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Make Your Last Shot Your Best Shot

Lately I’ve noticed a common occurrence when I review my images from a photo shoot. More often than not the very best frame is the last one.

I think it’s because I’ve been pushing myself further than I used to by consciously carving out my vision of the subject.

For example, when I was in Charleston, South Carolina, I scouted out a beach location that had a lovely pier and faced east. Perfect for sunrise. I got up extremely early, while it was still dark outside, went to my location flashlight in hand and got set up for the morning’s first rays.

When the sun came up it didn’t take me long at all to get the shot I had envisioned. Here it is.

Pier at Folly Beach, Charleston, South Carolina.

There were a couple of other photographers on the beach that morning too. They had come down from the nearby swanky beachfront hotels and made images that were probably very much like the one I made. Then they went back.

I bet they were just in time for breakfast. My mouth watered a bit as I imagined what they were in for. Mmmm, yummy bacon, croissants still warm from the oven, a cheesy omelet. I looked back towards the hotels and paused for just a moment before my conscience told me “NO! FOCUS!” and when I looked back the light had changed just a bit and I smiled knowing I was going to make images that were even better than my initial vision.

When I am at a scene, I always try to focus on whatever attracted my attention in the first place. In this case it was the pier. Sure, the beach was lovely and the sky was lovely, but it was the pier that made this place different from any other beach.

I moved closer and closer to the pier, simplifying the composition, using a different point of view and different lenses to arrange the elements of the scene until I got these two images, neither of which I had envisioned before the shoot.

untitled

I carved out my vision of the subject and removed elements from the scene until I was left with only a small portion of what was in my initial image.

A similar thing happened when I was at Green Point in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada. I went down to an east facing beach for a sunrise shoot and made this image.

Green Point Beach, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada.

There was a very similar scene looking at the beach in the other direction.

Green Point Beach, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada.

But after that, then what? The thing that was different about this beach than any other I had been on were the pinkish granite stones the size of footballs. And I couldn’t help but give them my attention since they were extremely difficult to walk on. They were wet, each one moved as I stepped on it, and when the powerful atlantic waves came in I had to grab my tripod and rush up the beach for fear of being swept away. It was the stones that were the attracting feature.

So I changed my point of view by getting down low, used my wide angle lens to get in close, and removed all other elements from the scene to make this image.

Green Point Beach, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada.

The next time you go on a photo shoot think about carving out your vision of the subject and being conscious of what you want to express in your image by answering these questions:

  • What is your photograph about?
  • How can you arrange the elements of the scene to bring out your subject’s best quality?
  • What elements are best left out?
  • What is the true subject?
  • What kind of effect do you want the subject to have on the viewer?

Get closer and closer to your true subject, changing your point of view, and removing elements from the scene until you get that shot that expresses your vision.

You will find that your compositions improve as you go and you might find too that your best shot is your last shot.

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Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    I make it my business to try my best to give my clients the best shot last. It’s the ultimate climax so I totally see your point in doing so for yourself. However lately I try to only shoot great shots and leave the bad ones behind.

    Have you ever read zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance?

    That will change your photography for life.

    BTW I recently gave a client this as the last shot from a session. It’s a total photoshop job but she fell in love.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Suzy-234-3.jpg

  • Juan

    Lovely pictures!!

  • http://ecuadormeyers.com David Meyer

    I can’t agree more. Teaching better photography is often more about what NOT to include in your images. Thanks for the great illustrations that really make your point. I have never seen a beach like that one before. Wish I had some of those stones for landscaping my yard. :-)

  • Dan

    Beautiful!!!!!!

  • http://www.photocandy.com.au stephen hill

    Good article, great advice. I have been trying to force myself to focus on this for the last few shoots after noticing that i was cropping a lot in my post processing. This is fine but you lose so much of the detail you could have had if you just framed it in the first place.

  • Scottc

    For some reason my first shot most often turns out to be the best. No idea why, maybe I’m concentrating at first and then getting distracted.

    Had a similar situation at the beach recently. Thought about this shot the night before, took it the next morning, all while answering the question “when will the sun rise?”

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8088031104/

  • Mei Teng

    Great images Anne and thanks for sharing. Totally agree.

  • http://Www.russbishop.com Russ Bishop

    Great write-up Anne and wonderful images to illustrate. It’s true that removing clutter from the frame and staying focused on your purpose are two of the best ways to create compelling imagery.

