Two veteran National Geographic photographers explain why patience can pay off in photography.

Cary Wolinsky and Bob Caputo have a combined 64 years of experience photographing stories for National Geographic and other publications. Along the way, they learned a thing or two about making photographs. In 2010, they launched, which, through videos and illustrated text, imparts photo-making tips with insight, humor, and varying degrees of success.

It seems that good photography is almost entirely about patience of one kind or another. Consider the above image of the beautifully restored His Majesty's Theater in Perth, Australia. Cary tracked the light on the building for a couple of weeks waiting to see how closely he could get the reflections aligned window-to-window. When it finally happened, he had to just cool his heels until the woman in white came along. It took a tiny fraction of a second to make this photograph—and it took weeks.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be patient, to stay with a situation and work it over. Things are always changing—your subject, the environment, your own thoughts about the image you’re making. Sometimes you know what to expect, as with the images below of the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. I knew it would get dark and that the lights in the buildings would come on, and I knew that waiting would yield a better image than the rather dull afternoon one. I didn’t know that the sky would get all orangey—that was a nice surprise. (And I set up my camera at a waterfront restaurant where I could have dinner while I waited. Thinking ahead is good too.)

And Cary knew what to expect when he set up to photograph the skateboarders shown below—he knew that they would come flying up the ramp and turn around. So he got the frame he wanted, then waited and kept shooting different skateboarders until he got the most dramatic moment. (It helps to have a motor drive.)

But many times you don’t have any idea what’s gong to happen—situations are fluid, and if you’re out in the real world (as opposed to being in a studio), very little is under your control. So you need to be patient, to stick with it until the elements in the frame come together in a way that gives you the image you want.

Like with the pictures below of the girl sitting among the women. I knew there was a photograph there as soon as I saw her—the pattern of the backlit, diaphanous clothes broken up by the girl. I could have just moved on after I’d made the one at left. It’s fine. But by patiently waiting and paying close attention, I was able to get the image of the girl looking up. It is that one simple thing that makes the image at right a photograph rather than a snapshot.

These images bring up what I think is one of the main problems with digital photography—the “I got it” syndrome. Because we can now press the shutter button and then immediately see the image, there’s a tendency to have a quick look (keep in mind that a small LCD screen is not the best way to judge a photograph, especially outdoors on a sunny day), think that you “have” it, and move on to another photographic subject. In the film days, when we couldn’t see the pictures until they came back from the lab, there was more incentive to stay with a subject and work a situation harder. Perhaps it was insecurity or fear, but whatever the motivation, this tenacity led to the capture of a lot of moments that would have otherwise gone unrecorded. I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to stay with situations that look like they’re going nowhere or to take gazillions of exposures of the same unchanging thing. But if something strikes you as being worth photographing then it’s certainly worth spending some time on. As your subject or the scene changes, your knowledge of it and approach will change too—the more time you spend with anything the better you know it. Think of it as if you and your camera are dancing with the world, and what you see through your viewfinder is the music—it sets the mood and the pace that you want to join in on and record. And any dance worth dancing lasts more than a few bars.

Like these two, who were doing a little dance of their own (I like the one at the bottom best):

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Or here, in northern Sudan, where I was making an image of an old woman sitting outside her house. I included the empty doorway simply to show that it was a house and because it balanced the woman. But it wasn’t a great shot, and my heart wasn’t really in it (full disclosure: Sometimes I expose frames because I’m sitting around waiting for something and need something to do). Then, while I was shooting, the girl peeked out the doorway to see what was going on—and she looked at her grandmother. Voila!

I knew I shouldn’t be taking the picture below either—pretty boring. This was in the Kingdom of Mustang, a remote region of Nepal high up in the Himalaya. I’d been hiking up and down mountains all day and was exhausted. The guide and porters had hiked down to the village, where we were going to spend the night, but I had simply sat down on the trail. I knew that if I went down to the village, I would have a hard time making myself climb back up the trail later in the afternoon when the light was better. I needed a shot to show how the villages and fields are nestled next to the streams that lace the otherwise pretty barren high altitude desert. This looked like a good candidate. So I just sat there and waited for the light.

After a while, a kid who was herding goats along the valley floor saw me and, since foreigners are rather rare, wanted to have a closer look. He climbed up and we exchanged signs as best we could (having no common language). Then he noticed that his herd was drifting in the wrong direction. He picked up some stones and hurled them down the mountainside to get them turned back. Just what my picture needed—a center of interest doing something dynamic, with the added benefit of showing the kind of people who live in the valley below. Again, voila—because I had waited and had not been satisfied with the first shot. (Well, okay. Because I was exhausted.) But there’s this thing about serendipity (the god of photographers). Of course things happen unexpectedly, but you have to get yourself out there and make yourself available or she won’t come for one of those lovely visits.

So … If you see a subject or a situation you like, one that gets your photographic juices flowing, stay with it. Work it over until either the situation dissolves or you’re sure you’ve gotten the best out of it. But there’s one caveat: Don’t wait too long or you’ll end up with something like the so-called portrait Cary made of this dog.

Photographs by Cary Wolinsky and Robert Caputo. Text by Robert Caputo,