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To a certain extent Henri Cartier-Bresson has a lot to answer for. Yes, he’s certainly one of the photography greats, and his work has inspired countless photographers, but his book “ The Decisive Moment ” and the meaning of its title, is frequently misunderstood by many, and has created a whole raft of confusion.
Many photographers have made the assumption that Cartier-Bresson was referring to a sort of magic moment, where the photographer manages to instinctively see a perfectly formed image in a fraction of a second, bring the camera up to their eye, and take the image in its perfect form, before moving on. Interestingly, the French version of the book is called “Images on the Run”, which seems to almost suggest the opposite. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and a study of his contact sheets tells a rather different story.
I’ve been photographing weddings professionally in a photo journalistic style, for well over 10 years. When I started out, I too thought that capturing these types of images was simply about looking and reacting. However, I soon learned that by taking control and being proactive, rather than reactive, I could significantly increase my chances of getting the shot.
There really isn’t a magic formula, and is possible to stack the odds in your favour, to greatly improve your chances of getting the image. Sometimes it really is luck and good reactions, but more often than not, the techniques outlined below will produce more consistent and predictable results.
On a very practical level, it’s vital that you have the right camera, and that it’s set up correctly. It must be quick, with virtually no shutter lag at all. You’ll also need to get used to timing your shutter actuations. This can be done with practice, by repeatedly photographing moving objects, such as passing cars or bikes, until you’ve completely gotten the feel of the timing, and speed of the shutter release. This is vital, as the coordination between your eye, the shutter release, and the camera needs to be instinctive, to achieve the split second timing that’s needed.
You might find that shooting with a prime lens is faster as well. Using a zoom will inevitably waste precious seconds zooming in and out, it’s often quicker to just move. You might also find that the focus on a prime lenses is a bit quicker, and that you compose better with a prime attached to the camera, rather than a zoom.
As far as camera settings are concerned, again, it’s all about anticipation. Set up the camera, wait, and shoot. Often this will mean using a number of auto controls – have a go at using auto ISO, auto white balance (to be corrected from the RAW files in Lightroom) and generally shoot in aperture priority mode. For this type of photography, the moment is far more important than your choice of depth of field, and even having the camera on full programme mode is okay. It’s all about emotion and expression, timing and anticipation, and the fewer distractions you have to achieve this goal, the better. If you are a manual shooter, then setting the exposure in advance is critical.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning, that having a camera that writes to the memory card reasonably quickly, is important too. You’ll likely need to fire off several shots relatively rapidly, and waiting for the camera to write the card is a pain. Often buying faster, high quality cards is the answer, maybe changing the camera to record slightly smaller jpegs might work – again the priority is timing, speed, and anticipation for this type of photography. If you need to sacrifice using massive file sizes, to gain the speed you need, then so be it.
Think about where the type of pictures you want are likely to happen. It’s hopeless to randomly go out looking for photographs, you really have to put yourself in the best situation, at the best time, to increase your chances of getting the pictures you’re after. If you are a street photographer for example, then you’ll probably want to head out in the middle of the day, maybe on a weekend, when the streets are more likely to be filled with people. There will be many more interactions, and your chances of success are higher. It all begins with deciding exactly what type of pictures you want, and where the most likely place are that you will get them.
Once you are in place, also pre-visualizing the types of shots you want, will give you focus and purpose. If you’re photographing at an outdoor market for example, how about setting yourself the task of photographing human connections, maybe as people are chatting, handing over money or goods, etc? Or how about looking for interesting juxtapositions between shop window displays, and people standing or passing in front of them? This may all sound rather prescriptive but, by setting yourself some parameters, you’ll get your creative juices going, focus your attention, and increase your chances of success. There’s nothing worse than not knowing what you want, randomly taking pictures, waiting for something to happen.
It’s important to look for the elements in the image that you can actually control. For example, finding some nice light, a great background, or a place where an image will work well compositionally. Having set the stage, it’s then simply a case of waiting for something to happen on the stage, to complete the picture. This is so much better than looking for something to happen in hunting mode, where you are trying to react to things all over, and have no control over any of the photographic elements. The chances of getting a strong image with the former method, are significantly higher. It might take longer, and you may shoot fewer frames, but the overall quality of the end result will be better.
Looking at his contact sheets, Cartier-Bresson always took several exposures of the same scene or moment. He very rarely got the shot in one take, and it’s a great relief to realize that he worked the scene. This means that you need to take a number of frames, in fairly quick succession – not on continuous (burst) shooting mode, but close enough together to record subtly different expressions, juxtapositions of people in the frame, and changes of angle and composition. You should aim to keep moving – try the shot a little to the left, then the right, maybe a step forward or back, or a little higher or lower. Photography should keep you fit, and you should always be moving. You can then go through the different frames once they are downloaded, and select the strongest image.
Generally people will be aware that you’re taking pictures. I don’t think that it’s a particularly good approach to stalk your subject from behind a huge 400mm lens, it’s much better to use something smaller and less intrusive, to be closer to the subject and more involved in what’s going on. You can even interact with people as you’re taking pictures, which makes you much less threatening, and consequently people will behave in a much more natural and relaxed way in front of you and your camera.
