The Essential Photographic Skill
By Bors Vesterby
When I started as a photographer, I spent some time in the faraway outback with Nick Rains. One spectacular morning as I fumbled some expensive gear, Nick commented, "Relax, Bors. The landscape isn't going anywhere." His words were about patience, but patience in a dynamic form that we don't ordinarily consider. In the years following, I found that more than technical knowledge, artistic vision, woodcraft, time in the field, or time in the studio, an essential photographic skill is this kind of patience.
You didn't bring what?
Before that trip to the outback, a lack of patience nearly cost me a bitter night in the mountains. While photographing on a ridge five miles in, 3800 feet up from the trailhead, and with less than an hour of daylight left, I made a discovery.
In the rush to get on location, neither myself nor my photographic assistant had packed a flashlight. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, we discuss how to get back to the car before the cold, moonless night sets in. We decide to hurry. In fact, we run. Standing together at the edge of a 50 degree slope of sandy talus, we share that crazy look young men get when about to leap the abyss. Boots swing out in unison, and with an echoing holler, we step off, down the slope, sand exploding from each ten foot stride. At the bottom, it takes eighty feet to come to a stop. Looking back as the shadows deepen, one of us says, "Well, that saved us about twenty minutes." "Yep." We still had miles to go.
For the record, both myself and my assistant were experienced woodsmen. I learned to walk in the Australian rainforest near Cairns, and have been striding the landscape ever since. Both of us saw the woods through the lens of the old ways where brains and grit were what kept explorers (and photographers) alive and comfortable in the wilds. So, what could compel two trail veterans to forget such core pieces of gear as their flashlights?
You guessed it. Being Impatient—to get going, to get where you are going, to get the image. While we found the rare plant we sought, and got the needed images that day, impatience very nearly forced an unplanned night in the mountains, and that would have been a lot more uncomfortable, and possibly more dangerous, than our five mile downhill run with heavy photo and botany gear.
Mt. Stuart shortly before we realized we couldn't light our way back to the car.
Patience is a Skill
Like planning an expedition or using a camera, patience can be learned. In the past decade there has been something of a revolution around what it means to acquire skill. Neuroscientists figured out that when we repeat an action, the neurons involved become wrapped with myelin, a neural insulator. The result is that those neurons become neural superhighways. Signals on well wrapped neurons travel up to 400 times faster and stronger than unwrapped neurons. Who doesn't want to be 400 times better? And it's not just physical activity that gets better with practice. Thinking skills are also myelin based. Skill and habit are made of myelin. This is handy because it means that practicing patience yields a habit of patience.
Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast
There is a pattern to the most effective practice. Interestingly, it ties in perfectly to developing patience as a habit of mind for photography.
1. Slow down. The slower the better.
2. Pay special attention to mistakes or gaps.
3. Reflect about 'what just happened.'
4. Focus on that area for improvement.
5. Try again.
In the field my practice has been to:
* Slow down. Relax.
* Accept that the light may happen or not.
* Accept that my image may emerge or not.
* Think about what I want to express about this subject.
* Pay attention to the steps, both technical and aesthetic, I take to achieve that goal.
* Take notes. On color, the quality of light, the scent of the air.
* Look for other compositions, and create images of them.
* When light is happening right now(!), I repeat: Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast
What about the heat of the moment? 'Won't I lose the shot if I slow down?'
Patience does not mean moving like a cold turtle. It means moving deliberately, with intention and an understanding of what I am trying to achieve.
Patience does not mean lack of excitement. It means thinking through my excitement, and being careful and ordered in my actions when in the moment, whether that moment is packing my bag or chasing ephemeral light.
Chasing the light from image to image works only if the captures are technically and aesthetically successful. Being in the moment successfully is a process of rapid, smooth transition. Success means moving from spot to spot without tripping, and creating pieces with the intended depth of field, focus, and clarity.
As technical skills and habits develop, less and less technical deliberation is needed. Early on, I found it helpful to start with a mental checklist for each capture. I never wanted to skip a step and shoot that near-far composition at f5.6 when I needed f22. When working (practicing) an a slow/smooth way, I find that I make fewer mistakes and fewer mistakes means speed and accuracy of execution. Going slow/smooth actually gives me time to focus on the art.
The traditional definition: The willingness or ability to wait calmly when faced with delay. The state of endurance under difficult circumstances.
This is largely patience for its own sake—boring, and a painful delay of gratification and action.
The definition I find useful: The ability to act smoothly and deliberately when faced with urgency under difficult circumstances.
Lower Antelope Canyon. A technically challenging image created smoothly under pressure.
About the Author
Bors Vesterby creates fine art prints of landscapes he knows intimately—Washington state, the Southwest USA, and Australia. Born in Tucson, AZ he has an affinity for the language spoken by dry desert rock, and the scent of sagebrush after a cloud burst. Trained from boyhood in woods-lore, Bors' connection to the land is visceral, to walk it, sense its textures, listen and watch its moods. In his photographic prints he strives to give the viewer the same sense of existing in a state of attentive wonder.
You can find more information about Bors' work, and subscribe to his free monthly newsletter on his website, www.landstrider-photography.com. Subscribe today and receive your own copy of Dynamic Patience in ebook format.
© Bors Vesterby 2012