How Photographers get their Shots and Miss the Picture.


Marek perhaps made the mistake of tying a female Alaskan Malamite  along with two males of the  species to the sledge. He tied her behind them but it was not long before  they caught her scent.  This distracted them and they would sniff the air , the path, and turn around intermittently breaking the ride from time to time. Marek  had to shout `go' more than once.  But the scent of the female was clearly too overpowering. In the  pine and birch forest  Mareks `go' echoed  back along with the excited yelps of the dogs.  But despite the frequent interruptions in which the dogs performed their mating rituals in front of me , I was at least happy that unlike on a Reindeer sledge I could at least see where the dogs were dragging me. (sanjay austa austa)

The Arctic Huskies have very thick fur or so i've heard.

A few weeks  ago I  bumped into  a friend  who is an avid dog lover.   She began to probe me on the huskies I had photographed on my trip to the Arctic two years ago. “ I have heard their fur  is so soft that your hand sinks deep into it’’, she gushed. So I’ve heard I replied. “What ? but I saw your photos of them on your website’’, she exclaimed in disbelief. Oh yes I had the photographs. In fact I had dozens of  photographs  of these magnificent Arctic dogs, both of the Greenland Huskie and the Alaskan Malamute  but  I had to break it to her that I had no  idea what their fur felt like.  I was just so  busy taking their photos to give a damn.

Recently a  magazine editor saw my Ladakh photos and asked me to write about the  rafting experience in the Zanskar .  I had to admit to him that while I had the rafting photos  I had no experience to write home about. Because while others rafted ,  I stood alone on a desolate bridge trying to get my   shots.

I may never get an opportunity to raft in the Zanskar again, much less pat the huskies in the Arctic but as time goes by  I am realizing that contrary to the received wisdom the camera can infact isolate you from the world around you in ways you never imagined.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Ya i got that shot alright. But I wish I had been on that raft too.

But wait, this problem is not  endemic to  only the pros.  A few months ago the very beautiful and very famous Indian actress Katrina  Kaif  visited New Delhi to inaugurate a fancy store at a shopping mall.  The next day’s supplements had this astonishing photograph of her being surrounded by her fans with none of them even looking at her.  They were all looking into their mobile phones! They may have never imagined they would get so close to the actress in their lives and when they got their chance they blew it.  Yes they were all trying to `capture’ her into the megapixels of their mobiles.

This brings me to the question. Does  photography  makes you see more – as is popularly believed –   or does it sometimes make you wear blinkers to the world around you?  Photography of course should make you see and absorb more and this is what we all believe but I think it can also do just the opposite. I feel photographers are so busy with the visual assimilation of what is at hand that they don’t (and perhaps can’t) care  much about what it is they are photographing. They are not so much interested in understanding the subject as they are in `capturing’ it.

Oblivious to the world. Even as the photographer peers into the viewfinder a huge stag passes him by. Picture: Hans Kruse / London Media

The media at least knows this for a fact. That’s why magazines from National Geographic to the Dainik Bhaskar  seldom send photographers into the field without a writer accompanying them. Its is not that the photojournalists cannot write . In some cases the photographers write beautifully but the editors won’t trust them with both the camera and the pen.  Unless one is working on long term projects, photographers especially those with deadline bound journalistic assignments, can’t be bothered with the details of what they are photographing as long as they get their shots.

But is there a way of seeing that is different for the writer and the photographer?  Having been  both I would say there is a substantial difference.  The first obvious one is that the writers approach is calm and collected. He has the luxury to take a step back and observe.  The photographer is often rushed and almost anxiety ridden. If there is observation its on the aesthetics of the frame- the composition, the colour, the light , the expressions and the moment.

So while a writer observes,  the  world often passes by the photographer and he doesn’t even have a clue.  Because how much can you really see squinting into a one inch peephole ? Metaphorically and otherwise  – you have to have both eyes wide open to really see anything.  To really observe one need to have what Zen calls `mindfulness’  –  where the mind is not a trapezing monkey but a calm state of choiceless  awareness.

Seeing the world though the peephole. At your own risk. Another morphed picture i found interesting.

At any rate we live in a world where we  are increasingly depending  less and less on ourselves and more and more on technology to make sense of the world around us.  The camera is perhaps one of the first in the  line of gizmos since its used by almost everyone.  Whether we are pros or not its almost as if , if we can’t  record that thing on our camera its not worth our  while.

Last year on a safari in Wadi Rum Jordan, the desert sand got into the camera of a fellow journalist. He tried his best to get his camera working but to no avail.  For the rest of the trip he stayed in the jeep and sulked. He did not step out of it to explore the Bedouin tents, nor walk on the soft   ochre sands nor see the ancient rock paintings. He  just sat in the jeep and complained  how we were taking too much time and that we must head back to  our hotel.

