See the Whole Board

Posted: January 4, 2012 in Photography, Writing
Tags: , ,

There was an episode of The West Wing in which President Bartlet said at different points to Charlie and Sam to, “See the whole board.” In the first instance, he was talking about a literal chess board. In the second, he was discussing deployment of naval resources around the globe. In both cases, he was admonishing his staff to back up and look at the big picture. He was telling them that focusing too closely on one detail can cause you to lose sight of the ultimate goal.

If our goal in photography is ultimately to take great pictures, we often need to stop looking through the viewfinder, back up a few steps and see the whole board. This is a trap that beginners often fall into, and is the reason one of the first thing a new photographer needs to learn is to not have a tree or pole growing out of the subjects head. They need to look not just at the subject, but look at the whole scene they are trying to capture. This is one of the early lessons of composition – to look all around the frame from corner to corner and make sure they are capturing what they thought they were.

This problem is by no means limited to beginners. I remember one time I had made my semi-annual trip to a local airport to shoot planes taxing, taking off and landing. I had waited until I had the sky I liked and the sun was in the right position. I positioned myself in a great location to capture the action while at the same time getting a nice background for the aircraft. Everything was just right and I was watching a jet coming in while composing the image I wanted to capture in my head.

Just as I was about to fire off a few frames, an old man and his young grandson moved into the frame just in front of me. I waited impatiently for them to move while the man explained things to the boy. He was pointing this way and that while the boy either followed his directions or looked up at his grandfather in rapt attention.

I finally decided I wasn’t going to be able to shoot the location and angle I wanted and walked away to another part of the airport to finish shooting for the day. As I drove away some time later I thought back on the scene and realized I hadn’t looked at the whole board. I could shoot airplanes at that particular place in that particular airport any time, but I would probably never have that man and boy in front of my lens again.
As you are out and about shooting, stop thinking about what you want to shoot and look at what there is to shoot. Don’t just focus on what you thought was your subject, but look in all directions, including behind you. You may not get the shot you came for, but you just might capture that special, unique moment that will never come again, if you just stop and see the whole board.

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