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Be patient, the best photo might be a moment away
When photographing the 'end' of anything-- kids parties, races, flock of birds, sports--stick around for a moment or two to see what happens next. At Middle Creek Wildlife Management area, many bird watchers wander home as the sun dips behind the hills. Resist the urge to head for the car. Colorful sunsets will make you wish you hadn't left. Keep in mind that the tundra swans and snow geese return to the safety of the lake in waves--thousands hit the water to rest for the night.
Colors change by the minute, so stay until the light disappears. On this particular gray and bland afternoon, there were very few birds on the water. Most were foraging in nearby fields. When they finally descended on the lake, the sun lit up the sky from behind the clouds.
We came to photograph what everyone else did-- the masses of birds on the water, but it didn't happen. So we hung around and waited for Mother Nature to work her magic.
Decades ago, one of my favorite photographers gave me a bit of advice.
Paul Tepley was a revered Cleveland Press sports photographer, now a member of the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame. His work was extraordinary, his action shots were spot-on; he showed the emotion the rest of us only hoped to capture. And all this before digital cameras, 10-frame-a-second motors, auto-focus and lenses longer than your arm.
I was shooting the Cleveland Browns, Leroy Kelly and company one afternoon and was loaded down, struggling with two cameras with long lenses, a tripod, a bag or two. But I looked oh-so-professional. With one of those teacher-grins we have all seen, Tepley smiled to me and said, "Never do anything to limit your mobility, especially when shooting sports." Makes sense, really, considering that the athletes are moving too. You're left behind as they race past.
A season later, while shooting the Cleveland Indians and pitcher Sudden Sam McDowell, I asked about his great after-action shots. Often, the shots after the 'peak' action are much more interesting than the action itself. Tepley remembers his photos of an angry Cleveland Cavaliers coach Bill Fitch throwing a chair across the basketball court. Not on to the court, across it. Now, that's an image.
He captured an animated Emmett Ashford, the first black Major League Baseball umpire, working behind the plate during an Indians game that is classic baseball history. Tepley probably caught all the action too, but his photo story about Ashford was the masterpiece. The lesson learned is that sometimes you shoot something entirely different than what you had imagined.
Paul said it was simple, really. Be patient, and when the action is over, keep your eye there for-- count 'em-- two seconds. You'll catch the umpire watching the ball on the ground, the pained expression from a broken ankle, the celebration of a winning shot. And long after the ball game is over, watch for hugs, tears and the water bucket-over-the-head scene. Or just a coach or parent consoling a player on the opposing team.
Eons ago, it seems, photographers were saddled with slow, cumbersome cameras. Motor drives were just becoming popular, and then only three frames a second--- with a 36-exposure roll of film, even the glacially-slow motor drives buzzed through film in a flash.
So, photographers were a lot more stingy with their shots. More economical, should we say.
It's no wonder we see so many wonderful photographs today, with nearly unlimited photo capacity on cards, speedy cameras and lenses that take up an entire back seat of a car. And, everyone is a photographer now with cameras on their phone. Video is so good that still photos are sucked right off a 24-frame video. It's a wonderful time to be a photographer, or a visual artist, and it's only going to get better.
Paul Tepley was a Cleveland Press sports photographer until it folded in 1982, and then a staff photographer for the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers until 1993. He is retired and lives in Salt Lake City.