Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Serendipity Factor

Pencil of Light, McLemore Cove, Walker County, Georgia

Happy New Year! May Serendipity Follow You Wherever You Go!

Have you noticed that some photographers seem to have a monopoly on luck? Or at the very least, a downright uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

But is it really luck--or chance--or fate? Partly, perhaps, but I think there's something else involved as well. Something I call the serendipity factor. It has been responsible for many of my best photographs, and I believe you can learn to use it to improve your photography also.

According to Mr. Webster, serendipity is "an apparent aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally." I can't do much about controlling fate, maybe, but I've found serendipity to be a most agreeable muse, and one who can be courted by the photographer who is willing to spend some time with her. In fact, it takes only three things to win her favor: preparation, presence, and awareness.

First, prepare. Simply carrying a camera (loaded with film and ready to shoot, of course) is the most basic form of preparedness. The more advance thought you give to such matters as the equipment you're likely to need, the kinds of subjects you may encounter, the probable lighting conditions, and possible problems which may arise, the more likely it is that serendipity will bestow her favors upon you.

Second,  presence. Or to put it more simply, be there. Old-time press photographers used to say that the key to great pictures is "f8 and be there!" But where is there? I don't know. You'll have to find that out for yourself. But I can tell you this: if you're enjoying a leisurely breakfast at your hotel in Bangkok as the sun rises and the streets begin to come alive with people, you're not there. There is out on the street, taking advantage of that glorious light and the relaxed, early-morning mood of the people.

Where's there? There is anywhere things are happening. "Theres" are infinite in number and you can't cover them all, but if you pick one and pursue it good things will happen. If you want to meet serendipity you must go where she is.

Third, be aware. Let yourself be loose and sensitive to the things and people around you. You can't do this if you're uptight or in a hurry, so slow down and tune in. The great French photojournalist Robert Doisneau, who had more encounters with serendipity in a month than most of us have in a lifetime, said "My way of working is to relax and take things slowly. I enjoy just wasting time...I believe I have gained most in life in those moments in which I simply wandered about without any fixed purpose in mind."

Prepare, be there, and be aware--and serendipity will find you. And you'll find that the more diligent you are in practicing these three things, the luckier you will become.

I'll be talking more about serendipity, because it's an important part of my approach to photography. Meanwhile, here are a few guiding principles to help you court her favor. More to come in future posts.
Assembling the raft, Madras Beach, India

Get Out Early
Some photographers prefer evening light, but I often find my best pictures early in the morning. There's a different, softer quality of light, a calm freshness in the air, and both people and nature seem more relaxed and approachable. On the city beach at Madras, India, the pictures come early or not at all, because the fisherman lash their raft-boats together and push them out through the surf at first light.  (Olympus OM, 35mm Zuiko, Fujichrome 100.)

Early morning, Mayalan Village, Northern Guatemala 

Go Where the Action Is
 In third world countries, the action is out on the streets and in the market places. In the U.S., it's sometimes a little harder to find, but it's still there if you look for it. The northern Guatemalan village of Mayalan is a beehive of activity in the early morning as the people go to their work and the children to school. Situations like this are so loaded with possibilities that you can almost get by without serendipity!  (Olympus OM, 75-205 Vivitar zoom, Fujichrome 100.)

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