Walking the streets of Sienna under a full moon, the whole town under a shifting blanket of fog that seems to roll around on its own whims, I walk around a corner and the scene I photographed so unsuccessfully yesterday is now a canvas of pastel colours: lilacs and yellows and emergent pinks.
I catch my breath and make a dozen frames, changing my point of view a little here, my focal length a little there, and with those changes, I nudge my composition around. I know the light is limited, but figure I have a good ten minutes in which to slowly pull my ISO down a bit, maybe push my shutter speed up a little.
I consider putting the camera down for a moment or two while the light comes up and brings with it a few more stops of needed light. But I don’t. For whatever reason, I make a few more frames and get my composition where I want it. I make a couple photographs.
And then the beautiful yellow lights blink out so suddenly it leaves me wondering what just changed—the colour depth and contrast in the scene gone completely. No more leading lines created by the lights. No more warmth. The basilica is still there, so are the foreground homes and the full moon. But the scene that made me catch my breath and put the camera to my eye is gone. I put the camera down and go looking for what pulled me out of bed in the first place: the promise of a cappuccino.
This scenario repeats itself more often than I can tell you. And it flies in the face of the wisdom that I so often try to teach my students, keeping both truths in tension with each other. You have to wait, you have to be patient, you have to allow the scene to reveal itself, for the light to improve, for the weather to shift. But you also have to make your photographs while you can.
There is power in patience, but when the moment is here, it’s often all we have.
Light doesn’t always get better. Weather doesn’t always shift. Moments often happen only once, never to be repeated.
The photographer’s craft deals in the simplest raw materials: light and time. Of these, time is the scarcest.
It is, perhaps, the key to why photographs are (or can be) so treasured. They capture something temporary and fleeting for what feels like forever.
We never imagine that the portrait we made of our father last Christmas would be his last.
We think our children will outlive us until a cancer diagnosis shatters that belief.
We believe things that have always been will always be. And then one day we turn the corner at our favourite park and the thousand-year-old tree has been toppled in a windstorm.
We return to a favourite city to make photographs in that one spot we just never got around to photographing last year, only to find it gone, replaced by new condos.
The time to make photographs is now. There is no later.
When later comes, it too will present itself as now, but it will be different. It always is. The only thing we can truly count on is the inevitability of change. Sometimes that change happens slowly, imperceptibly, until one day we wake to our gradual loss. Other times it happens in the blink of an eye. But it happens.
Being patient, on one hand, and not waiting a moment longer, on the other, are two ways of honouring the ever-flowing nature of time.
When it’s good, when it’s there, when the moment is sweet, that is the time to make the photograph, because it’s only ever in hindsight that we know that the moment was at it’s sweetest, just a minute ago. And while hindsight might be 20/20, the camera has yet to be invented that can take advantage of that clarity of vision. And when the moment is not there, we wait. Because it comes—eventually, but it always does. It might not be the moment you expected, and it might not look like you planned, but it comes.
Being patient means not only waiting for it to come, not merely passing time, but being receptive to its passing: anticipating some collision of time, light, lines, and the human or natural drama to happen.
I’ll go out again tomorrow. I’ll walk around different corners, as will you. Some thing, some person, some treasured place, moving through time (as we all are) will catch the light just right.
Don’t wait. Never wait. The light came a long way to paint that moment and it won’t last long.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Did you get a chance to listen to my new podcast? If you missed it, there are now fived episodes of A Beautiful Anarchy, a short mostly-weekly podcast I created to encourage creative people like you, even those who worry they aren’t that creative. Maybe especially them. You can find all the episodes and links to them for those who would rather listen on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play here at ABeautifulAnarchy.com.