Updated: Oct 10, 2021
If you're a photographer, there will likely come a time when you carry the burden of regret
It may manifest itself in different ways: a missed opportunity to travel somewhere, a blown once-in-a-lifetime shot, a dead battery… pick your poison.
For me, regret has been a shadow for the past two and half years but, rather than fearing it, I've learned to use it to my advantage. Read on for the story of how I leveraged the power of regret to capture my most powerful shot of 2018.
Back in February 2017 I joined my girlfriend on a trip to Israel for her father's 60th birthday. Frankly, anywhere in the Middle East was not even remotely on my list of places to visit, for photography or otherwise, but when the opportunity presented itself I was excited about the prospect of visiting a region I'd never considered exploring. Upon arriving, we hit the ground running, me with camera and tripod in tow like the dutiful little photographer I am. Our first stop was Caesarea Harbor, ancient ruins from the reign of King Herod, and I got some pretty decent shots of an incoming storm over the Mediterranean Sea (all the while reassuring my girlfriend's Israeli stepmother that the weather was, in fact, perfect for photography and there was no need to apologize or wish for clear skies).
After spending a fair amount of time exploring the ruins along the beach we went back to the house to get some rest and start preparations for the next day's birthday party. All the while, I watched the sky as it became apparent things were setting up for an incredible sunset thanks to a slight breakup of the storm clouds. I wanted to ask to borrow a car so I could head back to the coastline but I didn't want to impose, I was jet lagged, and everyone was busy. Even so, I kept watching the sky turn more dramatic by the minute and soon found myself feeling the gnawing of regret as I faced westward towards an incredible sunset. I knew exactly the shot I would have taken had I sucked it up and ventured back out… but it was too late. It was the right decision given the circumstances but, even as the amateur photographer I was at the time, it was hard to tamp down the feelings that arise after a missed opportunity.
Considering I don't know if I'll ever be back in Israel, I look at it as an opportunity potentially forever lost. Even if I do go back, that sunset won't be waiting to give me a second chance.
... And so, regret.
A Memory of Light
Fast forward 17 months and I'm standing at the north rim of the Grand Canyon, marveling at its spectacle; once again tired, and once again facing a beautiful sunset. This time, however, it wasn't the sky that caught my attention.
When I arrived at the north rim and began making my way to the main lookout points of the trail near the visitor center - a time zone snafu with Google Maps limiting my available time - I overhead someone mention smoke. I looked around quickly and, not noticing anything, continued on my way, spending the next two hours exploring, fighting crowds, and shooting. And forgetting all about the passing comment about smoke.
Exhausted and hungry, I started making my way back to the lot where I had parked my rental car. I came around a bit of a bend in the trail and saw a telltale orange glow on the far side of Roaring Springs canyon. Venturing a bit further down one of the trails to get a better view I snapped some handheld shots with my 24-70mm, kind of shrugged, and continued on my way, thinking more about food than anything else.
Fortunately, I love my girlfriend very much and stopped beside the nearby cabin sites to call her before I went any further and lost signal again for the rest of the night...
After chatting for half an hour we said goodnight, then I turned around from the tree I'd been leaning against to discover a significantly different scene back across Roaring Springs: the fire had grown substantially and was lighting up the smoke above with an intense eruption of orange glow. This time, still without my tripod, I took advantage of the stone wall along the path to stabilize my camera and captured some sharper, tighter shots of the flames. Taking advantage of a burst of energy, I then decided to run back to my car to grab my tripod and 70-200mm lens. Moments later - and out of breath - I was set up and grabbing some of my favorite shots of the year at 200mm, picking out the silhouettes of individual trees standing defiantly against the backdrop of fire as the earlier adrenaline rush slowly began to wane.
... And so, I left.
I walked back to the car, happy with what I had captured, still hungry and tired but content. I loaded my gear, hopped in the driver's seat, buckled up, and drove through the parking lot, contemplating where I could pull over to car camp for the night in a nearby national forest .
But then, at the parking lot exit, paused at a stop sign, I suddenly thought about regret. I remembered what I felt in Israel as I watched the light of an amazing sunset fade away, the moment falling out of my grasp, lost forever.
I sat at that stop sign, arguing with myself, for a good minute or two. While I had been shooting at the stone wall there had been some flashes of lightning in the distance, far to the left of the fire but still relatively close (partly enforcing my decision to leave as I was standing under tall ponderosa pines). I'd never even had an opportunity to try to capture a photo of lightning and there I was, with a wide open view over the canyon as lightning flashed sporadically towards the horizon. Was I about to abandon my first chance to try my hand at catching lightning? What if there was even a small chance I could get a shot of not just lightning far in the distance but lightning with the rapidly growing forest fire in the same frame?
I slammed the shifter into Reverse and pulled a quick u-turn back to the parking spot I had just vacated.
And then backed out of the space, again.
Letting fatigue and the thought of cracking open a bag of Frito's for a snazzy dinner take over, I drove down the parking lot aisle to leave. I didn't even make it to the lot exit, stopping at the end of the row to argue with myself once again before going down the entire length of the lot backwards to park. Again.
I'm sure anyone watching me thought there was a crazy person on the loose but I was also certain that not even trying to get the shot would only result in regret, which would likely linger for a long time, given the opportunity at hand.
Unbuckle. Pop the hatch. Grab the camera bag and tripod. Run back to the stone wall. Swap lenses. Take some test shots. Take some more. Dial in the settings. Set the intervalometer to take a 10 second shot every 30 seconds. No, every 15 seconds.
And so, I waited…
With my battery indicator blinking in warning I stopped the intervalometer, removed my camera from the tripod, and prepared to start scrolling through the shots on the LCD screen. I knew there had been a couple strikes, or at least sheet lightning, but I had no idea if they were in frame as both (naturally) happened when I had looked away for a brief moment.
Here's what I saw immediately upon hitting the image review button, the last frame I captured:
And the frame I captured with the first flash:
I had such an adrenaline rush after seeing these images I was shaking like a leaf when I got back to the car. A year later, it's still the most powerful experience I've had through photography, and it would not have happened if not for the memory of what I missed in Israel, and the power of regret.