Capturing the Moment

David duChemin

David duChemin is known for his "gear is good, but vision is better" mantra of the past several years, and he's continually grown—both as a photographer and an author—within and around those words. That initial battle cry is echoed within the pages of his latest book, The Soul of the Camera, where duChemin emphatically states that "It is time now to turn our attention to the thing that is ultimately responsible for the making of photographs—the photographers themselves." If the heart of the photograph comes from the soul of the camera, it's because the photographer is clear on the intention behind the image. "Capturing the Moment" is an excerpt from The Soul of the Camera. 

Photographs can be reduced to light, lines, and moments. Everything else is derivative, a subcategory or effect of those three fundamentals. The more I study photographs from the past century—the incredibly short lifespan of our art so far—the more convinced I am that everything’s been photographed; that our challenge now is to manipulate light, lines, and moments in the frame in a way that expresses our unique view of those so-often photographed subjects.

In Within the Frame, I wrote that our craft consists of “painting with light, in slivers of time, within the frame of our image.” Those slivers of time come and go; some of them last longer than others, some are so brief that even our cameras, at 1/8000 of a second, struggle to keep up. But even when the camera is equal to the task, our own ability to anticipate and perceive moments and then use them in collaboration with light and lines (i.e., composition) is the photographic skill responsible for stronger images than any of the geekery we tend to focus on. That’s not to say geekery can’t serve us; it can. But perceiving a moment comes before the ability to capture it. To put it another way, what’s the point of having a camera capable of capturing even the most fleeting moment if we’re unable to recognize it in the first place?

The Decisive Moment

When Henri Cartier-Bresson first wrote about the decisive moment, I wonder if he had any idea he’d be so over-quoted and so under-comprehended. Though the decisive moment is about the moment that best represents a scene or an action, it is not only that; it’s about that instant when the apex of the action coincides with the strongest possible composition. As the name implies, the decisive moment has to do with decisions. Not merely about when we press the shutter, but about how we frame the image; not simply which moment we choose, but about how we construct that moment in our frame.

In street photography, this translates in a million ways, but consider this scenario: a man is striding through a crowd, and perhaps he’s drawn your eye because he’s walking against the flow and wearing bright clothes and a fantastic hat, in stark contrast to the men in business suits around him. How do you frame him? At what point does his striding walk become clearest in the crowd of suits? At what point is his stride the strongest, carrying with it the most amount of energy? And where do you place him within the frame to communicate walking into the crowd or, alternately, walking out of it? If simply capturing him is enough for you, then well and good. But if you want to say something about this bold man in a sea of homogeny, your decisions alone will make that possible. Which moment is decisive? Again, that’s up to you because it depends on what you want to say.

What matters in this discussion is that we recognize the importance of making these moments intentional. The moments matter all on their own, but which of them we choose and where we place them is what makes stronger photographs. And the moment you choose won’t likely be the same one I choose, which is good because we probably have different things to say, and different ways to say it.

Know Your Gear

A compelling photograph of a great moment is hard to make, especially while the action is happening and we’re fighting with technical considerations such as focus and exposure. That’s why the geek stuff matters. The more easily focus and exposure come to you in that crucial moment, the more your camera feels like a natural extension of your hand and the more it gets out of the way and allows you to make not merely any photograph, but one over which you have control.

For those of us who fall much closer to artist on the spectrum of artist to technician, one of the best investments of time you can make is to sit down and make your hands familiar with your camera. Sit down and close your eyes as you run your fingers over the buttons; learn to identify them until you can do it from routine and muscle memory, without conscious thought. Later, when the action is happening and the moment is fleeting, your attention can be fully given to composition and capturing that moment, not fighting to remember how to access continuous focus, high-speed burst mode, EV compensation, or focus points. It doesn’t take much: 20 minutes a day of intentional button-play for one week and you’ll be much closer to getting the camera out of the way. If the task of the artist is to know ourselves, the task of the technician—the craftsman—is to know our tools. When the two meet, magic happens.

Anticipate the Moment

Anyone who has ever missed an amazing moment bitterly remembers how fast it seemed to come and go, while our own movements and efforts to capture it seemed to slow in reverse proportion. Learning to anticipate the moment gets us closer to being ready when that moment arrives. In most cases we’re guessing, but how good that guess is will affect how closely we anticipate the moment.

Watch your subject. Be observant. Are there patterns to the behaviour or rhythms to the action that repeat at intervals? Are there cues that happen before a moment that tip you off? For a blessedly short time as a comedian, I did a routine with a dove. She had a way of ruffling her feathers and changing her posture slightly right before she relieved herself (which occurred with alarming frequency). I learned to recognize this shift, which allowed me to both avoid getting shat upon and create a laugh. As the bird shifted in pre-shit, I would say, “Now, stay there. Just sit.” And then she’d crap on the floor, at which point I’d look frustrated and say, “You know that’s not what I said. I said sit.I know it’s juvenile. But it got laughs, I tell you.

Whether you’re a wedding photographer, sports shooter, or portraitist, studying your subject(s) and identifying the cues that signal a coming moment will make you a little more ready for those moments when they arrive.

Seize the Moment

Arguably, the hardest skill is simply the ability to quickly recognize those moments and capture them. Being familiar with our gear and learning to anticipate the moment doesn’t help in the least if we can’t see that moment when it happens. One of the things I’m often surprised by is the tendency of digital photographers to look at the LCD screen after every few frames. The action’s not happening there! You can’t do a thing about that photograph; you’ve already made it.

What you can do is keep your eyes open to the still-unfolding scene before you. Look at your images later. Constantly ask yourself what’s about to happen next, and then wait for it. As discussed in the previous chapter, patience is a photographic skill. If you find a great scene that only lacks a great moment, wait for it. If you’re making a portrait and the subject’s mask still hasn’t come off or the light still hasn’t come on in their eyes, wait for it. If you’re shooting landscapes, wait for the moment the light comes. That waiting can be minutes for the portraitist, and months, seasons, or years for the landscape photographer.

Great moments seem to be less often found or stumbled upon, and more often waited out. Whether or not you make a photograph of that moment depends on your patience, and there’s no setting on your camera for that.

That’s Life

Ultimately, we’ll miss more moments than we’ll ever see or make. And that, as they say, is just the way it goes. And that fact points to both the ubiquity of these moments and the preciousness of them when everything aligns and we get it right, putting our frame around a specific combination of lines, light, and moment and making an image of what otherwise might have passed unnoticed.

Celebrating these moments and allowing them to feed our hunger increases our creativity and receptiveness. Mourning over images never made, or fostering regret that our skill was no match for our vision or the speed of the scene unfolding before us, is a trap that saps us of the very resources we so need as we grow as artists.

Working on our craft, being in the moment, and holding our breath for that next frame we’ve not even imagined—with neither fear looking forward, nor regret looking back—fans the flames of creativity and both the initiation and completion of the work we love.

If this stirs your creativity and you'd like to read more, The Soul of the Camera is now shipping from Amazon.  

David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com. 

Craft & Technique David duChemin

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