Sit Tight or Gun and Run?
December 3, 2011
I'm an old 4x5 shooter. Fifteen years of shooting with such a slow-moving camera taught me to search hard for the best composition with the best potential for interesting light, compose it perfectly, then sit tight and wait until the light peaked. If the sky behind me suddenly lit up while the clouds in my field of view remained stubbornly gray, well, so be it. I learned the hard way that if I made a last-minute decision to change composition to try to take advantage of changing light, I would usually be too late. The best light in the new shot would fizzle before I could find a composition as good as my original one. To add to my frustration, I would sometimes find the sky in my original composition suddenly lighting up as I was trying to dial in the new one. Before I could re-setup my original shot, the light would fade in that direction as well. I would miss both shots and come up completely empty-handed.
At first, switching to digital capture seemed to change the equation. After all, I now had auto-exposure and auto-bracketing and could zone-focus for depth of field without painstakingly examining the 4x5's ground glass with a 4x loupe. Then I added a 24mm tilt-shift lens to my Canon kit. That added significant quality when shooting images that require extreme depth of field, such as fields of wildflowers, but once again slowed me down.
How does all this play out in practice? I got an interesting look at two contrasting shooting styles this summer, when Stan Rose and I both worked the flower fields on Shrine Ridge near Vail Pass one evening. Stan started shooting as soon as he arrived, shooting a wide variety of compositions and never lingering too long over one shot. I had already spent a couple of hours scouting flowers before he arrived, and had settled on one patch that I thought was the best. After lying down on my stomach and painstakingly adjusting the composition by moving the tripod-mounted camera in tiny increments, I finally locked down my tilt-shift lens in what I felt was the ideal composition. Then a rain shower rolled over us. We both covered our cameras and waited. As the shower tapered off, a weak rainbow appeared well outside my camera's field of view. I hesitated, not wanting to re-do my composition and figuring the rainbow probably wouldn't amount to anything. Stan, not locked in to any particular composition, quickly set up on the rainbow and was rewarded with some good shots when the rainbow strengthened. Belatedly, I broke down my composition, switched lenses and tried to set up on a rainbow shot, but missed the most vivid color. Stan left before sunset to try his luck elsewhere. I set up again on the composition I had laboriously scouted. An hour before sunset, I shot the image you see here. Both of us were skunked at sunset by heavy clouds covering the sun.
So which approach is best, sit and wait or gun and run? I still find the most productive strategy, all things considered, is to scout in advance, find the best composition and wait. This is particularly true for any composition that requires precise tripod placement, which generally means compositions with foreground elements very close to the lens, such as wildflowers. The rougher the ground, the longer it takes to position a tripod. It can easily take several minutes to precisely position a tripod on a talus slope, for example. Once I have that shot, however, I'm now much more willing to experiment freely. After all, pixels are "free" while 4x5 film costs $6 per sheet. And if I'm shooting long-lens landscapes from the summit of a Fourteener, for example, where I can compose a variety of shots without moving the tripod, then I shoot freely and follow the light wherever it goes.
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