Take Your Time: The Case of the Neurotic Photographer

One of the greatest impediments to me becoming a better photographer is that I wouldn’t want to be seen dead with a camera in my hand. 

Quick on the Trigger like John Wayne

In a city like London not wanting to be seen taking a picture does rather pose a problem. Even if you use a phone, even if you had an invisible camera, you would be still seen acting like a photographer.

What I’d like instead is to take great photos without behaving like a photographer.

To pull out the camera and shoot from the hip, as it were, in one quick movement, non-chalantly, seemingly without aiming but hitting the target for the first time, all the time. Yeah! Like John Wayne.


Take Your Time

Quite the contrary to how John Wayne solved his problems in numerous westerns, new photographers are advised that they should take their time when taking a picture. This is excellent advice; we can’t all be natural marksmen, like John Wayne. I, for example, whenever I do take my time, I take a photo worth looking at afterwards. (I didn’t say a good photo, mind.) There’s just a tiniest bit of a problem: if I follow this advice, people will see me taking my time.

I mean people will see me fooling around with the camera like I know what I’m doing… Watch me even. (And then expose me for a fraud. Look at her, she acts like a photographer but have you seen the result?!)

In other words, the problem is that I feel like a complete fraud with camera in hand.

Why?

Because whenever I’m taking my time, I’m not actually taking photos that would win the National Geographic photo contest. Most of them wouldn’t even grace a better sort of family album.

I’m pretending I’m a photographer but in reality I’m only a bumbler, a bungler, a fumbler.

The Neurotic Photographer in Action

A year ago I went down to Trafalgar Square, squinted at the Admiralty Arch, long a favourite building of mine, and spent at least five minutes – felt like an eternity – composing a picture. I walked up to the building. Then I backed away. I moved to the left, twisted my neck this way and that way, and finally held my phone up only to lower it and start all over again from a different angle.

All the while I was painfully conscious of the passers-by who (I thought) all recognised me for a pretentious idiot. And it’s not like I was even flashing a camera, let alone one of those big ones that require two hands and make you look like a paparazzo; no, I was using my phone. Besides it was Trafalgar Square – come on, it’s one of the prime tourist spots in the world! Yet as soon as somebody turned the corner, I hastily pocketed the phone and tried to look as if I hadn’t been actually trying to take a photo of the Admiralty Arch, a landmark that clearly none of hundred or so tourists milling on Trafalgar Square considered photogenic… You got the picture?

So did I, in the end:

Admiralty Arch, London
Admiralty Arch, London

Easily the most innovative picture I’d ever taken in my life up to that point, although in retrospective it’s probably not that good. But I will always like it because it’s the first picture I’ve ever taken that actually involved some thought instead of me just randomly pointing the camera at something while hoping for the best.

Great Photographers Take Their Time

Unfortunately, you can’t become a better photographer without actually taking photos. I decided that what I needed to overcome my evident neurosis was a little encouragement. Better still: inspiration. I went and bought a book on photography.

Eureka! It told me that even great photographers take pictures that don’t cut it the first time, that even great photographers need to take their time:

Photography isn’t about hitting a winner with every click. Getting the shot is a process. Here Lange needed to spend time observing, waiting, shooting – and she didn’t stop until she found what she was looking for.

(Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Carroll)

Incidentally, what Lange was looking for is this:

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1936)
Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1936) via Wikipedia

(I really don’t think we’re in the same league.)

Lange took this photo in the US during the Great Depression. Many years later, she spoke about how she took the photo:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.

Well, I sure got inspiration. All I have to do now is to pick up the camera and go out to take pictures.

(I will pretend I’m a tourist.)

P.S.

  1. Is it just me who thinks that Migrant Mother could have been taken this year rather than 80 years ago?
  2. Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs must be the worse title for a book ever.
You might also like:Black & WhiteThe London Eye at Night (Geometry)

A Dummy's Lessons in Photography:
(With its own icon in the sidebar) is the new series where I collect all the posts relating to trying to become a better photographer. Lessons as in lessons learnt (hopefully). This includes last year's Photo101 by the Daily Post and sundry posts. This year I decided to try & to follow the 52 week photography challenge by Dogwood Photography. Let me know if you do too! :)
Apologies to those of you who are not interested in photography - I'll try to keep it interesting!
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