I think the longest I’ve ever stood in one place, waiting for the right light or the right subject to come across my field of view, has been about three to four hours. That’s staying stationary, or at least within about 10 feet of where I’m creating the shot I want. Now, that doesn’t count the numerous times I’ve come across what I think will be a perfect shot but the light isn’t right and I’ve wondered around other areas only to return hours later (maybe have dinner and a drink to pass time) to try again with different light… That happens almost every other time I head out with my camera. But I digress… You’re probably thinking the obvious answer to this question is “as long as it takes,” but it’s not that simple.
There is no quick and easy answer to this question. What you have to do is a little critical thinking to come up with the best answer for your specific situation. Here are some key questions I ask myself when considering how much time to spend in a specific spot:
How easy is it to return to this spot?
Think about the time it took you to get to where you are (if you’re traveling) or how much it cost (plane, train, bus tickets and hotel room) and the physical effort. If it’s incredibly difficult to get back to the same spot and you feel there is a lot of potential then, considering the rest of the points below, it may make sense to tough it out and stay longer.
How likely is it that your subject will be as interesting when you return?
One of my favorite things about street photography is also one of the most frustrating, no two shots are the same. You’ll often have a series of once in a lifetime events lead up to an iconic shot with a subject that may never be in the same place at the same time again. If you determine that the chances of events/subject coming together again in the future are slim to none then you may want to spend a considerable amount of time in that specific spot.
What are the other options and their likelihood of recurring at a future date/time?
The time of the day and the amount of time you have to spend on location all play a big role in determining how much time one should spend in a specific spot. Spend too little time in any one spot and you risk very few usable images. Spend too much time in any one spot and you risk missing other opportunities. This is similar to the point above but has more to do with your available time in the area of interest.
If you’re visiting a city that is far from home you may opt to spend a little less time in specific areas so you can cover more ground. I’d still weigh all the points you see here before making that determination but I’d give some considerable weight to the fact that I’ve only got a few hours/days/weeks on site.
How strong is the image you’re attempting to create?
Sometimes I’ll be “camping out” in a spot waiting for subjects to walk through my “trap” when I look down out at my LCD screen and say to myself “self, what are you doing, this image isn’t worth the time investment”. Generally, it’s because the composition isn’t strong enough or the light is just wrong.
Then there are times when the composition is great and camping out pays off with a fun image like the one above that plays with light, color, and perspective. The image above was taken in my home city of Pittsburgh, someplace I can return to as often as I’d like (and I do).
How unique is the image?
This is especially important when you consider there are billions of photographs being uploaded to (pick your social media platform) every day. The only way you can make a name for yourself is to consistently create great unique images. In fact, I’ve never had an art director ask me to replicate someone else’s photography… The images I sell the most of are my most unique images.
If you see something that looks unique, especially if it couldn’t be reproduced easily, spend the time to capture it to the best of your ability and it will pay dividends down the road. The image above was shot on Venice Beach, the gentleman was smoking pot (is it still called pot??) on top of the graffiti wall and when I started to shoot his image he decided he’d show off. He eventually fell off the wall, thankfully his landing was cushioned by the sand below.
What else would you be doing at this moment?
This is one of the most challenging questions I ask myself these days… Primarily because I have a family now. It weights particularly hard on me if I’ve been working a lot and my other option at the time is spending time with my 2-year-old son. I love hanging out with my wife but she never minds that I love to work (#bestwife). My son on the other hand will try to hang on to me as I head out the door each day which breaks my heart.
At the end of the day we all have at least one thing in common, a finite number of hours, days, years of a single life (unless you believe in reincarnation… In which case you just need to hope that whatever you are reincarnated into has opposable thumbs to work your camera). This means you run the risk of “wasting” time on average images. Sure, you could argue that every image teaches you something but often I find the lesson is simply “be more deliberate and work harder”.
So, how long should you wait? The answer is, it depends. If all the questions you ask yourself above point towards waiting for the right subject or series of events to transpire where you are, then I would argue you should wait as long as it takes. If, however, your answers to the above questions indicate you should move on, then I’d say wait a few minutes or so and then move on.
The challenge will always be that you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know if something amazing is going to happen in the next few minutes and you’ve got to make a logical decision and stick to it. We’ve all had the experience of moving on only to see something great happen where we were but we are too far gone to capture it. Hindsight is twenty-twenty so don’t lose sleep over it. Be confident in your decision and press on with determination.
What are your thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments section below and follow @PhotolisticLife on Instagram to stay up to date on current projects.