About 25 years ago I got my last great photographic teaching idea- to do your best photography you must have the proper subject, background, light and conditions. I have been harping on these 4 essential qualities of a successful photograph for so long that now I have heard it echo back to me by former students who are now teaching and it has even been turned into a clever mnemonic- Some Boys Like Chocolate.

Well, at last, another great photographic teaching idea has bubbled up into my small but perfectly formed brain. I have come up with the 4 essential traits of a successful photographer. They are anticipation, patience, persistence,  and knowledge. Let me explain.

I have noticed lately that any time there is a group of people photographing there are always a photographer or two who are shooting less but getting the best shots. There are two reasons for this- they anticipate what is about to happen and are ready when it does and they are able to anticipate because they are knowledgeable about what they are photographing.

This is especially true for wildlife photography. If you know about a certain animal you know what it usually does and how it usually does it. This allows you to anticipate and get the best shot. If you don’t anticipate by the time you realize you want to photograph it is too late. The perfect shot will be past by the time you hit the shutter.


When I was in Africa we were all watching an extended family group of chimpanzees play on the forest floor. I saw that one little one was tired and I knew that they liked to rest up in the trees. I moved a few feet to my right and framed up a branch I figured the chimp would use. I was the only one to move to get a clear shot and I was the only one to get the shot. Knowledge fueled my anticipation.

I have also seen for a long time that many photographers are impatient and give up way too soon whether it is for a sunset, a landscape, a portrait or an action shot. Either they get one good shot and figure that’s all there is to get or they try and become frustrated and pack it in. Patience, to photographers, mostly means just hanging out, often doing nothing, just waiting. Patience doesn’t mean jacking up the ISO to a ridiculous number to get a shutter speed to try to stop the wind and it doesn’t mean throwing in some flash because that cloud just won’t move. It means waiting for the wind to die down and the light to improve until you get what you want. And patience never means resorting to ‘fixing’ it on the computer.

When your patience doesn’t work out and you still don’t get the shot you wanted, persistence is what gets you to try again, and again, and again if necessary. Here is what I know, no one no matter how famous or how talented or how experienced has ever gotten his or her best shot on the first try. If they think they have then it is not the best shot. The best shot only comes with repeated effort. That’s persistence.


Patience and persistence are essential when it comes to on the run portraiture. You often just have to sit down and wait- become invisible as Nevada Weir says- to get the people around you to relax and accept you into their lives. Once you do start to photograph a person it is never, never, never the first shot that is the best. You have to let the person become relaxed and you have to keep on shooting. That is persistence.

There you have it, the 4 essential qualities- light, subject, background and conditions- and the four essential traits- anticipation, knowledge, patience and persistence. No excuses now- go out and get a great shot!