There is an irony involved in my writing an article about patience (not my strong suit), much less one that advocates patience as a photographic skill. But perhaps it’s better coming from me—one who is so basically impatient—when I tell you that I believe (and others before me have said the same thing) that patience is important. So much of what we do as photographers—and, I would argue, the most important parts of what we do on the way to making a single image or a body of work—have nothing to do with the camera. Despite all the nonsense being slung around the internet, to my heart I believe that what makes us photographers is the act of making photographs: no more, no less. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it two months or 20 years, nor does it matter if you do it with the 8x10 view camera that Ansel Adams himself gave you or with your mobile phone. If you make photographs, you are a photographer. Now, whether you make compelling photographs is another matter entirely. And to do that, you draw on more than the ability to use the tool.
One of the raw materials of our craft is time. Patience is the ability to pass through time—or control our reaction to its passage—gracefully and intentionally. It is the ability not only to wait, but to wait while remaining perceptive and open to possibilities, knowing that nothing ever stays the same, and if you wait long enough, something will happen. How much time you can allow yourself to wait is a matter of how you manage your time, or what else is competing for your attention: it is not a matter of patience.
Patience is sitting and waiting for the light to change, not because the light right now is insufficient, but because it might get better, more interesting.
Patience is waiting for the subject sitting for her portrait to reveal something more than the mask she came prepared to keep in place for the entire session, unprepared for your willingness to engage, and to wait patiently for her to become comfortable enough to be vulnerable in front of the lens.
Patience is waiting for the tide to come in on the coastal landscape you’ve got framed, and it’s seeing another 10 possibilities while you wait, and being surprised to find that one of those is even better than the one you’ve been waiting for. Waiting is fine, but waiting with your eyes closed is not patience—it’s just unreceptive waiting.
Patience is waiting for the eagle you’ve been following all day to turn his head into the light, or for the dolphin to leap one more time, giving you the silhouette you missed the first hundred times.
Patience is allowing yourself longer than you thought it could possibly take to master your craft, the magazines and advertisements never having given you the faintest idea that simply knowing how to use a camera was barely the first step—and a lifelong one at that—in a journey with no final destination.
Patience is allowing your body of work to surprise you, to take unexpected turns, to become something you didn’t expect and to allow your curiosity to lead you further down the rabbit hole.
Patience is allowing others who do not understand you or your work to grow into that understanding (after all, you did) and to not allow yourself to be side-tracked while that happens, to keep doing your work until others see it differently, or until you do.
When I was on a two and a half month road trip from Vancouver to Newfoundland, I was socked in with rain, sitting in my tent on the roof of my Jeep with a mug of coffee, waiting for the weather to turn. And I thought about how easy it was to be patient and simply wait for the weather, about which I could do nothing. It was much harder to think about the body of work I wanted to create, which became wildly different than I expected; those expectations are both what brought me there and what stood in my way and stopped me from seeing the place as it was, not as I wanted it to be. And as I discovered that, the work became something I didn’t expect. Patience will always keep my eyes open as I wait through the process, but simply waiting—as though the passage of time itself would make a difference—doesn’t make my photographs any better. Time will change things (and me as well), but it’s noticing those changes that will alter the potential of my photographs.