Earthrise: New video on the greatest photograph in history highlights importance of luck

Photographers everywhere can identify with William Anders and the crew of Apollo 8.

Our friend Frank Dilatush forwarded a YouTube link this morning commemorating the 45th anniversary of what many consider to be the most famous photograph in history: Earthrise, taken December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.

Earthrise: Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As it turns out, the iconic shot almost didn’t happen.

It’s hard to say with any accuracy how many serious photographers there are in the world, but “millions” seems a safe guess. (’s estimate of 12 seems a little low to me.) I’m willing to bet that many, of not most of them know what it is to get a great shot through luck. This is a theme I trip across time and again as I read about photography and talk to other shooters. There’s no question that a lot of planning and discipline goes into capturing many of the best photos – seriously, there’s a lot to learn, and the more experienced I get the more respect I gain for really talented shooters. But I’m also learning that no matter how good you are, timing and the occasional moment of good luck plays a role in some of the best work we see.

I’ve only been at it for a year and a half, and already I’ve learned firsthand the benefits of the happy accident.

The first case happened maybe six weeks after I bought my camera. I cannot fully convey the depths of my ignorance at that point. I was not a photographer, I was a chimp with an expensive toy, and I had no idea what I was doing yet. I was trying to learn, but the things I didn’t know about composition and light and technique and, oh yeah, how my damned camera worked would have filled a very large library. Still would, in fact, but I do know more now than I did then.

I was driving from Denver to Gunnison for a conference and was about halfway through South Park, just west of Fairplay, when I looked to the right and saw this breathtaking landscape scene. Wow. Okay, this is why I bought the thing, so I pulled over, got out the Nikon, set up the tripod and prepared to shoot.

But there were some horses over to the left, and one of them turned out to be especially social. He wandered over, got in the way, wouldn’t move. He was probably hoping I had an apple in my pocket. Or maybe he just had an interest in photography. Whatever. He was determined to stand there and watch. So fine, I took the shot with him in it.

Understand, as pretty as the landscape was, it was just a pretty landscape. Nothing special about it, really. But the photobombing horse? He saved me from my own cluelessness and made the shot. And “Ed” has sold more copies than all my other shots put together.

Ed: South Park, Colorado

A month or two later I scored my second biggest seller, and what I still think is the most technically perfect shot I have ever taken. And again, blind luck – only this time, with an extra dose of “blind.” I have a rather difficult degenerative inner ear condition, and at times it interferes with my vision in a way that’s hard to describe. The best way to explain it is that my vision won’t sit still – it vibrates a little, and while I can make out the big picture, it’s nigh on impossible to focus on smaller details until it goes away.

Few things require focusing on small details quite like photography.

There was a small classic car show at the neighborhood bowling alley (what is it with classic cars and bowling alleys, anyway?) and I stopped by. I set up and took hundreds of shots – almost all of them throwaways – but there was this 1937 Ford (I think) that I really liked. I leaned in and something about the dash caught my eye. Remember, at this point I can barely see. But I knew what I wanted and I was able to focus well enough to get the camera settings right. Still, this was going to a handheld since I couldn’t get into the car and set up my tripod. And the shot I wanted required a very specific manual focus job (I was shooting with the aperture wide open and needed a strong bokeh effect to make it work).

I leaned in and took the shot, but honestly, I had no idea whether I had gotten it. I couldn’t really see clearly enough in the viewfinder as I was taking it and when my vision is messed up the screen is useless to me, even with my glasses on.

A couple hours later, when the episode calmed down and I could focus again, I downloaded the shots and pulled this one up on the computer to see if I had gotten lucky.

One Mile: Denver, Colorado

I have never come close to getting lucky on the scale that Anders and his Apollo 8 crewmates did and odds are decent that I never will. But thanks to this new hobby of mine I can identify with what they were thinking at the moment. Hurry up with the color film, he implores. The sinking feeling he must have felt as the greatest shot in history rolled out of the frame – we all know the agony of just missing, too. The way his heart must have leapt when he realized that an even better framing was coming into the other window.

Here’s to the team effort that captured the greatest photo in history, and also to my fellow shooters everywhere. May we all be good, yes, but mostly may we all be lucky.

2 replies »

  1. Down this way we’ve always heard Darrell Royal defined luck as when preparation meets opportunity.