Tag Archives: MKF11

Ask, See, Do

I am often asked how many good photographs I get when I am out on assignment.  In the days of film, this question was framed “Jonathan, how many usable photos do you get per roll? ”   Today the question is simply reframed “What’s your ratio of good photographs to bad?”

It took me a long time before I could articulate an answer to the above question that didn’t leave me feeling strangely drained and awkward.  Not because I didn’t have an answer; there was a time in my life I knew precisely how many good frames I was averaging per roll of film and could return the figure as accurately as a cash register printing a receipt.  What always rubbed me the wrong way about the question was that I never liked the connotations of my answer – whatever the number was.  I disliked the idea that one of the metrics of how good or bad a photographer I was could be measured by how many good or bad frames I captured on a roll of 36, or on a memory card.

Many moons ago, I posed the same question to one of my mentors, Dewitt Jones.   He returned my question with a knowing smile and let just enough silence fill the space after the asking to make me feel like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  When Dewitt broke the silence he said “If your asking that, you’re asking the wrong question.” Feeling a little like young Luke Skywalker learning the force from master Yoda I replied, “What is the question I should be asking?”   Dewitt answered, “The question you should be asking is ‘did I get THE shot’?” He then went on to explain, “You either get the shot or you don’t get the shot – it’s as simple as that.”  The light began to dawn in my mind and I swear I saw Dewitt’s camera levitating ever so slightly on the table behind his chair. “It’s not how many good shots I get, the question is, ‘did I get THE shot?’”

Seeing Clearly

So what is THE shot?  For me the shot is the image, or group of images that most effectively tell the story.  The frame(s) that capture both the reality and the feeling of the moment.

Cartier Bresson describes the shot as capturing the “decisive moment.”  Rikki Cooke describes his process with the phrase “it turned my head.”  Chris Rainier describes his approach as a “feeling in the solar plexus.”  In fact, every great photographer I have ever spoken with uses different words to describe the same thing – excitement.

So what do I do when I have that feeling in the solar plexus?  When my head turns to see the soft light gracing the pilgrims face?

Ask, See, Do

My process can be summed up in three words:  Ask, See, Do.

Ask – I ask myself: What is the story here?  What matters in this scene and what doesn’t?  How can I highlight what is working and eliminate what is not?  And importantly, when photographing people, I try to live by the golden rule by always honoring my subjects and asking permission whenever possible.

See – Do I see the story in my mind’s eye? Do I see this shot at my core level?  Am I seeing this shot with my head or my heart?  If I don’t feel anything when I take the shot, people looking at my photo aren’t going to feel anything. If I am filled with joy at the beauty before me or cry because of the tragedy in front of my lens, my hope is those viewing the image will be able to feel the same emotion.

Do – Can I let my technology and technique augment my vision as an extension of  myself, or is it going to be a barrier between myself and the scene.  If it is a barrier – how can I simplify to the point where it is not and still capture the frame?  Do I need to put away the DSLR and pick up my point and shoot?

Great photography is knowing the story, seeing it with my heart and capturing it in a way that allows me to remain connected to my subject. Great photography happens when subject, heart and technique connect; and when they do, the result is pure magic.

See The Light, Molokai, Hawaii, Day 6


Gecko eating a green bug, Molokai, Hawaii.
Gecko eating a green bug, Molokai, Hawaii.

Point And Shoot

My wife and I had just walked back to our cabin at the Hui when I saw the gecko on the window. It was perched on the outside of the window glass with a bug over half its size in its mouth. Having tried numerous times to get a good shot of geckos as they walk on windows – I knew they were easily spooked by the slightest detectable movement in their field of vision – so in a hushed scream of photographic desperation I whispered “Sweetie DONT MOVE!”. At which my lovely wife smiled, looked at me, then promptly picked up her iphone and began snapping photos – flash on.

Spooked by the light, the gecko began beating a rapid retreat to the safety of the off glass area to digest its delectable meal as I scrambled to get my macro lens and strobe on my camera. I saw the shot dissolving before my eyes like the poor green insect dissolving in the gecko’s digestive track.

I’m not sure what, but something stopped the lizard in its tracks less than an inch from the edge of photographic oblivion. Perhaps he sensed he was about to be made famous, or perhaps he simply was thinking ‘Man the green ones always cause acid reflux!”. Whatever it was that stopped the little guy it was the micro seconds I needed to quickly and stealthily sneak up on the bugger and snap a couple frames.

Dewitt often says that as photographers we are responsible for only two things. What you put in your camera frame and when you press the shutter. What you put in your camera frame – point. When you press the shutter – shoot. Point and shoot. So simple. Why do we make it so complex?

See The Light, Molokai, Hawaii, Day 3

Perhaps it is because I am the youngest sibling in my family, or perhaps it was a habit developed later in life – but I must confess that I like to compete and I like to win. I thrive under pressure. It clarifies my mind better than any cup of coffee could by eliminating the unimportant. Whether it was climbing the Nose on El Capitan when I was 19 or being top of my class at Brooks, I always felt I had something to prove to myself, my family and my friends.

This week at the Hui, Dewitt has forwarded the following thought on competition “don’t prove, improve”. Don’t prove, improve – such a small shift of words, such a large shift of intent.

Yesterday afternoon I and 18 other photographers were shooting a hula halau on Molokai and I began to watch my process as I photographed. I know how to make a great picture of this scene. The competitive proving side of me begins to rise. But proving means I do what I always do – improving means I have permission to take a risk and potentially fail. I pause. Don’t prove Jonathan – improve. A weight is lifted off my shoulders. Permission to play, permission to experiment – granted…

Hula dancer, Molokai, Hawaii. (slow shutter)
Hula dancer, Molokai, Hawaii. (slow shutter)

See The Light, Molokai, Hawaii, Day 2

Photographing on the west end of Molokai I was astonished to see bodyboarders riding a wave that I have never seen anybody surf before. Yet there the bodyboarders were charging a gnarly right that threatened to spit them onto a rocky lava shelf. Risking life and limb they took off with great smiles of glee whooping down the face and pulling back just before being thrown unceremoniously on the sand.

As I panned my camera, following their bodies skimming down the surface, I smiled to myself at the similarity of the reasons we were both there. Rikki Cooke often says to ‘follow your excitement’ and that is what led me and 18 other photographers to the beach on the promise of a high surf warning. The reward is wave after beautiful wave backlit blue by the setting sun, intermittently interrupted by the whoops of gleeful surfers skimming down the face. May I follow my photographic excitement with the same reckless abandonment and pure glee that as these bodyboarders.

Bodyboarder surfing on the west end of Molokai, Hawaii.
Bodyboarder surfing on the west end of Molokai, Hawaii.

See The Light, Molokai, Hawaii, Day 1

Day 1 of See The Light on Molokai, Hawaii.  Participants arrive from as far away as Canada.  Molokai greets them with a spectacular sunset and show of stars.  Below is the Veitchi palm off the front porch of my cabin at the Hui Hoolana.

Night sky with star trails behind a Veitchi palm on Molokai.
Night sky with star trails behind a Veitchi palm on Molokai.
Night sky with star trails behind a Veitchi palm on Molokai.
Night sky with star trails behind a Veitchi palm on Molokai.