On The Road: Mindful Shooting: The Plan Behind The Picture

I’ve seen my share, and I expect you have too, of people who basically spray the area hoping to get a keeper. I’ve also seen photographers who wait…wait…and wait some more to catch that decisive moment. I’m neither of those types. I think of what I do as mindful shooting: I know what I want the photo to look like; I preconceive and previsualize the moment; I control the situation as much as I can to get that moment; and I’m prepared to work with what I’m given and what I can’t control in order to get a good result.


These two women were walking near the Taj Mahal. This wasn’t a case of oh, they came by me and I got a picture. I’d seen what I wanted, and I followed along until I got it, a dynamic, different, and wonderful image full of color and gesture.
All Photos © Blaine Harrington

I’d hiked in to the Wave in Utah’s Coyote Buttes with my son and a couple of hikers we met along the way. I’d already planned and framed my shot, but when this hiker started running from one side to the other, I got the benefit of letting the scene develop.

Most important to me is taking the time to watch a scene develop rather than simply recognizing an interesting scene, shooting it as is, and then moving on. I always ask myself if there might be things that may happen, like people coming along, interacting with each other, or a car passing by, or an interesting or dramatic shadow being cast. I know there’s a lot of “might” and “may” involved here, but it’s those possibilities that often make for a better photo and tell a better story.

I also believe in working things beyond the point where I think I’ve got something good. I’ll always be thinking of different ways to show the subject. I’ll look around, check the situation from all directions to find not only angles on the subject, but perhaps a new subject, something else in the area that grabs my attention.

An apprentice geisha in Kyoto, Japan. Access to geishas was restricted, and I couldn’t ask any to pose, so I had to be resourceful. She’s actually holding a tea service tray, but with lens choice and composition I got the portrait I wanted.

As I’m walking around, I’m also looking back to where I’ve been, just in case. All the time I’m doing this I’m thinking about the possibility of using different lenses to change the perspective. From experience I know what the scene will look like through lenses of different focal lengths, and while there might be an ideal focal length for a shot, often if it’s an interesting subject I can bring a number of different looks to it through my choice of lenses.

When people are involved in a photo, I’ve found that if I’m taken by surprise and miss the shot, I can sometimes turn that lost moment into a successful image simply by asking the person to do a quick pose for me. If I let people feel my honest excitement for the situation and its possibilities, they’re often happy to help me get the picture. An attitude of enthusiasm goes a long way.

Left: A kite festival at the Washington Monument. Everywhere else the images would have been a hundred dots in the sky, so I moved around to find a participant who was just putting his kite up, and I asked him to bring it over and hold it in place for me. Right: This was at a backstage area of a rope jumping performance in Mexico. It was a case of seeking out and isolating one stilled moment of design and symmetry amidst a lot of activity.

As you might expect, I’m not fond of working with a tripod because it makes my kind of exploration much more difficult. I prefer to use higher ISOs to overcome the need for a tripod, though I will bring the sticks along if I’m after photos that require long exposures.

Most of the time I get the picture I envisioned, but sometimes I simply have to work within a situation I can’t control or react to the unexpected opportunity. And there are times when I’m not in motion, when I’m waiting not for the decisive moment, but for a change in the scene—perhaps for clouds to clear out, or tourists to do likewise, or for twilight to come to the city or the landscape.

Left: I had decided on this background in Rajasthan, India, as a great place to shoot. There was just enough room to fit a person between the designs, so I framed it up and waited. When this woman appeared, the broom was the extra cool factor. She wasn’t hiding from me, just shielding her face from the sun. Right: A Sydney Harbour Bridge climb, in which tourists are hooked in for a walk to the top. I’d done the climb, shot from the high vantage point, and then worked the location to get the Sydney Opera House, a passing boat, and some climbers in the frame to tell what I think is the most complete story.

There’s a lot involved with mindful shooting, but it comes down to this: because I know the end result of mindful shooting is an increase in the percentage of keepers, I always walk into a situation with a thought in mind.

In a Kuna village on Corbisky Island, Panama, people cutting up bananas on the street didn’t want photographs taken. Unwilling to give up, I moved along and found these two women cooking the bananas in a nearby hut. They showed no objection to the photography. If I can’t get photos one way, I’ll look for another.

A selection of Blaine Harrington’s travel images can be viewed at his website, www.blaineharrington.com.