Photography Technique: The Importance of Patience

By Geoff Harris

Why the P word is the most important one in photography

Chinese man fishing with cormorants birds, Yangshuo, Guangxi region, traditional fishing use trained cormorants to fish
By the P word, I don't mean Program mode, or portraiture or plants – I mean patience. I'd argue that this one of the most important qualities for any photographer, in any genre.

So much so that if you feel you have reached something of a plateau with your photography, and some of the fun has gone out of it, it might be worth considering how patient you are.

Suffering for your art


The word 'patient' comes from the Latin 'to suffer,' which is why it's also used as a noun to describe the clients of a doctor. While nobody is suggesting you should suffer while taking photographs, you do need to take knocks and disappointments in your stride, and be prepared to hang around until you get what you need.

Actually, you might not get what you want at all on the day, or you might get three great shots before breakfast. It's this unpredictability and uncertainly that makes photography so exasperating sometimes.

Hanging around

Wildlife photographers are the masters of patience; they have to be when dealing with elusive, unpredictable creatures. But you need similar levels of patience when doing street photography, for example, or documentary work.

Maybe you have to wait an extra hour or so to get somebody just right against a nice background, or get a background that is clear and uncluttered enough to really make your subject stand out. If some ‘Herbert‘ 'walks into the frame with a red anorak and a McDonalds bag, you just have to take a deep breath and wait until they disappear.

Not getting frustrated

It's really important that you stay patient if you are being paid to photograph a happy occasion – a wedding or kids party, for example, or a pet shoot. Yes, it can seem nigh impossible to get everyone in a group shot to look at you, or even look vaguely happy, but that is why you're being paid; to come away with something good from sometimes unpromising source materials.

The worst thing you can do is huff and puff and start ordering people around, or losing it with the dog. Take responsibility for yourself – wear suitable clothes for the weather, and keep yourself fed and dehydrated. Nobody is going to recommend a grumpy photographer to their friends.

Patience and observation

By being prepared to just sit there for as long it takes, allowing shots to come to you, it's surprising how well things can work out. I know a good travel and portrait photographer who spends a lot of time in cafes, just watching the world go by. If somebody really interesting walks past, he can react quickly. They may even come and sit next to him.

Also, by staying relaxed and remembering the necessity of patience in photography, his mind is more open, free-flowing and alert to creative possibilities.

Patience with your gear

It's also important you don't lose your temper with your gear. Tripods and filters and cable releases can seem fiddly and annoying when it's cold and you're tired, but you will feel awful if you damage them in a fit of pique – I managed to rip the leg off an expensive carbon fibre tripod one day when I was grumpy and it was being difficult. So I learnt the importance of the P word the hard way!

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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