7 — Take the Shot

Mad Leopard. D3, 70-300mm, slightly cropped vertically. 

Take the shot and don't throw things away until you've had a chance to really look at them. When I first came across this shot during my image review in my tent I almost hit the delete key. Amongst other problems, I didn't see the leopard's eye as I reviewed the image. This leopard was trying—futilly as it turned out—to chase off an elephant and ended up scampering onto a branch just above my vehicle. I had a very awkward angle and I hadn't re-adjusted my exposure for the leopard coming into deep shadow (I was still set for a "sun" exposure). But my trigger finger has a mind of its own and is tuned to "capture moment" regardless of what the rest of the camera might be doing. 

During my field image review, this image came up as underexposed and, as I noted, I couldn't see the eye. Since this was shot with a D3, the underexposure turned out to be not a big deal, and closer examination showed that the eye was actually there, just underexposed enough that I didn't see it during the quick review. 

How many times do you get to shoot up the throat of an angry leopard? Take the shot. If you practice shooting in impromptu situations enough, your sub-conscious brain will eventually catch the camera settings up to where you need them. For example, by the next time I pressed the shutter release a couple of seconds later I had redialed the exposure to my pre-measured shadow setting, but I wasn't looking up the throat of the leopard any more. I don't remember redialing the exposure, but it's a habit I've developed (more on that in a bit). That next frame I took is still a nice picture and correctly exposed, but it doesn't have the full wrath of this one. 

And that angle? You're not going to get that angle on a leopard doing this very often, either. Press the shutter release. As famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take." 

Now, about habits. It's January and everyone is busy making New Year's Resolutions. Heck, a number of photography blogs are full of New Year's Resolution articles today. Here's my teaching point for the month: don't make a single resolution. Instead, change your habits. Habit formation is the way you make new behaviors permanent, not lists. Habit formation generally requires repeated practice. But if you practice enough and make the habit natural, it becomes permanent and alters future behavior. Making lists (New Year's Resolutions) doesn't achieve alterations in behavior. (If you want to read a good book on this subject, consider getting The Power of Habit [affiliate link]).

So what habit was I using here? Three habits, actually. First, pressing the shutter release regardless of how the camera is set. I may or may not have been conscious of the underexposure, but it doesn't matter: I've taught myself to press the shutter release. Second, I've developed the habit of constantly evaluating light. Note that I didn't say exposure. While change of light means you probably need to change exposure, you have to see the light change to know that you need to change exposure. Make sure you're working the right direction. Doing it the wrong way—does my exposure need to change, what's the light, oh change the exposure—adds a step. Doing it the right way—did the light change, then change the exposure—is more direct. Since we're talking about very precise moments in time with spontaneous photography like this, any additional steps you add to your thinking just slows you down. You not only want habits, but you want efficient habits.

What's the third habit? Did you note that I wrote "pre-measured shadow setting?" In this instance I'm in a vehicle and outside the vehicle I have sunny areas and shaded areas (I'm simplifying here: I actually have a larger range of areas to deal with). The sunny area is one exposure, the shaded area is another. I've already measured them and stored that away in my brain somewhere before I started shooting. My habit is that when I come into a new situation, I measure and check all the exposures I might need.

Now in this particular case, it was late in the day and the light was changing minute by minute. Still, I knew where the exposure had started a few minutes ago, and I knew which direction it would be going (needs more exposure), and I've shot enough to know how fast that change happens. So even though my pre-determined shadow exposure was no longer valid by the time I took the next image after this one, I wasn't far off in guessing what it should be. 

The trick with habits, of course, is knowing what the habit is that you need to develop. Here, I'd say: predetermine all your likely exposures for a shooting session, manually re-adjust in downtimes, and always press the shutter release no matter how the camera is set if something happens. 

May you develop many new helpful habits in 2014. 

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