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Archive for Sunday, May 31, 2009

Behind the Lens: ‘Decisive moment’ drives photography

This photo of a fisherman does rely on a decisive moment to help make it successful. Positioning myself below the subject my intention was to catch the fisherman as he brought the reel forward in a cast, silhouetted against a cloudy sky. Positioning, anticipation and timing all helped in the creation of this image.

This photo of a fisherman does rely on a decisive moment to help make it successful. Positioning myself below the subject my intention was to catch the fisherman as he brought the reel forward in a cast, silhouetted against a cloudy sky. Positioning, anticipation and timing all helped in the creation of this image.

May 31, 2009

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In describing the construction of a silhouette photograph in last week’s column, I referred to the term “decisive moment” to describe a visual concept that contributed to the photograph’s success. Of all the photographic devices I’ve written about, I feel this is the trickiest to master but the one with the greatest impact.

French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson made the phrase famous and wrote this: “The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

While most events and activities reveal key moments, not all photographs capture or depend on a decisive moment. But in the right situation, the coinciding of a photographer’s attention on a subject and an action by the subject can result in a distinctive photograph. The trick is to recognize the possibility in all subjects and be prepared to capture them.

Here is the way I break down Bresson’s concept. To document any event or subject, I first choose a point from which to take the photograph. This is where I “organize my forms,” as Bresson writes. I look at the subjects’ background and determine where to position myself so I can eliminate what I don’t need or include what contributes to the image. This step begins to shape the structure of my photograph and is where my lens choice is determined.

Next, I anticipate an action or reaction by the subject, what Bresson calls the “significance of an event.” At a birthday party it may be the honoree blowing out the candles. At a championship basketball game, it may be the game-winning shot. Whatever the event, I need to anticipate action as it unfolds in front of me. And it can unfold fast. Cartier-Bresson’s “simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second” acknowledges that my decision on when to snap the shutter is crucial to the success of the photograph.

If I have followed this formula, my positioning, anticipation and timing have provided me with a formula capable of documenting a decisive moment. Rather than memorize Bresson’s definition just keep in mind my simple acronym P.A.T. — positioning, anticipation and timing.

For examples of some photos that incorporate this strategy, visit LJWorld.com.

Comments

Linda Hanney 5 years, 6 months ago

Mike, your pictures have an artist's touch. Not everyone will "see" that perfect picture, but I appreciate your professional advice. I suffer these two hindrances for good pictures. 1. shyness to get in the middle of things and 2. not immediately knowing how to set my camera to capture the perfect picture. Obviously you suffer neither of these.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 6 months ago

I just got a Kodak digital camera. It does not have all the bells and whistles of the more expensive ones, but I am having fun with it. I got a great picture of my daughter sitting on the hood on the car with the setting sun lighting her face. It's not the size of the camera but the size of your imagination.

John Spencer 5 years, 6 months ago

I think the “decisive moment” sadly is more about the number of captures one has to look through now, than actually creating a “decisive moment” photograph. With high-res captures and huge data media no one has to worry about running out of pictures (film) the cost to develop them, print them so they just treat their camera more like a video camera. Less care is taken to “organize my forms,” since the backgrounds can be removed, changed as any other object in the photograph can be.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 6 months ago

I have to agree with WereAllMonkeys, the difference between snapping a photo and taking a photo is the difference between painting by numbers and being an artist. Ansel Adams always had his camera at the ready and he saw everything from the perspective of how it would look framed. It is much like the eye of a first rate director. I really don't like the idea of using Photoshop or some such to create an effect. It is too much like a coloring book. Great photographers are people who see what they are looking at.

Mike Yoder 5 years, 6 months ago

Thanks femail, but actually, it is never real easy to get in the middle of things no matter how long I have been doing this. What does help is the fact that people are probably a little more accepting of a press photographer in their midst.

I understand what your saying WereAllMonkeys, but most photographers I know are still looking for 'moments' and not necessarily taking the "shoot fast, shoot plenty and edit later" approach. Sports photography may be the exception. Interestingly, photojournalism is moving more and more toward documenting people and events with HD video. At the JW our second camera body now is a Canon 5D which can shoot HD video. This results in video available for online and the possibility of high quality frame-grabs for still images. But no matter what the equipment used, I'm still looking to capture unique, story-telling moments.

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