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Back in the film era, there was an adage—really, something between a saying and a mantra—that went like this: f/8 and be there. It was, in essence, a statement that suggested that, when it came to getting “the shot,” the technicals were a whole lot less important than being in position when the opportunity arose. (The “f/8” part referred to the optimal aperture setting for most situations and most lenses.)

We’re now more than a decade into a mature digital age of photography, but the meaning behind the phrase still applies today, even if we’ve effectively left the analog age of film in the rearview mirror. In fact, if anything, the technical nuances of photography have become less and less of an impediment to the successful image making process with each passing year. The key has always been recognizing a good photo opportunity and being in position to take advantage of it.

(It seems obvious—and perhaps it is—but I can’t tell you how many photographers I know who routinely miss potentially great chances simply because they didn’t feel like getting up early.)

I relived this experience on numerous occasions during my recent trip to the Canadian Rockies. Time and again, after identifying a possible combination of subject and light, I put myself in the presence of the subject and hoped for the light. Sometimes it came and sometimes it didn’t, but when it did…I was there to take advantage of it. I wasn’t necessarily shooting with an aperture of f/8, but the principle remained.

Case in point: on September 27, I got up more than an hour before sunrise. My goal was to shoot at daybreak at Patricia Lake, in Jasper National Park. The problem? Well, there were several. The first was that I hadn’t had the opportunity to scout the location. I had arrived at Jasper after dark the night before. I’d never set eyes on Patricia Lake—I wasn’t even truly familiar with the route to get there, and I was going to have to find my way in the dark of the pre-dawn morning. I was also going to have to try to find a pleasing composition in less than ideal light. The other issue was the weather forecast—it was expected to be a mostly cloudy morning. Cloud cover was projected at 80-90% at sunrise. I knew all of this the night before.

The “easy” thing to do would have been to sleep in. I could scout the location in the light of day and come back, well-armed (so to speak) the next morning when the conditions were expected to be better. After all, I’d be on site for the next four days.

Of course, you know I didn’t sleep in. But if it sounds as though I’m patting myself on the back, or puffing my chest out, I’m not.  (If anything, this is a lot closer to an admission of insanity than bragging.) The forecast wasn’t for pouring down rain (there was, in fact, essentially no chance of precipitation).

I found my way to the lake, wandered down to the shore and, in the gray of dawn, found what looked like a good spot, and waited.  It didn’t look promising.  As the light came up, I saw a bank of low clouds covering up Pyramid Mountain.  But I hung around, just to see if something good might happen.

Shortly after sunrise, I was rewarded.  For about 15 minutes, a gap in the cloud bank revealed the peak, bathed in beautiful light.  For about two of those minutes, the clouds lit up.

I’ve been through enough experiences to know that special things can happen even when the odds are long. I didn’t fly 2000 miles to “sleep in.” This is what you do when the photograph really matters to you—as it did to me on this day: you give yourself a chance.

F/8 and be there.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.

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