A photograph is just a moment in time, frozen for eternity, but some moments are more important than others. Successfully capture that split-second moment and you could have a great image on your hands, maybe even something that is remembered for years to come. Some of my favourite examples of this are Peter Leibing’s photo of a soldier jumping over the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall, or Neil Leifer’s iconic frame of Muhammad Ali standing over a defeated Sonny Liston. These are moments of history, captured forever and if you want to see more iconic images, Time has a great gallery you can view.
But were all these amazing images simply down to luck? Did the stars align for the composition, lighting and action to happen, just like that, in front of the waiting photographer? Now, I’ve never taken (and probably never will) any images that could be considered iconic or history-making, but I have shot images that others may view and suggest I was ‘lucky’ to capture.
So, I looked through some of my photos before writing this article and for every image and came to the conclusion that luck didn’t really play a part. I think being the right place at the right time actually needs a fair bit of practice, research, planning and the skill to use your equipment properly when the moment is upon you. Hear me out and let me give you some examples….
The shot below shows one of the best known locations in my local area. Everybody has shot this scene, so how could I get a different take on it? Well, on previous visits I noticed that geese seem to use the waters as a navigation point, so I waited until they started to migrate and there was plenty of ‘aerial traffic’ before setting up the tripod and waiting…..and waiting, oh yeah… and waiting some more. Of course, the moment eventually came and I had the camera perfectly set-up to freeze the geese in their majestic V formation as they flew over. So, rather than luck, I’d put this one down to patience and research.
My next shot shows a comedy moment during, what I can promise you, was an uneventful football match. Two players tussle and fall to the ground, creating an image that looks like it belongs in a wrestling ring or Octagon, rather than on a football pitch. I’ve shown this image to friends and they’ve said; ‘that was a lucky capture’, but I put this one down to concentration. Sports action moves quickly and the photography genre demands that you don’t switch off for a second. In fact, this incident actually occured when the ball had gone out of play so many around me had lowered their DSLRs to check images for exposure levels etc. By having knowledge of the game, reading body language and sticking to the task, this frame was my reward.
So we’ve talked about how patience and concentration can often trump luck, but what about being bold. The shot below was taken on a charity Zombie Walk, a fun event which takes place every year around Halloween. Fans of horror films and the like dress up in all manner of elaborate costumes and make their way through a city centre with the kick being that most of the public are unaware of the event, resulting in plenty of humorous reactions to be photographed when the two parties interact. To get the best image however, it sometimes means being bold and getting out of your comfort zone. I tend to hang back and shoot from a distance at this event, but when I saw these girls ask for a selfie with the zombie bride, I raced in to get the best angle. What’s that saying about fortune favouring the brave?
The final image I’d like to share shows that rather than relying on luck, it’s important for photographers to know how to use, and to trust their equipment. I was shooting motorsport at a racetrack when the crunching sound of metal on metal indicated there’d been a fairly big collision. I was using a long telezoom (with a teleconverter) at the time, with the camera set up for continuous motion. Out the corner of my eye I saw the slumped driver, sitting on the grassy bank watching in dejection as his rivals raced to victory while his own car sat leaking all sorts of fluids into the gravel trap. I quickly switched to a 50mm prime lens, changed the autofocus mode and trusted the camera to do the rest as literally two shots later, the driver stood up, was lead away by race marshalls, and the moment was gone forever.
I’m not saying that luck never plays a part in making a great image, but I just think photographers shouldn’t rely on it and that viewers shouldn’t think images are all down to luck, because that betrays the skill of the photographer. Practice, research and knowing how to use your kit will always result in more successful (if maybe not iconic) images.