Behind the Lens: Observation

by Clint Thayer

People often ask me how I capture "such great shots." That question is difficult for me to answer because I don't think of myself as a great photographer; I just do what I do and photograph what I see.

Maybe Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the world's greatest photographers, had the answer when he said, "the first 10,000 photographs are your worst." As a sports photographer, I (as well as all Focal Flame photographers) have the advantage of capturing several thousand images in a single weekend, so perhaps we have a better-than-average chance that our "worst photographs" are behind us.

But if I have to choose one photographer skill that makes the difference between the average photo and a "great shot," it is the art of observation. As a juggler needs to watch and learn not where the juggled object is but where it is going to be, a sports photographer has to anticipate the shot — read the human body in motion, anticipate the movement, and  know, intuitively, what is going to happen before events actually occur. If the photographer waits to see the shot in the viewfinder, by the time the shutter is pressed and the image created, the defining moment will be long gone.


Just as intense practice makes the difference between a good athlete, dancer, or artist and a great one, intense practice of photography skills makes for a better photographer. Sports photographers certainly get a lot of intense practice, yet you need more — you need heart, soul, and intense focus to anticipate the right moment. That's the power of observation at work and it makes all the difference.

The great mid-century American photographer Elliott Erwittsaid, "To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them." I heartily agree with that statement.

To create a "great photograph" or - any photograph for that matter - one must cultivate the skill of observation. How do you look at a scene and determine the exact moment to release the shutter? For the most part I just watch people, and based on previous experience, calculate the possible interactions, anticipate the defining moment, and respond to what I see coming.

It takes time and experience to hone that photographer skill, to be able to see the visual details in the overall scene, and anticipate the right time to take the shot. That is why most professional photographers suggest that if you want to improve, you should shoot as much as possible.  By shooting, you are forced to look and by looking you are forced to see the array of possibilities.  By mastering the art of observation, you will master the art of photography.

May all your shots be great ones!

Clint Thayer, is the owner and lead photographer at Focal Flame Photography based in Madison, Wisconsin. He honed his art of observation studying photography at The College of Wooster in Ohio and under Richard Clarkson at the Summit Series of Sports Photography at the U.S. Olympic National Training Center, and by training in Miksang, a form of contemplative photography. He is a member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and the Center for Photography at Madison (a group of Madison, Wisconsin photographers). Both organizations have helped him to cultivate his skill and vision. Encouraging others to appreciate creative vision as well as find their own unique visual “voice” is deeply satisfying. 

How do you hone the skill of observation? Share your thoughts and perspective!