Moment Hunting

Once in a lifetime

An intriguing Japanese concept called Ichigo Ichie has recently been revealed to me. It literally means “one time, one meeting”. A better translation may be “once in a lifetime”. An expanded translation, that appeals to me more, could be “What we are experiencing right now will never happen again. We must value each moment like a beautiful treasure. We must become moment hunters.”

This idea of becoming “moment hunters” is very powerful to me. This is one of the things I love about photography that is different from most other art forms. I can capture moments as they are happening. When I press the shutter on my camera, the entire world visible through the lens is recorded on the sensor. It does not have to be slowly drawn and/or painted. Have you noticed that most paintings are static? If not, the artist probably took a photograph and painted from it later.

No tomorrow

This has been impressed more and more to me as I get older. There is no assurance of a tomorrow. Even if there is, the moment you see now probably will not exist. The light, the weather, the interaction taking place – these things will never repeat exactly, if at all.

So now, if I see something, I take the picture. It doesn’t matter as much if I am late to something or if I lose my place in traffic or if I even have to turn around and go back (something guys are supposed to never do).

Even when I am out driving or walking with friends I will stop and capture an image if I really like it. My real friends understand and others, well, hopefully they will be patient, but that is not my problem. The image is very important to me. I have learned that you can’t come back later and find it.

We’ve all experienced it

I am starting to learn. Too many times I have thought “that is really great; I will catch it next time”. Even if you get back in an hour, the light will be different; the clouds will have moved; something. Or if you note something interesting enough to return to, say next month or on another trip next year, it will be different. That very shapely tree is covered with leaves and is not as interesting. That great scene is now a housing development, never to be interesting again.

One of my heroes Jay Maisel tells a story from early in his career. In his book “It’s Not About the F-Stop” (I do not receive any compensation from this) he has this example. He was at the Tokyo Fish Market.

“I find a room with cakes of ice, light coming from below, cutting knives on top. This is great. I take a few shots, but I’m really supposed to be shooting something else, so I figure I’ll go back there later and really work it.

I get back a few years later. I’m looking forward to working on it, but it’s not there anymore. It’s been replaced with air conditioning.”

Based on this and other experiences he always tells his students “Never go back”.

Not a new concept

This idea of Ichigo Ichie comes from about the 16th century. It came out of tea ceremonies. The ideas migrated into Zen Buddhist philosophy and was expanded with their thoughts on transience.

It also appears in martial art training. The idea was that even in training you can’t just stop and do it over. In a life-and-death struggle you don’t get a “try again”.

And isn’t life such a life-and-death situation? Now is what we have. Use it.

Ichigo Ichie was even used as the subtitle to the 1994 release of Forest Gump in Japan. It seemed to reflect the events of that movie.

All we have is today

Great scenes don’t stick around. Everything changes all the time. If you like the image, stop and capture it. There is little chance you can find it again later. Now, you might find a better one by coming back to a location with better light or better weather. Landscape photographers try to do this all the time. But it will be a different scene. This one you see right now will never be the same.

Usually I focus these almost exclusively on art and photography. This concept is much broader.

It scares me now to think of all the transient things I miss if I’m are not disciplined about recognizing them. Your kids, for example. They are growing up every day. They are learning new things all the time. Are you spending the time to interact with them, to help them and shape them?

Or your mate? They are really the most important person in your life. I hope for your sake they will be with you the rest of your life. Are you conscious of your interactions? Do you always treat them with respect and love? Do you work to keep the romance going?

Or friends. Being with friends is special. When it happens, be fully there. Take advantage of the time. Treasure every encounter. This is one of the things life is really about.


Sorry to get so philosophical. Usually I try to stick strictly to art. This topic is very close to me and I believe it is important.

Oh, and the image at the top of this post? It is a good example. I was driving in a remote area, with my wife and best friend, as darkness approached on a blustery winter night. We were in a hurry, but I had the guts to stop anyway and take this. I’m glad I did!

Ephemeral Moments

Ephemeral moments come and go in an instant. But those short moments often make all the difference between an interesting image and a plain one. It is a unique advantage of a photograph to be able to record fleeting scenes. It is a challenge for the artist to recognize and capture them.

Ephemeral means fleeting, transient, short-lived, brief, momentary. In a sense all of our life is ephemeral, as the Bible says in James 4:14 “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.” Setting aside the more existential viewpoint for now, I want to focus on capturing brief moments.

For a photographer, capturing brief moments is both a technical problem and a mental problem. The technical is easy: choose a vantage point giving good framing on the action, arrange for the lighting to be sufficient and of the quality you want, select a lens to fill the frame with the subject, use a fast enough shutter speed for the result you want, then just wait for the subject to do something. ☺

Obviously it is much deeper than that. Many books and tutorials have been created on how to do it. If you’re a Creative Live follower I suggest this short class by Steve Sweatpants. What I want to talk about is what’s going on in the photographer’s mind.

To capture ephemeral moments the artist has to be aware, hyper-aware, of what is happening around them. If it’s a couple that interests you, one small gesture lasting less than a second may make all the difference. An interesting reflection may be completely altered when the sun pops out from the clouds for a moment or if a colorful bus drives by. Be ready. That old car coming down the street may be just perfect when you notice it is moving toward a framing by a building in the right light with complimentary colors – wait for it.

For the artist it is a mental process. I have to really “be there”. I have to free my mind of everything else and let it be receiving and evaluating input constantly, waiting for my mental processing to trigger a recognition of a significant moment. With practice I can get fast enough to recognize and compose and adjust camera settings and capture the fleeting moment. When you first start be ready for frustration. You beat yourself up constantly with the realization that there’s a great picture there, but it was over, like, 2 seconds ago. If only you had recognized it in time to act on it. It takes practice.

Part of the fun of it is the mental challenge. I have to forget about everything else going on. Email doesn’t exist; Facebook does not exist; being cold doesn’t matter; ear buds are distracting. I have to be entirely focused on the scene at hand. With practice, you learn to anticipate better. After observing behavior for a few moments you anticipate that the person or object will move a certain way or direction. You plan it into a future shot. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does and it makes for better images. If you are really there in the moment you will pick up the rhythm of the dance and move with it naturally. And it gives you a lot of satisfaction.

I believe one of the best modern masters of this is Jay Maisel. View his web site here. HIs philosophy is to “go out empty.” Meaning that he goes out to shoot without any preconceived notion of what he is looking for. He sees what is there and tries to make something of it. He would go walking around New York City every day with his camera. I don’t know if he still does since he moved out of “the bank” (a great story to look up). In regard to leaving your preconceived notions at home, Jay says “You can be looking for a long time and while you’re looking you’re going to miss everything that’s really there. The less specific the demands you place upon yourself are, the more open you can be to what’s in front of you.”

Being open to what is in front of you is a key to capturing ephemeral moments. Be there. Be in the moment. The world around you is a beautiful and joyful place. Go out and react to it.