Photography is all about “moment.” It’s the big, loud moment of the wide receiver going up for the football, eyes popping out, sweat flinging out from the helmet, fingers stretching out to grasp the ball. Or it’s the quiet moment of two friends meeting on the street, one throwing their head back in laughter or gesturing in response to something the other has said. Each of these situations, and everything in between, has a moment that is the job of the photographer to capture.
Moments bring power and impact into the photograph, resonating with the viewer and engaging them with the photo. In photographing a story, the moment image is what the narrative can hang on, a very powerful building block. Or it can stand alone as powerful testament to an event, bringing everything to a visual fruition. More ...
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Capturing the Climactic Image
Throughout this assignment, I’m seeing some really powerful images that capture the idea of “moment.” Within these submissions, I’m seeing some “near misses,” as well. With the idea of the decisive moment in mind, I think this is a great time to review the process of capturing the climactic image.
- Keep the camera, and your attention, trained on your subject. Things can happen extraordinarily quickly, and there's nothing worse than having the camera hanging from your neck when it all peaks.
- Give this process time. There will be times when the prime image will be the one you first shot. But there will also be plenty of occasions when that first photo captured a “work in progress.” By staying with the situation and watching as it develops, you’ll not only increase your chances of capturing the moment, but you'll also learn to see more photographically. For some photographers this is an intuitive process; for others, it’s a learned process. And the more you remain focused on a scene, the more you’ll learn to anticipate the moment.
- Become comfortable and knowledgeable about your equipment. For many successful photographers, the camera is simply an extension of their bodies and minds. You see something happening, or building up, and the functions of the camera are handled automatically. I tell students in the workshops I teach that when the camera strap goes around your neck, [it should be] like a switch turning on in your head. Now you’re thinking and seeing photographically. The first thing I do when picking up my camera is to adjust to the appropriate settings so I’m ready to shoot at any given moment.
- Realize that the event is now. Life is constantly going on in front of you; therefore photographic possibilities are always present. In workshops, I’ll see students hanging around, cameras not ready, waiting for the official “start” of a particular event—as if the only photos to be had are directly from that specific event. Learn to really watch for those photos great or small.
- Not every photo op will provide the best photo ever made, but you should approach each situation with the idea of making the best possible photo of that particular event.
- Keep on shooting. Often, I’ll get so tired of being away from home on assignment, that I feel I’m about ready to shuck it all. At that time, I’ll go through a drill I’ve used for some time: I simply pick up the camera, and an electricity courses through me—what an amazing craft this process of photography is. Keep on shooting.
Thanks for welcoming me into this community. If you’d like to continue this conversation and learn more about photography through a hands-on experience, I’ll be leading a seven-day workshop in Wyoming’s Cowboy Country and a weekend workshop in Tucson, Arizona, for National Geographic Expeditions.
Stay With the Scene
At this point in the Moment assignment, we’re seeing some powerful images, images that capture the split-second of peak energy.
For this assignment theme, I’d strongly suggest that photographers work on staying with the scene and watching it build up to—and beyond—the moment.
Thinking you've reached the height of a moment is similar to a mountain climber reaching what they think is the summit, only to observe the real summit off in the distance. This is known as the false summit syndrome, which I think is applicable in photographing moments, as well—you'll tend to shoot what you think is the peak frame, then lower the camera to admire your photo, only to look up and see the real moment occur. So stay with that scene to make sure that the great photo you just captured isn’t only a step up to the climactic moment.
Or liken your job as photographer to that of a director or choreographer in a play: You set the stage and watch for the actors to take their places or for the dance to build to its peak. I believe this is one of the most engaging aspects of photography and the reason I love this craft. It’s a forever changing scene in front of us, and we are responsible for making the best image possible.
So approach your next “moment” photos with the idea of staying with the scene from start to finish. Think of your viewfinder as your canvas and remember that you're responsible for every square inch of that visual real estate. And, above all, that the moment trumps everything.
Waiting for the Peak
The famous French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson said that every situation has its decisive moment; you watch as something builds, waiting for that peak. Applying that idea of a moment to your photography will really make you a more observant and connected image maker. And the more you work on that theory of moment, the more you’ll be able to watch how a situation builds to that peak, then descends after the image is made.
The waiting is the hardest part.