Luck and Opportunity

What are the attributes of a good photographer? What is it that makes one person with a camera different or better than another?  The cliché answer, the one that drives photographers crazy but is still believed , if not voiced by many people – it’s the camera. I don’t subscribe to that fully but it would be naive to say that the camera doesn’t matter. Anyone who has tried to photograph soccer action with their mobile phone’s camera will know that the camera does matter. But given a reasonable camera, an entry level DSLR or Micro Four Thirds cameras, most of us can photograph most things.

So what makes some better others? Is it simply artistry, innate  ability and so the preserve of the few? I don’t think so. Too many of the very best photographers took it up by accident or force of circumstance rather than hunger to be a lensman. They learned to be good photographers. 

In the days before digital it was easier to be regarded as a good photographer. Photography required much more technique and knowledge. Mastering manual focusing for still life or landscape is straightforward  enough. For portraiture it is more difficult. You can’t put a sitter’s head in a clamp to keep them still any more! For fast moving children and sport it is a true hard won skill. If you knew how to do that and how to arrive at the correct exposure  setting you were a good photographer already. Never mind the picture. Anyone my age will remember the remark ‘did your pictures come out’? And the very height of praise, ‘ooh, they’re lovely and clear, aren’t they”? Back then, knowing how to work a camera could earn you a living because it was technical and  difficult and not everyone could do it. 

Nowadays pictures ‘coming  out’ and being ‘clear’ are a given. The camera sees to that. Paradoxically, being a good photographer is much more difficult. If a good camera makes a good photographer then everyone  is a good photographer. Trouble is, if everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. To be good, you need to have something that others don’t. To be different. That is much more difficult than working a camera.

So back to my original question, what makes a good photographer? How do you do it? There’s no one answer but there is one thing that looms above the others. Just keep doing it. Just keep taking pictures and looking at pictures. Take pictures of anything and everything. It’s free! Cull your pictures ruthlessly. Look at advertising pictures and sports pictures, press pictures and exhibition pictures. Look at other people’s work on your favourite online photo mag. I mean look at. Study them. Think about them. Because it will be your brain that makes you the photographer you want to be. What do you like about a picture? Why do you like that? How would you have done that picture? Would you have done it as well?

Paul McCartney said of songwriting that what made him want to write songs was listening to his hero Buddy Holly. When he first started writing, all his songs sounded like Buddy Holly. But by just keeping doing it, gradually they became less like Buddy Holly and more like the McCartney and Lennon/ McCartney songs so much admired today. That’s true of photography too. Although he modern camera has de-skilled the photographic process, it cannot automate the ability to see and understand a situation and the instinct to find the best way to express it.

But then there is always luck! The great leveler of photographers. Some of my own favourite pictures are a product of serendipity. I just came across something. It just happened in front of me. It just appeared. You have to take advantage of it though and that’s why I think the character trait of opportunism  is so useful for a photographer. In politicians it is deprecated but for a photographer it is an asset. You see something you want, you grab it with your camera and it exists forever. It is something that no other medium can do so directly. See it, take it. 

I have so many examples of opportunism in my own favourite pictures that someone could reasonably say that I am unusually lucky. But years of experience  have taught me that to always have a camera with me (thank you MFT for making that painless!), to always be looking and to not often be too lazy to pick up the camera.Tab157

The pic here is one of my favourite opportunistic ones. I was in Jordan just before the first Gulf War getting stories of the refugees from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On a spare day, I travelled the 150 miles from Amman to Petra with a colleague, journalist Jeff Edwards. Because of the imminent war there were no visitors. Our guide was a Jordanian Professor of History and we had him to ourselves one to one. There were just the three of us  and the professor wanted to ask us our thoughts on America’s intentions in Iraq. We sat down talking in the utter silence of the stone city when I heard a horse’s hooves drumming on the ground. I had a little Olympus Muji with me, picked it up and just loosed off one frame as the rider came thundering past. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, the scene arrived and unfolded so fast, the rider vanishing  into to the distance in a plume of red dust. Only back in London and with a processed film did I realize I could never have planned it so well.This must be a rare sight because Petra is normally packed with tourists. 

I think anyone seeing this picture would say I was a good photographer. Actually it was all down to luck and opportunism!

8 thoughts on “Luck and Opportunity

  1. David Cantor

    Hi David, another erudite post on your blog. One of my favourite books is by Alex Wbb, in it he tells of an encounter with Josef Koudelka who he hadn’t seen for some years. They were riding the subway when the older man grabbed his foot to find out if he had been walking and therefore photographing enough. This fits your supposition completely. I’m often asked how I get some of my shots, just reply ‘with comfortable shoes.

