We frequently see photographs of magic or decisive moments, as Cartier Bresson called them. We often marvel at just how the photographer was in exactly the right place at the right time to get the shot. It seems that almost impossible luck is needed or lightning fast reactions combined with an ability to instinctively know when and where to point the camera in order to get such spontaneity and split second timing. This is certainly sometimes the case, but a majority of such images are the result of a much more considered approach, using a number of skills and strategies. Here are a few tips to consider:
1. Envisage the final image.
Usually there is very little benefit in running around looking for photographs hoping to catch a one off moment purely on speed and luck alone. Such opportunities do happen, but you can never be ready for them and you will miss far more than you will capture. A far better approach is to wait! Find a spot where an image might work. The lighting should be good, and there should be some basis for a good composition. Then wait for something to happen. It might be an interaction between people in the frame or the juxtaposition or convergence of several variable elements, but the chances are that the resulting picture will be much more coherent and powerful with this approach rather than randomly hoping for something to happen! The timeframe between envisaging the image and capturing it could be seconds or several minutes (or often never!) but this is a successful and proactive mindset to have.
2. Take several frames.
As you see a moment unfolding in front of you, make several exposures. It is unlikely that you will get the perfect moment in one shot, so take several in close succession. Also, if there is time, look for different angles and interpretations of the same scene. In my early days as a professional photographer I really struggled with this by thinking that I should be able to get the perfect photograph the first time. I was determined not to become a “machine gun” shooter, and it wasn’t until I saw the contact sheets of other photographers that I realised that I was wrong! Going back to Cartier Bresson, he often took six, eight, or even more exposures of the same scene, only choosing one from the contact sheet for final printing.
Learn to look and, equally important, to listen to what is going on around you. With practice you will be able to guess what is possibly going to happen and position yourself to be ready. This type of photography can be as much about understanding human behaviour and body language as it is about photographic technique. Also, think beforehand about exactly where you are likely to get the type of image you want. This goes back to envisaging the image. Plan ahead and increase the odds of getting the perfect shot by being in the right area at the right time. Also, try to think out of the box: where might you be able to get the right image where nobody else would ever have thought of taking pictures?
It sounds obvious, but perseverance and practice really do pay dividends. In fact, for this type of photography the longer the amount of time put in the the more likely you are to come away with the shot. It might be possible to photograph for hours or even days before creating something that is truly memorable. It’s important to keep a positive mindset and be open to all possibilities. Go looking for the image, work hard, look for different ways of achieving the image, and keep an open mind.
5. Set it up!
If all else fails then, against all the ideals of photojournalism, take control of the shot and intervene. Some of the most famous “decisive moments” have apparently been staged, including Robert Doisneau’s “The Kiss” and Capa’s dying soldier. It is possible to keep some artistic integrity by asking people to interact or carry on their activity for you whilst you photograph away rather than simply staging the shot, and this can still result in some authentic and spontaneous imagery.
I hope this has given you some inspiration to go out and make magic moments rather than purely wait for them.
About the Author:
Andrew Hind is a professional wedding photographer based in Cambridge UK.
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