Serendipity

March 28, 2004 · 1 comment

8-602-3  stock photo of Laos, Luang Prabang, Fisherman on the Mekong River

Wow that was lucky! That’s amazing! How did you manage to get that? How many of us have heard comments like this when showing photographs from a recent trip?

While I was photographing a Buddhist temple on the banks of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos, the bright tropical light dipped behind the trees lining the river. Quickly I gathered my tripod and headed across to the earthen riverbank. Scrambling down the path to the waters edge I saw a dozen children splashing and playing in the water. Quickly setting up my 35-70mm zoom lens I began shooting their bronze bodies and beguiling grins. Gradually the sky began to turn a magnificent purple and magenta. A fisherman drifted into view, and then stood on one leg as he cast his net into the water. The moment was magical. The gesture perfect.

It wasn’t by accident that I went to the river at that time just before sunset. Earlier in the day I had walked all along the riverbank scouting various vantage points and imagining them under differing lighting conditions. Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos, rests on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong River and the smaller Nam Khan and so the riverbank struck me as a likely place for a telling shot of this town whose life so much revolves around water. I realized that the sun would set behind the upstream mountains, lighting the beach with a low transverse light I made a mental note to come back round about sunset. I didn’t anticipate the boys bathing but knew that townsfolk gathered by the riverside. Something was likely to be happening. The fisherman was a bonus which came because I was paying attention and noticed when he poled his way into my field of vision. Then I just waited for the right moment.

“Luck favors the well prepared” is a saying I heard early on in photography. A recent fortune cookie from a local printing company told me the same: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

So if you want to be lucky on your photographic journeys, if you want to be there poised and ready with your camera just as the magnificent rainbow appears, what can you do to improve your luck? Here are six suggestions that you can practice on your next photographic outing.

1. WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO TAKE THIS PHOTO?

A successful photograph shows its subject in a unique way, with the best possible lighting and composition. Creating a photograph is a process. Seeing something that excites your interest is just the first step. Next you have to show it as well as you can. Don’t assume that you have arrived at the best possible time. You probably haven’t. It might be midday, with harsh, strong unflattering light, or stormy – or crowded – or midwinter.

Think about light would best illumine your subject. Note the direction of movement of the sun. Where will it be in an hour or three hours? Where will the shadows be? Would the subject look best in a cool shade or with strong sidelit shadows? Make plans to come back. With a little practice you can visualize the scene at any time in the day.

5-469-13  stock photo of South Africa, Cape Town, Table Mountain and city at dawn from Lions Head

Dawn is my favorite time for photographing. When in Cape Town on assignment for an airline magazine I had been trying to get an overview of the South African city. The view of Table Mountain is spectacular, but by getting up at 5am and setting up my tripod on the windy crest of Lion’s head just as the first rays turned the sky orange I got a story opener which captured the spirit of the whole city.

In Cochin South India I settled on dusk. At the entrance to the harbor in this old Spice Coast town, fishermen lower large counterbalanced Chinese fishing nets into the current as they have for centuries. After several trips to the waterside in the afternoon (too blue) and morning (too foggy) I still didn’t have a shot I liked. One night I began shooting just as the sun set and the sky darkened. Within a half hour there came a stunning magenta against which the nets were silhouetted.

7-104-17  stock photo of India, Cochin, Chinese fishing nets at dusk

2. ANTICIPATE WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN

When looking at a prospective photograph it also helps to ask yourself what is happening, and more importantly what is going to happen. Is that lady cross the square going to pass directly in front of that open doorway? Are those birds going to rise suddenly rise and fly off. Is that surfboarder going to be silhouetted against the sun. By practicing anticipating as a scene unfolds you can develop a sense of the moment

One of my favorite techniques is to find a background that is particularly appealing, such as a  brightly decorated mural on a wall in a small Mexican village, and then station myself across the street, nestled comfortably and unobtrusively in a doorway. I frame my photograph, select the exposure and shutter speed (1/125 or 1/250 to catch people moving transversely), and then wait for the right person to walk into the frame.

If you do this, think about exactly where in the frame you’d like them to be, and what they might look like (e.g. the man in a sombrero.) Then wait, and when they show up, press the shutter.

4-263-29  stock photo of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, Man on street outside El Pegaso restaurant

The same notion applies to wildlife photography. Herds of deer or elephants, flocks of birds, pods of whales are in constant motion. By being particularly patient and waiting for them to organize themselves into a pleasing pattern, perhaps visually distinct from a plain background, you’ll get a markedly better and more readable image

A variation of the “Anticipate” rule is to preselect your lens and preset your exposure when you are walking about town, so that you are ready if something happens. I never use lens caps, keep film in the camera and the shutter cocked (automatic film advance helps a lot here). Even though I prefer to shoot on a manual “M” setting I will set the Nikon on “A” aperture priority to better be able to catch the sudden shot.

3. FOLLOW YOUR HUNCHES

Exploration is at the heart of travel photography and I love to explore. Every once in a while I get a mad urge to go off and clamber up a hillside or wander down an unassuming alleyway for no particular reason. I have come to trust such leadings and they have led to some remarkable photographs.

