by Nick Kelsh

posted Thursday, April 23, 2015 at 9:57 AM EDT


When things appear to be going wrong in a photograph—by that I mean, something you don’t want to happen—things may actually be going right.

It’s perfectly natural to have a rigid idea of what you want a picture to be. Lots of great photographs are made by photographers with a preconceived vision. But it’s important to let all that go of that when things unexpectedly shift in front of your camera.

I photographed the girls in this photograph for the book Siblings I did with the author, Anna Quindlen, several years ago. I wanted a picture of a group of siblings that all looked alike; a picture that screamed genetics works. I wanted a row of faces looking solemnly into the camera letting us see the familial resemblance. A friend suggested these four sisters and

I was off. I knew exactly the picture I needed to run across two pages. It would be glorious.

Right off the bat the girls had other ideas—the youngest one in particular. Try as I and her mother might, she was not going to do anything but scream and cry. We cajoled, bribed, and threatened her and nothing. What you see here is pretty much what happened for about thirty minutes. When I left, the mother was in tears because it was clear that I was leaving without what I had come for. I really didn’t think I had a picture I could use, and she could see that on my face.

What saved me was experience. Over the years I had learned that, regardless of what it is you want, at some point you just need to go with the flow and push the button. Don’t fight it, join it. Out of frustration, I had done that; even though I shot less than a dozen pictures.

Obviously, this story has a happy ending or I wouldn’t be telling it. I love this picture and I’ve had several people tell me it’s their favorite picture in the book. This picture says so much more about the experience of what it’s like to be a sibling than some photographer’s expectation he hatched in his little brain.

I think what I adore most about this picture is the happiness of the other girls and how little they care about their little sister’s misery. I have four sibling and I can state as fact that this is a real siblings moment. I can’t even imagine how you would come up with that idea in the first place and then go out and photograph it. I’m not sure it could be done; I know I couldn’t do it.

It’s not a bad idea to go to a photo destination having some kind of plan for what you’re going to do when you get there. I like to think of those ideas as fall back positions, however. You need to keep your eyes open for the real, story-telling spontaneous moments that may at first seem at odds with what you think you need or think you want.

Real life may actually be more interesting than your idea of it—no big surprise there, right? For example, don’t rule out the possibility of photographing a crying baby just because you wish he weren’t. You will have other chances to capture that smile you want, but the tears are precious, too.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)