F8 and Be There

The Right Place and the Right Time

Post Register May 9, 2013


“Grizzly bear!,” I shouted three times in rapid succession, just in case my wife, who was driving, hadn’t heard it the first time. I followed it by, “pullover! pullover! pullover!” slurred into one word. We had lucked into an unbelievable combination: Yellowstone National Park, bright sunlight, a cooperative bear, and only one other vehicle. That sort of luck just doesn't seem to happen to me and I hoped to cash in.

Was it just luck though? For many years, photographers have chanted the mantra, “f8 and be there” coined by photography great, Arthur Fellig, when he was asked how he created such memorable images. This can mean a lot of different things, but to me, it means that all the equipment and technique in the world doesn't help if you are not in the right place and at the right time.

 This is particularly true with nature. You can’t rewind a sunrise or replay bull bison brawling. You can have the best equipment and training, but if you are in the wrong spot at the right time or vice versa it won’t come together. And it’s the same whether you are birdwatching, hunting, or photographing. Timing and location are everything.

Luck does play a role, but for the most part, the old saying, luck favors the prepared, is true. For instance, more time in the field equals more “luck” because by increasing your exposure to nature, you are also improving your chances of bumping into something unusual. So in a very real sense, successful photographers, hunters, naturalists, birdwatchers, etc. make their own luck.

Knowing where to go is important. I would not go to Florida or even Colorado to see a grizzly bear. So, we were not in Yellowstone National Park by accident. We knew that Lamar Valley is grizzly alley in the spring although bears could be just about anywhere. We increased our chances by immersing ourselves in an area with a high probability of success. This is the first part of, “be there” in Fellig’s formula.

But being there at the right time is key as well. This is the second and probably far more difficult part of the “be there” formula. This is where becoming a true naturalist pays off. Knowing and understanding your subject, whether you want to photograph a dramatic sunset or hunt a bull elk, is essential to putting you there at the right time. The more you know, the luckier you’ll be.

Patience is the tail end of this formula. Once in the right spot, you may have to wait for the right time and that isn’t always easy.  Recognizing that a bison cow is ready to calf, then patiently waiting for the moment is the hallmark of being there.

The “f8” part of the formula refers to your equipment. The better you know it, and the simpler it is, the less you need to fiddle with it when seconds count. Even being at the right place and at the right time can be thwarted if you can’t “make the shot.”

Luck still plays a factor and there is no discounting it. But you can certainly even the odds through preparation.


By Terry Thomas

Was being able to photograph this grizzly bear just a matter of luck or was it skill? It was probably a little of both.