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.