The Thought Process: Creating Memorable Photographs

With each photograph I take, a certain thought process goes on in my head. I always ask myself a series of questions. What I do or don't do in answer to each one determines the success or failure of the photograph.

In this set of photographs, I will tell what this thinking process was and why I chose to do what I did. I believe this will help serve as an example towards moving out from being a snapshot photographer and into one who can make memorable photographs.

This image came about a few evenings ago when a lightning storm settled on the horizon. I had gone out to walk my dog (who for an unknown reason finds complete darkness much more exhilarating to walk out into than daylight) and found myself admiring the sky's fireworks.

Now, my initial thought was not to photograph it. I was actually thinking the mosquitoes had grown into the size of pterodactyls. "Hey! I should photograph this!" was my second thought. Subsequently, I went back indoors (after retrieving said dog who had traveled a good distance out from the house) and grabbed my camera.

Thought number three was what lens to use. I immediately decided a wide-angle lens was better and chose my 18-55mm lens. I based my decision on two factors. First, a wide-angle lens would give me a better chance of capture lightning in the frame. Second, a telephoto lens would limit me and thus make capturing it that much harder. My choice made, I switched lenses and went back outdoors.

My next observation (other than the mosquitoes were now the size of horses) involved focus. Here's an important thing to remember. if you haven't learned it all ready, cameras do not like to autofocus in the dark. I knew this would present a problem, especially in taking a series of photographs. Therefore, I set my autofocus to spot and focused on the treetops along the horizon. Immediately afterwards, I switched to manual focus. Doing this relieved me of any frustration of manually focusing on my own while also removing the need to worry about the delay of focus autofocus would cause between shots. (After all, lightning is a rather quick entity and delay would rob me of the shot.)

At this point, I was beginning to feel a bit like a blood sacrifice from said mosquitoes and began to perform a strange dance. Good thing it was dark and no one could see me! Despite this, I plugged on. I WOULD get a shot!

Now with focus taken care of, I set my metering at multi (there being no need to spot meter on black sky) and thought about my shutter speed. Shutter speed would definitely be an issue. Because it was dark, my camera wanted to use a 30-second exposure. I knew this wouldn't be ideal (a) because I couldn't hand hold my camera that long (especially not while performing my weird mosquito dance) and (b) the scene would become too bright overall from the shutter remaining open for that length. I wanted my photo to feature the lightning, not the surroundings (trees, field, neighbor's house) and so switched over to shutter priority, setting the speed at F/15.

Now, why did I choose F/15? This question has an easy answer. That is just about the slowest shutter speed at which I can handhold my camera. Those of you who regularly read my column have heard me suggest this experiment before...but EVERY photographer needs to know what their slowest shutter speed is for handholding their camera. Armed with this knowledge, when you find yourself in a situation that requires it, you can set the camera and move on to other things. Additionally, I knew this shutter speed would leave the shutter open long enough to perhaps catch the movement of the lightning.

This brings me to my final decision - ISO. I chose ISO800 because it is the highest ISO I ever like to use. I left my white balance on auto (white balance would not be an issue in this case), lifted my camera, and began to shoot.

Quickly, I learned that timing was everything. I would need to keep shooting photos in rapid succession. Now, I generally leave my camera set for this feature. Though my particular camera allows me to turn this feature off, I have found that every time I do so, I need it. (Experience is the best teacher.) I lasted outdoors for about ten minutes, until I could no longer stand the horse-sized mosquitoes and was exhausted from dancing about. 

These lightning pictures are not the most spectacular lightning shots I've seen. In fact, I consider them to be the luck of the draw. I was in the right place at the right time, yes. (It wasn't raining at my house, so I didn't need to fear getting wet.) Yet had I not made the correct choices along the way, I wouldn't have captured anything. 

That night there were many ways towards failure, which brings me to my oft-repeated point - Memorable photographs come as a result of a photographer's correct choices. You must first know what your camera is capable of, and then know what it requires to make the shot.