Becoming The Camera

When the cosmos speaks to you, listen
This Article Features Photo Zoom

A receding wave on Papohaku Beach on Molokai left a puddle with a perfect reflection at Jones' feet. It only lasted for a moment, but in that instant, he had exactly the right camera and lens combination to get this photo.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell postulates that you need to work at something for 10,000 hours before you can even begin to call yourself an expert. Cartier-Bresson brought this into focus for photographers when he said, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst!" And he meant shooting film, not digital!

It takes a long time to become really good at photography. To train your technique; to both learn the rules and know when to break them. To train your eye; sensitize it to color and line, shadow and contrast. It takes a long time.

To me, however, by far the most interesting part of this process is training your intuition, your ability to listen to that quiet inner voice and have the courage to follow it.

Sometimes it's hard to tell intuition from technique. I've learned well what constitutes a good photograph and, in most situations, my mind and my eye can guide me toward finding it. Then, occasionally, there are times when I'm not guiding the situation at all, times where I'm just following...or being led...or perhaps being used as the camera that makes the photograph.

Ephemeral as these times are, they're equally fascinating.

Recently, I was on Papohaku Beach in Molokai shooting waves with several other photographers. Beautiful turquoise waves crashing on the shore. Everything in me said, "Get your long lens out, set the shutter speed at 1⁄2000 of a second, and get in tight on the action!" Well, almost everything. There was another voice, a quiet voice, saying, "No, put on your wide-angle lens and walk down the beach."

I don't always hear this voice, but when I do, I've learned to follow it, whether my brain can understand or not. I headed down the beach, my mind still complaining that I was missing the shot. The sound of the waves crashed in my ears, but through my 18mm lens, they were far in the distance; most of my frame was just sand. I kept walking.

Then a particular large wave pushed hard to the beach, sending water up and over my feet. When it retreated, there before me was a glimmering puddle reflecting the sky and clouds above. It didn't last long, but I was right there in the perfect position with just the right lens. Click!


This Article Features Photo Zoom

In the synchronicity of this moment, Jones felt as though he hadn't pressed the shutter button at all. The Universe had done it for him.

I looked up and down the beach. No other puddles in either direction as far as I could see. Just chance? Or was I being led?

Not long ago, I was at a rodeo on Molokai. Looking for something to photograph, I was taken with how the red shirt on a spectator matched the red of the Hawaii flag next to him. Interesting shot, but nothing to write home about. Then, while I was still looking through the lens, a voice right next to me said, "Excuse me, sir." I turned to see a young cowboy. He was about to walk in front of me, which was very strange, as behind me was an entire parking lot with nothing in it. He could have walked behind me and I'd never have even known he was there. But, no, he was coming across directly in front of me.

Taken aback, I took a half step to let him pass. He moved directly in front of me and, as I watched through the lens, he stopped. Stopped...and his presence in the shot transformed a mediocre frame into a great frame. He leaned forward till his back paralleled the flags. He tilted his head just enough so the brim of his hat touched both the tip of the flag and the shadow on the wooden beam (which, by the way, looks like the state of Texas). He brought his arm up till the rope he was holding mimicked the line of his hat. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, he began to remove his glove. For 10 seconds, he just held the pose.

Shoot, Dewitt, shoot! And I did. Then, without a word, he moved on.

I knew I'd just taken a great shot, but honestly, I didn't feel like I'd taken it at all. Rather, I felt like some cosmic shutter button. Just another moving part of a camera someone else was controlling.

The young cowboy moved off without a word. Later, in front of my computer, I stared again at the composition of the shot. Just random chance? Perhaps, but in this case, I think not. There's far more going on in the universe than this little three-dimensional being can ever know or understand. I'll just try to do my part. Listen when I'm called, allow myself to be led, rejoice in being the shutter button on a bigger camera, and delight in the results!

P.S. Eventually, I "painted" the image using a Photoshop technique I learned from Photoshop guru, Jack Davis.

P.P.S. About a year later, I met the young man in the photo and asked him why he had asked to walk in front of me that day. He remembered being there, but had no recollection of my taking his picture. Maybe he was being led, too.

Dewitt Jones posts daily celebration images on his Celebrate Facebook page. Please come and post yours as well at (www.facebook.com/celebratewhatsright), or sign up for his weekly Photos of Celebration at www.celebratewhatsright.com.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.

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