Merle Travis wrote two songs in his career that overshadowed all his others. He wrote them in the same evening, under intense pressure. With an album contract in hand, a recording session the next day, and an order from his producer to write some “…songs that [sound] folky” Travis recalled his mining-country upbringing, and turned out Sixteen Tons, and Dark as a Dungeon.
Ervin Drake wrote It was a Very Good Year under similar stress. The Kingston Trio had a spot on an album for a Bob Shane solo, and they needed a song PDQ. Drake sat down at the piano and, in a few minutes, wrote the words and music at the same time. It became his best-known song, thanks to Frank Sinatra’s cover.
Ansel Adams made the negative for his most famous image in a big hurry. Driving to Santa Fe after a day of photographing, he spotted a village fronted by a graveyard, with mountains and a moonrise behind it. Sunlight on the foreground was essential for the image, but the sun was setting. As he hurriedly set up his camera, Adams couldn’t find his light meter. He remembered that the brightness of a full moon is 250 candelas/square foot, which is another way of saying that the Sunny Sixteen Rule works for the full moon just as it does for a sunlit landscape. He started there, opened up two stops to place the moon on Zone VII, added in the factor for his red filter, pulled the slide, and tripped the shutter. As he was flipping the holder over, he lost the light; there was no second exposure. Even with Adams’ quick thinking, it wasn’t a perfect negative, and the foreground was underexposed. Still, it was good enough to be his most popular photograph.
Some of us respond to pressure by blowing the shot. I remember one occasion when I was diving in Fiji. Late in the dive, low on air, a little deeper than I wanted to be, in a pretty stiff current, I encountered a subject I’d been seeking the whole trip; a little purple shrimp on a clump of white bubble coral. I had recently started using an exposure technique that relied on the TTL exposure meter in the camera to quench the flash, but it required setting the exposure compensation dial to correct for the subject’s reflectance. I figured a stop-and-a-third compensation would do it, twisted the dial the wrong way, and came out almost three stops underexposed. I quickly realized my error, but by then I was out of time and down-current from my subject.
For wedding photographers, war photographers, and some documentary photographers, working well under pressure is a job requirement. Most of us go out of our way to avoid tense photographic situations, even as we prepare for them. I used to load a test roll of film into a new camera over and over until I could do it in the dark in a few seconds. I mounted quick-release clamps on all my tripods. I got a view camera that, if I closed it with all the movements centered, would open with all the movements centered. The result was mixed success; I could get set up pretty quickly, but it was never pretty, and I would make mistakes I wouldn’t have made if I were going slowly.
Then I watched John Sexton print. He turns the movements of manipulating the paper, dodging, burning and processing into a complex and graceful dance. I asked myself why the act of photographing couldn’t be treated the same way, and I set out to try. I’ve had just enough success to keep me at it. Trying for grace reduces mistakes, and speed seems to follow, while trying for speed yields mistakes, and a mental state not conducive to good pictures.