  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    For me sometimes it is the first shot but I agree it is often the last one but rarely in the middle

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-Mammals/G0000IrGRBOD5m2s/I000087ohbTwqjjw/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • http://www.guigphotography.com/# Guigphotography

    Fantastic advice. I’m finding I’m shooting less now and spending less time sifting through versions of the same shot later, having put a bit more thought and patience into the initial effort. Can’t say I’ve mastered it yet, but it’s getting better!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8218312574/in/photostream

  • Bruno

    Beautiful post. And beautiful shots, too.

  • http://www.appleledgephotography.com Robert Rosen

    A book just arrived by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. It is called The Practice of Contemplative Photography. I have an idea that your final shots are just what this book is about.

  • Shirlee

    Really great article, Anne! These photos are what, I think, set you apart. Keep up the great work!

  • http://lavapix.com/ Bryan Lowry

    Funny, my first shot is usually the best. But, I still shoot a few more photos. Seem to like the first ones best.

  • Mark

    Did you use graduated filters for some of those shots or subtle HDR?

  • http://annemckinnell.com Anne McKinnell

    Thank you all for your very kind comments and feedback on my post!

    @Jai Yes, I have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but it was a long, long time ago :) I loved it at the time. I think I will have to pick that one up again. Thanks for the reminder.

    @Scottc that is interesting what you say about your first shot often being your best. Maybe it’s that thing about pre-visualization and having a good idea of how you want to capture your image from the outset. Hey, whatever works, right? I have often thought of doing a photo shoot and limiting myself to only one shot to see what happens then. (I got the idea from someone who shoots large format, which is expensive to develop, and he had to limit his shots. It’s something I haven’t thought of since the film days.)

    @Mark In all of these shots, to my memory, I used a solid 4 stop neutral density filter which blocks out some of the light and allows me to use longer exposures which cause blur in the water. I love that filter!

  • http://annemckinnell.com Anne McKinnell

    @mark a 4 stop SOLID neutral density filter, not graduated.

  • Nancy Orchard

    Great shots in your article…it sure looks like Folly Beach–is it? If so, one of my favorite places to do some photography.

  • Chris

    Great shots – first, last…all of them!

  • Chris

    After looking at them again I must agree that the last shot of the rocks is my favorite!

  • Peggy Dianne Reeves-Misch

    As an amateur, this is a great tip for us and WOW!!!. The photos were beautiful.

  • Mark

    Thanks for that Anne. The reason I asked is that some of them look like your typical shot where the exposure latitude gets too much for the camera but on second glance I’m guessing you solved that problem by smartly keeping the sun ball itself out of the frame. First shot the one I’m thinking about most.

  • Jeff Collett

    Great write-up, Anne. Ken Rockwell uses the mnemonic FART to describe the process that led towards your final shots. BTW, did you employ a ND filter or get the long shutter times or was it simply dark enough outside?

  • http://annemckinnell.com/ Anne McKinnell

    @Nancy Yes, it’s Folly Beach! I loved it there!

    @Mark on the first image the sun wasn’t above the horizon yet, on the second image the sun was out of the frame, and on the third image I hid the sun behind one of the pilings from the pier.

    @Jeff yes I used a 4 stop solid neutral density filter to extend the shutter time to blur the water.

    Thanks for your comments and questions!

Some older comments

  • Anne McKinnell

    December 23, 2012 04:58 am

    @Nancy Yes, it's Folly Beach! I loved it there!

    @Mark on the first image the sun wasn't above the horizon yet, on the second image the sun was out of the frame, and on the third image I hid the sun behind one of the pilings from the pier.

    @Jeff yes I used a 4 stop solid neutral density filter to extend the shutter time to blur the water.

    Thanks for your comments and questions!

  • Jeff Collett

    December 11, 2012 08:35 am

    Great write-up, Anne. Ken Rockwell uses the mnemonic FART to describe the process that led towards your final shots. BTW, did you employ a ND filter or get the long shutter times or was it simply dark enough outside?

  • Mark

    December 11, 2012 07:34 am

    Thanks for that Anne. The reason I asked is that some of them look like your typical shot where the exposure latitude gets too much for the camera but on second glance I'm guessing you solved that problem by smartly keeping the sun ball itself out of the frame. First shot the one I'm thinking about most.

  • Peggy Dianne Reeves-Misch

    December 8, 2012 02:28 pm

    As an amateur, this is a great tip for us and WOW!!!. The photos were beautiful.

