Ready, Aim, Fire!
For photographers, it's generally accepted that "lights, camera, action" forms be a suitable rallying cry. But there's a different mantra that I'd like to talk about this week. "Ready, aim, fire!"
As an outdoor and nature photographer, or frankly as any type of photographer, you have to be ready for what you might encounter. That includes both you and your gear being ready. This time of year, it's obvious we need to be ready for the weather, but problems can arise any time of year, especially in the mountains. If you accidentally veer off the trail and get lost, a passing rain shower and a night alone in the woods could spell disaster if you're not prepared.
As for your gear, getting ready starts with having what you need, continues with knowing how to use it, and proceeds with packing it for your trip. Believe it or not, I left for a trip one time without my tripod. Driving all the way back home to get it sure put a crimp in my weekend's plans. Whether you pack using a printed checklist or not is up to you, but if not, you'd better have a good mental one.
Being ready means having batteries charged, lenses cleaned of yesterday's fingerprints, and memory cards downloaded and emptied out to provide room to capture the wonders of a new day.
Readiness includes knowing where to be, and when to be there. If you want to photograph mountain wildflowers at dawn, you need to know where potentially good locations are, and when the sunrises in that area at that time of the year. It means checking the weather forecast, and having alternative plans at least loosely in mind in case things turn out other than what the forecast led you to believe.
Aiming your camera isn't as simple as it might seem. Most instructions for beginners tell you to point your camera directly at your subject. But at best, too many dead-center bullseye shots will appear static and boring. You need to put some thought and attention in to how best to express yourself creatively, positioning your subject to contribute to your competition. Taking a picture of something is simple. Composing a good picture of it takes practice. Let your own sense of what looks good be your guide. Fine tune it with every trip you take and every shot you make.
Aiming should include setting out to capture a shot you think can be made, previsualizing the possible result ahead of time in your mind's eye. With this as your target, you can then position yourself relative to your subject as necessary to create the perspective you need. Your choice of focal length, aperture and other variables should be dictated by what you need and by what you know you can do with your camera. While it is quite possible to take good shots by accident, doing so with forethought and aim can yield a higher percentage of winners in less time. Don't stumble into good shots, plan for them. Enough monkeys with typewriters may eventually succeed in typing a line of Shakespeare, a person familiar with the works of The Bard will surely do better.
This is where the payoff for all your efforts on the two prior steps happens. You press the shutter release, and an image gets recorded by the sensor in your camera. If you're prepared, or at least lucky, magic happens.
Precisely when you press the shutter release can make the difference between a good image and a great one. Strive to fire at the "decisive moment." Whether that be when the elk rears its head back and calls out in the forrest, or when the sun first peaks over the horizon line, the best image is often a record of a brief instant that could otherwise go unnoticed if you're not paying attention.
But if you want to make the most of it, it's important to be sure you don't mess things up at the last moment. To get sharp images, your camera needs to be steady. Otherwise, any camera movement will blur the shot. And with higher megapixel counts on current cameras, little mistakes like this can show. Tapping your camera with your finger to trip the shutter can cause camera shake too. It's best to avoid even a gentle nudge if you can help it.
There's a rule regarding hand holding that says that when shooting at shutter speeds up to one over your focal length you should be safe. But the safest thing to do is to mount your camera solidly on a tripod and fire the shutter via a cable release or other remote trigger. Pressing the shutter release can seem so simple, with all the hard work already done in the "ready" and "aiming" phases, but problems can still happen if you don't pay attention to details.
There's a lot that happens when you press the shutter release, yet most of us will take all this technology for granted. But we owe a tremendous debt to generation after generation of photographers, scientists and engineers that have come before us. Less than 200 years after Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype process as the first practical way to record images, we now have digital cameras that pack tens of millions of photoreceptive cells on a chip not much bigger than a postage stamp. And photographers today have their choice of software applications to turn the sharp, color images taken with such cameras into ones that look like they were taken with a daguerreotype camera of the 1830's. Now that's progress.
Yet regardless of where photography came from and where it may be headed in the future, the basic steps of ready, aim and fire continue to ring true. You may not necessarily repeat this mantra to yourself as you go about your photography, but you should have something like this in mind. Otherwise, you're unlikely to get many truly good shots. These three steps may be seen as overly basic by some, but a reminder of them every now and again can help all of us improve our craft.