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The Lucky Photographer
by Gary W. Stanley 

"He's so lucky; he's always getting great shots." "It must be a natural gift, no one can be that lucky." "Maybe it's his equipment, that lens has to be the difference." "Hey I know, he switched to digital, which we all know is like cheating."

I recently sat through a slide competition at the Greater Lynn Photographic Society watching the slides pop up on the screen from the Masters division. I paid particular attention to the nature and scenic categories. Wow! These people are good! It seems like Jake, Karl, Rick, Marilyn and John, always finish at the top, they sure are Lucky. They're not even professionals, what's up with that?

I have to say in all honesty, that I really don't give luck much credit when it comes to photography, whether it's those friends that I mentioned or my own work. Does luck enter into it? Sometimes. Do I have a special gift for photography? No, but I am better at photography than golf. I recently had a person on our Acadia tour speak of her own frustration while we were photographing in one of my favorite places. "I just don't see the way you do, it just looks like a bunch of twisted trees and branches." " You're a natural at this, I'm not."

I calmed her down and told her that the first time I came here, I photographed for over four hours, trying every imaginable composition, position, exposure and lens. I wasn't sure what I was going to get. The only thing I knew for sure was, this was an incredible place and I had to figure out how to photograph it.

So let's define The Lucky Photographer: The lucky photographer is someone who is in the right place at the right time, and, knows what to do with that luck! It is not about the equipment, just as it is not about being born with a gift or natural talent. While using good photographic equipment doesn't hurt, and while some people seem to grasp the photographic concept easier than others, I don't believe that it gives that person an overwhelming advantage in their pursuit of a great photograph. I believe that you can learn to be a Lucky Photographer. Let's see how!

Create Your Own Luck: First and foremost, you have to take some very specific steps in order to create your own luck.

1. Become familiar with your equipment: I can't tell you how many times I've had folks on my photo tours who either have never figured out how their camera works, or who purchased a new camera or lens just prior to the tour, and haven't had time to read the manual. 

So, instead of spending time photographing that special light, they're asking me how to operate their camera. I certainly don't mind helping them with any technical problems or questions mind you, but I hate to see them miss a shot because they didn't know how to operate their camera. First become familiar with your camera! 

2. Know your tools intimately: The tools that you choose to complement the camera you own are also critical to the Lucky Photographer. 

If at all possible, you should use a tripod to steady your camera during an exposure. Select a high quality film that offers excellent color and sharpness to suit your taste. Learn and understand just how important filters can be in capturing that special light. A graduated neutral-density filter (the square ones, not the round ones) for example, will help you control your film's narrow exposure latitude and contrast range, so that you can now expose for foreground subjects while still being able to hold detail and color in your sky. Know your tools intimately! 

3. Lens selection: The right lens choice is also very important when you want to be able to control certain aspects of your composition. I prefer zoom lenses because you can easily and quickly crop out unwanted stuff in your composition without moving forward or backward physically. 

This feature is very important to me when I need to work fast in rapidly changing lighting situations. The lens focal length that you select will make a difference in how the final composition will look, and of course, how it will look when you present the image to the viewer. 

If you understand that a wide angle lens expands the apparent distance between objects, and that a telephoto compresses the apparent distance between objects in the frame, you won't be standing there wondering what lens to use as the sun sinks below the horizon. Pick the right lens! 

4. You have to be there: Years ago someone coined the phrase "f/8 and be there." It was a standard reply that many photographers gave when someone wanted to know how you got that great shot, or what technique did you use. 

Well, let's simplify that old saying: forget f/8, just Be There! While it seems sort of obvious, perhaps the best way to become the Lucky Photographer, is to be in the right place at the right time. How do you do that? 

5. Do your homework: There may well be a direct connection between luck and photographing in great light: "I was just standing there, all of a sudden the sky cleared and the sun poked through, my camera was already on the tripod, so I shot it, how lucky was that?" Why not increase the odds of success by doing some homework first.

Do you know when and where the sun is going to rise or set at your chosen shooting location? Are you up to date with the latest weather information so that you'll have a good idea of what tomorrow might bring? Will it be cloudy, foggy, windy, sunny, cold, hot etc.? 

Thanks to the web, we can easily get this kind of information when traveling, so that even if you don't live in the area you plan to photograph, you'll know the current conditions. I do this when traveling to the national parks. When at home, I go to the National Park Service for the park that I am going to visit, I click on weather and find out everything from sunrises to tide tables, the week's weather outlook and more. To be a Lucky Photographer do your homework! 

6. Pre-scout your locations: Now, I don't mean fly out to Colorado to pre-scout your morning shoot when you're still in New Jersey on the evening before. 

I mean, when you do reach your location, do you take a drive around the evening prior to your morning shoot to look for potential hot spots. 

Do you know where the sun is going to rise? Do you ask the locals if there are any special scenic places that they might be willing to share with you? Where did folks see that huge elk the night before? Pre-scout your location! 

7. Pay Attention: 
This is a very general statement I know, but it is vital to the Lucky Photographer. No matter where I photograph, I pay attention to my surroundings. As I drive along a park road I'm studying and looking for potential shooting locations and compositions, should weather and lighting conditions change. I may be traveling during the middle of the day, heading for an evening shoot and I'll pass a group of trees or something, and I think to myself: "If it's a nice frosty or foggy morning, I'm coming back here." I watch the sky off to the west (approximately) to see if clouds are beginning to gather, or if the sky is beginning to clear etc. Paying attention, allows you the opportunity to change your plans and put yourself into a position that will allow you to take advantage of luck. Pay attention!

To be the Lucky Photographer means gathering the necessary information prior to the event happening. It means learning, preparing, scouting and paying attention, so that when the opportunity avails itself, you'll be that Lucky Photographer. You'll be the one who recognized the luck and knew what to do with it, and the person with the shot everyone else wished they had taken.

All images on the fall 2003 Yellowstone/Teton tour 
Nikon D100 digital camera

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