Henri Cartier-Bresson was well known for promoting the “decisive moment”. I know from experience that in some situations there is an optimum instant to capture the image you want. But for some it becomes a mantra. Let’s examine some nuances of the concept of a decisive moment.
Sometimes it is not a precise moment
Almost all of my work is shot outdoors. Sometimes I shoot straight landscapes. Often other found objects around me.
I believe I have the experience to say that in these outdoor settings, the “decisive moment” may last from a second to many minutes. Or I may have to wait an hour for the moment to occur. In a slowly changing landscape scene it can be difficult to recognize which moment was decisive – and hope you had the presence of mind to capture it.
In these situations, there may well be a decisive period of time, maybe not an actual moment. It often requires great patience rather than lightning fast reflexes.
A decisive moment
I have shot some sports and kids. These are areas with definite decisive moments.
Sports is easier, in a way. Most sports have a rhythm, a pattern. Once you learn it for a particular sport, you can anticipate the action and predict the best moment. It still may be difficult and you may not be in the best position, but you often will know when it will happen.
I consider kids more challenging than sports. They are unpredictable. Their moods and expressions can change quickly. Framing then, lighting them, and being in position with the right lens and camera settings requires constant attention. Then on top of all of that is the delicate trigger you need to “spring” at the right moment, when the expression or activity is just right. You have to be fully engaged and in the moment.
I make it harder on myself, because I never do formal portraits where I try to control things. I greatly prefer being in the environment where they are comfortable and letting them basically forget about me. Candid shots are what I like.
Now is the decisive moment
This brings up one of the main points I want to make here: now is the decisive moment. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we should consider it a decisive moment. We need to be in this moment. Things will never be the same. We will never have exactly this light or these clouds. We won’t feel the same or look at the subject the same.
This used to be a problem for me. I would see something interesting, but I was on my way to do something else “important”, so I didn’t stop. If I even remembered what interested me, it was usually not the same when I came back. The light was wrong. The vegetation had grown up and obscured it. It was raining and foggy. Just not the same. If I wait a couple of months before coming back, it may be a housing addition now!
Well, it may still be a problem, but I recognize it and fight it now. I am much more prone to go ahead and stop and get the shot when I see it. If I am late to something, I don’t mind asking forgiveness. It has not become a problem, except maybe for my wife. She knows now to bring something to read, because I will stop at unpredictable times and places.
This all now brings us to the larger issue of mindfulness. Not the pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo we get from the self-help crowd. Real mindfulness involves being in the moment. Being fully aware and conscious.
Modern society does it’s best to train us to not be mindful. We are constantly distracted and entertained. Other people’s ideas bombard us and lead us to pay attention to what they want us to do. But learning to think our own thoughts and to look around and actually see what is there is necessary and healthy.
Do you walk down the street looking around and actually seeing what is there, or are you scrolling Facebook or email to make sure you don’t miss something? Where is your focus?
Do you ever take time for yourself? To think, to consider things, to read? Not to think about work or politics or where you are going with your friends tomorrow night. Is the idea of being alone with yourself scary or exciting?
I suggest you practice being alone in your own head. It might be hard at first. Give yourself some time to just think and to just look around, not expecting something – just looking. Making a quiet place in your head could be a welcome retreat in our noisy, distracting world.
The image with this post is a result of just being mindful. I noticed this scene on a walk along an ugly little canal in town. The location was not “pretty” in itself, but the conditions were right to make an image I love. I am very glad I took the time to notice it.
Do you practice mindfulness? Let me know your experience!