Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

I’m not supposed to be sitting at the computer right now. I’m supposed to be sitting in a kayak on a remote Carolina bay. A couple of hours ago I should have been watching the sun rising in the east through a stand of pond cypress, while the full moon set in the west over a carpet of lily pads. That was the plan, anyway.

Ah, plans.

I knew the weather was going to be iffy. Been that way all spring. More rain than I can ever remember having around here. But I also knew that it was going to break up, and there’s no better place for a nature photographer than at the edge of weather. Maybe I’d get some really nice clouds to go with the cypress and lily pads. And at night I was hoping for some moonlit landscapes over the lake.

So I drive down on Friday, planning to return home this morning (Sunday) after sunrise. All day Friday it’s socked in. Saw a glimmer of light at sunset, not much. It rains Friday night. Saturday morning it’s totally socked in and the wind’s howling, no point even going out in the kayak. But it’s supposed to break that day, so I stay with it. That’s hard. I’m impatient. Not good at waiting around for something to happen. I like to make things happen. Like to plan things so I’m there at the right time. If I have to sit around for half a day before making a shot, I just think about all the other shots I could be making somewhere else. Probably why I’m not a wildlife photographer.

But I’m trying to find more patience these days. So I wait. Sit in the truck ALL DAY. From 4:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Read Joe McNally’s The Moment It Clicks from cover to cover (highly recommended, by the way), several magazines, study my camera manual (talk about fun and exciting reading!), and work on upcoming shooting schedule notes. Get a lot done, but I’m sitting in the freaking truck! I’m supposed to be in my kayak shooting magazine covers. I keep telling myself that if the sky breaks, I’m in a good position for a great shot at sunset or next morning at sunrise. Keep saying that.

After dinner, I checked the forecast once again. (I always carry a weather radio.) They just changed it. Now, instead of partly sunny on Sunday and mostly clear on Sunday night (indicating that the front would be moving through over Saturday night), they called for mostly cloudy all day Sunday and Sunday night (indicating that the front was stalled over me and wasn’t going to budge for another 24 hours.

Well, &*$%. I never have been good at choosing whether to wait something out or not. In fact, I felt right proud for hanging this one out as long as I did. If I hadn’t had Joe’s book with me, I don’t think I could have done it. Now it seemed hopeless. Sure, there was a chance it could break a bit overnight and I’d have decent sunrise. But at that point all I could think about was all the work I could be doing back home.

So I headed home. Got about an hour west and the sky opened up. I mean opened slap up, no clouds, no nothing. Drove right under the edge of the clouds that had been hanging over me. Was that edge moving east? Thankfully, I don’t think so. I still think I was doomed where I was. But I tell ya, I sure as heck wished I had gone west, to the mountains, on Friday instead of east. I’d have been shooting the sunset and moonrise right then instead of driving back home.

Should I stay or should I go? I’m betting The Clash didn’t know this was the hardest question we nature photographers ever ask ourselves. Stick with a bad situation in hopes it will turn into a great one, or leave for the unknown—or a hot dinner and glass of wine. It has been my biggest struggle, one that more often than not I have come out on the bad end of. It’s that patience thing working against me. But I’m getting better. The more I’ve learned about photography and the more experience I gain, the more I’m able to make the best decisions and allow instinct to override stomach, liver, and impatience.

That’s the answer for all of us, I think. First, never, ever, ever, let your stomach (or liver) make photographic decisions for you. (Easy to say, isn’t it?) Second, learn everything you can about weather and carry a weather radio with you. But remember that the regional forecast from the National Weather Service is too broad to allow for local differences, especially if you are in the mountains. You have to understand how the local conditions apply to the big weather picture.

The third part of the equation is the most important. Err on the side of staying put. Think about it, you’ve put a lot of thought into being at a particular spot at a particular time. Why? Because it has potential. It might make a good shot. Well, it sure as heck won’t make a good shot if you’re not there. Wait it out. You might not even take your camera out of the pack, but at least you’re giving it a chance. And you’ll like yourself a lot better for doing so. I promise you that the shame you feel when giving up and leaving a potential situation stings a lot more than if you wait it out and still don’t get a shot. At least you drive away knowing you stuck with it and gave it all you could.

Okay, with all this said, I need to clarify something. I’ve seen a lot of situations where photographers were waiting out totally hopeless conditions. I mean, we got a front stalled over us for a week, the forecast calls for rain for three days, it’s pouring buckets right now, the wind isn’t blowing, and here’s a photographer waiting it out hoping for a great sunset. Look, it ain’t gonna happen. There’s a difference between learning enough to understand when there’s a chance for something to happen and thinking that you’re going to wait it out just in case something does happen. You got to get to that point in the learning curve. So become a student of the weather, first.

Oh, and if you’re a wildlife photographer, it’s all different. You guys have to learn animal behavior, not weather, and you have to really enjoy watching long periods of your life pass by without having anything to show for it. You have my admiration. And sympathy.

You know, writing is immeasurably helpful in my photography, whether I’m writing a book or a blog post. It’s the best learning tool I’ve ever found. It exposes my weaknesses. More often than not, the medicine I prescribe in my writing is something I need to take more of myself. So it is with this post.

But that stomach and liver thing. Man, that one sure tugs at you.

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2 Responses to “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”

  1. TomDills Says:

    Hi Kevin!

    This post reflects the part of the story that we part-timers (I don’t consider myself a full-timer yet, just a part-timer without a job!) conveniently overlook when we sit in our gray cloth-lined cubicles staring at our computer wallpaper dreaming of having a life like Kevin Adams!

    Even harder than knowing which way to point the camera can be knowing when to hold on and when to cut and run. I know you well enough to know that you want the shot you went for, and you’re likely to hold on until you get it. And that’s why you have a lot of great shots.

    The first time Kathy & I ran into you at Cowee Mountain Overlook was one of those times when conditions looked promising for sunset but we ultimately got socked in. I remember that partly because I just recently went back through my photos and came across the two shots I took that night. You didn’t even get your camera out because you already had plenty of shots like the scene that developed. We both knew that there was a beautiful sunset going in somewhere, but likely not anywhere we would have been on that particular evening.

    I guess that’s what gets me through the busted outings – knowing that I made the best choice I could make with the information I had, and being content if necessary to cut out early and enjoy a nice dinner, or break out that bottle of wine and make the best of it. It also helps when there’s nothing on the line and you’re there just for fun. If you’re up against a deadline or trying to get a specific shot it can be a killer to have to wait or walk away empty-handed.

    Great post, and so true. It seems like we’ve had more than our share of rain this year. We must be almost out of the drought!

    Thanks for your comments on my CNPA article by the way. And if you still have the previous issue around, check out my article titled “Looking vs. Seeing.” It’s also on my blog.

  2. Sai C Says:

    Nice article Kevin! However, after attending your workshop last weekend, I’m going to become a student of the weather!! The weather radio will be on its way either today or tomorrow and its going to be a lot of fun being a student once again, though this time there will be no official degree conferred, but again, I’ll never know if I graduate from this “school” ;)…..

    Thanks for sharing your tips and tricks during the course of the workshop. I gained a lot of valuable information. Hope your having fun shooting!!

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