The 3 Key Habits of Opportunistic Photography

I was sitting with my older son on the banks of a creek near Linville, NC, biding my time until 7:00AM. That time was the official opening of the 2019 trout season when we could cast our lines into the water and begin our annual exercise in trout fishing futility. It was an overcast morning so there was no good sunrise to speak of. But there was a nice mist in the air and I was admiring the tree in the foreground, so I captured it with my iPhone, which was the camera I had on me at the time.

It's been awhile since my last post and a lot has happened since my last missive. I've changed jobs, traveled a bunch, done some fun family things, and I've been recording music again, which I hadn't done in over a year. So at least I can legitimately claim that I've been busy.

Let's get to it.

When you're an amateur photographer and you have a busy life that doesn't involve cameras, often the only photos you can squeeze in are opportunistic shots you stumble upon when doing other things. For us, to paraphrase John Lennon, photography is what happens when you're busy doing other things.

I usually post these shots to Facebook and sometimes I get responses from my friends with variations on, "Nice photo, I wish I had the photo opps that you get!"

But the truth is, photo opportunities like these all come from my decidedly ordinary life. I do travel a fair amount for work, but more often than not, I don't see much more in these travels than what is conveniently located near my hotel and airport! So it's not so much that I'm going to interesting and beautiful places. But I am trying to recognize interesting scenes consciously and get pictures of them.

There are really 3 habits you have to develop to maximize these opportunities.

Always Carry

The first is you need to develop the habit of carrying some kind of camera at all times. Usually I carry my Fuji X-20, but for all the photos in this post I just had my phone. All of them suffer from sub-optimal image quality and I wish I'd had the Fuji. But a phone is better than nothing, because without a camera there is no opportunity.

I had a quick 10 minute break at an off-site meeting for work this week. We were meeting in a hotel in downtown San Jose and during the break I went looking for a quiet place to call my wife. I found this awesome room off the lobby of the hotel, so before I made my call I snapped a quick photo. Now, the photographer in me wanted to really work this room and get a lot of shots out of it, but there simply wasn't time for that. One shot, call my wife, then hustle back to the meeting.

Remember to Shoot

The second habit: Every time you find yourself admiring the look of something, you've got to remember to photograph it. A nice sunset, a cool building, an ugly bug, a pretty pattern in the landscape, an interesting looking person, nice lighting on a scene – whatever it is, whenever something catches your eye, you need to remember to photograph it. It's so easy for the moment to not even register consciously, but you have to break that or the opportunities that do come your way will be totally wasted! And so you have to develop a new habit. Be present in the moment and consciously recognize when something catches your eye. Also, when you see other people admiring something, take a moment to figure out what it is and photograph that too.

Just getting those two habits down will increase the number of engaging photos you take enormously.

Later the same week, I was walking on the sidewalk of a fairly busy boulevard in Cupertino. Before me was a half block section covered in a lovely canopy of trees and, interestingly, all the trees leaned to the right. I was pondering as to reasons why all the trees leaned right, when it occurred to me, "Capture the photo, dumbass!" So I did. I walked back to the beginning of the canopy, then zoomed my camera phone's lens so that lens compression would emphasize the tunnel effect. And to further bring it home, I added a bit of vignetting to the image in post. This photo is a great example of the deleterious effect of digital zoom – the resolution on this one is egregiously bad. But you work with what you've got.

Be on Constant Lookout for Opportunities

Okay, now you're in the habit of packin' glass and you're quick on the draw when you see something interesting. You can take it up a level with the 3rd habit: Constantly look for interesting things. Wherever you go, whatever you do, create a habit of continuously evaluating your environment for opportunities. (Actually, there is an important exception: You shouldn't do this when it's not safe. Like, say, when you're driving – that would be a very bad idea! Don't be a variation on one of those people you read about who fall to their death while trying to get a selfie. Safety first!) This requires that you consciously engage your brain instead of going through your day on auto-pilot. If you develop a habit of actively scanning your environment for interesting looking scenes, you'll increase you hit rate many times over.