The Best Photos Are the Ones You Missed

The small victory inside a missed opportunity.


While driving around on a windy, rainy day in the Faroe Islands early in 2015, scouting out photo opportunities amid the wild North Atlantic landscape, I caught one out of the corner of my eye. The road sat about 25 feet above a large lake, and though I was running along at a good clip, I glimpsed over the guardrail and down a hill to the shore where two figures in bright yellow raincoats walked along a coal-black beach. The water was similarly inky, as there was very little sunlight to brighten it up.

This vivid scene — a mother and daughter, each in matching slickers and yellow rain hats on that black beach — exists now only in my mind. I was going too fast, and there was no shoulder to pull onto. At least, that’s what I tried to convince myself as I continued along. Regret set in immediately. I could have managed a hazard light–abetted stop on the lightly trafficked road. I contemplated turning around, parking somewhere, and dashing through the rain to see if the pair might still be meandering along the shore. But I didn’t. Instinct — right or wrong — told me the moment had passed. It was a missed shot, on an expedition for just such a moment, no less.

Instinct — right or wrong — told me the moment had passed. It was a missed shot.

I have a collection of such moments rattling around in my brain — and I’m not just talking about the scenes all shooters, pro and enthusiast, have where we mutter to ourselves, “Ugh, wish I had my camera.” I’m talking about the situations where we actually do have our cameras and are out on an explicit conquest for a great shot, but still miss the moment. There was, for instance, the beautiful, strikingly costumed witches walking to the Harry Potter convention in Philadelphia, their perfect alignment missed by mere seconds. There was the the F-22 Raptor fighter jet that materialized out of nowhere and buzzed right in front of the rising full moon in Nevada, but for which I didn’t have the right lens attached. There was the wardrobe malfunction at a boozy pool party in Singapore, a colleague’s unbelievable drift in a Nissan GTR around Turn 1 at Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in Belgium, and the homeless man rolling slowly down the street in a wheelchair on a hot day in New York City, taxis and delivery trucks stacked up close behind him, their drivers shouting.

There were more. Many, many more. All exceptional moments, straight-up missed. The reasons are many: pointing my lens in the wrong direction, not realizing the value of the shot until it was too late, or simply not being quite fast enough. Or it might be simple inertia or lack of time, as often happens when a shot materializes in your brain and you just can’t quite bring yourself to make it happen. As a photographer, you learn to see where the best shots are even if you aren’t there yourself — say, a distant overlook that will provide a stunning sunrise vista of the opposite ridge or an elevated walkway that will make for a perfect overview at a concert, if you can just figure out how to access it. Your brain is forever connecting dots and drawing imaginary lines in the world around you. It’s your own personal augmented reality app, running permanently inside your brain. When you don’t make the shot happen, the missed opportunity sticks with you.

As a photographer, you learn to see where the best shots are even if you aren’t there yourself.

But there’s been an upside to all these flubs — and it’s arguably greater than any “learning experience” you might derive as you mature as a photographer. When you see a photo opp come and go without acting on it, that scene imprints itself in your brain. At first, I beat myself up over them, but I’ve learned to accept these moments and value them. The reason? They become a private collection of spectacular moments that you recognize as great, and which can only live on in your brain. Studies have shown that as we increasingly rely on our cameras (smartphone and otherwise) to be our primary memory devices, we lose the ability to remember things without them. But seeing greatness play out before your eyes without doing anything about it actively counteracts that. You see the moment and internalize it, and it stays with you.

I’m not big on resolutions — my annual commitment: continued self-improvement! — but this year, while I do indeed resolve to not let quite as many moments slip away, I’m also committed to not really minding as much when they do.

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