Today is Saint Patrick's Day, and I'd like to use the occasion to consider the role of luck in being a photographer. Or is luck just another name for skill?
"The luck of the Irish" comes in both good and bad varieties. If you go back far enough in history, the term apparently referred somewhat ironically to their bad luck, the Irish people having suffered though famines and political turmoil for centuries. By the time of the American gold rush though, the term took on its present, more positive connotation of good luck. It seems that a number of the most successful mines where owned by Irish Americans in their bid to strike it rich in their new homeland. And thus, the legends of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow come down to us today.
When labeling it "the luck of the Irish," we implicitly consider it to be something one is born with. Either you have it, or you don't. I often hear a similar attribution when referring to good photographers. Either someone is born with it, or they aren't. What we observe of course is that some people just seem to be "luckier" than others. Two photographers can stand next to each other, firing away at the shutter and working the same subject as the light changes and things happen. When they later compare their results, each will have taken some shots that are similar to the other, yet each will also end up with some images that the other didn't. Man, just how did you get that shot?
Personally, while I'm told that I do have a portion of Irish ancestry, I've never considered it as part of who I am, and my observances of Saint Patrick's Day been low key at best. Gotta remember to wear green, of something like that. But today is indeed the day, and it got me thinking about luck. And no, I didn't have Lucky Charms for breakfast this morning, even though I do admit that as I kid, I thought they were magically delicious. Today, I can't imagine what I ever saw in them. But anyway, I digress.
In the pursuit of nature photography, there's only so much one can control. At least some credit for many great images has to be given to steadfast perseverance or to outright luck. Nothing is certain when you are up against mother nature. If you haven't figured it out yet, not every killer image was preplanned. Or at least not all of mine have been.
But to boil good photography down to the throw of a die and a sprinkle of good luck would clearly be an error. Practice, hard work and dedication do play a huge role in honing any craft, and photography is no exception. So, if we can't control everything, what are we to make of what lies admittedly beyond our control? To call it luck is to be thankful for it, but to learn little from it.
I believe the answer can be found in an examination of how we respond to the unexpected, the unanticipated element we call "luck." We call it good luck when we recognize the image making potential of the unexpected. We thank our lucky stars that we were able to react quickly enough — to see that fleeting moment and capture it digitally. We consider it bad luck when we limit ourselves to what we had planned for, failing to adapt to the unexpected, and blaming it for our failures. The same passing cloud can be the source of either, depending on how you react to it.
In photography, we talk a lot about "making images" as opposed to just "taking images." The final image isn't limited strictly to the subject matter on hand. The rendering of that subject can be guided by a whole series of conscious and unconscious choices on your part. Photography is very much an active pursuit, not merely a passive one. But there is one thing that has to come first. You have to let go of your own ideas and be open to what is. Before you can act on some possibility, you have to be able to see it rather than look around it, trying to find what you thought would be there. It can be easy to consider someone lucky if they turn out to get all the breaks. But I think they've just learned to see and react more quickly than perhaps we have. It's a skill. A skill that can be learned, if we are open to it.
Luck is what happens to you. Skill is what you do with that.
And whether you are Irish or not, just remember that there's a lot of green out there in nature. That must be a lucky sign.