Photographers actually go where the pictures are. People generally do not buy photographs photographers take because they say, “I could take a picture like that.” And, the truth is they could. And the truth also is, they won’t. They won’t go to the trouble, take the time, pay the price to put themselves in position to take the picture.
They may take a vacation trip to the Grand Tetons, for instance, but they will sleep until 9 o’clock. Eat breakfast. Stop for gas and a soft drink, and get to Schwabacher landing at 11, missing the picture and the point. The point is to be at Schwabacher Landing when the photograph is there, not 5 hours later.
There are two rules to photography. Put yourself in position to take the picture. That’s the first rule. The second is: See the picture, get the picture. That’s it. Everything else about photography is in observance of, and in compliance with, those two rules. Seeing is the hard part.
It takes a lot of looking to be able to see. Hang around me enough, and you’ll hear me say that a lot. Photographers look at other photographer’s work. Photographers look at the world. Photographers walk around (positioning themselves to take the picture) and look at the world from different vantage points. Photographers imagine what something would look like at different points in the day, at different seasons of the year, in different lighting and weather conditions, and come back (positioning themselves to take the picture) at different times.
It also means taking the picture NOW that needs to be taken NOW. See the picture, get the picture, means don’t put it off. Don’t come back tomorrow, or next week, when you’ll have more time and it will be more convenient. This moment won’t be here then. Don’t walk by a picture, or away from one, telling yourself you’ll get it later. There is no “later” when it is there “now.” “Later” only exists when it is not there “now.” If it isn’t there “now,” come back “later.” If it is there “now,” take it NOW!
The work of photography is being there and seeing what’s there “now,” and not waiting to take what’s there “now.” If you pass up what is there “now,” it will be gone forever. Knowing the importance of what is there now, is the most important thing photographers know. Actually taking the picture is somewhat of an afterthought. Oh, yeah. Click. The technical side of photoing is essential, of course, but it isn’t the heart of photography. You have to know your stuff, but it's knowing about the now that what you really have to know.
Sure, you have to understand the camera, and the lens, and the filters, and the tripod, but technical expertise and being able to talk aperture, and shutter speed, and ISO settings, and graduated neutral density filters, and polarizing filters isn’t going to take a picture. You have to know the technical side of photography, but you can’t think much about it. You know it so you don’t have to think about it. So you don’t have to think at all. So you can just see what is before you, and move around and see what else is before you, and open yourself to the scene, and expose yourself to the moment, so that you can show the moment to the film or the digital sensor and to the people who see your photograph.
You can’t see the moment if you are thinking, “What would Ansel Adams see?” That is not putting yourself in position to take the picture. To put yourself in position to take the picture, you have to shut up and see. You have to walk around and look. You have to disappear into the moment, become “one with everything,” and be open and receptive to the “Yes!”, to the “Now!”, to the “That’s it!”, to the “Here it is!”, and get it on film or sensor before its gone.
To do that, of course, you have to practice always. Photography is spiritual practice in that it requires openness to the now, to the moment, in every moment. You practice seeing in the grocery store, with your camera on the shelf in your closet at home. You see the child looking at her mother, and catch the expression that sets the moment apart from all other moments. You see the carton of eggs out of position in relation to the rest of the cartons of eggs, and something shifts so that you no longer see cartons of eggs, but lines and angles and shadows, and a beautiful arrangement of forms.
To see the picture and take the picture, you have to see pictures you don’t take. You have to see the pictures that are everywhere. Driving home from work on the freeway you see the hay being bailed, or the low sun light catching the high school football stands and one goal post in a way that crystallizes every high school football memory of everyone who has ever been involved in any way with high school football. And, then it’s gone, because you are whizzing by at seventy miles an hour and if you stopped you would be stupid, but the vision remains with you forever. You saw, you’ve seen, you are seeing. Keep it up, and one of these days, you’ll have a camera in your hands.