What Causes Photographers to Miss Golden Photo Opportunities?

Every photographer probably has at least one story of a photo opportunity they missed simply because they decided not to press the shutter. Photographs Not Taken is a new book by photographer Will Steacy that offers 62 stories told by photographers around the world about moments that never became photographs. Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian writes that the decision is often an ethical one:

Consider the story related by Sylvia Plachy who, on a street in midtown Manhattan just after the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had collapsed on 9/11, encountered a dust-covered man “who had walked though hell”. He was, says Plachy, “the icon” of the human tragedy. Many people took his photograph. She did not. “I would have had to step in front of him, interrupt his frantic pace,” she writes. “I felt ashamed. I hesitated. I questioned. It didn’t seem right. In an instant he was gone. I didn’t do it.”

Plachy spent the following fortnight roaming the streets of downtown New York looking for another picture as powerful as the one she had not taken. “His image haunts me to this day,” she writes, adding ruefully, “Diane Arbus would have done it.”

This story, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Many photographers share Arbus’s view that you take the picture whatever the cost – to yourself as well as the subject. I have always been uncomfortable with that notion. It says that nothing is too intimate, too private. It insists, too, on the primacy of the photograph over the experience.

If you have your own stories of times when you couldn’t bring yourself to press the shutter, please share it with us in the comments!

Photographs Not Taken (via The Guardian)

Image credit: Empty Frames by THEfunkyman

  • Dann

    …while not as prolific as Ms. Plachy’s photo miss, I have definitely missed ops based on “personal space” and procieved respect only to kick myself later. So, yeah, I can relate.

  • Dann

    *perceived (yikes)

  • RenegadeSistah

    I do alot of photographic work for the Fire Services… unfortunately that means we cover way too many funerals… one thing I simply cannot take photos of is the grieving family members, or the casket itself… yet I see these images from the media all the time… I personally cannot get past those lines to take those type of photos…

  • David Thunander

    My misstake were when i stood beside a burning car in Stockholm. I had my 5D Mark II ready but though, who cares about a burning car. When i came home it was all over the news “Terror bombing in Stockholm”… all the news had was smartphone footage, i could have sold them full hd videos/photos of it all :/

  • Nasafan1nc

    Several years ago, I was shooting at the finish line for the MS Tour to Tanglewood bicycle marathon for Multiple Sclerosis. I had been there for about 20 minutes, shooting as they came through.
    Suddenly, a large team of riders arrived together, all wearing the same colors.
    They stopped perhaps 60 feet past the finish line.
    I saw a woman burst into tears. Another rider gripped her, sobbing.
    Soon, there were at least a dozen of them in a group hug, everyone crying; It was an incredible, unforgettable moment.
    I couldn’t do it.

    Now, I wish I had.

  • Az Photo Mac

    A few weeks back I was driving east pre-dawn with just the slightest hint of light starting to show… several miles later I passed under a row of high tension lines headed almost directly towards the rising sun, beautiful colors in the sky… no shot, camera not even out of the bag.  However I know exactly where  it is as I looked it up on Google maps and it’s now in my GPS awaiting a return engagement :)

  • Benicio Murray

    I think every photographer has a story about ‘the one that got away’

  • Benicio Murray

    I think every photographer has a story about ‘the one that got away’

  • Jeremy McMahan


  • Jeremy McMahan

    I was at a metal-awards ceremony for WWII, Korean war and Vietnam veterans that had never had their medals presented to them (some never got them, some had them thrown across a desk to them.) The ceremony was quite emotional as some of these men’s stories were read and the Admiral & General did the presentations.

    As the color-guard retired they walked right past me and the young Marine (tall, muscular—right off a Corps poster) carrying the American flag had a big tear rolling down his cheek. I couldn’t get the camera up and focused fast enough and missed the shot. In the background were the honorees standing at attention saluting the flag, some of whom should have been in their wheelchairs but had mustered the strength to stand and salute their flag.

    Man, I wish I had that shot.

  • Patrick Jude Ilagan

    A many months ago I was at a fast food chain and I saw a reflection of a happy family eating inside and some street urchins munching on some kind of leftovers they found in the trash. Until now I always ask myself why didn’t I took that photo.

  • Wil Fry

    As a photographer for a small-town daily, I was constantly pressured by my bosses to cross my own ethical lines, but I never did, and I never regretted it. I know I recorded some images that other people thought I shouldn’t have taken, because we each have a different line.

    I felt it was important to know where MY line was before I arrived at a scene, so I would never have to make the decision on the spur of the moment.

  • Mantis

    Just yesterday, I was stopped at a red light next to bus stop for a good minute.

    Alone at the bus stop, was a midget wearing a very nice suit & tie, holding only a bible.

    Was my camera with me?  Of course not.

  • Cameron

    I actually appreciate the ones that got away, especially, as in Ms. Plachy story, the image you didn’t get remains permanently etched in your mind. That image belongs to me and me alone and I use that mental image as a reference or inspiration for future photographs. I don’t kick myself, it’s difficult and it tends to hurt. 

  • Ramon Luis Jorge

    I remember photographing a summer festival and in one small tent they had live folk music. I shot a photo from behind two overweight persons sitting on a long bench enjoying the music. what caught my eye and the decision to take the photo was the long bench they were sitting on was bending under all the weight, after I process the photo on my computer I looked at the photo and decided not to print it. I just felt that I was being disrespectful and the humor that I had originally seen, I found it to be not so funny.

  • Lachance Nicholas

    I was in France for the 65th anniversary of D-Day, standing on Juno beach I saw a Canadian veteran looking out onto the beach and water. It was the perfect moment, he was obviously thinking about the friends who had died there so long ago, I could see it on his face. I was in the perfect position, the framing was spot on, but I couldn’t do it. I still think about that photo, often.

  • Jeroen Roos

    Even worse… deleting a great shot! On purpose…
    I was flying back from the US to Europe one night and since I can’t sleep on planes, I was playing with my camera, trying to get some shots from the sunset and sunrise. I took some nice shots of both, but when I came home, I found out that a couple had been ruined by some greenish light. So I deleted them. Some time later, I saw some photos of northern light… OOPS!

  • Narina Exelby

    I’m very conscious of how invasive a camera can be – but at the same time I’m incredibly aware of the power it contains. I’ve often chosen not to shoot an image – but it’s the ones I’ve not been quick enough to capture that I regret the most. Here, a blog post I wrote a few weeks back on just that – and the superpower I’m sure every photographer wishes they had: