Yesterday, not far off from where my family lives in Malaysia there was a major earthquake. Actually, there were three major earthquakes all within several miles and minutes of each other, all of them over 8.0 in magnitude. Fortunately they were over 400 km off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Apparently the type of earthquake they were did not lend itself to a tsunami. Before I go any further, I want to thank everyone who sent well wishes and prayers up on our behalf. All were greatly appreciated. There was a time during and just after the earthquake we were not sure if we would have to evacuate due to a possible tsunami. In preparation for a possible evacuation to higher ground we quickly put together a small bag with a few days worth of clothing, loaded the back of the car with large containers of water and I packed up several of my cameras and four removable backup drives. We reacted calmly and precisely. We’d been through this before and we knew what we needed to do.
In thinking about what to write today I felt it might be a good time to remind all of us to calm down. I can’t tell you how many people have told me stories how they get flustered and excited when something they have been waiting to photograph appears. They shoot the picture quickly and nervously, then look at it later only to find that the ISO was set to some unusable number or some other setting was off. This is a typical result of excitement and panic. We have all done it, we wait for what seems like hours for something to unfold or out of the blue something so spectacular happens and we are caught off guard, we get caught up in the moment and we don’t pay attention to the details. Our reactions are all over the place and our decisions are poor, often just plain wrong. In short – we screw up.
I worked as a lifeguard for seven summers all throughout high school and university and some years in between. As a lifeguard you are drilled over and over to react and to stay calm. You’re trained to sit at a lifeguard stand and fight boredom for hours on end. Then, at any given moment you have to react and quickly. Someone’s life is at stake. You quickly assess the situation and react accordingly. In my seven years of lifeguarding I personally rescued 27 people. The guards on our beach rarely performed mouth-to-mouth or CPR because our reactions were quick and precise and we acted before the situation got that bad. We trained in routines and skills that we used over and over so that they became second nature when the time came to react. We talked to ourselves sometimes even out loud and reminded ourselves to stay calm and think.
When we are photographing an event or a circumstance that gets our heart pounding we can use these same principles to make sure we get the image.
- Know your gear. I’ve harped on this over and over again. You need to know without thinking where the buttons are on your camera and what they do. You need to be able to identify each button with your eyes closed so you don’t have to remove your eye from the viewfinder to find a button and risk losing the shot.
- Assess the situation and react accordingly. Don’t just start shooting wildly. Shoot with purpose. Photograph intentionally. Yes something exciting is about to happen or is happening but you can remain calm and focused. Think through what aperture you need, what shutter speed you need and what speed is your ISO set at. What lens to you need? Are you in the right position? Are you safe?
- Talk to yourself, out loud if need be. Remind yourself to be calm. Take deep breaths. Think through the settings you need. You already know where the buttons are on your camera, now use them. Pay attention to what is in the frame and in the foreground and background. Any poles or trees sticking up out of peoples heads? Any hot spots in the frame? Check your meter if it is set correctly? I use exposure compensation all the time and as such it is often left a stop or two up or down. Look to the viewfinder now and make sure it’s where it needs to be.
Doing just these three things will give you a much better chance of getting the image that you’ve waited for.
Whether it’s calmly packing your bags in preparing for an evacuation or taking a photo that you’ve waited for when it finally arrives, being prepared and calm can only help. Getting excited and freaking out will only cause you to lose the photograph or be washed out to sea.