This is obviously a fake photo but it demonstrates the point succinctly enough.

If you have been to any of the book launches or classical music concerts you will see the   clamor  photographers make when the artist arrives on the stage. But after the book ribbon is  cut and the ceremonial lamp lit almost all photographers disappear. Most of them head straight to the bar while others just go home. This was also the case whenever I took a photographer along for any  interview I was doing. The photographer would take his shots and wait for me in the hotel lobby.

Of course it can be argued why the hell should  a photographer care about understanding what he  photographs  when he has  the winning shot.  A picture after all tells a hundred words. But that’s a very utilitarian way of looking at it.  I’d rather not have that winning shot if  its means missing  out on the perspective.  I’ll end this with an extract from the famous  poem by the Welsh poet  Wm Henry Davis called `Leisure’ where he extols the virtues of simply “standing and staring’’ – an art almost  alien to photographers . He of course wrote it for the folks in the early  20th century but I think its much   more relevant to our times than it was to his.

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.


No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.


No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.


No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.


A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare. 

38 Responses to “How Photographers get their Shots and Miss the Picture.”

  1. saimi sattar says:

    I agree and disagree Sanjay. Photographers, pro n amateurs record events, situations 4 othrs 2 experience…but yes even as they do so they miss out ön d experience. When v r out wth friends if u r busy photographing d fun u miss out on it..but at d same time if u don’t record it, u can probably replay it in ur mind and relive it..but can’t really make any1 xperience it..

  2. Sneha says:

    Hello Sanjay,

    I agree with what you said and I was also worrying about the same thing from last few days.I was thinking how to write about my experience when I am not observing anything else -except the frames.I got gud frames but my experience remained limited to them only.I can write but i think my experience will lack depth except if i am writing for photographers some guide to explore and click photos.I think its so difficult to feel and get involved in the situation and also to be quick enough and not leaving any frame.How to do it how to photogarph it and make ur experience complete as a traveler .I think I dont have perfect answer to this .hope i will find it soon…. Will try to stand and stare and click in between…:)

  3. Kalpana Sunder says:

    Absolutely true.. Quite often I click my share of pics..and then consciously put away my camera and just sit and absorb what is around me.. I guess when you are the photographer and writer..its a tightrope walk..between taking pics and making notes and letting it all sink in!

  4. Manjunath Shenoy says:

    Sanjay: You have just put into words what I have often agonized over. It is so important for me to get “THE” picture, that the place, the moment and magic passes me by, and inevitably I feel bad about it later while wallowing in the bar. So there are many occassions where I simply do not carry a camera along, and just enjoy the holiday with the kids!

    • sanjay austa says:

      Manjunath not taking a camera along once in a while is perhaps the best solution. But we live in a time when we don’t really want to experience anything firsthand. We want to bring in technology every time between us and the world . It can be be the phone, the internet , or the camera.

  5. Maneck says:

    Sanjay, brilliant post and although I won’t say I can identify with the feeling, I can still understand the emotions behind it.

    However, to put things through a different perspective (specifically mine), as a hobbyist (is that a word?) photographer who doesn’t have deadlines but appreciates the color and textures of things around him, I have actually started to be more observant after using a camera (with all thanks to you). True I also like hunting for that perfect picture …. but I never knew light and shadow mattered so much in making or breaking a “Point of View” …. in fact my design sense and sensitivity towards light in my designs have also increased (though I am not sure if my designs have gotten any better :-)).

    Still this is my perception, after being introduced to the world of photography with inputs from experts like you & you know who ;-).

    • sanjay austa says:

      Hey Manek thanks. And thanks for giving your perspective as a hobbyist ( yes there is a word like that) 🙂 I would agree with you. The problems is when photographers work on assignment they are anxious to get the right shot and in that anxiety they do miss out a lot. Its a catch -22 situation. Either you enjoy the scene or get that damn shot. As a hobbyist there is no such worry for the perfect shot – unless of course you make it one and ruin the experience.

  6. You definitely have a point, Sanjay and you argue it very convincingly. May I also add that I agree with you about Photography being of such consuming interest to the Photographer that they tend to ignore, or totally miss, the larger picture or situation.
    However, I feel that the point is weakened and actually ends up applying to almost all people by the poem you have quoted in the end.

    The poem is not Photographer specific, and actually applies to all people. The point being made is that we are usually so busy or consumed by our own interests that we only see things through the ‘filter’ of what interests us. And as individuals miss out, without really caring or bothering about, any other thing, idea, view or experience. it’s true of all people and not just Photographers.

