“One of the things that I most believe in is the ‘compose and wait’ philosophy of photography. It’s a very satisfying, almost spiritual way to photograph. You have picked your place, and you wait for the moment to come to you.” – Sam Abell, National Geographic staff photographer
Planning is key to making several of my best photographs. Scouting the location ahead of time is crucial. I need to evaluate the scene to maximize the impact of the final image. The orientation of a subject in relation to the best light is vital. But there are usually several factors beyond one’s control. Some good, some not.
I often use metaphors to explain my ideas. Fishing and baseball both fit most photographic situations. We need to practice, prepare, play the game, and then reap the results of fate, luck, and maybe a spiritual blessing.
Baseball practice prepares the mind and motor skills for the big game. In my school days, we would practice everyday.. catching grounders.. fielding line drives.. getting under pop ups.. throwing to first.. relays.. double-plays.. and of course, batting practice.
Here come the metaphors. In batting practice, you stand at the plate or inside the batting cage, and swing at the pitch. You adjust, get ready, and try again. You swing, and swing again, and swing about thirty more times. Sometimes you’re under the ball, and you get a pop up, an easy out for the other team. Other times, you’re over the ball, and chop a grounder into the infield that can also lead to an easy out.
The goal is to hit that sweet spot in the meat of the bat, at just the right moment, and pierce a line drive that screams between fielders, too fast to catch, and a sure hit. And once in a while you hit a homer. But the whole idea is to keep swinging, evaluating your results, and swinging again. Photography requires the same effort. Practice makes perfect, the baseball coach would yell at us.
Now fishing is another metaphor and involves patience and risk. You get up early, get ready, find your spot, throw out your line, and wait. Patience is key. And being humble, or getting “humblized” as my brother sometimes says, comes with the territory. You can have the right bait, have picked the best spot, and still catch nothing worthwhile, basically getting skunked.
So, in baseball, practice makes perfect, and with fishing, well, there’s always another day if it doesn’t work out. The exact same is true with photography in my experience. You plan, you show up, you wait, and the light does as it will.
The photo above shows Lookout Studio on the South Rim of Grand Canyon. I have made photos of this building over the 25 years I have continually visited the Canyon. Just not usually at sunrise when I’m stationed at some vista point with the river far below. This day was different. I had been assigned by an editor to get an image of this historic building designed by architect Mary Jane Colter, and constructed by the Santa Fe Railway in 1914.
Preparation told me that sunrise would cast the best light on the pale limestone of the building. Enter the elements of fate, luck, and spiritual intervention. Natural light can bend, diffuse, bounce, pierce, play hide-n-seek, or just plain disappoint. On this particular morning the photo gods gave me a gift of floating, bright but diffused golden, beautiful, spiritual light.
The photo made the cover of the magazine that had requested the image. I was delighted. And now, once again, it finds a lovely home. It appears in a new book about the Grand Canyon: “Over the Edge: Fred Harvey at the Grand Canyon and in the Great Southwest” by Kathleen Howard and Diana Pardue. If you have a Grand Canyon library already started, or a curiosity about Canyon history in the past century, get this book… its a gem!