Nailed it. That’s a pretty common phrase that we use for many things to describe when we’ve succeeded in a manner that really pleases, or was effortless, or is without much fault.
I was recently musing on the concept of “nailing it” in photography. I was thinking about the concept of how I can be in a location shooting and the variety of success I achieve shooting in the same conditions, with generally the same equipment (except lens changes) and same mindset. Some shots don’t work at all, some are good and when everything is just right, I might just “nail” a shot. The shot below is one that when I got done processing it, I thought to myself, “I nailed it”
So, that got me thinking about what it takes to “nail” a shot. The first thing I realized is that nailing a shot is almost completely subjective and is the opinion of the photographer or the viewer. I will grant that a portion of this concept is the technical execution of the shot; is it in focus, properly exposed, etc. The majority of the feeling of nailing it is subjective though and there are many creative factors that need to combine together to elicit that feeling of nailing it.
Lighting and composition are the two biggest non-technical factors that contribute to nailing it. Working with the available light, and the quality of light, is a huge factor is the “feeling” of an image and how it comes across to the viewer. In addition, choosing the right subject to shoot given the available light is another subjective factor contributing to the image. In the above shot, this was taken just after sunrise in a shaded area, there was enough light to illuminate the subject and use a decent shutter speed to reduce motion blur. The light was soft, slightly warm and somewhat diffuse with no shadows or harsh light.
Choice of composition is a HUGE factor in an image and it is our main storytelling tool to use as photographers. Now this is where it really gets subjective based upon the photographer and the desired end result. Granted, there are some compositions that just don’t work. They aren’t balanced, framed well, or even harmonious…all of which result in a less than pleasing comp to the viewer. The composition above is one that really works for me on many levels. The angle of the flower, how the petals leave the scene on 3 of 4 sides and one side you get the full petal view, how the flower recedes a bit away from the viewer, etc. Those are some of my subjective reasons for feeling this comp works, your opinion may vary and that’s ok. Art by its very nature is subjective. At this location, I took 30-40 images all slightly different compositions and framing and only a few of them really rose above the rest. I do like to explore and experiment with different comps in the field, partly as a learning experience when I review my images and partly because something caught my eye and I want to capture it.
OK, so then my thinking then went to the fact that sometimes you have the technical details right, the lighting and comp are good or great, yet there is still some variation in the end result where some pics are “good” or “great” and maybe one or two are so good you feel that you “nailed it”. So what is this special sauce that makes one pic rise above the others and can it be replicated with more consistency? Unfortunately for me, I don’t think it’s something that is easily replicated, nor can it be analyzed and packaged in to a repeatable formula.
The special sauce, in my thinking, is best represented by the word GESTALT, which is an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of it’s parts. There is something in these special images which is a combination of technical execution, lighting, composition, subject, etc., that come together to be a greater whole than the sum of the individual components of the image. I have quite a few images that are technically great, but with average lighting, or a great comp but the technical side isn’t quite right, and so on…..And I even have images where all of the components are good or even great, but still the gestalt of the image didn’t coalesce in to something special.
Despite all of our technical learnings, amazing choices in gear, incredible locations to photograph, there is still something a bit mysterious and elusive in the art of photography. When everything does come together and you “nail” the shot, it is an incredible feeling.