  • Chris

    December 8, 2012 06:01 am

    After looking at them again I must agree that the last shot of the rocks is my favorite!

  • Chris

    December 8, 2012 05:59 am

    Great shots - first, last...all of them!

  • Nancy Orchard

    December 7, 2012 11:32 pm

    Great shots in your article...it sure looks like Folly Beach--is it? If so, one of my favorite places to do some photography.

  • Anne McKinnell

    December 7, 2012 06:44 am

    @mark a 4 stop SOLID neutral density filter, not graduated.

  • Anne McKinnell

    December 7, 2012 06:43 am

    Thank you all for your very kind comments and feedback on my post!

    @Jai Yes, I have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but it was a long, long time ago :) I loved it at the time. I think I will have to pick that one up again. Thanks for the reminder.

    @Scottc that is interesting what you say about your first shot often being your best. Maybe it's that thing about pre-visualization and having a good idea of how you want to capture your image from the outset. Hey, whatever works, right? I have often thought of doing a photo shoot and limiting myself to only one shot to see what happens then. (I got the idea from someone who shoots large format, which is expensive to develop, and he had to limit his shots. It's something I haven't thought of since the film days.)

    @Mark In all of these shots, to my memory, I used a solid 4 stop neutral density filter which blocks out some of the light and allows me to use longer exposures which cause blur in the water. I love that filter!

  • Mark

    December 5, 2012 10:04 pm

    Did you use graduated filters for some of those shots or subtle HDR?

  • Bryan Lowry

    December 1, 2012 01:56 pm

    Funny, my first shot is usually the best. But, I still shoot a few more photos. Seem to like the first ones best.

  • Shirlee

    December 1, 2012 12:36 pm

    Really great article, Anne! These photos are what, I think, set you apart. Keep up the great work!

  • Robert Rosen

    December 1, 2012 11:55 am

    A book just arrived by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. It is called The Practice of Contemplative Photography. I have an idea that your final shots are just what this book is about.

  • Bruno

    December 1, 2012 06:15 am

    Beautiful post. And beautiful shots, too.

  • Guigphotography

    December 1, 2012 04:59 am

    Fantastic advice. I'm finding I'm shooting less now and spending less time sifting through versions of the same shot later, having put a bit more thought and patience into the initial effort. Can't say I've mastered it yet, but it's getting better!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/69604456@N07/8218312574/in/photostream

  • Steve

    November 30, 2012 08:33 pm

    For me sometimes it is the first shot but I agree it is often the last one but rarely in the middle

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/African-Mammals/G0000IrGRBOD5m2s/I000087ohbTwqjjw/C0000bdEkyK_8Dzs

  • Russ Bishop

    November 30, 2012 03:47 pm

    Great write-up Anne and wonderful images to illustrate. It's true that removing clutter from the frame and staying focused on your purpose are two of the best ways to create compelling imagery.

  • Mei Teng

    November 30, 2012 11:24 am

    Great images Anne and thanks for sharing. Totally agree.

  • Scottc

    November 30, 2012 09:57 am

    For some reason my first shot most often turns out to be the best. No idea why, maybe I'm concentrating at first and then getting distracted.

    Had a similar situation at the beach recently. Thought about this shot the night before, took it the next morning, all while answering the question "when will the sun rise?"

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/8088031104/

  • stephen hill

    November 30, 2012 09:43 am

    Good article, great advice. I have been trying to force myself to focus on this for the last few shoots after noticing that i was cropping a lot in my post processing. This is fine but you lose so much of the detail you could have had if you just framed it in the first place.

  • Dan

    November 30, 2012 09:18 am

    Beautiful!!!!!!

  • David Meyer

    November 30, 2012 08:48 am

    I can't agree more. Teaching better photography is often more about what NOT to include in your images. Thanks for the great illustrations that really make your point. I have never seen a beach like that one before. Wish I had some of those stones for landscaping my yard. :-)

  • Juan

    November 30, 2012 08:03 am

    Lovely pictures!!

  • Jai Catalano

    November 30, 2012 07:06 am

    I make it my business to try my best to give my clients the best shot last. It's the ultimate climax so I totally see your point in doing so for yourself. However lately I try to only shoot great shots and leave the bad ones behind.

    Have you ever read zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance?

    That will change your photography for life.

    BTW I recently gave a client this as the last shot from a session. It's a total photoshop job but she fell in love.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Suzy-234-3.jpg

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