Several years ago I was teaching an American Photo workshop ( with famed National Geographic photographer Bruce Dale. He told everyone that one of the key ingredients to good photography was serendipity. I loved that idea, and have always remembered it. Yesterday I ran into it again.

What Bruce was talking about was getting lucky. One definition of serendipity (from is “good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries.” Talent, skill and knowledge are all important pieces to becoming a good photographer. You have to learn how f/stops and shutter speeds relate, how to use ISO and white balance, autofocus and the myriad of other controls on today’s digital cameras. And even those won’t really make you a good photographer. They’ll make you technically good.

To go beyond simple technical excellence, you have to develop an eye. You learn to look for light and how to take advantage of what’s there. You look for color. You’re always thinking composition – how different elements in a scene relate and work together. You look for lines, contradiction, humor.

The one thing you can’t do, though, is plan for the unexpected. That’s often what makes a photo special, and what Bruce was talking about. Yesterday I met a friend for lunch at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, a beautiful area of shops and restaurants. Afterwards I took a walk to shoot some photos. There was a nice window display that had good elements of light, shape and color, so I was focused in on it, and started to shoot. Suddenly, the figure of a man moved into the scene, and though I wasn’t sure what was happening, I kept shooting. Turns out he was making a change to the display, and after doing that, saw me and waved. I waved back, with a big smile on my face. I knew that he just helped make a more interesting photo than I had planned. Serendipity. It’s a wonderful thing.

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