The future is uncertain, so we try to control it by planning. We think that if we do A and B the result will be C. But sometimes there are too many variables that we can’t account for, so the result might not be C—it could be D, or E, or even Z.
Photographers often try to plan. We imagine that if we go to a certain location at a certain time we’ll capture a certain photograph. Sometimes this works, but frequently the weather doesn’t cooperate or conditions aren’t right.
I’ve been trying to embrace uncertainty lately, both in my day-to-day life and in my photography. Rather than attempting to control everything, I’m opening my mind to the possibility that unexpected events could be good—that on any day, or any moment, something surprising but wonderful could happen.
A few afternoons ago my wife Claudia and I were in the Yosemite high country near Tuolumne Meadows. We had planned to meet up with a friend, but somehow we missed finding her, so we found ourselves in this beautiful area with no particular plans. And a thunderstorm rolled through. Interesting weather always makes my photographic antennae perk up.
We ended up following the storm, hoping to see a rainbow, and eventually we did. But if a rainbow can be unexciting, this one was. Or at least my photographs of it were. This spur-of-the-moment plan actually worked—I found a rainbow. But the resulting photograph didn’t work.
Letting Go of the Plan
So guided by whim and the thought that hey, the light looks interesting over there, we headed up to Tioga Pass. I remembered a small reed-lined pond I’d been to before with reflections of Tioga Peak. I walked down there and found the expected mountain-reflected-in-pond photo—nice, but nothing special by my (high) standards.
I continued walking around the shore and spotted some clumps of reeds with interesting shapes and lines. A light bulb went off: the clouds overhead were about to catch fire with sunset colors, and would be reflected in the water surrounding these reeds. Light, color, and design all packaged neatly together—perfect.
I spent the next 20 minutes quickly composing and recomposing photographs of two beautifully-designed clumps of reeds. The clouds were moving, so I had to keep changing the camera position to juxtapose a group of reeds with the most interesting cloud reflection at that moment.
I can’t tell you how much fun this was. Every time I looked through the viewfinder I saw another beautiful scene, and all I had to do was compose and press the shutter, and occasionally check my histogram. Years of photographic training kicked in, and decisions about compositions and settings were almost instinctive. I wasn’t thinking about the future, or the past; I was completely absorbed in the present, concentrating on the beauty in front of me.
I liked these photographs much better than the more standard views I had made earlier that day. These images of the reeds and cloud reflections are abstract, which I like. Even better, they’re a little surreal and disorienting, creating the possibility of a visual surprise—a view of the world most people haven’t seen before.
I hadn’t planned to go to this spot. I just thought, hey, it might be interesting down there. I embraced uncertainty and something unexpected yet wonderful happened. In hindsight I felt I’d been led to that place, either by instinct or by forces beyond my consciousness.
Letting Go—Another Story
My friend William Neill wrote an enlightening article in Outdoor Photographer magazine about how he made Dawn, Lake Louise, probably my favorite image of his (among many great ones). He started with a plan, but when the weather didn’t cooperate he was able to let go of his preconceived idea and find something even better. Bill actually just posted the photo and full original article on his blog—a great read. I'll give you just a little taste here:
“Rising very early on a summer morning, I hoped for a dramatic and brilliant sunrise on Lake Louise and the glaciers above. Perhaps it was the two weeks of photographing in rainy conditions that biased my hopes! I waited patiently for sunrise, but my preconceived vision failed to appear as persistent clouds shrouded the mountains. It was a silent and mysterious dawn. I simply sat and soaked in the scene. Finally, I made two exposures, but expected little. I completely forgot about this session during the rest of my trip. When I saw the film after returning, I was amazed. I had to think hard about when and where I had made this photograph. Unconsciously, but facilitated by my experience and instinct, the power and magic of that landscape, at that moment, had come through on film.”
Planning is fine, and even necessary to a point. If Bill hadn’t planned to go to Lake Louise that morning he might have just slept in. But when your plan doesn’t work you have to be willing to adapt. And even if your plan does work you might find something better—if you’re open to other possibilities.
Your Stories and Comments
If you’ve embraced uncertainty and experienced your own moments of photographic serendipity I’d love to to hear about them, so please leave a comment—and include a link to the photo if possible.
Also, I like these photographs of reeds and cloud reflections a little too much, and can’t choose between them. So you can help me out by casting a vote for your favorite in the comments. My favorite is probably the image at the top of this post (no. 1), but it’s a close call. Thanks for your help!
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.