COLUMN: Quest for ‘the shot’ a great journey

NANAIMO: The best photographs rarely land on your doorstep.

Prior to attending photojournalism school at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont. in 1996, I often carried a camera with me on most of my personal adventures.

Before learning about technical stuff like the Kelvin scale, lighting and dark room techniques, I was usually pretty pumped just to capture an image in focus.

As my friends and I forged through what turned out to be a very challenging two-year program, we learned that the usual photographer mantra of “f/8 and be there” proved to hold true throughout most photo assignments.

It basically states that if you know how to use your camera and you have access to a situation, you were going to get some pretty good photos.

Good photos. Not great photos.

In the age of digital photography, and now photography that stems from cellphones, iPads and other multi-use devices, the word ‘great’ is tossed around too often.

A photo that is in focus does not make it a great photo. Nor is one with a funny face in it, a dog doing something goofy or Sally playing soccer.

It might be a nice photo, or a funny photo, or a proud moment for Mom and Dad, but not often a great photo.

Oh, I forgot to mention. In photo-j school we were also taught to be photo snobs.

A great photo often requires months of persistence, unusual access and permissions, an exceptional awareness of surroundings, and the ability to be in the right place at the right time.

As graduation approached, my friends and I focused on setting out to show the world pictures of social issues, athletic feats, pure joy, utter sadness, triumph, failure, poverty, wealth, and any other facet of the human condition. A cover shot on Time magazine was the ultimate achievement.

We had stories to tell and we were going to tell them through our lenses.

We had high hopes of jet-setting around the world, taking important shots, making a difference, and keeping in touch.

It was nice to be on a mission, and for a while, I was.

Two weeks out of school and working in a bike shop, my cellphone rang.

It was the Ottawa Citizen. The photo editor needed some headshots over in Hull.

I made it back to the bike shop once after that day, only to tell the shop owner I quit. For the next two years the Citizen had a solid freelance budget, and I used it to my full advantage.

I never said no to an assignment. I worked for two years straight with few days off.

During that time I photographed prime ministers, murderers, dead people, activists, protesters, Canada Day celebrations, philanthropists, sports stars, famous actors, gangsters and union leaders.

I photographed people at their absolute best and worst. I snapped shots of heartaches and tragedies, of quiet moments and tearful goodbyes.

But I never really got ‘the shot’, a photograph that transcended the newspaper world and became part of photo culture. Few do.

The best photographs rarely land on your doorstep, but if you visit http://bop.nppa.org or www.npac.ca, you’ll find some of the most interesting captures by the world’s best photojournalists, people who measure a life by experience over a paycheque.

These photographs invoke wonder, amazement, sadness, joy, anger, confusion and humour.

In the flick of a shutter, they capture life. I have a deep respect for those who choose to capture these images. I know it’s never easy.

Sometimes I look at my aging Nikon D100 the same way a ballplayer who just missed out on the big leagues might look at his ball glove.

But I will always appreciate a good still image. Make that a great still image.

The good ones are a dime a dozen.

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