Three weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the banks of Hudson Bay, a stone’s throw from the Arctic circle, waiting for a polar bear to wake from his slumber. One can wait a long time for a polar bear to awaken. Several times, our group of photographers asked whether we should move on, and several times the answer was, “You don’t leave a bear to go look for a bear.” Solid wisdom, that. But no matter what you’re photographing, it’s always a gamble that it will pay off. One of the questions I’m most often asked is this:
“So, how long do you wait? When do you cut your losses and move on?”
That, right there, is the question, and there’s no good (or easy) answer. Whether you’re sitting on a street corner in Italy or waiting for an anticipated moment to happen at an event, there’s always the chance that what you’re waiting for might never happen—and that the waiting might prevent you from being elsewhere, photographing something your imagination tells you is probably some kind of once-in-a-lifetime magic. The fear of missing out on something somewhere is a tough one to shake. I wish I could say, “Go with your gut,” but I seem to have two guts: one that’s impulsive and impatient and just wants to move on, and one that’s quieter and wiser and knows from experience that more often than not waiting pays off.
If you’ve got great light but nothing’s happening, don’t leave great light to find great light. If you’ve got a great background and a wonderful composition, don’t leave that to find it elsewhere. If you’ve got a bear, don’t leave it to find a bear. That will almost always be my approach. But there’s a catch: it takes time.
Finding great light takes time the same way finding a bear or a great background or composition does. Leaving that to begin the search all over again takes even more time. And once you get there and you do find what you think you’re looking for, it takes more time to truly see the scene, discover the possibilities, try out the compositions, and begin to anticipate the moments. It takes time to get the settings dialed in, to be creative, and to try different approaches.
Does waiting always pay off? No.
I’ve sat for hours thinking, “If this pays off, it’s going to be amazing. But if the light never pops, if the moment never comes, it’s going to be, well, nothing. Zip. Nada.” In that frame of mind, it’s easy to start thinking about moving on. What makes it possible to stay put and to throw your lot in with the kind of luck that’s at least partly responsible for the best photographs we make is time.
We spend a great deal of attention on thinking about the things we need to make our best photographs. Money, too. We buy the best gear we can, the sharpest lenses we can afford, the biggest tripods, the fastest strobes, or whatever your own particular niche discipline demands. We believe these are necessary, and we spend what we can on them. Certain gear opens creative possibilities that not having that gear might prevent. When I was looking at polar bears through my 600mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter in Churchill, I was able to create compositions that other photographers with only a 200mm lens could not. A camera that is faster and tracks better will capture moments a slower camera might not.
This is also true of time, and as I slide into my 36th year as a photographer, I’m more and more convinced that we need more of it and that we generally undervalue its role in picture-making. What do you need to make great photographs? The right gear is necessary but insufficient. We need more time.
The more time you make for whatever you’re photographing, the more possibilities you have.
More time means you can wait for the bear without freaking out. It means you’ve got more time to consider your composition. It means you’ve got time to make mistakes, take some risks, and come back tomorrow when the anticipated light fizzles over that landscape instead of popping the way you hoped. More time, no matter what the context, allows you to be more present, more attentive, and more immersed.
Practically speaking, this means going to Venice for two days instead of one, and if you can pull it off, going for a whole week. It’s so tempting to want to see it all, to go to Venice, Rome, and Florence in five days. That might be a great way to sightsee, but it’s a tough way to photograph. It means if you can spend an hour in the studio, carve out time for two hours and allow yourself to slow down, and use that time to try new things. If you can spend a week on safari, see if there’s a way to spend two. If you can put a month into your project, budget for three instead. If you’re doing a one-hour hike, linger for the whole morning instead, or come back every morning for a week to the same forest at different times of the day.
More time means more possibilities.
More time can solve a lot of problems. It can solve “there’s nothing happening!” It can solve “how long should I wait?” It can solve “the light’s not right,” and “I missed the shot that time,” or “shoot, my settings weren’t right.” More time allows you to try again, to wait without (as much) worry, and to see a place or a subject as different light, weather, and moments change it. When you want to photograph people, more time allows you to stop feeling so nervous and for your subject to go back to being more comfortable and natural. It allows for deeper connections and the kind of relationships you can’t have on the run.
Want to make better photographs? Take more time. Find it, make it, trade other things for it.
Time isn’t a technique. It’s not a shortcut. And it’s not as sexy as that new lens. In fact, it might cost more than that new lens. But if you can only have one, rent the lens and buy the time.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown