Mistaking an average picture for a great one

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Firefighters on the roof Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant as seen from the Colorado Bridge. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Firefighters on the roof Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant as seen from the Colorado Bridge.

I could see a huge plume of smoke rising over the downtown on a chilly morning in November 1999. I didn’t wait for my editor at the Denver Post to call, but ran out of the office with my cameras and drove in the direction of the smoke. 

I arrived at the old train depot downtown and saw a dozen or so firetrucks and a few dozen firefighters battling a blaze that appeared to be coming from inside the historic depot, then known as Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant. Smoke was coming out in a thick column from the roof. Using ladders, firefighters climbed onto the roof and were working to open it up to get at the blaze and put it out.

There were a few things in my favor that day. I had plenty of film - yes, photojournalists were still shooting with old-fashioned film in 1999 - great morning light, nearly uninhibited access and multiple angles to photograph the firefighters as they worked the fire. 

Without worry of an evening deadline, I spent most of the morning taking pictures, got my film processed and scanned it.

I was certain I had a great picture for the front page of the Denver Post the next day. I sent my scans to the photo desk by email and then called excitedly tell my editor about the image I thought was sure to be featured on the A1. I was positive it would win a bunch of journalism awards too.

The picture showed a firefighter silhouetted by the sun with smoke surrounding him as he raises his ax above his head.
A firefighter is silhouetted by the sun with smoke surrounding him as he raises his ax above his head. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A firefighter is silhouetted by the sun with smoke surrounding him as he raises his ax above his head.

When my editor listened to me describe it over the phone, he was quiet for a second, and then he told me that it wasn’t the best picture in the take I sent. It didn’t “read” well, he explained. Translation? The picture I was so excited about wasn’t even going to make the paper. 

This is one of the classic moments in any photographer’s life; that moment when you realize the picture you thought was so great, wasn’t that great at all. 

My editor eventually selected a photograph for the paper that ran all five columns and it was a creative, artistic picture to illustrate the story of the fire which caused $750,000 in damage to the 112-year-old landmark. 

This picture of a firefighter reflected in a puddle outside  Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant is the one my editor used for the front page. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • This picture of a firefighter reflected in a puddle outside Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant is the one my editor used for the front page.

The lesson here is simple, do not confuse your experience of photographing an event, person or place, with the actual results. Whenever you think you’ve made a really fantastic picture, show it to someone who won’t be afraid to tell you the truth. And if they like it? Odds are good you’ve got a winner.

A firefighter is surrounded by smoke on the roof of Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A firefighter is surrounded by smoke on the roof of Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant.

 
Firefighters surrounded by smoke on the roof of Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Firefighters surrounded by smoke on the roof of Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant.
Firefighters battle the blaze on the roof of Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Firefighters battle the blaze on the roof of Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant.
Captain Jesse Kruckeberg rests outside Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant after the fire is extinguished. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Captain Jesse Kruckeberg rests outside Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant after the fire is extinguished.
A firefighter peers into the rooftop of the Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A firefighter peers into the rooftop of the Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant.

Colorado Springs wedding photographer Sean Cayton loves remarkable photographs and the stories behind them. You can see his wedding work at caytonphotography.com, his personal work at seancayton.com and his editorial work in the Colorado Springs Independent. Submit your photo and the story behind the image - no more than two a week, please - to sean@caytonphotography.com for consideration in upcoming blogs.

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