The Joy of Photography – When You Capture Great Photos Without Knowing It

Sep 1, 2014

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

The Joy of Photography – When You Capture Great Photos Without Knowing It

Sep 1, 2014

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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If you have ever shot film, you know it – the feeling you get when you sit down with that stack of prints that just came back from the lab.

The nervous anticipation: Is there anything good in here?

The initial disappointment:  Flipping through the first bunch of mediocre prints….meh, meh, ohhh…nope…meh…

Then you see it – its like getting a new bike for your birthday when you’re 10: The killer shot!  Yesssss!!!

If you began your career with digital, you still know it – the feeling you got when you didn’t really know what you were doing and just when you were about to give up: Bang – there is a fantastic photo staring back at you from your screen.

I have noticed recently that I don’t get that surprise of a completely unexpected great photo very often any more, or the joy that comes with it.

I mean, I have a pretty good idea how any photo I take is going to look before I take it.  Sure, I still produce a massive amount of duds compared to keepers, but it is rare that I capture something completely unexpected.

So, I though I’d share the stories behind a few of my favorite accidental photos.

Sailboat dinghy hull underwater jp danko toronto commercial photographer, underwater photographer

This first photo is an underwater shot of my little 16 foot Wayfarer dinghy.  I was actually just trying out a new wetsuit and getting my gear together for a big underwater triathlon shoot the next day, so I thought that I might as well snap a few pictures of the boat while I was in the lake with a camera anyway.

I wouldn’t say that I took this photo completely by accident.  It was late in the day and I knew that I had nice warm toned sunshine filtering down through the water – so I was specifically shooting for sun flare with the boat hull as a semi-silhouette.

However, what was completely by accident is how the sun flare in this photo happens to make that cool straight line.  I think that this is the edge of a shadow as the sun set behind the treeline on shore, and it happened to fall at just the right place at just the right time.

I knew that this would be an interesting photo when I saw the preview in camera, but I had no idea that after I processed it, it would turn out to be one of my all time favorites. (Click here for tips on processing underwater photos).

family skipping stones on shore of georgian bay muskoka ontario jp danko toronto commercial photographer

The photo is my sister and brother in law with my daughter skipping stones down at the lake.  I was actually setting up this scene to try my hand at a Matt Malloy inspired time-stack image (which totally didn’t work out in the end) so I wasn’t really paying much attention to the scene beyond setting up the composition.

In fact, just after I had everything locked down I yelled at them to get out of the frame – this was supposed to be a landscape only!

I didn’t even realize that I had a decent shot until I started editing the cloud landscapes for the time-stack in Lightroom.  In real life, the clouds and colors, which obviously make this photo, didn’t look all that impressive – but a little contrast, clarity and vibrance and pow – I had a totally unexpected photo that I really liked.

Besides the colors and interest in the clouds, what I particularly like is how all of the composition lines in this photo lead your eye to the subject – totally accidental.

However, if I was taking this photo on purpose, I would have separated my subjects a bit more – I don’t like how they overlap – but I still think its a really cool image.

little boy jumping into pool bubbles jp danko toronto commercial photographer

This is a photo of my son jumping into the pool while on vacation in Florida.  At the time I took this photo, it was the middle of the day and I was just taking photos of the kids jumping into the pool for fun.

For this photo, I thought that I had messed up my timing, so I didn’t pay it much more attention, and on the camera, this photo just looked like a jumble of blue.  In fact I  almost deleted it right after I took it.

I wouldn’t have even bothered to edit it, except that I had edited another photo in the same series in Lightroom and had copied the same edits to all of the other photos.

But after I noticed how interesting it was, I realized that this image is actually the best photo out of the bunch and I would never have been able to capture this exact moment on purpose.

Technically speaking, this image could be better.  It is back lit which results in too much shadow in front and not enough detail in the water besides the bubbles, but again there is just something about this split second moment that I really like.

man and woman couple in spring orchard with cherry blossoms jp danko toronto commercial photographer

This final photo is a snapshot of my wife and I goofing around in a spring apple orchard – as photographed by my son who was four at the time.

Now, when you hand a four year old a Canon 5D Mk II, you don’t really expect much of them.  Really, the only reason I handed him the camera in the first place was so he would stop whining about wanting to take pictures – he was supposed to be the model not the photographer after all!

This is only one of two frames where some part of us is not cut off, and it is the only frame with this perfect genuine moment, so it was just pure luck that he happened to push the shutter release at just the right moment.

As for me and my wife, we were just trying to do something fun and silly to keep the kids happy after dressing them up and dragging them out to a boring apple orchard really early on a cool spring morning.

When Have You Captured A Great Photo Without Knowing It?

Have you ever gotten a roll of film back with that one amazing shot?

Or experienced the same thing after uploading a memory card and sitting down at your computer?

After you gained experience as a photographer, have you lost some of that joy of discovering accidental great photos?

Or, is photography always an adventure?

Leave a comment below and let us know!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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7 responses to “The Joy of Photography – When You Capture Great Photos Without Knowing It”

  1. stewart norton Avatar
    stewart norton

    In 1967 I took a shot of what looked like a l very large ape walking like a man….years later and thanks to the lies of Bob Heironimus nobody believes me and I have since given up photography as a hobby.

  2. Wil Fry Avatar
    Wil Fry

    All of my ‘best’ and/or favorite photos were happy accidents. :-)

    (Though it helps to have done a little prep work — settings, location, etc.)

  3. Immaculate Photons Avatar
    Immaculate Photons

    This is pretty much the zen approach to shooting, not getting too focused and just letting things flow – which, when you’re lucky leads to completely pure shots capturing those tiny slivers of time which we normally miss!
    Great article! more please!!!

  4. Remi Avatar

    Once, i was in a roadtrip in hawaii. It was by the end of the day when your eyes seem to be used to see too much of fabulous landscape. My wife was starting to be pissed off that i want to stop everywhere to take pictures and she just wanted to arrive at our destination after a too long driving day. We were on the side of a mountain and i decided to stop and step out of the car for taking a SUPER quick handheld 360 panorama and jump back in the car thinking that this didn’t work. Once at home, i sort all my pictures and these received the 0 stars rating. I printed up my trip photo book and i never take a look at these shot again. Some month later, my wife ask me te find out a picture that we took this day, so, find out where my external hard drive with these photos where, import them again in lightroom and lightroom just open on at THIS picture… i was like.. wow, why do i never notice this picture?! finally it became one of my favorite landscape picture and it was totally a random shot in a 360 panorama!

  5. awiklendt Avatar

    We were walking around our acreage and stopped to check on the horses. In the light you could see the very peculiar formation of the horse’s iris which I anted to capture. When I opened up the picture on the computer later I couldn’t at all see the iris, but what I could see was a reflection of our whole property in her eye, perfectly framed by her eve lids and lashes.

  6. Amaryllis Avatar

    To be honest, all of my fave photos were accidents I almost deleted on-cam. I’m still trying to make stuff happen on purpose xD

  7. Debbie Avatar

    My husband was walking ahead of me in the redwoods on a misty, rainy day. I was holding my “real” camera but took out my iPhone and shot a picture of him as he crossed a wooden bridge. The rain was in my eyes, I was not wearing my glasses but the light was fantastic, focus was great and I still cannot believe how good that photo turned out! Still one of my favorites and people cannot believe I used my old iPhone!