Assume You Can’t Go Back!

The Palouse, Washington State

For a number of reasons, I often go back to locations where I have previously shot. The first time I visit a location, especially a non-local location, often my adrenalin is pumping and it takes me a little while to settle into the place. I like to walk around, get comfortable and only then begin shooting. I always ask myself, “are the conditions (light, clouds, weather, time of day, etc.) ideal, or might a better photograph be made at a different time of day, or on a return visit?” If the location contains what might become a “portfolio image,” if at all possible I will return, often multiple times, hoping that the photography gods will smile upon me. Very often success is a result of two things – preparation and perseverance. But sometimes returning is not possible, so you must work extremely hard to make that illusive near-perfect shot during your one and only visit.

The photograph of the brown barn in the Palouse, in Washington State was made when I was with a group of photography friends and we were driving around looking for shooting opportunities. As we drove by this barn, a number of my buddies suggested we stop there a few hours later, on our way back to our motel. I (nicely) said, “But look at those clouds and the light! I’d like to shoot now!” Fortunately for me, we stopped. I knew what the scene looked like at that moment, but had no idea what it would look like later.

When I first began shooting digital in 2001 the state-of-the-art in professional equipment was far different from what we have today, and one can only imagine what tools we will have ten years from now. In a number of cases, I have re-visited locations that I shot in 2003 with my 5.3mp, Nikon D1x in the hopes of capturing a similar image with my current 24mp, Nikon D3x. The photographs I capture today have far better image quality because of both improved cameras and lenses. However, going back doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a better photograph.

Don’t fall into the trap of saying to yourself, “Well, I can always go back.” Maybe you can, but maybe you’ll be surprised at what you see! Unfortunately, we can’t assume that “the shot” will be there when we return. How many photographers have setup their tripods in presumably the same spot where Ansel Adams made iconic photographs, only to find that things had changed – the trees had grown and were now partially blocking the shot, or a road now ran through the middle of the scene, or the light just never seemed to be as brilliant as when Ansel shot from the roof of his station wagon.

Here are just a few examples where I have re-visited locations and wished I could have improved on my original shot during that second visit, but as you can see, it didn’t happen.

2003 and 2004
2003 and 2006
1998 and 2002

The two photographs of Lower Manhattan are a sad reminder of the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11. After 9/11, I made numerous trips to photograph the World Trade Center site. A few of those photographs can be seen on my website at
Gone, But Not Forgotten.

Every time we go out shooting, we must assume it will be the only opportunity we will have to make the photograph. Maybe we’ll be lucky and have another chance, but better to start with the mindset this is our one and only opportunity. The only thing we know for certain, is what we see through the viewfinder when we press the shutter release.

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