If it looks good, shoot it. If it looks better later, shoot it again. –Galen Rowell
So goes one of the best pieces of photographic wisdom I’ve received. It’s more than just a simple strategy, it also reflects something important about nature photography: many of the best nature photographs feature ephemeral light. Whether dramatic (like sunsets or rainbows), or subtle (like the play of light and shadow across the landscape on a partly-cloudy day), the best light is often short-lived and unpredictable.
This leaves the photographer with a quandary, when to shoot? It’s tempting to “wait for the best light” before shooting. While this conserves time spent editing and memory cards, it’s often impossible to predict the moment of best light until it’s too late. Whoops.
Now imagine that I’ve found a nice scene, a sunset with a promising composition and good light. Getting an early shot on the card not only insures that I’ll have something usable from that shoot, but it also lets me, well, relax a bit, and take a look at what I’ve captured. The rear LCD on my camera isn’t a great way to review images, but I will check my histogram (make sure I’m not blowing out highlights), and glance at the “big picture” of the composition, looking, say, for distractions around the edge of the photograph and the general flow of my eye in the image.
At this point, I’ll often make a minor adjustment to improve the photograph, and shoot it again, often resulting in a better “peak image” than I’d’ve had if I’d simply waited for the perfect moment. I may also take time to experiment with variations (shooting vertically and horizontally, or imaginging a variation on a composition that would fit in a 5:4 crop, or a square crop).
Progressive refinement can happen over longer timeframes as well. In 2006, on an photo expedition to Greenland, I started imagining a scene that would try and convey a sense of movement of the ship through the water, a view from above the bridge of the bow of the ship. I imagined a time exposure revealing a smooth “wake” of the ship through the ocean, a tripod leaving the ship sharp but the rest of the wasterscape soft, and with bright chunks of sea ice creating streaks in the water. In testing the idea the first night, there was no sea ice, but I did try a particular composition I really liked, and even without the sea ice it was a solid, usable image.
Two mornings later, the first light of sunrise found our ship travelling through a thin irregular fog that created an amazing sunrise behind the ship, both I and many of the other photographers spent a lot of time shooting towards the rising sun. But I also saw a beautiful purple haze towards the bow of the ship, saw that we were travelling through some light sea ice, and knew I was only yards from where I’d shot the “wake” shot, so I went back and shot it again, resulting in “Into the Future”, one of my favorite travel images.
So shoot early, shoot often! Memory cards are cheap, and refinement will really help you get the most you can out of great photographic situations.
Joe Decker is a nature photographer and educator located in California. His work can be viewed at www.joedecker.net