4-466-34  stock photo of Pakistan, Lahore, Early morning meditation, Badshahi Mosque

One morning in Lahore, Pakistan after a long and tiring journey I felt driven to get up at dawn and make my way to the center of town to the Badshahi Mosque. The sky was a dreary hazy pink and I desultorily photographed the minarets and a few men entering for the morning prayers. For some reason I stayed in the middle of the vast courtyard, away from the activity in the main hall, and set up with my 80-200mm zoom on my tripod. As  I focused in on a scalloped alcove in the wall, a single figure walked in and stood looking out meditatively. The blue light echoed of his robes and I suddenly saw my photograph.

4. LEARN HOW TO MAKE U-TURNS

It is said the shots photographers remember most are the ones they pass by. The haunting loss of “what might have been” is difficult to get over. I still remember that glorious light on the oaks on the golden hillside in California’s Central Valley the one time I didn’t stop!

Whenever you are tempted to drive on by after seeing a scene that catches your interest, don’t. Make that U-turn, go back and shoot it. You simply won’t get another chance. My wife is fully inured to this by now and laughs about it. And if it’s a long stop I can take her out to dinner afterwards!

4-134-11  stock photo of China, Gansu Province, Shepherd and sheep

On a photo workshop across the Silk Road in western China I was hurrying along a poplar-lined road south of Lanzhou to catch a boat on the Yellow River. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw  a shepherd walking slowly along the side of the road. I quickly told the driver to stop and drive back to a point in front of the shepherd. Setting up my tripod at ground level with my 80-200 lens on autofocus I shot a full roll of film as he approached.

Be willing to interrupt your plans when the moment arrives. Act quickly to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

5. ASK

Often when you first see a scene there may be a glimmer of an idea in the back of your mind, “what if…” “What if I could photograph from the rooftop? What if the camelherder would stand beside the camel?”

Many times I have seen photographers reluctant to follow up on their ideas, and never get the shot. Don’t be bashful. Ask. Be polite and smile. And ask. The worst that can happen is that someone says no, and you are no worse off. You may be astonished how often the answer yes.

8-600-1  stock photo of Laos, Vientiane Province, Buddhist Monk

In the small town of Phon Song in Laos I had made three visits to a small wat on the main road to photograph some elaborate painted murals. Each time I had seen in the distance the fleeting image of an saffron-robed old monk, slender, quiet and silent. On the last day I finally asked the abbot, using sign language and my phrase book, if I could take a portrait of the old monk.  I was sure he’d decline. To my surprise he smiled and walked over to the residence. The old man came out and stood smiling, eyes lowered, for two minutes as I respectfully took several wonderful portraits. Afterwards I thanked him with the traditional greeting palms pressed together, glad that I had asked.

Other marvelous surprises have come when I have asked to enter a church, to see a back courtyard with spices or to frame a close-up of a fisherman’s hands.

One the rare occasions when the answer is “no” remember to be gracious, smile, thank the person and move on.

6. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

2-236-11  stock photo of California, Marin County, San Francisco and hills from Mount Tamalpais

One morning near my home in the San Francisco Bay area I woke before dawn to photograph the sunrise from nearby Mount Diablo. As soon as I got onto the freeway I found that the entire East Bay was socked in with a low-lying ground fog. This was not a great “sunrise” day, so I drove on mulling over possible “fog” landscapes. At a Regional Park near the mountain I found a green grassy meadow, with gray, leafless California oaks glowing in the whitening mist.  The scene was very evocative and I was pleased. Just as I had finished shooting a series of horizontals and verticals, with different compositions, a single deer walked nonchalantly into the frame, positioned herself in exactly the right place, stopped and looked directly at me. Totally unexpected the added element “made the shot.”

2-24-36  stock photo of Ecuador, Sunset on Chimborazo

On another shoot in Ecuador I had carefully set up tripod and 80-200mm Nikkor lens to photograph a glacier at the base of Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak. In the foreground was a climbers’ hut. The warm light in the window contrasted wonderfully with the misty cold on the icefield and I shot many variations of the scene. Suddenly a friend shouted, “Look, over there!” Swiveling my camera 180 degrees on my tripod I saw the clouds part and a golden orange light shine through on the black clouds below. Just one frame was all I got. As quickly as it came, the scene vanished.

For many photographers such events are not just “accidents.” Carl Jung used the term synchronicity to describe the uncanny almost miraculous confluence of events which sometimes happens to one. In my experience, when I am out at dawn photographing or have taken the trouble to get myself to an unusual place, the unexpected is to be expected. Like the movie The Field of Dreams if you go there it will happen!

Don’t believe this as if it were magic. But do try some of these simple techniques. When you come home and show your images, someone will say to you, “Wow that was a lucky shot. How did you get that,” You can just smile and say “Thank you!”

###

This story was originally published in Outdoor and Nature Photographer.

Text and photos © David Sanger. Click on images for licensing or prints.

  • Robin Moore

    Dear David, I wonder if I would be able to use the photo of the old monk for my latest blog at http://www.buddhistteachings.org. I would cite you of course. Many thanks, Robin (suriyo@gmail.com). 

Previous post:

Next post: