Every now and then, if you don’t risk a mistake, you risk a rut.
Story and photo by Christine Hamilton
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” I think that well-known quote originated with horseman Ray Hunt, but I heard it last in Ben Masters’ documentary Unbranded.
I love what it says. But it is so hard to risk bad judgment (a.k.a. making a mistake).
So, when you know how to do something—like the exact steps you need to follow to capture the exact photo you need to tell a certain story (and earn your photographer’s paycheck)—it’s hard to shake up those steps.
But if you don’t, there you are, as efficient as a Western Horseman photographer can be and firmly stuck in a rut.
Standing in the middle of an X Diamond Ranch pasture deep in grass with pine-covered hills in the distance, and the sunset spilling light across a scene soon to be filled with a handful of cowboys moving a herd of fine stock horses, well, I just didn’t want to mess it up.
I knew my go-to camera settings would capture this bound-to-be-breathtaking scene, and I knew my favorite lens would do it. But I left that lens in the truck, and I had my camera on settings that would risk blurring this action. Ugh.
Why? Because I was in the middle of a photography seminar near Greer, Arizona, with portrait and ranching photographer Scott Baxter, and he was trying to teach me something new.
I felt just like I did back when I first hired on at the American Quarter Horse Journal as a field editor. My then-editor, Jim Bret Campbell (now executive director of the National Cutting Horse Association), gave me one simple rule: Shoot on manual settings.
As a newcomer to paycheck photography, setting the camera on program seemed wise. Didn’t he want the best odds of me getting images the magazine could use?
But Jim Bret had a long-term goal: to make me a better photographer. He said something along the lines of, “your camera will never judge light better than your own eye,” and insisted I learn to tell the camera exactly what to do. He was willing to risk my learning curve. And I did get better.
But the temptation to avoid mistakes remains, no matter how much you learn. Thank heaven for people who encourage us to push our limits, and gain experience.
So, I spent every precious pass of those beautiful horses in that glorious light shaking up my photography, and I took some pretty bad images. But on the last pass, something clicked. And I had a blast in my bad judgment.