05. Seize the opportunity

An chance to shoot a great photo is like lightning. It rarely strikes in the same place again. If something catches your eye, it’s incumbent on you to stop and capture the moment.

Show Notes


In this episode, I’m going to discuss the importance of seizing a photographic opportunity as soon as you see it. Again, like a lot of the topics on this podcast, this isn’t some groundbreaking method, it’s just practical advice. Yet, it’s something we need to keep in mind constantly, especially if we’re trying to create meaningful art every day.

The logic here is simple. If you see something you’d like to photograph, stop whatever you’re doing and go take the shot. It’s really that straightforward, but how many times have you driven by a potential photo because you just didn’t feel like stopping the car? Maybe you’re walking in the city and on your way to have lunch with someone, and you see a great photo in your mind’s eye, but you can’t be inconvenienced to stop and chase it down. Or maybe your camera is stowed away in your backpack and you don’t feel like unpacking it for one more shot.

I’ve mentioned before the importance of always having a camera ready. Not just in the trunk of your car in your camera bag, but an arm’s length away. Another quick note on that, be sure your camera is ready to take photos. If your card is full, or you can’t remember how to drill down through the menu system to turn off a focus mode, or you neglect to check your ISO or your exposure compensation, you’re going to miss the shot.

Hopefully you take the time to reset your camera to some default values every time you put it away, so when you pick it up again, you’ll begin with your settings in a familiar state. I’m mostly thinking of things like ISO, shutter speed, aperture, shooting mode, etc. There’s nothing worse than trying to shoot a fast moving situation and realizing you’ve left the self-timer on, or trying to recompose or frame a portrait when your autofocus is set to continuous. I think we’ve all made mistakes like this.

When I was much younger, I had the opportunity to visit France. And just to illustrate how long ago this was, I was shooting with film. Nearly everyone still was. Anyway, I developed a close friendship with an English tour guide and we spent a fair amount of time walking together, particularly in Paris, where he offered Rick Steves-like tips on getting around the city, pointed out landmarks, and discussed the nuances of the culture.

I recall pausing briefly at a storefront on some side street, but didn’t make an effort to go inside. My friend stopped and offered some advice that has stuck with me for 20 years: “If you see it, think it, do it.”

If you see something that catches your attention, if you think about it, then do it. Don’t hesitate. It’s really that simple. In my case, I was likely never going to be at this same place in Paris, standing at this storefront ever again.

You can apply this philosophy to nearly every aspect of your life. But it’s especially relevant for photography. If you see an opportunity, take it. Don’t hesitate, because it won’t be there a moment from now, if ever again.

I recall a specific case during my own photo a day. It was a morning in late November, mid-week, and I was on my normal commute to work, driving the same road I’d been driving for the past six years. Nothing new to shoot here, or so I thought.

The weather was pretty awful that morning. Cold mist and fog. But there’s an old expression, reportedly attributed to Ansel Adams: “Bad weather makes for good photography.” And he’s not wrong.

Dense fog isn’t a rarity here, not like snow, but it’s still uncommon, and on that morning, it created a dreamlike, magical mood over the landscape. At one point, I drove past a clearing that had several lone skeletons of trees, with an unobstructed view towards some small hills in the background. Yet, I kept driving. As always, I was running late for work.

Here was one of the best opportunities I was probably going to get on this gloomy day, and I was letting it slip away from me. I found a place I could turn the car around and sped back towards the scene. I pulled off the road, grabbed my X100F and walked into the field. The images I captured ended up being some of the signature photos in my year-long project.

This was the ultimate example of my friend’s advice. If you see it, think it, do it.

It wasn’t luck that led me to these photos. It was the fact that I turned the car around, even at the risk of inconveniencing myself, and got the shot that was in my mind’s eye.

Seizing an opportunity shouldn’t be confused with the old motivational axiom of “carpe diem” -- “seize the day.” We’re not trying to seize the day, we’re trying to selectively seize certain key moments. It’s all about efficiency.

Unless you have nothing else to do on a particular day, you won’t be able to dedicate the whole day to shooting images or creating art. If you do have that luxury, great! But many of us will have jobs, or responsibilities to family, and the usual sturm und drang of daily life to contend with.

That’s why being able to strike on a creative opportunity in the moment is so important. Our time is limited, so we have to make the most of it. Think of it as carefully picking and choosing your moves in a game of chess. The correct moves will ultimately help you win the game. Win the key battles, and you’ll ultimately win the war.

Photo ops aren’t just going to magically appear every day on your morning commute. You still need to approach your day with a plan in mind, and be sure to allocate some creative time for yourself, so you can at least have a greater chance at being successful. Is there a certain time of day you feel most creative? Is there a place you go that inspires you? Are there people you enjoy spending time with that make you a more creative person? If possible, try to incorporate these variables in your daily plan.

I’ve mentioned my lunchtime photo walks before. This was a great time in the middle of the day to take a break from work, and walk around the city near my workplace capturing street life. I seized that window of time as my own, and used it to create moments for myself over and over again. Sometimes, I’d even be joined by co-workers, who were curious about my project. Their presence was inspiring, because it helped me think about my own process and motivations.

So, it all comes back to planning, yet allowing yourself the flexibility to adapt to important moments that matter. Enjoy the randomness of life. Be open to surprise opportunities and take advantage of them. Remember, if you see it, think it, do it!

On the next show -- gear acquisition syndrome. Do you suffer from it? If so, you're probably making the creative process more difficult!