a shot that nobody else has done before.

So with the main themes in place and loads of 'knock em dead' picture ideas and research done I move onto the next stage, the logistics of ensuring that I am in the right place, at the right time with the right equipment, the right people and environmental conditions. Did I mention determination, perseverance and effort? You need a hell of a lot of it to get things done. Actually taking the photographs is often the easiest part of the assignment!

Once I do get to the photography I am constantly looking for ways to make the images stronger, more exciting, interesting and beautiful, while never losing site of the theme of the shoot and the essence of the story. I am 100% focused on making the best image possible. All that technical stuff is a reflex and happens unconsciously. Probably the biggest challenge photography enthusiasts face is to move past thinking about their equipment and the act of taking pictures, and to instead direct their full attention to how best to use a photographic opportunity to communicate with the audience.

After the shoot I reflect on the images I've taken and how they can be improved further. Often the key to getting those 'once in a lifetime' shots is to use the knowledge you gained the first time shoot and go back and do it all again, if you have the opportunity. And then go back again. And again. Always refining and pushing it further. Never settle for second best.

And once you've got the shots, lavish them with tender loving care. Make every pixel count toward the final impact. That's how you get lucky in photography. Making your own luck is hard work. The ability to get things done and determination to succeed are as important as a 'good eye' and technical ability.

If you find this article interesting and helpful please let me know. Leave a comment or send me an email via the contact form on my website. I would also be delighted to discuss assignments with picture editors and art directors.

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