    Think about it.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks for your views Dinesh. I agree the poem is not Photographer specific and is applicable to all people. The poem was written in a time when camera was just a very new invention practiced by very few so I guess the problem of not `standing and staring’ is not something unique to photographers or even to our generation.
      My post is also more or less about everyone since almost everyone takes photos now though not professionally.
      I mentioned that with the example of Katrina Kaif fans not looking at her or of a journalist colleague who lost interest in the desert landscape as soon as his camera stopped functioning. But it becomes somewhat paradoxical and maybe ironic for working photographers because they bring to others experiences they may have only captured but not really experienced themselves. At least this is the dilemma i face on every assignment.

  7. Another great article Sanjay. I agree with you wholeheartedly, and now I know I was right. Recently I went with a group of photographers to Mcleodganj and there was an instance when about 800 monks were praying together in the temple and the sound it made was thunderous. We had, for want of a better word ‘photographed’ the temple 2 days ago in normal environment, but no one wanted to sit and soak in the majestic feeling it gave. While I sat and felt that sound everyone photographed the monks, and I was in dilemma if what I did was correct or not. But you have cleared it today, thank you.
    If we photographers want to be considered as artists, we have to feel, otherwise we simply aren’t.

  8. Rekha Nambiar says:

    Very nice article Sanjay. Perhaps the nature of the work is such that you have to ‘capture’ the moment rather than ‘experience’ it. I guess one way is to find time to do both– as often as possible 🙂 Feel the fur next time you visit the Artic 🙂

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Rekha. Yes its the nature of the job I guess. But most of us don’t really realize it though. Yes certainly, I am dying to see how the fur feels 🙂

  9. Priya Jain says:

    Very nice post Sanjay. Its true what you say. And sometimes we really have to stop to look and stare…

  10. Shibani says:

    Hi Sanjay

    very true, and very pertinent to people who like to photograph the chaos of cities, not just the natural universe.

    i’m glad this happens to pro photographers too actually, because i often find myslef struggling to absorb and enjoy experiences if i’m also trying to photograph them. in fact, now i make it a point to have ‘days out’ sans camera. conversely, i sometimes end up taking the best shots when i’m a little bored of my company!

    keep it up dude

    • sanjay austa says:

      Shibani yes actually it happens more with pros as they have the anxiety to get those shots for which they are hired for. As a hobbyist one can be more relaxed and absorb more .

  11. Noni Chawla says:

    Sanjay, a very thought-provoking piece. It is a subject on which I have dwelt myself.
    There are certain “events” which I see “better” if I am shooting, e.g., dance, music. I find that I concentrate a lot more on the dancer, or the singer when I am behind my camera. Otherwise I get distracted by the surrounding “noise”.
    However, when I am out travelling, I miss out on a lot of interesting stuff because I am shooting, rather than listening to the guide or taking in the whole scene.

  12. pankaj anand says:

    I was going through the same thoughts some days back. I remember when i bought my first point & shoot camera and went to Auto Expo in Delhi, all I just clicked the pictures.. after the show i had some 500 pics but i hardly remember what I saw there from my eyes 😛 .. that time i realized this thing first. Situation didn’t change much after that.. now i am trying pretty hard these days to maintain a good balance :). Most of the time my wife pulls me back to any discussion regarding the place/history to give me a different angle to see while I am busy shooting :).

    The story from Wadi Rum is really hilarious .. even in the wildest dream of mine i wouldn’t have done that.

  13. Sharadh Srivastava says:

    Agree absolutely, I like your thoughts…

    I have faced the same dilemma several times, and the fact that I am also equally passionate about driving as I am about photography – probably makes it even worse!

    I am planning to visit Ladakh this year, and while I would do almost anything to drive myself, I have chosen not to drive myself but go along with a group and share the driving part – with the focus on soaking in the scenery & clicking, – plan on at least two weeks, and spend time at every place you feel like stopping/clicking!

    What Dinesh Khanna & Noni Chawla said is also true. Sometimes, especially at a performance, the camera helps you to isolate yourself and focus on the performer’s expression, while at other times, the camera gives you new points of view – that other people may miss out on!

    IMO a photographer’s burning desire & passion to ‘capture that moment’, and the satisfaction/pleasure derived (instantly, in the DSLR age) through actually being able to achieve it – covers up for most of the other things that one misses out on…

    But yes, sometimes – you still need to ‘stand and stare’!

  14. VJ SHARMA says:

    Sanjay, You have put it brilliantly !

    I have come across many such conversations, but most of the times I was able to convince others that it’s not like that. Your write-up has put it more convincingly.

