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The Zen of When: Photographic Timing
Posted By: metaphiston, 03-29-2012, 01:59 AM

Photography is about preserving a moment in time. Whether it’s a vast mountain landscape, a smiling portrait of a family member, a candid street shot, a leaping salmon, or anything else – the things in the picture have been recorded, at that time, in that place, in the way you chose to record them. The majority of people take pictures solely to record memories of people and places, a fact enthusiast photographers may occasionally forget.

Photography is also about choosing suitable settings from all the variables made available to you by your lenses and your camera, and doing on the basis of your knowledge and experience. But in order to take a good photograph you need to do that at the right time.

You might take this fact for granted, feel that it is automatic. But it can be worth thinking about. Consider how you feel about composition – most photographers would agree that putting thought and effort into composition results in good pictures. The same is true of developing good timing skills.

Of course photography is also about composition, so with a combination of good timing and good composition, supported by whatever gear and technical knowledge is necessary and available to you, you will take photographs of which you can be proud.

This article is about taking a picture at that one right moment. This relies on three skills –patience, prediction and perseverance – and sometimes a fourth factor; pluck.

Patience

Some people take composition very seriously. This is to be encouraged, and it makes for well-balanced pictures. Raise the viewfinder to your eye, carefully frame a shot, move back, zoom in, zoom out, move to the left, recompose – ah, that’s it! And, finally, shoot.

But was it the right time to shoot? Possibly, but what if the sun is just dipping below the horizon on your landscape and the sky is beginning to be streaked with amazing colours. It looks like a good composition now, but what will it look like in a minute. Wait and see. Be patient. Maybe it will be even better. Take a picture now, and take a picture then.

Apply patience particularly to shots which involve some element out of your control. It could be that you are at a sporting event, or you’re at the zoo, or taking a picture of a raging waterfall, or of a child (perhaps an element more out of your control than any other). You need to be patient and let the picture, eventually, present itself to you.

This is not the same as waiting stoically with your camera pointing at the subject until it does something interesting. In the case of people photography, patience means gently putting the subject at their ease with conversation until they relax and you can photograph them looking natural.

For animal photography, the same is true. Wild animals will certainly not tolerate being posed and you can’t just stomp towards them with your camera raised and expect them to wait around long enough for you to fill the frame with their increasingly agitated looking expression.

So, be patient. Sit still and wait for them to come to you, or if you need to get closer, do it slowly. Having a massive telephoto lens helps, undoubtedly, but the best lens in the world won’t serve as a replacement for that moment when the lion yawns and you were ready and waiting to snap its rows of fangs.

Some moments are fleeting. Some are not. An abandoned building will probably remain stationary long enough for you to take a picture whenever you happen to fancy doing so. Even a crane which wasn’t there the day before will cooperate long enough for you to take a picture of it at your leisure. The birds that were startled by nothing in particular and which erupted from the rafters just before this was taken, however, won’t hang around. Of course I knew they were there, and pigeons tend to take to the skies en masse when spooked. So I waited patiently, hoping to see something I knew was going to happen eventually.
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I had, in fact, predicted it.

Prediction

Sometimes, you need to be in the right place at the right time. You see a picture someone else took, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that they were fortunate enough to witness through their camera lens and think “why am I never that lucky?”

But don’t let that put you off.

The best journalistic shots are often (perhaps usually) taken opportunistically, and some of them are the products of sheer chance. But, by being where the action is and by being ready to take that picture as soon as they see it, a photographer’s chances of snapping something newsworthy are massively increased. And if the photojournalist has the skill to predict when something interesting might happen and has his camera pointing that way when it does, his chances increase yet again.

This applies to many types of photography – you might look at the sky and predict that the light will burst through the clouds in a few minutes, and set up your tripod for that golden landscape shot as soon as it does. You might be snapping at a party and see a friend listening to a joke. In the split second before they burst out laughing you capture them grinning; a smile full of genuine, unposed delight that you would certainly had missed if you hadn’t had your camera aimed their way when it happened.

By knowing when the moment is approaching, and by knowing what settings you need and having them at the ready, you’ll be free to concentrate on your twitchy shutter-button finger.

For example, I was taking pictures of ducks being fed bread at the local pond. While snapping, I noticed that at least half of the bread thrown to them was snatched in mid-air by agile gulls long before it got anywhere near beak range of the water-bound ducks.

The gulls zipped around the sky too fast and unpredictably to track, so I had to predict where they would fly to take this shot.
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Of course, I cheated – I threw the bread at a specific point in the sky, a point where I was pre-focused, pre-exposed and ready to shoot. That’s how I got the shot just the way I wanted. After all, there’s no reason you can’t help make your own predictions come true. Of course, I had to chuck a lot of bread and I blasted away at 7 frames per second as soon as a gull flew within a yard of a cartwheeling crumb, which brings us on neatly to…

Perseverance

This can be summed up as “take loads of shots, loads of times.”

