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on Nov 20, 2009 in Friday Thoughts, Random Thoughts

The Most Important Ingredient in a Photograph

Faster than a heartbeat, a photograph is born. And if done correctly and if the stars are all aligned, that moment in time frozen by the shutter affects lives for time unending. If that is the possibility, and it has been proven over and over again, then why isn’t time reported as one of the most important aspects of photography?

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I’m all too aware of the importance of 1/60, 1/500, 8sec and all the rest of the “times” that most associate with photographic time. And while they are important for communicating the emotion that exposure brings to life, I’m referring to an even more important measure of time. I’m talking about the time behind the camera. You could look at the time behind the camera for one image, one shoot, one day, one week, one month or more what I’m thinking about, one lifetime being the measure of time!

I was recently asked what went through my mind as we approached the subject. I was rather surprised when my answer, which contained mostly past life experiences that led up to my decision to my approach, was cast aside for the answer the questioner really wanted, lens, f/stop and shutter speed. Seriously! That’s probably why I couldn’t connect, the time before the click is just as influential in the approach as the time of the click for me. And if all goes well, that click will survive the test of time.

I know I’m not alone in treasuring time. The time spent with a spouse, the time spent with kids and family. We all know how precious these and others are. What about the simple pleasures, time with a good book, a glass of wine, watching a fire or birds in the feeder? Just as precious. How many curse the waste of time being stuck in a line, at an airport or in traffic? Why then is the time behind the camera for so many rushed? As a working pro, one of my biggest challenges is getting enough time in behind the camera to follow my own particular passion of wildlife photography. What pushes that desire?

And what makes the time behind the camera now so special? It’s all that has been learned from the time already put in behind the camera. It’s all the challenges, successes, failures and rewards already experienced from the time behind the camera that lead to promise at the next time behind the camera. Adding to these experiences are all the life experiences that make you, you!

Last week I was reminded about this again by Jeremy. While he doesn’t have the accumulative time behind the camera that I do, he does take his time when behind the camera. A luxury I didn’t have at that moment. He’s the complete opposite of what I call a “panicked photographer.” Jeremy took his time, made his shot and smoked everyone, especially me. His photos of Owl’s Head Light and at Firefly were images I wanted in my files. Then, the dirty, rotten kid made the image of Portland Lighthouse that I wanted. Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds! Seeing his B&W image from there on his monitor and thinking I had it drove me nuts until this week when I had time to go through all my images and finding I did have one frame. What’s Jeremy’s key to success? He’s 18 and doesn’t know time is so precious and hard to come by when you get older so spends it lavishly behind the camera now. And my little moment of triumph came not from confidence at the camera, but starring at a monitor after the fact. That’s the worst use of my time, the digital darkroom.

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Now that I’m officially an “old fart,” (I like that title), I find shooting with “kids” very rewarding and a real photographic push. My “new” assistant (that term is almost old now), Stephanie, really has me jumping by not only asking photographic questions (which is her job) but also asking “what about this technique or that idea or this new approach?” Questioning the logic of time! Just look at the “jumping” series SHE came up with & I had to solve photographically. Talk about pushing me, pushing my photography! And in a matter of time, we will together perfect the jump shot.

Talk about being pushed, look what our son Jake is doing to me! Holy crap, he just turned 21 (congrats kid!) and he’s running me ragged. Where does he find the time to shoot AND blog and go to college all at the same time? What the hell is my excuse for not shooting more? What Jake has going for him, which he just consciously realized this summer is that while his “time” behind the camera has only been a couple of years, he’s been preparing for the time his entire life. We’re talking about the youngest American ever to be on a permit to handle endangered species. He’s been in the field with his parents since he was two weeks old (says he doesn’t remember that). What does that all add up to? That culmination of time that is frozen in time when he presses the shutter release can’t be measured by that shutter speed, time in the field that day, week or year, but by a lifetime even though to an old fart, that time is short.

So why have I taken the time to write this? Perhaps because of my own frustration in not spending enough time with wildlife of late or perhaps counting the minutes until I am photographing wildlife in a couple of days. Perhaps it’s the sting still hanging around from getting skunked by a kid who took his time at a lighthouse and I didn’t. Perhaps it’s the frustration of dealing with a handful of folks who felt time in the digital darkroom was more important than being behind the camera. Perhaps I just felt it was time to talk ever more outwardly about what I’ve always felt is the most important ingredient in photography. Time!!

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Do you know the work of Jay Maisel? He’s a real hero of mine for so many reasons. He can say your photograph sucks and that’s OK. I say it and oh man, the sky is falling (gotta work on that delivery). But more to the point, it’s his photography that I so love. I love seeing my world through his lens. Why is that, why are his images so powerful, so vibrant, so heart touching? He spends every breathing moment behind the camera! Jay always, always has a camera with him, in his hands, exploring his craft, expressing his life, his world, our world with every waking moment. Can you grasp what Jay’s saying, what I’m saying? Photography = time!

When shooting with folks, I often get frustrated and they contribute that as I have issues with them. What they don’t realize is having done this for 30yrs, I know the value of time behind the camera and when that time is wasted, I get frustrated. Now, I’m not saying every minute behind the camera that one is making a great click, not at all. It just takes one great click to make my day, week, or….nah, not going there. Sitting at my desk, working on a computer, doing chores, doing anything but spending time, time behind the camera is hard for me. Spending 9 months writing a book just about killed me. I have to hope that the time I put into it and not being behind the camera is worth your time to read it. Just like this piece. It’s all about time, the magical, magnificent and most important ingredient in a photograph!