    If you have the inclination, perhaps have a look at my blog My last post just confirms what can happen with luck and just ‘being there’ – often.

    1. Post author

      Hi David – I sometime think everyone is called David! Yes, the more work you put in the luckier you get. I think it is just statistical – if you have an eye for a picture the more you get around the more you see and therefore the more pictures present themselves to you. It seems horribly prosaic. I remember Woody Allen saying that 80% of success was just showing up and of course that is true because most people don’t turn up. I reckon the 3 greatest gifts for a person are curiosity, not being lazy and crucially, a sunny personality. The pic of Dillon is wonderful. To get the picture of Dillon shining like that, he has to like you. That’s something I don’t think can be taught.

      Nice oblique view by Koudelka. I must find out more about him.

  2. Malcolm

    That’s a lovely photo David and you were lucky to be there at the time to catch it. While modern cameras with auto focus certainly give a good chance to catch a keeper shot quickly, I have always had a feeling with the beep-clack that some of the experience of photography is missing.

    I recently purchased an entirely manual Voigtlander lens and the magic of the 1960’s and early 70’s returned. I felt there was more involvement and creativity again. Sure I can always revert to manual focus on an auto focus lens but I then just tend to be lazy I guess when the technology is at hand.

    On another point, MFT is truly wonderfull with the choices of lenses that seem to grow all the time. But I see a new issue emerging considering both the considerable cost involved and wide range of choice. There is the lovely Olympus 40-150mm f2.8, the wonderfull Panasonic 30-100mm choices; the Panasonic 15mm vs the Olympus 17mm – one could go on and on. I wonder if mental health professionals may be seeing a new health condition emerging. Perhaps it could be labeled MFT Disorientation Syndrome. Just kidding.

    Best wishes from New Zealand.

    1. Post author

      You may have a point about the health condition! As you say. There’s nothing to stop anyone using a camera manually but it doesn’t feel right when you know that the camera can do it automatically. It seems too much like you’re making a point.

      I think that with film cameras, taking a picture was more of an event. If it didn’t work – and it would too late to redo it by the time you found out- you had actually wasted some ooney and an opportunity. With digital the ‘event’ feeling is lost since there is no cost and you can see immediately if you got the shot or not.

      It reminds me of going down to my local record shop to see what new blues and rock sinmgles were in. The fact that you had to wait to find out made the pleasure of getting them much greater. I suppose in the end I feel lucky to have known and experienced the pleasures of both.

  3. Dan

    The technical side of photography is easy – it just involves taking lots of pictures until using your camera is second nature. Cameras are so good and so forgiving now, the fundamentals are catered for

    The real skill comes in composition. Arranging objects in the frame, selecting the right light, identifying harmonious (or not so harmonious) colour juxtapositions. Some people have an eye for it, while others never do despite their enthusiasm. Time and times again, I see fantastic photographers who just use a phone, and their work is utterly compelling. Sure a DSLR or mirrorless ILC allows you to stretch your vision, but if your eye doesn’t work, you just have very clear, sharp but boring pictures.

    (Of course, stray luck never goes amiss)

    1. Post author

      That pretty much hits the nail on the head, Dan. You can get lucky but waiting for it won’t get you anywhere. In the end you have to cultivate the eye and your senses to become a photographer.

      1. Phil

        For me, photography is about communicating an idea. Even if its the simplest of ideas. Knowing what you are setting out to do. Its easy to look at photography as an aesthetic but much harder to communicate through subject matter.
        Also the final method of display (Forum, Gallery, Billboard, Book etc) should always be an influence when creating the work.
        In my opinion, its also important to remember that all photography is constructed. When composing an image, it becomes constructed mearly by the act of cropping and choosing what to photograph. All photos lie to a certain extent.

        1. Post author

          I agree. It is the fact that photographs do or can lie that makes them worthwhile looking at at all in my view. Everything we do involves a choice of some sort, probably different from the choice another would make and thus in some small way a personal statement.

          It’s ambiguous sometimes, though, because some good photography is purely luck. A painter or novelist, cannot produce by luck alone but I can set up a camera to fire off one shot per minute on a sea view and I’ll most likely find an interesting picture somewhere among them. There’s no question that digital photography, while making it feasible for everyone to take a technically acceptable picture, has increased the likelihood of obtaining a picture by serendipity, given the millions of images that are made each day.

          I suppose the question is, does it matter? If you just look at the image, it is what it is. You don’t need to know anything about Turner or painting or the location of the scene to like his work and the same should apply to a photograph. The trouble is that in the avalanche of imagery available to us now, it becomes very hard to separate the good from the bad, the talented from the lucky.


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