- "Sometimes I have taken photographs and just felt so excited that I could barely hold the camera steady, and the photo was boring."
- —Robert Rauschenberg
4.1 You need to go it alone and find a way to the photographic zone of concentration to do your best work. In highly charged situations, I do everything I can to stay focused, concentrating on staying calm and making sure I do the right things to get the shot. My adrenaline is pumping but I try to stay calm.©Steve Simon
There's no doubting the fact that photography can be fun, and it's often a great experience to spend the day shooting with other photographers. But I maintain that to do your best work you need to be laser-focused and go it alone.
Shooting at your highest level requires you to direct all your attention to the subject before you move into the "photographic zone," a place of high concentration ( 4.2 ). You've probably experienced that feeling when you're truly concentrating on the task at hand and distractions disappear. When you're in the photographic zone, you are present, in the moment. Time itself seems to slow down or become irrelevant as you focus your efforts and your camera on your subjects. Your ability to ignore distractions increases.
4.2 Concentration is key to finding your way to the "photographic zone" from which you do your best work. A young cowboy from Raymond, Alberta, is deep in concentration.©Steve Simon
If you can find your way there, you will be rewarded with great images. But getting there requires working on the previous steps, letting the technical aspects of your camera fade and fuse into your background process. In the photographic zone, you move around—eye to the viewfinder—constantly exploring, sometimes thinking, sometimes just feeling your way through.
And, as you learned in the last step, your comfort zone is only the starting point from which to work harder, to dig deeper visually.
Learning to Concentrate
My best shooting experiences meld the physical—the act of shooting—with the mental and emotional (which becomes second nature with experience) to get to a place where I'm in that zone ( 4.3 ). It takes a presence of mind that comes with practice and discipline.
4.3 When you're in that zone, all distractions melt away and you can focus on your subject. Canada Day block party, Raymond, Alberta.©Steve Simon
We are all constantly working in a kind of shorthand; our eyes are open, but we may not see. If you've ever driven a car while deep in thought or talking on your speaker-phone, you understand auto-pilot mode. During this time you often have little or no recollection of what you saw as you were driving—a bit scary, actually. We can function at both tasks because we look with our eyes but see with our brains. We're not concentrating on what our eyes are showing us; we look at the road, the lights, and the other cars enough to safely get where we need to go, but we're not seeing the way a photographer needs to see to do good work. As Albert Einstein said, "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves."
Finding our way to the photographic zone involves thinking before you shoot and being aware. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of how difficult it was for him to be lucid and photograph in his home environment, where "you know too much, and not enough."
It is true that visiting new places and cultures can inspire you. In theory, you should be able to make better, more exciting and visually stimulating images than when you're shooting in old, familiar settings. I know how hard it is to motivate myself in my own backyard at times, but when I travel I see with fresh eyes; everything is new and I'm inspired ( 4.4 ). As a photographer, if you can learn to make the ordinary extraordinary, imagine how good your photos will be when you're lucky enough to be in an extraordinary environment?
4.4 It's sometimes extra hard to get inspired in your own familiar territory. But as you take off for a new and inspiring destination, someone else may be landing in your backyard with the same excitement you feel about your destination. If you can find a way to make great work at home, there's no limit to what you can do when you go somewhere that excites your senses. A two-second exposure of a plane making the turn to land at JFK in New York City.©Steve Simon
But from my experience, exciting surroundings don't always translate into great pictures. When you travel to an exotic location, not only are you on high alert visually, but your brain speeds up, and all your senses are stimulated as you wander about. The ability to maintain your cool, calm, and concentration amid the chaos of a new and vibrant location is key to coming away with strong images, and it's also very challenging.
When you return from that exciting new place, you are going to want those images to visually communicate everything you experienced in the field, without the sights, sounds, and smells to help communicate your message. So, in a visually stimulating environment, the bar is raised. Yet if you don't concentrate, you may just be going through the photographic motions and not doing the things you have to do to make your pictures great.
Here's how I work to focus my heightened sense of awareness and maintain concentration in highly charged shooting situations. When I go to a new place and culture, I allow myself some time to look around and soak it all in. I've done my research. I generally know where I am and where I'm going, though I'm always willing to let serendipity take me in a new direction if better images may be around that corner.
I pause and take a deep breath. I make sure my camera is set for the shooting conditions I'm under and I go to work ( 4.5 ).
4.5 The more you have going on in your environment, the more important it is to take a deep breath and concentrate. A busy market near Kigali in Rwanda.©Steve Simon
I'm patient. My time is usually limited so, if possible, I want to have a look around the entire periphery of where I'll be shooting, noting areas that have the best visual potential. I try to hold back and observe before shooting because I want to invest my limited time in those places that experience tells me will maximize my results. I know that all subjects are not created equal, so I want to put the odds in my favor by choosing subjects for their visual richness and potential to yield the strongest images, and spend time there.
As you learned in Step 3, it's often best to spend more time shooting fewer different scenes and to go deeper with your work to maximize your photographic chances. It's especially true when there's great content to capture. You want to push yourself out of your comfort zone by shooting that literal record of the scene first—as a starting point—and then move deeper into the process of the compositional dance.
It's probably hardest for me to do when I'm dealing with delicate or new and unfamiliar places and situations ( 4.6 ). This is where instinct and intuition kick in.
4.6 A memorial to the victims of the Rwandan Genocide near Kigali.©Steve Simon
As much as I'm advocating getting out of your comfort zone, it is important to be comfortable while shooting. It's hard to do your best work when you don't feel both physically and psychologically comfortable in a place, so dress appropriately for the weather and pack light, working within your camera kit's limitations. Remember, you can only have one camera and one lens to your eye at any one time.
Then, when you're relaxed and have permission from your subject or the powers that be at the venue, you can photograph freely with an uncluttered mind and concentrate on the picture-taking task at hand.