Being non-threatening can be as simple as smiling, looking relaxed, keeping your body language open and friendly, and just being respectful of people’s personal space. Yes, you’re an observer, but you have to observe from a position of being emotionally and physically involved. You’ll gain much more acceptance from your subjects, and the pictures will be more authentic and natural. That’s not to say that your presence should influence the scene in any way, it’s just that you have to be accepted, to be able to photograph people behaving naturally. If your subjects insist on fake posing, and smiling for the camera, you need to work harder.
A great way of making this work is to move in and out of the scene really quickly – essentially this means waiting for a scene to unfold a little distance from you. As the moment is about to happen, walk towards the scene, camera ready to go. Very quickly, shoot as you are close to the action, then continue to walk out of the scene. If you combine this with unobtrusive body language, you can remain essentially invisible.
Human eye contact is a powerful communication which you can use to your advantage. I think that people can almost sense when they are being watched, and avoiding eye contact (in a non-threatening way) can be a powerful technique. If you want to photograph a group of people, it’s amazing how close you can get to them, if you seem to be diverting your attention to something else. It’s then often possible to get the shot without disturbing them, as they feel as though your interest is elsewhere. We also naturally have an inclination to look at our subject as we take the camera down from our eye, so try to avoid doing that. You’ll be much less intrusive and conspicuous to your subject, particularly if you seem to be focussing your attention on some other subject away from them.
This means simply imagining what could happen next, you need to become an expert in human behaviour, and be ready for what you think is about to happen. Often, with a bit of practice, you’ll be right, and you’ll have prepared yourself to get the shot.
As an example, part of my job as a wedding photographer, is to take pictures of people laughing and enjoying themselves. Good expressions are vital, and getting the timing right is the key. I listen for people telling an amusing tale, that will inevitably end in laughter. It’s no good waiting until they are laughing to bring the camera to my eye and take the shot – I need to be ready beforehand, and choose my moment. It’s also worth saying that often there will be laughter at the original joke, then someone will but in with secondary after joke, creating even more hilarity, which often makes an even better image than the first one – so be patient and wait.
The same principal can be applied to all sorts of situations – imagine what is going to happen next, prepare for it, and photograph it, if and when it happens. Often something else will happen, so you also need to be prepared to be flexible. Make sure that when you get what you were expecting, that something else even better doesn’t happen and you miss it.
The moment is often after when you think it’s going to be – just as you are checking your screen. This is what I call the chimping effect. Many, many times I’ve taken an image, had a quick look down at the screen on the back of the camera, only to realize that I have just missed something better. Don’t look at the screen. Keep your camera ready, and always wait – even if you think you’ve got the shot.
Similarly, you will often miss great shots, just at the point when you are tired and have given up. You need to keep going and going – I know that the longer I shoot, the more high quality images I will get. I also know that by having a complete break for five minutes or so every hour, I am able to keep quick and alert for longer. However it’s weird the number of times that I have just given up on a scene, that something suddenly interesting happens.
Very rarely is there not a photograph to be taken somewhere – it comes down to the photographer’s skill in making images. This is particularly hard with transient, and moving subjects like people. But, people do constantly interact, do things, and move around. It might be that you can’t get the exact image you have in mind, but try to think more laterally, and look for something completely different. In a situation like this it becomes a case of mind over matter, work at keeping your creative thinking fresh and flexible, and you will find an image somewhere.
Practically speaking, changing lenses, moving position, or trying a new technique can spark some creative thought. However, very often it’s just a case of looking and waiting… then looking and waiting some more. There are always images to be had, often they are small fleeting moments, but they are always there.
This isn’t a joke. Weirdly, and frequently, I’ll be looking for an image in front of me, not having much luck, then realize that I should have been looking the other way. Often just turning right around, will present a completely new range of photographic possibilities. Sometimes the picture really is just behind you – you only need to turn around and look.
Try to make a photograph by adding another element in the frame, i.e. having a primary and secondary subject. It could be that both subjects make an okay picture on their own, but if they are combined into one image, they become much stronger. If the image explores a relationship between the two subjects it’s even better. Maybe one offers a commentary on the other, or there is an echoing of shape or gesture.
I’ve mentioned being patient several times, and the amount of time spent looking and waiting for success in this type of photography is phenomenal. Never give up – just wait, poised for action. Linger a little longer, just outside your comfort zone you might well find that there are a number of great images to be had.
As with anything, practice is the one thing that will really make a difference, and this can be both photographic practice, as well as observational practice. Try to develop skills in reading people, anticipating moments in your everyday life, and practice your observational skills. Combine this with the other techniques above, and you will soon find that you are able to make some of these seemingly magic moment images happen. You will have become proactive in your photography, rather than reactive, and your success rate will be considerably higher.
So I urge you to give these tips a try, and see if you can come away with better candid images. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
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