I am often asked how many good photographs I get when I am out on assignment. In the days of film, this question was framed “Jonathan, how many usable photos do you get per roll? ” Today the question is simply reframed “What’s your ratio of good photographs to bad?”
It took me a long time before I could articulate an answer to the above question that didn’t leave me feeling strangely drained and awkward. Not because I didn’t have an answer; there was a time in my life I knew precisely how many good frames I was averaging per roll of film and could return the figure as accurately as a cash register printing a receipt. What always rubbed me the wrong way about the question was that I never liked the connotations of my answer – whatever the number was. I disliked the idea that one of the metrics of how good or bad a photographer I was could be measured by how many good or bad frames I captured on a roll of 36, or on a memory card.
Many moons ago, I posed the same question to one of my mentors, Dewitt Jones. He returned my question with a knowing smile and let just enough silence fill the space after the asking to make me feel like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. When Dewitt broke the silence he said “If your asking that, you’re asking the wrong question.” Feeling a little like young Luke Skywalker learning the force from master Yoda I replied, “What is the question I should be asking?” Dewitt answered, “The question you should be asking is ‘did I get THE shot’?” He then went on to explain, “You either get the shot or you don’t get the shot – it’s as simple as that.” The light began to dawn in my mind and I swear I saw Dewitt’s camera levitating ever so slightly on the table behind his chair. “It’s not how many good shots I get, the question is, ‘did I get THE shot?’”
So what is THE shot? For me the shot is the image, or group of images that most effectively tell the story. The frame(s) that capture both the reality and the feeling of the moment.
Cartier Bresson describes the shot as capturing the “decisive moment.” Rikki Cooke describes his process with the phrase “it turned my head.” Chris Rainier describes his approach as a “feeling in the solar plexus.” In fact, every great photographer I have ever spoken with uses different words to describe the same thing – excitement.
So what do I do when I have that feeling in the solar plexus? When my head turns to see the soft light gracing the pilgrims face?
Ask, See, Do
My process can be summed up in three words: Ask, See, Do.
Ask – I ask myself: What is the story here? What matters in this scene and what doesn’t? How can I highlight what is working and eliminate what is not? And importantly, when photographing people, I try to live by the golden rule by always honoring my subjects and asking permission whenever possible.
See – Do I see the story in my mind’s eye? Do I see this shot at my core level? Am I seeing this shot with my head or my heart? If I don’t feel anything when I take the shot, people looking at my photo aren’t going to feel anything. If I am filled with joy at the beauty before me or cry because of the tragedy in front of my lens, my hope is those viewing the image will be able to feel the same emotion.
Do – Can I let my technology and technique augment my vision as an extension of myself, or is it going to be a barrier between myself and the scene. If it is a barrier – how can I simplify to the point where it is not and still capture the frame? Do I need to put away the DSLR and pick up my point and shoot?
Great photography is knowing the story, seeing it with my heart and capturing it in a way that allows me to remain connected to my subject. Great photography happens when subject, heart and technique connect; and when they do, the result is pure magic.