We are human; our powers of prediction are merely mortal and like persistent fishermen our patience may be rewarded without so much as a nibble; we are not able to take shots at the perfect moment every time.

One excellent way to make sure you capture “the” moment is by capturing lots of moments. And as a bonus it might turn out that another moment is better than the one you thought you wanted.

You need patience to silently, slowly approach a wild animal, but you need perseverance to try again after the wretched thing has flown away for the tenth time. In the rain. Insects are infuriating, providing an endless succession of beautiful colours and poses but never staying still long enough to be captured. Stick at it though, and try different approaches, and eventually you’ll get a good picture.
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With perseverance eventually comes that most important and humble photographic attribute: experience. That “I just know it will look good” feeling that keeps you snapping away until it does.

You’ll find that with perseverance your predictions get better and your patience is rewarded more often. So although you must sometimes rely on the whims of a world outside your control, you’ll get that picture eventually, by persevering. Good timing is not about luck. But it can be about pluck.

Pluck

Taking our cue from photojournalists again, often the most arresting images are taken by photographers who put themselves right amongst the action to get that iconic shot; a unique and special moment amplified because no one else was brave enough to be there. This is certainly not to say that you should endanger yourself to take photographs, but you can take this attitude of “gotta’ get the shot at all costs” and allow it to influence your approach.

If you are taking street photographs and someone does something interesting, but you missed it, why not ask them to do it again. They might refuse, or they might agree, and then you’ll get the shot you thought you’d missed forever.

For this shot, although I was in danger of being soaked, I waited for the tide to start leaping over the rocks in front of me. I snapped away for as long as I dared, until I noticed my feet were getting rather wet, then leapt across the rocks back to dry land. To get the shot I wanted required prediction, patience, perseverance and just a bit of pluck! And a casual disregard for the state of my shoes.
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The Zen of When

The word zen implies a state of relaxation and concentration. This is an apt way of describing your state of mind when waiting for your shot; you should be both relaxed (in the knowledge that your settings are the way you want them) and concentrated (ready at a split-second’s notice to take the picture) so that when the moment presents itself you are pressing the shutter almost before you realise it.

I have deliberately not gone into technical details in this article, but of the example photographs one was taken with a cheap consumer point and shoot, one with a digital SLR and modern lens, one with a digital SLR and a manual lens, and one with a battered old film SLR. I did this to show that it doesn’t necessarily matter what you shoot with, just that you shoot, and take the time to think about timing.

I would recommend consciously thinking about timing as you would about composition. Make an effort to be patient with a subject and keep snapping long after you would previously have moved on; Look at a scene and try to guess what will happen next, and position yourself in the best place to get the shot when it happens; Go out in the rain, climb a hill and when the sun eventually breaks through the clouds the glittering landscape will be your reward for your determination; and finally, be brave, create your own timing.

Do this and I hope you will find that well composed, well timed shots make for the best photographs of all – those with both immediacy and impact.

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03-29-2012, 09:33 AM   #2
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A nice write up. I wish I could throw bread at my daughter to get her to perform for the camera
03-29-2012, 09:55 AM   #3
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Beautiful, well written, amazing article. I agree with a lot of it, and I am taking away a lot from it. Thank you.
03-29-2012, 08:36 PM   #4
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Great article and nice to learn some tricks and also be reassured that some of the ideas I have about shooting are shared by others. I'd add one thought to your
QuoteOriginally posted by First Poster Quote
Perseverance
section. Shooting a lot helps cover mistakes - you can be a little wrong or a lot wrong with all the other photos as long as you are also right once. I just started playing with extension tubes and macro - and when my photos are wrong, they are very wrong, but by shooting a few, sometimes I get the focus just that little bit sharper into something presentable. Also, you sometimes get to see your mistakes (as in being out of focus, or the wrong exposure settings) as having merit in their own right. At least that is the view I'm starting to take for the second image on this post (https://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/post-your-photos/180601-macro-not-quite-there-yet.html). (With apologies for hijacking this excellent article for a bit of self promo - but on these particular photos I am interested to hear some feedback.)

03-29-2012, 09:40 PM   #5
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A much-needed article on an oft-overlooked aspect of photography, thank you!
04-05-2012, 08:08 AM   #6
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Excelant advice Zen, echoes my own methods, well written & great photos
04-05-2012, 08:57 AM   #7
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Outstanding!!
08-16-2012, 06:03 PM   #8
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Very interesting article.
I know I am late to the comments on this one but I was challenged this summer with a simple comment "pffffft who needs light!" and hense my patience had to grow. Shooting in low light conditions is tricky to say the least and a flash is not part of the equation so.....I enjoyed your article immensly. I even threw some really dry wood into a fire to get the sparks streaking out across my frame. I think I took a 100 shots to get just 2 or 3 really interesting ones. Needless to say my friend gave me the spark to work on technique and timing and patience.

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