If You Can’t Beat ’em

You have probably heard the old phrase “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. It can actually be pretty good advice for some situations. Sometimes it is better to abandon your preconceived assumptions and respond to the actual conditions.


Many famous artists, from Ansel Adams onward, preach that we should previsualize the end result before we shoot. One accepted meaning of it is that the photographer can see the final print before the image has been captured. In other words, based on his experience, the photographer knows what end result he will be able to achieve before pressing the shutter release.

Mr. Adams, ever the teacher, broke it down into 4 steps:

  1. Need or desire for the picture. Why are you taking it?
  2. Discovery. Recognize the essential composition that can be made.
  3. Visualization, the process of anticipating what the result will look like.
  4. Execution. Doing everything right to make it happen. This is image capture through post processing.

I would not go on record as disagreeing with Ansel Adams, but I think there are a few assumptions wrapped up in this that we can look at. The advice may not be a universal truth.

For one thing, if you are a commercial photographer contracted to get a certain image for a client, yes, planning and previsualization is important. Also, if it is a “one in a lifetime” situation where you know the opportunity will never repeat for you, be very diligent and make sure you get the shot you want when you have the chance.

But another angle I don’t think I have heard talked about is personality. Some people are naturally planners. They work best when they are following a carefully thought out script. They need a high degree of structure in their environment. Other people don’t work that way.

Generational changes

And consider the differences in technology and capability of editing now compared to Mr. Adam’s day. You can see that we tend to favor a different style of capturing images.

For Mr. Adams, making an image was slow and expensive and fairly difficult. A lot of heavy gear had to be set up. Looking at the upside down color image on the ground glass of his view camera and trying to visualize the resulting black & white print took a lot of skill and experience. And the 8×10 film sheets were expensive and he could only carry a limited number with him in the field. So yes, previsualization was necessary in that generation.

Now, though, digital imaging is “free”. And we have great sensors and real-time histogram displays. Most of us can immediately see a fair representation of the captured image on our camera screen. We know what we captured.

Since the images are basically free and quick to do, we can “work a scene”, shooting and looking at the captured images while we hone in on the result we want. We should seldom have any question of whether of not we captured the image correctly. The larger question is, did we get what what we want. It is not uncommon to shoot several or even dozens of images to finalize the result we want.

Trying to force it

Now I will readily admit that I am much more in the “no planning” side. I enjoy spontaneity.

Something I see at times that makes me sad is photographers who go out with a rigid expectation of what they will accept. Many of them tend to battle against conditions they cannot overcome and go away disappointed. Maybe even feeling like a failure.

In deference to the planners, I love this quote from a great planner:

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D Eisenhower

Thinking through the situation and trying to anticipate what may happen can give great insight on what we may decide to do. However, once the battle starts, e.g. we are in the field to make the image, nothing is likely to go as planned.


When we discover that our plans are falling apart, we can double down and try to force it to work, or we can adapt and reevaluate what we can do.

One aspect of creativity is to be flexible, to adapt to the situation and make the best of it. Make the best of the situation. Perhaps you got to the great scene and it is raining or snowing. Not what you planned. Use it. Get what you can. The result may be even better than what you planned.

One of the principles of improvisation artists is that each step is “yes, and…”. That carries the momentum forward to the next step. Whenever you say “no”, it blocks the flow and makes it hard to go forward. So don’t block your flow. Respond to whatever situation you encounter and creatively figure out how to use it.

Let it flow

As artists, we are trying to creatively interpret the world around us. I find an ideal to enable this is to get into a flow state. This seems to be a peak of creativity and energy and concentration. This lets us work with the situation rather than fight it.

Previsualization can give us an idea of what we want to achieve. We might even make the image as planned. But never overlook the opportunity to make a more compelling and engaging image.

Maybe we do not get the image we anticipated. Often we get a better one. But even if it is a disappointment, as long as we did the best possible in the situation, we should be happy. I have said before that it is better to be lucky than good. But this is not luck. It is creatively adapting to circumstances.

Today’s image

This is a “bored at an airport” image. While waiting for a flight I wanted to capture scenes of airport operations. But I was frustrated by the reflections I could not eliminate. They were interfering with the image I had in mind to create.

But on some thought, I discovered that maybe the reflections were integral to the scene. People waiting patient and trusting while a huge amount of complex logistics of running an airport went on just outside. Outside of their interest and curiosity. They just wait like cattle until their flight is called.

This was definitely a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” situation. I think the resulting image is better than what I originally set out to make. What do you think?

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