Training your photographic luck

There's a bit more to taking great photos than just being lucky.

So often you'll often hear one photographer comment on another's work by saying 'Wow, that is an incredibly lucky shot!' or 'Wow, I wish I was lucky enough to come away with a shot like that!'

While there is almost certainly an element of luck associated with all photography, there's a lot more to it than just happening to be in the right place at the right time with randomly selected but entirely appropriate kit. No, a lot of so-called luck is really down to something far more mundane: preparation.  

Every photograph might very well prove to be a throw of the dice, but as photographers, there's a lot you can do to load the dice in your favour.

Meet Alex and Lou

I want to introduce you to Alex and Lou. Alex has an archive of gorgeous images that always seem to capture the moment perfectly, from the golden eagle swooping down on a rabbit to a flotilla of small boats making its way along the Solent. Lou's photos, on the other hand, don't quite seem to make the grade. They've always been shot a fraction too late, or with a focal length that isn't quite right. 

The difference between Alex and Lou? Alex is always prepared. Lou… not so much.

Planning ahead

One tried-and-tested way to ensure Lady Luck is on your side is simply to plan ahead, like Alex. Alex always thinks carefully about location and subject. What will they require? And Alex knows it isn't just about having a telephoto lens for  photographing wildlife and remembering a reflector when on location. Alex thinks about the clothes needed. About whether insect repellant or sunscreen will be necessary. About permits and passes. And Alex always has fully charged batteries and spare bits and pieces, too.

A day at the zoo? You'll need a long lens!

A day at the zoo? You'll need a long lens!

Lou? Lou tends to be a little less organised and lot less 'lucky' as a result. The wrong lens, a flat battery, and sunburn seem to plague Lou's photos.

Where's your camera?

Alex knows that planning ahead goes far beyond just packing the right equipment. It also means having that equipment–or at least a camera on standby–to hand. When Alex is on a bus travelling from one place to another, and something gorgeous presents itself through the window, Alex is there, ready, camera-in-lap. Lou's camera, on the other hand, is in the luggage compartment of the bus. Before Lou has even been able to moan about missing the moment, Alex has fired off a few shots.

Just floating by; and ready with a camera

Just floating by; and ready with a camera

What are you shooting?

When Alex and Lou spent the day at an air-show, Lou spent the day shooting with a telephoto lens. The results? A series of glorious close-up shots of the planes in flight. However, one of the spectacles of the show is of a Harrier Jump Jet landing very close to the audience. With just the telephoto lens, Lou’s missing out on this fantastic scene. Alex, on the other hand, had read the programme and knew what to expect. Just before the finale, Alex had swapped from a telephoto lens to a wide-angle lens in anticipation of the spectacle. Result? A super shot! 

A day when wide-angles and telephotos might be necessary

A day when wide-angles and telephotos might be necessary

Alex had contemplated stashing a compact camera in a pocket, or using an ultra-zoom instead, both of which would have allowed the necessary flexibility over the day, but settled for switching lenses.

Re-set your settings

Finally, there's Alex and Lou away on safari. At sunset, out of nowhere, an enormous, single male elephant showed up. It moved at great speed through a small pass, and there was very little time to capture it. 'Unlucky' Lou grabbed a camera and started shooting, only to realise later that the camera was still on a very low ISO from shooting in the bright sunshine earlier in the day: all Lou's photos came out blurry. Guess what? Alex is in he habit of always adjusting the ISO for the conditions at hand and flipping auto-focus back on, just in case the opportunity for a quick snapshot came up. Alex's preparation paid off!

Moving from inside to outside? Re-set your settings!

Moving from inside to outside? Re-set your settings!

What if..?

As you can see, a lot of the scenarios Lou might consider 'lucky' have very little to do with luck. Some of it is down to experience, some of it is planning, and some of it is simply thinking 'what if…' all the time. Of course, sometimes your judgment will be off, an animal might show up at an unexpected location, or things don't go to plan in ways that you couldn't have predicted. Undoubtedly, there is always a little bit of luck involved with taking a great photo – but most of the time, it's down to skill, planning, and experience.

Training your luck

It might sound a little far-fetched, but every now and again it's worth dreaming up outlandish scenarios and imagining how you might react to them. What would you do if your lens refused to focus? How would you respond if an animal suddenly appeared behind you? What would you do if something happened really close to you… or really far away? If you've thought up a potential answer, you'll be better prepared should the (almost) unthinkable happen.