Give yourself choices • adding depth • simple or complex • when it all comes together
There’s too much reverence attached to Cartier-Bresson’s mystical Decisive Moment – the moment in which all the elements of a scene come together to make the perfect picture. Of course decisive moments do happen, but there is no witch-craft, spiritual powers or crystal ball gazing required. Any ordinary photographer is more than capable of capturing ‘it’.
The two key skills required are the ability to spot a potential scene, and the patience and foresight to wait until the right people walk into it and occupy the right places. Of course it’s important that they are the right people, as they will be making up a significant part of your image – and they have to land in the right place to create a balanced and pleasing composition.
I spotted this scene in the late spring on my way to work. I walk past it every day, but on this particular morning the sun was streaking up the street and lighting the columns and pedestrians in a way I hadn’t seen since the same moment last year. I always admire the contrast between the bumpy roundness of the stone columns and the smooth flatness of the walls – they have massive photographic potential, I just had to wait for the right conditions.
On this morning I saw that the scene had been set. I pulled my camera out of my pocket and framed the columns and wall in a way that would show both well, and then wondered at what sort of passer-by I wanted to complete the show. It was just after 7am so the street was still relatively empty. If I waited long enough I would be able to choose whether to have the street occupied or empty, with a few people, a single figure or a crowd, as well as whether I had people only on the other side of the road or close to me; to create depth. There were various traffic options too – vans, buses, bikes…
To experiment I shot lots of options, to study and pick between afterwards.
In this type of shot, where the interest is in the relative positions of the moving elements (the people), you need to ensure the background stays in the background, and does not become a distraction. This is a strong background, but it doesn’t take over – and that’s because I spent some time positioning myself and the camera to ensure that uprights were upright and that I wasn’t going to have converging verticals and sloping horizons fighting for the attention of the viewer.
Below you can see five different versions of the same scene, each of which presents a different view and a different kind of composition – as well as different types of content. Even on the back of the camera I knew which I liked the best; actually as soon as I pressed the shutter I knew that I’d got the shot.
I didn’t know beforehand what I needed to create the ideal frame, but when the right elements came together before my eyes I knew that was the shot to take.
Shooting with a compact
Using a compact camera with an LCD meant I wasn’t holding the camera to my face. This risks camera shake of course, but it also means you are able to see around the camera at what is about to enter the frame and where. You can’t do this so well with a DSLR, so while compact cameras are not necessarily the best option for perfect picture quality they do have many significant benefits that often outweigh the quality issues. This is also a very small camera that is easy to carry absolutely everywhere – including places you wouldn’t normally take a camera.
Which picture do you think represents the most interesting moment?
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33, 1/250sec@f/2.8 ISO 100 and 28mm end of the zoom
I quite like ‘Lone Man’. I waited for him to be between the pillars before I took the picture, so he’d stand out from the smooth background.
Here’s the crowd scene that shows how full the street can be even at that time of the morning. It’s exciting, but maybe lacking in a clear focal point
I like the depth the near-and-far people create, but the frame is over balanced to the left – and everyone is walking out of the picture
Although scooters, cars, buses and vans are a real part of the life on this street for me they spoil the timeless nature of the Bank’s architecture
This is my favourite. It has depth created by the head in the foreground and a good balance of subject on either side of the frame. The people are also ‘right’ for the scene
I shot this the next day, at exactly the same time of day, to show that when the sun isn’t streaking up the street lighting the building and the people there is much less to photograph. The impact has gone. The decisive moment is as much able the hour, the day and the season as it is about that split second when all the elements gel to make the perfect frame