I first fell in love with Brooke Snow when she started posting the Inspired by Life video series on her blog and I noticed that she was something I was not: calm. Brooke was chilled out and not frantically running around shooting thousands of images. Now, at this point I’d gotten over the spray-and-pray stage where many newbies begin. And I’d started shooting on purpose. But I still lacked the calm ability to genuinely feel the moment -the millisecond- when, as Brooke puts it, “…composition and emotion reach an apex.”
This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called “the decisive moment”.
The term “decisive moment” is used in countless fields of study. Absolutely everything that relies on human say-so relies on our ability to accurately choose the moment when we act. You can describe these moments in so many different ways. Brooke calls them “the moments in between” the typical shots. Henri said they were “…the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event…” And me? I sum it up this way: “the impetus”. When I began exercising myself to the point of only shooting in those decisive moments, I found that what began as an exercise of my brain eventually became more automatic and finely tuned. It became an impulse or a reflex.
You might be able to call a photographer who clings to the decisive moment careful, circumspect, thoughtful or wise. That is, a photographer whose impulses are so finely tuned that rather than being random bursts of passion, they are truly moments of decision: decisive moments. And although Henri Cartier-Bresson utilized his ability to foresee these moments in high action street photography, I find them in other ways as a portrait photographer. The twinkle in a child’s eye. The moment where a smile turns from fake to real. The moment where a groom is saying everything he feels for his bride on his face. These, too, are fleeting moments that require a calm, decisive photographer.
Here are a few ways I settled myself down in the excitement of pursuing my greatest passion so that I can feel those precise moments milliseconds before they occur:
Breathe. Take a moment to breathe if you find yourself feeling frantic and taking way too many shots.
Restrain. If you’re a film photographer, you probably don’t have this problem because you’re restrained to 12 or 24 frames on a roll of film. Digital photographers can exercise their restraint by giving themselves a set number of frames to get the shots they need. This will force you to slow down and begin feeling the moments that matter.
Restrain more. In addition to not having the luxury of thousands of frames at his disposal, Henri Cartier-Bresson also didn’t have 10 FPS. He couldn’t hold his finger on the trigger and cross the fingers on the other hand, hoping for something good. He could take one shot at a time. Exercise this yourself and you will be amazed at how you find yourself able to eventually make those decisions yourself.
Hunt. Hunters don’t run around with their guns on fully automatic, spraying bullets in the air. Neither should we. Hunt for the moment, the decisive moment. Lay in wait. Hold your focus for as long as it takes.
Embrace the awkward moment. Push past the awkward moments. That’s usually when it happens. Whatever ‘it’ I was hoping for, that’s where I often find it.
My nature is that I can be quite an impetuous person. I’ve had to learn to reign in my shutter finger. In short? Don’t spray and pray. Get to know the decisive moment.