While visiting a friend in Denver last summer, I was amazed to see in her front garden hundreds of honey bees dancing in the perfect dusk light. Luckily, I had my awesome new high-tech pro digital SLR camera with me.
“Ha!” I thought, “Finally a chance to use this baby’s rapid-fire, super auto-focus, image-optimizing, mega-sensor, anti-shake, bla-bla BADass-ness!”
Among photographers, the sure sign of an amateur is a behavior called “chimping”—bobbing your head obsessively from viewfinder to LCD screen to see if you got the shot. Well, I was chimpin’ like a National Geographic fanboy (oh wait, I AM a NatGeo fanboy). Anyway, half an hour and about 200 shots later, I did not have the perfect apiary masterwork. I had a camera full of blurry and out-of-frame bugs.
When I visited my friend again the next week, all the bees were gone, except for a few late summer stragglers. And it was gloomy overcast. And all I had in my bag this time was an old film camera—the kind that you have to focus and crank by hand and then apply “percussive maintenance” (i.e., smack hard) just to get the light meter working.
And there were exactly three shots left on the roll.
“Forget it,” I thought, “nature photography is for wussies.”
But the next thing I knew, the ancient Nikon was in my hand.
clickity click click!
Cut to one month later. I’m standing at the drugstore photo counter, and in ye olde-school stack of 4-by-6’s (remember “prints?”), this appeared:
If you’re not impressed, okay fine. But I was. Not by any proof of my artistic prowess, but by what I learned.
Am I about to wax scholastic about master street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment?” Or reflect on the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s love for miksang, photography as dharma art? Nope, though both luminaries came to mind. What did in fact leave an impression were these thoughts:
1. When I realize that each frame in my camera—or day in my life—is precious, I get MUCH more out of each one.
2. All those restless hours of meditation practice and shoeboxfuls of crappy contact sheets may have led to a mastery that shows up, when it matters, as effortless flow.
3. Between the two poles that I call “intense concentration” and “effortless awareness” lies the vast majority of my life’s geography, and that I might want to enjoy the scenery regardless of the mode I’m in.
4. I am SO done with insect photography. No, really. Bugs are disgusting.
Okay, your turn. Was there a time when your years of practice paid off, effortlessly and unexpectedly? If so, do post a comment, I’d love to hear about it.