If Only...

The great photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson secured his place in photographic history due to his supreme mastery of the defining moment. It was his ability to take a photograph that expressed it all, capturing each element of a story at their most forceful, that elevated Mr. Cartier-Bresson to the status of "Super Photographer". In my ongoing attempts to improve the impact of my own photographs I also try to show defining moments. Sadly, it is more often the case that they have passed me by, leaving me trailing in their wake. And there seems to be no shortage of people who are only too willing to let me know. Whenever a conversation begins with either "you should have..." or "if only..." alarm bells start ringing.

Just a stone's throw from the Mediterranean is one of France's best kept secrets, the Cevennes National Park. Free from both herbicides and insecticides the flora and fauna of this area are mind-boggling. Particularly for someone such as myself, who is used to the intensively farmed British landscape. I found the sheer number of butterflies amazing, and I had a wonderful time trying to photograph them. Where there are butterflies there are flowers, and here in the Cevennes there were swathes of wild flowers almost everywhere I looked. The most interesting but difficult to find of these were orchids. In a pleasant conversation with a Warden we discussed the beauty of the area in general and the excellent range of butterflies. Then I mentioned the interesting but limited range of orchids I had seen. "For orchids" he said, "you should have been here last month". Nodding politely I steered the conversation back to butterflies.

View across Buttermere towards Grasmoor.
One week earlier the snow on Grasmoor was down to the valley floor.
I find lakes and mountains irresistible. Towering peaks and shimmering reflections just seem to go together. And if there is snow on the mountains my interest goes up an extra level. I had studied the weather forecast for days before travelling across to the Lake District on a bright and clear late-winter morning. Now I was standing on the shore of Buttermere looking at an incredibly pretty view. I remembered the words of a wise old photographer - "larger formats give better quality than 35mm, but if you want to get the best you can, then take as much time setting up your shot as you would if you were using a large format camera." I carefully arranged my tripod and composed the photograph.

I knew what I wanted to get into my photograph; snow-capped hills, blue sky, an expanse of ice-covered water and a hint of trees. I wasn't bothered that it took a while to get everything just how I wanted. By deliberately slowing down I think harder about what I'm doing, and usually get a better end result. Just as I finished setting up and was ready to fire the shutter a passing local stopped alongside me, he looked at the view, then at my camera, and helpfully said, "If only you had been here last week, the snow was right down to the lake." Smiling (to hide my frustration), I took the photograph.

Conditions seemed perfect as our small group settled down on the shingle beach; high tide was a few hours away, the wind and sun at our backs, and it wasn't too cold. Here at Moray Firth east of Inverness we hoped to see bottle-nosed dolphins perform. We arrived earlier than necessary to make sure that nothing would be missed. Steadily, a small crowd gathered to watch this well-known spectacle of nature. Patiently we waited, and waited, and waited some more. A couple of hours passed and the crowd began to disperse, without as much as a single splash having been seen. Nearby was a bespectacled, bearded gentleman who had arrived shortly after us, notebook in hand. He began to leave but not before saying, "I've been observing these dolphins every day for the past ten years and yesterday was the best display I have ever seen." He left to the sound of stifled groans and fists pounding on shingle.

Leighton Moss is the premier wetlands reserve in northwest England. Managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds it is home to many species of bird, some of which are quite rare. On approaching one of the observation hides my wife and I dropped our voices to a whisper, and then stopped talking completely. Quietly opening the door we stealthily crept inside. I carefully readied my camera and sat down. The person on my right saw my camera and enthusiastically whispered, "If only you had been here ten minutes ago, there were two bitterns right there in front of us. Another photographer said it was the best view he had ever had". My heart sank; there are only about twenty breeding pairs of bitterns in the U.K. We sat and waited a while in case one returned, but they didn't.

Wildlife can be so awkward. All I want to do is take a photograph but do I get any co-operation? No. So often birds and small mammals never seem to stop moving. And the smaller the critter, the quicker they move. I have spent many an hour patiently watching with my finger on the shutter release, waiting for the split second when all movement stops.

Coal tit.
Getting a sharp photograph of something like a hyperactive coal tit is often due as much to good fortune as good technique.
I know that's the time to take a photograph but, despite my diligence, all too often I miss the shot. By the time I fire the camera my subject has gone. Sometimes, even though I know it's too late I can't stop myself from taking the photograph. The message has already left my brain, and is travelling at the biological equivalent of the speed of light to my finger, even though my eyes have seen the defining moment pass. I think it must have something to do with the fact that it's a shorter distance from my eyeball to my brain than from my brain to my fingers. I have taken hundreds of these and they all end up in the bin. But what is most frustrating of all is that I know there is no one else to blame but myself.

What I am waiting for is the next generation of camera from Canikolta. Using crystal ball technology the top of the range model will undoubtedly have the function that I desperately need. Setting custom function 99, at the press of a button I'll be able to toggle between 20/20 hindsight and 100% foresight. Yep! When that comes on the market I'll be up there with the best of them, elbowing my way to the front of the queue.