Let’s Talk About The Decisive Moment
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression….Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative….Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photography is about freezing time, preserving loving little details that may otherwise go unnoticed in the day-to-day. A gentle embrace, small fingers naturally seeking comfort with mom….We freeze these beautiful little details in time so they can be savored. A moment that may initially seem mundane, when captured at the right instant, with the right artistic composition and processing, becomes a star.
We have to go further than just seeing the moment before us. We must be patient and anticipate when the right moment is going to happen. And when it does – we need to be ready.
It’s that touch, that laugh, a look…..we must be patient and wait for the moment that really moves us. A father throwing a child in the air is adorable, but I think the moment he catches the child and they look in each other’s eyes with love and laughter….that is the moment worth capturing. That is the moment that truly speaks to their connection. Think about what it is that you want to say, and what you want your image to communicate.
You must think of each image as its own story with a beginning middle and end. Then be patient, be selective. Wait for that moment that truly expresses everything you want the image to communicate, or you may end up telling a very different story.
Of course as a digital photographer, this doesn’t mean you can’t click the other moments as well, but it’s important to seek the apex of the moment and not be satisfied with the shot until you have captured it.
A father and daughter laughing together one minute is beautiful, but if in the next moment the little girl buries her face in her father’s neck, symbolizing their love, protection and dependence, this is the more powerful moment. This is the decisive moment.
The Problem With Chimping
Now this isn’t to say you can only capture the decisive moment. In the era of DSLRs, you can click as many times are you want to. For example, in the above image this mother and daughter smiled and looked at me (I took the picture), they smiled at each other (I took another picture), but it was when they both smiled and looked away, with the mother holding her daughter’s wind blown hair out of her face that I felt their love and connection was truly captured. This was the decisive moment – the moment where the image represents the essence of their relationship.
However, to capture the decisive moment it is very important to slow down and stay truly present in the “now”. At times it can be hard to resist taking a look at the back of my screen to see what I captured. I am as guilty of “chimping” as anyone. I usually shoot during the golden hour where the light coming into my lens is changing all the time. I shoot fully on manual which means I am frequently changing my settings to adjust for the variable light that is coming into my sensor. With this, I chimp to be sure I got the shot right, and in doing this, I risk missing the decisive moment.
It is so important to set you camera and simply settle in behind the lens. Take a deep breath, stay present in what is before you and wait for the decisive moment. This way you not only see the moment, but you feel it as well. Feeling the moment is what leads to the most emotional images.
The Safety Shot
Sometimes I start by getting a “safety shot” first and then wait as the rest of the moment unfolds. The safety shot is the image I take of the first moments of connection after I start shooting. If my clients are relaxed and comfortable sometimes this image is all I need. Usually these images are nice but they lack impact. I often view this image as my starting point and as I watch their connection start to take shape before me, my mind begins to anticipate the decisive moment and I know where I want to take the image from there.
Facilitating The Decisive Moment
To add impact and facilitate the decisive moment I move myself, I move my subject or I may ask them a question. I never take two photos the exact same way. I may not even know the exact moment I am waiting for but by keeping things fluid – both me and the client, I will be ready when my eyes see it.
It’s important to note that sometimes we are working through the entire visualization process in a matter of seconds. You saw the scene unfolding, grabbed your camera, positioned yourself within the moment, composed the frame, waited for the decisive moment and took the shot. Even though this process was rushed, it doesn’t make it any less intentional.
And that there is the key in shooting with intention – it doesn’t matter if it’s an image you have ruminated over in you mind for weeks or if it’s one you visualize on the spot……as long as you are deliberately making artistic decisions to draw out the apex of the moment before you, then you have worked to achieve your vision.
Shooting Through Vs. Anticipating
With our digital cameras in hand, it can be tempting to shoot our way through the moment before us, knowing we have endless space on our memory cards and that we can simply cull through for the ones we want after. However when we are clicking constantly we are diverting ourselves ever so slightly from being within the moment and fully experiencing it with our subjects. Of course there are times when this is necessary to shoot through the moment to ensure we don’t miss the shot we are waiting for – such as when our subject is moving very quickly. Within most moments, however, the decisive moment is an isolated moment – no matter how brief it may be. Accordingly, to sit back and anticipate it may leave you better prepared to capture it.
Sometimes, simply letting the moment breathe will create a clear path to the decisive moment.
Want to do deeper into this topic, along with many others that will help you take your work to the next level? Join me for What Lies Within: Creating Images With Depth & Emotion at Click Photo School. Class starts November 4th!
Jen is a featured Massachusetts based, lifestyle family and commercial photographer located in North Andover, Massachusetts. Through her artistic use of light and shadow, and her commitment to capturing authentic organic moments, Jen creates beautifully timeless and powerful imagery. Jen is also a CPA and enjoys mentoring fellow photographers to help them take their business to the next level. She is also a Clickin Moms Mentor, and a Click Photo School Instructor, teaching The Profitable Photographer: Your Guide To Sustainable Pricing, Business From The Ground Up, and What Lies Within: Creating Images With Depth & Emotion. Across all areas of her work, Jen strives to capture honest, emotive and timeless images that artfully preserve today's moments that matter.