The choice, judgment, or control of when something should be done
– Google Search Dictionary
Early morning, the sun is not even up, but the alarm on the hotel’s nightstand tries to gently awaken me with soothing nature sounds. It fails to do so as I roll over and hastily tap the snooze button. I know, though, that in nine minutes it will go through the same routine, until I either shut it off completely or get up.
I reluctantly choose the latter and roll my aching body off of the creaking mattress. I know the hot shower that awaits will help wash away the last three days of scouting, shooting, and processing. As the water hits my face, a small voice in my head motivates me and tells me this is going to be a great day for photography. I trick myself, though, into saying this every morning when I am away from home doing nature photography.
Why do we as Photographers do this?
Simple, to get the shot, but there may be more to it. Recently after skimming through an article in Outdoor Photographer, the following sentence seemed to leap off the page:
Eighty percent of nature photography is being in the right place at the right time.
– Christopher Robinson
This statement seems so obvious at first and one that we as amateur photographers can overlook as a simplistic statement, but timing can be the catapult to bring your photography to a new level.
The 3-Point Shooter
When thinking about the importance of timing it helps to picture a 3-Point shooter in basketball.
A skilled 3-Point shooter like the NBA’s all-time 3-point leader Ray Allen is unlike any other player on the court. His efforts are rewarded with the most points allowed during a normal shot.
Ray’s timing must be impeccable. Here are some things that must occur while he is attempting a 3-pointer:
- He must be aware of where the 3-point line is at all times.
- He must be aware of his environment and what may impede his 3-point attempt
- He has to have practiced beforehand to have the basics so ingrained that he is not fumbling around when the time comes.
- When he finally does decide to release there must be a certain arc and spin on the ball to maximize scoring potential.
Yeah, but WHAT THE HECK does this have to do with Photography?
In the diagram below, there are three-type of shooters on the court, the 3-pointer, 2-pointer, and half-court. Let’s look at each one closer.
The Half-Court Photo Shooter
A skilled basketball player only has a 25% chance of making the half-court shot. The odds are not in their favor.
This is what can happen when we as photographers go out at a random time to photograph a great area. We are drastically cutting our odds of “scoring” that great photo.
For Sunrise Photographers: Arriving an hour after the sun has risen and missing golden hour, when the light is the warmest of the day. Although we may get an acceptable shot, we have greatly reduced our odds of getting that Great shot.
For Waterfall Chasers: Arriving when the sunlight is poking through the trees or during a completely sunny day. This one is a long shot and one where the odds may be below 25%. The water becomes harsh and is hard to slow down to get that silky effect that is pleasing to the eye.
Landscape Photographers: Arriving at that great location and being there in the wrong season. This has happened to me numerous times in the fall when on the ridges everything is good, but when you get into a valley the leaves are past peak.
The 2-Point Photo Shooter
Some may think a 2-point shooter is not a bad thing, but it is when you are trying to be a 3-point shooter.
As a 2-point shooter you still come away with good shots and sometimes you get all the excitement and energy that comes from making an occasional slam-dunk, but for the most part as a 3-point shooter your focus and energy is just a little off when you step beyond the 3-point line.
For Sunset Photographers: Leaving right after the sun goes down and not shooting between sunset and twilight, which normally lasts 20-30 minutes. The light changes so rapidly during this time, that it could be mere seconds between a Good vs. Great shot.
For Waterfall Chasers: Arriving right after a heavy rain when the water flow is at its highest. The reason this might be a 2-point shoot vs a 3-pointer is that when a waterfall or even a river or stream is at flood levels, is that there will be a lot of soil run-off that will discolor the water. Also, with a high flow you might have to deal with water droplets being blown towards your lens. Although your photos may be Very Good, they may lack that Great factor.
For the Landscape Photographer: Arriving at the right location and being there in the right season, but shooting an iconic scene just like the thousands of other photographers before you. All of us as landscape photographers are guilty of this and there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but a Great photo of a scene that everyone has seen photos of time and time again, becomes just a Good photo, because of the lack of originality. This is like getting up to the 3-point line making a perfect shot, but realizing that your foot was just on the line when you released the ball.
The 3-Point Photo Shooter
This is the place you want to be as a photographer at the apex of your game.
- You have done your homework.
- You know what season you what to photograph in.
- You know when and where the best lighting will take place
- You have researched the area on the internet.
- You have scouted the area beforehand locating several different angles that might produce good photos.
- You have the basics of photography mastered and can work on the fly to follow or break them.
- You are in tune with your camera, knowing how to adjust controls like second-nature.
- You are prepared to change your game at a moments notice to take advantage of unknown conditions to maximize your chances.
Basically you have upped your game and have statistically improved your odds of photographing that great shot, but do not let all this go to your head, because even
Ray Allen the NBA’s all-time 3-point shooter only makes the basket 40% of the time.
This may be the GREATEST lesson of all. Even though we can prepare and train ourselves to be ready for those once-in-a-lifetime moments, we can still come away empty-handed.
This, though, can be the allure and challenge of photography that keeps us striving and coming back for another chance at the Great shot. This game allows us to learn from our mistakes and question ourselves on what we could have done better, and in the process take our photos from Good to Great.
Examples of Timing
The 3-pointer is the photo that captures the moment at its peak. The sun was clearing the hills behind me and adding that extra pinkish glow that separated the fog from the thin layer of clouds in the sky. The sun barely touched the ridge in the foreground making the fall color glow. Is the photo perfect? No, I would have liked the trees in the background to pop with the new light, but overall the timing was good enough to capture a beautiful moment in nature.
Is timing the only difference between Good and Great? No, but it is a key component that every photographer must keep in the back of the mind. Just showing up is a great start, but maximize your field goal average by using the power of TIMING.