Thursday, September 9, 2010

In landscape photography, luck plays a bigger role than you think!

(I'm moving my newsletter to this blog. This was issue 2 of 17)

In my last blog entry, I described how important it is to practise... a lot.  But even with thousands of hours of practise and expertise, something else is usually required in order to end up with a memorable image.  That something is luck.  And as I mentioned in the first letter, this is not exactly earth-shattering news either.

However, the extent of the role that luck plays is much bigger than people, even expert photographers may admit.  Most people know the following things about landscaping luck. 

1.  Everyone knows that weather and other elements can be unpredictable. And everyone has witnessed the surprize ray of light through the clouds or a shockingly great sunset after a drizzly and gray day.  People feel lucky when they see the unexpected.

2.  Most people know that the good landscape photographers increase their luck by putting a lot of work into trying to be in the right place at the right time.  They study weather charts, tides, and seasons.  They look out the window and try to get to where the good light is.

3.  And most people have managed to bag a few lucky shots that turned out much better than they had hoped for just an hour earlier.

But luck goes much deeper than this.

When I began to photograph the landscape, I did what many people do.  I looked at the best shots I could find and I tried to imitate them.  That is a good way to learn.  But even though I might manage to get all the elements (composition, light etc.) that the original photographer captured, I could never seem live up to the original image.  But I noticed that ocasionally I could manage to capture something perhaps nearly as good, but very different.

So, early on as I was learning (admittedly, this was 2006), I managed to capture a few images that people really liked.  I made one picture of the Golden Gate Bridge that became the #1 highest rated landscape photo out of 1 million photos on the UK photo critique website  (A great place to learn by the way.)  When I took the shot and processed it, I almost didn't upload it for critique because I was not impressed with it.  But I got an overwhelming respose.  I gradually grew to like the photo a lot when I realised how many things there were to like and how rare the shot really was.  Then later I got a higher resolution camera and I took down the image from my website because I decided to 'get a newer and better' version.

I knew it might be a while before the elements converged in the right way, but I knew the exact time of day, time of year, direction of the clouds and wind, the quality of the light, the tidal level, you name it.  I knew that a few times per year, those conditions would return.  Or more accurately, I thought I knew!  So for the next 4 years, I have tried to duplicate that shot.  And guess what?  I have not even come close!  I do have a record of one of my near-death attempts on Flickr called 'Rust and Surf #2.' People like it, and it has over 140,000 views, but it is just not the same image I was going for.

I have tried, I don't know how many times to get that image and several others that I got early on, but I have failed miserably.  However, because of those attempts I now understand the role that luck plays.  (I'm sure that many experienced pros know this too.)  

The problem is that the number of 'lucky' factors that go into an image are far more than meet the eye.

1.  How many significantly different compositions can you get by moving the camera a few feet or even inches?  Maybe 1000 significantly different ones?

2.  For a given composition, how many types of different cloud formations can you have?  Perhaps 100,000 different ones?

3.  How many different types of light can you have near sunset for a given combination of the two variables above??  1,000?

4.  How many variations of atmosphere (mist, haze etc.) can you have for each of the three variables above?  100?

Okay, so far we have about 10 trillion significantly different photos.  But there is so much more.  For each of those 10 trillion different photos, each unique wave, season of the year, or shifting sand dune, etc. can also be a unique photo.  

We are talking quadrillions of different photos for any given small location in the space of a few years.... At sunset!

Fortunately, perhaps trillions of those quadrillions of combinations could be a very good image that people will love to see.  So even though that still leaves you with a 1/1000 chance of randomly getting a good shot, you can practice, plan ahead and increase the odds.

So, remember that even if you get the 1/1000 shot that people love, it will not be the same as what you may have hoped for.

So definitely plan... a lot.  And then, I think the best approach is to go out with a mind open to the nearly limitless possibilities that lie just around the next corner.  And how can you keep an open mind when you have planned and planned for that one amazing shot?  In other words, how can you make your own luck? I'll explore that in the next issue!

Here are the two shots with the original "Rust and Surf"  on top:

Not even close to the same!


Patrick Smith

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  1. Excellent piece Patrick. I've been in the same place at the same time on many an occasion and the pictures are always different. Luck plays a big role, but as they say, we make our own luck.

  2. Hey Patrick.. A big thank you for those blog posts! very interesting, it's great looking behind the scenes of your great photography!