Over the weekend read an article on some random photo site about bad habits photographers make. I won't cite the article because when I went back to find it, it popped up word for word on 3 different sites so I have no idea who actually wrote it (thats a rant for another day). Anyway, one of the points was 'Luck Shooting', or spraying and praying as some photographers call it. It really got me thinking about how I shoot concerts and candid photography. So much of what I do relies on anticipating the perfect moment to capture, not just hammering the shutter button and hoping I get something useable.
A good photographer gets a sense of whats about to happen, your gut starts telling you to wait for the best possible moment, you just start knowing whats going about to unfold in front of your lens. In psychology getting to this point can be likened to the final stage of the Four Stages of Competence. At first you don't recognize the deficit of knowledge regarding a skill or task, then realize that you don't know how to perform said task, moving into knowing but having to actively think about performing it, finally the task is performed without thinking - having become an expert.
It took me a long time to hone this skill. I first realized it was something I needed to work on when I would shoot candid photos and people would look really strange when they were talking or performing a physical activity. I progressed as a photographer and a few years later I was taking photos at a picnic of coworkers playing kickball, where I found myself talking through the motions, actively thinking about how they were going to wind up for the pitch, how their body would move, where the ball might go, etc. Now after shooting countless portraits, concerts, and talks I am to the point where I don't even think about it actively - at talks I wait for the speaker to gesticulate energetically and smile instead of capturing a boring photo of them at a podium mid-sentence. Portraits and headshots I always take a few frames before telling a joke so I can capture the best photo of the shoot right as their laughing is subsiding yet they are still smiling ear to ear. At concerts I am watching the bassist haul his guitar up on his knee as he shouts out to the crowd to my left I know he is going to look back my way in a second or two, his head quickly pivots and I snap two frames.
I honed this skill over years behind the lens. I listen to the beat of the drummer and feel when the big crescendo of the song is coming. Sometimes, especially with children, it has to be a split second decision as something magical happens. I try to talk to speakers before they go on to see if they will be entertaining or more reserved.
One of my all time favorite photos was taken so quickly but I knew instantly what I had got. My friends and I were out taking photos of the Bean in Millenium Park one fall evening. I was shooting some longer exposures to get a touch of motion blur to accentuate how busy the park was as the sun was starting to set. Out of nowhere a wedding party appeared just outside of the frame to my right - suddenly the bride and groom stepped into frame as the photographer was gathering everyone. There was a quick kiss but she was completely behind him. Had I started spraying at that moment I would have been looking down at the camera and missed what happened next. The groom took her hand and just as I locked focus on him he raised his arm with hers. I knew he was going to spin her, but she was still behind him. I paused a split second and as their arms completed the motion she twirled out from behind. I opened the shutter exactly once and I knew instantly that he was in focus but since I was dragging the shutter she was going to blur a bit capturing the spin perfectly. As soon as his hands were coming down the entire wedding party entered the scene completely blocking the happy couple. The window was less than a few seconds. I anticipated the shot, took it at the right moment and got exactly what I wanted.
Machine gunning photos is bad photography with so many downsides. Your memory card is going to fill up really fast with crap images and while you are looking through the last ten you rattled off I guarantee you are missing the next great shot. If you are in a quiet environment like a wedding or conference where that shutter cranking away is going to distract and annoy a lot of people. If you practice and actively think about the shots you are going to take it is going to improve your photography. When you have to grind through actively thinking about timing, lighting, framing, and exposure, you will know it through and through and it will become second nature. You are going to stop firing off 10 photos then looking down to see if you got something. You'll pop off a shot or two and just know you got something great, and let me tell you, thats a great feeling.