Shoot like a Pro

Photographing the “decisive moment”

Written by James Jordan

Most photographs of decisive moments are made, not born. Here’s how to increase your chances of creating photographs that stop people in their tracks.

Framing shot - stock photoYou’ve seen them. Photographs that capture a peak moment, a dramatic instant, frozen in time forever.

Expression, gesture, lighting and composition all align to form a compelling image. Even more impressive is that the image seemingly was captured on the fly, a spontaneous moment presented as a gift to the observant photographer who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Creative fraction of a second

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a 20th century French photographer who is widely considered to be the father of modern photojournalism, labeled such photographs “the decisive moment.”

There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture,” Cartier-Bresson wrote. “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.”

Photos of decisive moments made, not born

To be sure, a certain amount of luck comes into play in capturing such moments. More often, though, photographs of decisive moments are made, not born. Here’s how to create your own luck and increase your chances of creating photographs that stop people in their tracks and say, “Wow!”

Exercise those picture-taking muscles

Great photographers tend to photograph all the time. Through years of practice, it’s possible to develop an intuitive muscle memory and hand-eye coordination that recognizes when the elements of a picture come together and simultaneously causes the finger to hit the trigger.

I often return from photographing a wedding or other event and either find good pictures on my memory card that I honestly don’t remember having taken, or discover elements in a photo that I didn’t consciously notice while taking that particular picture, but without which, would have made for a less compelling image.

Wedding moment by James Jordan

In the above photo, I was photographing a wild dance at a wedding reception where participants formed and ran a “crack the whip” style chain under the bride’s veil. I remember looking for an opportune moment to catch the men passing under the veil. Only after I reviewed the photos did I notice that I had captured the look of surprise on the bride’s face as she got bumped by one of the guys passing behind her. Several other images of the same dance captured priceless expressions on the faces of the dancers.

Lucky or hyper-sensitive peripheral vision?

Was I just lucky or did a hyper-sensitive peripheral vision fashioned through years of forcing myself to scan the edges of the viewfinder before pressing the shutter button come into play?

You ARE scanning the edges of your viewfinder before hitting the shutter button, aren’t you? And you ARE recomposing or repositioning yourself to eliminate or enhance the elements of the picture before firing, aren’t you?

If not, there’s your first exercise. Do it, do it and do it some more until it becomes something you do without thinking. It will pay off in the future.

Learn to look for decisive moments

Here’s a situation you’ve probably already photographed – a child blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. You know what’s going to happen and you’ve no doubt positioned yourself in advance to get the best angle on the shot. All you have to do now is wait for the child to go into action. And no doubt you’ve gotten a nice photo of a child with puffed-out cheeks extinguishing the candles.

But wait.

What about the moments just before or after that one? Like the child drawing in his breath, a look of pure determination (or is it apprehension) on his face as he is about to assault the candles? Or what about her elation at having accomplished the task, her face wrapped in a wreath of smoke as family and friends cheer her achievement?

As Cartier-Bresson himself said about such missed moments, “Oops.”

The “before-during-and-after approach”

The “before-during-and-after approach” is a good way to cover those events that have a predictable order and increases the chances of capturing a memorable image. This photo of a ribbon-cutting, a rather mundane event in and of itself, benefited from this approach.

Ribbon cutting by James Jordan

I shot pictures of the bigwigs posing prior to the scissors hitting the ribbon and the act of the cutting of the ribbon itself, both of which have been photographed ad infinitum. But it’s the celebratory moment immediately afterward, when usually staid executive types let out a little emotion, complete with some hand raising and a little fist pumping that makes for a unique take on the event.

The right place first, then the right time

Many pro photographers will look for the right place first, then wait for the right time to happen.

Winding road by James Jordan Sam Abell, an award winning photographer for National Geographic, describes his picture taking as consisting of discovering and framing a “stage” in his viewfinder, then waiting for the “star” of the picture to show up.

In the photo to the left, I had set myself up on a hill overlooking a wildly winding road amid the autumn colors and had the shot framed up in my camera’s viewfinder. An interesting photo in and of itself.

Then a gentleman who was out for a walk happened to pass by me and we exchanged greetings. All I had to do to complete the image was to wait for the man to reach a spot toward the center of the frame and take my shot.

The photo went on to win an award and is now represented by Getty Images for licensing.

Now it’s your turn

To make it easy to remember, there are four P’s for raising the percentage of decisive moments that land on your memory cards. Practice, perception, placement and patience are four keys to increasing the odds that you’ll come away with memorable photos.

About the author

James Jordan

James Jordan, Digicamhelp Contributing Writer, is owner of James Jordan Photography in Elgin, IL. His portfolio includes portraits for families, seniors and corporations, events, products, travel and landscape photography. His work has been published in travel guides and lifestyle magazines in the Midwestern U.S. A series of artistic landscape prints will be exhibited in Door County, Wisconsin in the summer of 2009.