U-Turns

I heard an illustrative measurement about what it takes to be a great photographer today. U-turns. How many U-turns someones makes will tell you how great a photographer they are. If you’ve ever seen a great shot as you’ve driven past, you’ll understand.

I’ve got a shot I’ve always wanted to take. I’ve seen it twice now, once today, with a camera in the car but not stopped. The first time I saw it was earlier this fall, on the side of Interstate 93. There was a dead moose laying on the side of the road. It was early, and late fall, so the light was pale blue, not warm. After I shot passed on my way south I realized the photo I wanted: from on the ground, laying next to the moose, with his (or her, I didn’t notice) body filling most the frame, but with cars zooming past in the background.

Yesterday, on my way to a meeting, on U.S. Route 3, I saw another moose. I had my Lumix next to me on the seat, but I was running late and in professional clothes that would have shown I had been laying in the dirt. This time I knew what I wanted, and I thought of it first, but again I didn’t stop to make it happen.

I didn’t make the U-turn. Shots don’t wait around for photographers to get them. They disappear. The moose gets cleaned up, the ball flies through the net, the soldier’s body hits the ground. And it is up to the photographer to be there, and to be ready.

The classic phrase is the decisive moment. Ever try to capture that? Ever try to be in the right place at the right time, just when the action happens? I’m not talking about landscapes, which are challenging enough by themselves. I mean action, when people are there and doing something. Those moments are hell to capture, but that’s what a great photographer does.

I’m not a great photographer, but I love the medium. I can produce good shots when I need to, but the real professionals blow me a way.

But that idea — U-turn, turn around, make the shot the priority — that has power. It is enough to turn a mediocre photographer into a good photographer, and maybe a good one into an excellent one. I’m not sure, but it’s something I’m going to try to carry with me as I embark on 14 days of exploration, where my camera should never leave my hand (except when I’ve got a microphone in it).

The photo up top, by the way, I did turn around for, and I can prove it: that’s my wife and her sister walking away on the left side of the frame. It’s not a great photo, but it illustrates my point. A few more U-turns are in order.

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