The Photos We Didn't Take


In the last few years, I've taken a number of photographs I'm pleased with.  Even the best of those, though, can't compare to the photographs I didn't take.

There are many creative ways of not taking photographs. I discovered one of them after I'd driven an hour and a half to photograph a spot in Arizona's central highlands. As I was preparing the camera for action, I noticed that the battery was nearly dead. I chose the handful of shots I managed to take with care. They weren't nearly as good, of course, as the dozens of photographs I didn't take that morning.

The camera's battery provides an even simpler and more elegant way of not taking photographs. One morning I drove to the Superstition Mountains before dawn. As I arrived, I had a spectacular view of the rising sun lighting up some distant peaks. I'd post a photo of what it looked like, except I didn't take any. As I was setting up my gear, I realized that the camera battery was not in the camera. It was in the charger, plugged into an electrical outlet back at my house. I'm sure it was well charged and happy.

I have a theory that some photographic equipment just doesn't like to get up as early as I do. That would explain why I once arrived at Lake Pleasant at first light and found that my tripod hadn't made the trip. It must have needed the extra sleep. The beautiful early light came and went, unrecorded by my camera. When the sun rose and the light turned harsh and glaring, I was finally able to take some handheld shots.

There's another piece of camera gear that can lead to not taking photographs. I once camped at the rim of a secluded canyon. At dusk on the first day, I took a slew of shots, and later I took a number of shots by moonlight.  At sunrise the next morning, just as the light on the canyon's rock formations was getting really dramatic, my CF card announced that it was full. The silence of that morning in the wilderness was shattered by my emphatic comment about this development. The editors of this website will not allow me to repeat it here.

By now you may be thinking: doesn't this guy understand that you can carry spare batteries and CF cards?  The answer is that of course I do. Now. 

When I first started using a DSLR, I used a sort of faith-based approach to camera settings. I just took it on faith that they would all be about right without necessarily checking them. I was still using that approach one morning when I photographed an abandoned ranch in a relatively inaccessible spot in southeastern Arizona. Just as the good light was fading, I realized that I had taken every shot at ISO 1600. That's where I'd left the camera set after taking a photo of the campfire the night before. Technically, of course, the photos I took that morning do not qualify as shots I didn't take. I have the photos. You can vaguely discern what I was trying to photograph through the blizzard of noise.

There are ways of not taking photographs that have nothing to do with photographic gear. For example, there was the day my Jeep got stuck in a sandy wash. I was eventually hauled out by two guys in a truck who were better-prepared than I was. They tried not to snicker too much. There were a lot of photographs I didn't take that day. 

Then there was the time I got dehydrated. Somehow it slipped my mind that I was in the desert, and that it was important to keep taking in fluids to offset the fact that the bone-dry air was sucking them out of me as fast as it could. That experience led to a number of shots not being taken.

I could go on about ways I've found not to take photographs. Actually, though, I'd rather not. 

Since this is a blog about photography, there ought to be a photograph somewhere in this post.  I can't include an example of the photographs I didn't take.  Here, though, is a photo that captures the side of me that led to those untaken shots.

I suspect we can all think of photographs we didn't take. We know certain things about those photographs beyond any real doubt. The photographs we didn't take were among our very best. Indeed, they were among the finest photographs of our era. Those photographs would have had the curators of the Museum of Modern Art calling us about an exhibit. We would long since have retired on the proceeds of the sales of those photographs.

The photographs I didn't take are displayed in a special place in my mind. They're right beside the sound of one hand clapping.


 After walking all day long in St Louis, taking pictures of all sorts of not-so-interesting-things like trash cans and street signs, I finally arrived at the Gateway Arch. Took a single picture and... the battery died. :-(

Learned my lesson: I *always* have an extra battery with me, now. Actually, I buy an extra battery with every single new camera I have bought since then (6 years ago).

Full memory cards have also bitten me on the rear. I went out to shoot, and forgot to download (and delete) the pictures of the day before. As suggested by the author, I now have a small 2GB card in an inside pocket of my camera bag, "just in case".

Don't feel too bad.  I think we remember the shots we didn't take, those truly spectacular one's, just as well as the other thousands of photos we did take, probably because we were simply so aggravated with ourselves for losing the shot.  It's okay.  Ed.  

The photograph I did not take will be forever etched in my memory as well as my childrens memory. We are now forever looking for  "the cows in the sky".

We were coming home from a family reunion, hubby driving, teen children in the back seat, lovely evening light shined beautifully on the countryside. I spotted a grass covered hill with a lone tree at its top, as we got closer cows appeared at the top of the hill, with a gorgeous evening sky as their back drop. It was beautiful. The kids saw it too. My camera bag was in the back of the car and hubby refused to stop so I could get my camera out.

The kids and I are forever watching for those cows in the sky. Someday I will find them again :)

Commiserations! I don't know if this qualifies because the photos were taken but I formatted the CF card thinking I'd downloaded the photos. I post this to add to the list of things to remember!

I don't think there is a photographer out there that cannot relate to this.

My most memorable not taken photos were when I would say to myself "I don't need to pull out my gear,  have enought shots of elephants, moose, whatever" and therefore was not ready for some amazing antics.

Hopefully, we learn from this ;)

Marty, have you checked out TrekPod by Trek-Tech?  I just bought one and I love it.

Speaking of dead batteries:

I splurged when I got my DSLR camera and bought an extra battery and a car charger unit, which I keep in my camera case.

For my Lumix point and shoot, I always have spare non-rechargable batteries in that case (...for some reason, all compact cameras seem to eat batteries if you leave them in the camera when not using it).

I also have spare memory cards for both, in their respective cases. Many a time I go to shoot a pic, only to get the error message of 'no memory card' and scramble to get out the spare before I miss the shot (sometimes yes, sometimes no).

Tripods: I like using them, but I often just rely on my hiking pole to act as a uni-pod.

Marty, thanks for the comment.  I haven't tried a unipod.  I take a lot of low-light photos and I need all the support I can get.  The tripod works fine, as long as I take it along.



I'm sure we all have those untaken photos stuck firmly in our minds. Most of mine involve spectacular sunsets while walking my leashed dog on the Florida beach, without my camera of course. I am trying the minimalist approach these days carrying a camera with a pre-selected lens only and a charged battery. With that in mind I wonder if you have ever used a unipod for landscape photos? I hike a lot with my dog and carrying a unipod attached to my camera seems to work even if I have to use a nearby tree for support. Thanks for the wonderful snowy desert photo. I really miss the Santa Fe scenery.