    But I think, it’s always about compromises and applicable to non-photographers as well. It’s not limited to travels or events we shoot, but applies to almost every activity we do. It’s more about deciding priorities. In my case, I know that I miss the fun of travel while with my friends who are not interested in Photography, but at the same time I get full satisfaction when travelling with like minded folks. Because in that case my primary goal is getting fulfilled and that’s what I need to decide. I thank to my blog PHOTO JOURNEY, which always reminds me to better observe a place through photographs because I need to present a Photo story to rest of the world and that is something helps in better observation part. But at same time, I realized that I have stopped experimenting with my camera and which means that my learning curve is getting flat by being more focused on exploration part. So I have to decide, what I want with all known constraints 🙂 … Although I am still confused !

  15. Inder Gopal says:

    Hi Sanjay,
    Interest levels are different in each individual. Even a person not photographically involved, will also miss out on things that do not interest him/her but others are interested in.

    Unless a photographer gets a feel of a place/environment/happening he/she would not be shooting. Again each photographer’s interest level is different and will be attracted to the situations as per his/her interests. Even when all present photographers point their cameras in the same direction, each frame will be different conveying different moods of the scene.

    A photographer is conveying (to what he knows best) through his photographs, while a writer has his words to convey (to what he knows best).

    Thats the beauty that all being in the same place at the same time will have different experiences to share and write about.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Inder for sharing your views. I agree with your view that we all take away different experiences being the in same place at the same time. However I am making a point that photographers lose out on many experiences altogether. Perhaps its the nature of the job. For example I had to decide between I getting the rafting shots or the experience. Because I was on an assignment for a magazine and had a deadline, I had to settle for the former.
      I am also saying we rely too much on technology to make sense of the world around us. So we are not happy just seeing Katrina Kaif untrammeled as she is with our own eyes for example but want to see it thorough the camera. Doing so we become thrice removed from reality. Not a very happy state to be in , in my opinion.

  16. easwarc says:

    I too had a ‘Katrina Kaif’ moment 🙂 I was taking a few snaps (for fun) at the Royal Wedding in London.. I thought if I focus on the shot I’ll miss the fleeting glimpse of the Prince & Princess.. in the end I watched.. traded a good shot for a wholesome view..

    nice perspective Sanjay..

  17. Suzan McEvoy says:

    This reminds me of a few years ago when we were hiking with the kids. They were about 5 & 7 and we were counting the number of different wildflowers along the side of the trail. We got to the top and there were carvings in the rock walls which we stopped to check out. Another young boy stopped to see what we were looking at and his Dad, who was striding briskly along the trail said, “come on, quit dawdling, we don’t have time for that.” I felt so sorry for the stifling of that inquisitive young mind.

  18. Dinesh Sethi says:

    Agree with you Sanjay… I call it “capturing” the moment and “missing” the moment at the same time…….. have done that so many times….wanted to go back to so many places without the “gear” just to “Stand and Stare” as you mentioned

  19. Priya says:

    Hi Sanjay,

    I happened to come to your site and really liked the pics, and the articles, especially this one. Photography is my hobby, and as a mother of two school going kids, I often find myself at school functions and events where most parents are furiously clicking away, and I am left wondering – I feel like telling them, hello, thse pics are meant for friends and family and not likely to make it to the cover of Newsweek, so relax, take a few pics, and experience and enjoy the moment! While digital cameras are a blessing, I think they have given people clicking-diarrhoea. They shoot 40 pics in the hope of getting atleast 5 which are half-decent, with little thought for lighting, camera settings or angles. Even worse are those who upload 100 pics of a three day holiday on facebook. I think we all need to pause and re-think. Earlier, camera rools gave u 36 exposures and getting it developed n all cost money, so people captured a few moments, and enjoyed the rest. now we capture each moment, and many of us don’t enjoy even one, and then sit with tonnes and tonnes of photos but few memories!

    • sanjay austa says:

      Hi Priya,
      Thanks for your comments and I appreciate your kind words. It was nice to get a perspective from a parent. You are right -parents sometime miss the moments with their children by their obsession with taking photos endlessly.
      Thank you.

  20. nirupama sharma says:

    sanjay.. great article .. you made me see the other side of the coin and i do realise that you miss out on the fun part but you need to take breaks and do that in your free time.. but then it also makes me wonder.. when you are having fun.. wouldnt you want to capture it!! 🙂

  21. Excellent article ! I agree with your observations , but not 100%.

    Firstly, all writers are not composed . Secondly, if you compare a Press photographer with a WRITER, , say someone like Khuswant Singh or Girish Karnad , then it is comparing an apple with an orange.A Press photographer should be compared with a News paper reporter.

    There are many photographers who work hard and create a visual art as diligently,patiently as a poet or a novelist would.Is not it ?

    Yet, in everyday life, a camera-man loses views which can be ‘beholden’ by two open eyes only.But, Sanjay, we must understand, every cameraperson is NOT a great photographer, nor every person with a pen & a pad is not a composed writer.

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