In Photography, Timing is [Almost] Everything

In photography classes, workshops, seminars, casual gatherings, magazine articles, blogs, Tweets, and Facebook posts there is much ado about the appearance of a photograph. We talk and debate on the merits of the use of a small aperture or large, this lens or that lens, Photoshop versus Gimp versus Lightroom, the use of this shutter speed or that one, color or black & white, right subject or wrong subject….the list goes on. Now and then, someone will make the comment “you were there at the right time.”

A photograph is formed by light. It’s the light and its direction, color, brightness, absorption and reflection that gives us the ability to see the things we see, and the colors, shapes, forms, and gesture make the photo appealing to our eyes and emotions. Overall, the photograph is an interpretation by the photographer of what was seen and/or felt emotionally at the time. When we look at a photograph the photographer hopes they’ve accomplished their task to allow us to see what they saw and maybe experience in some way a sense of “being there”. While the visual aspect of a photograph is important to the viewer, timing drives a successful or unsuccessful image.

You’ve probably heard or read the popular phrases “F8 and Be There” and “the Decisive Moment“, both terms coined back in the hey-day of photography. You probably understand their meaning, and maybe even used them to describe one of your photographs or a photograph you’ve looked at. These phrases embody one philosophy of photography almost to the exclusion of all other aspects of creating a photograph. If a picture is a little blurry or a bit too dark or too light, but captures an important occurrence or captivates the viewer in some way, we’re more forgiving than when the picture is of a more mundane subject rendered sharply. Of course, we will probably mutter “I wish it was in better focus”, but a photograph of an important moment at the right instant captures that moment forever and blurry or not people will probably still be impressed, and even more so if all the technical aspects are met. But even the technically perfect photo capturing the moment just before or just after the critical instant pales in comparison to the less-perfect one made “at the right time”.

“F8 and Be There” is believed to have been coined by the famous photojournalist and street photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), though some say the source was photographer Allen Hopkins. We’ll probably never know for sure. The general philosophy behind “F8 and Be There” is by using an aperture of F8 (or thereabouts; in general, a small aperture) you’re likely to have a generous depth of field to ensure all the important elements are in focus. And you have to “be there” to get the shot. Photographer Jay Maisel also said, “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” Regardless of the technical details of camera settings, if you’re not “out there shooting” you won’t be there when things happen, you won’t get the (or any) shot, and you’ll only hear the stories from the people who were (and probably see their photographs, too).

The Decisive Moment is a term described by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson as “…the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” The awareness of activity and moments surrounding us and the ability to predict (pre-visualize, in a sense) what will happen next, as well as preparedness in the face of pure dumb luck, is what helps create a good to great photograph. The photos below illustrate this concept. The first photo is the iconic Decisive Moment image by Cartier-Bresson called “Behind the Gare Saint Lazare”. Try to imagine the impact of this photograph if the man was more or less blurry. Think about the timing that went into the making of this photo, the prediction of when the man’s foot would enter the water and the near instantaneous calculation of the shutter delay between pressing the shutter release and the opening of the shutter. In most SLR (single lens reflex) photography in which the photographer looks into the viewfinder and through the lens, the photographer never sees the shot in the viewfinder. The view is always obscured by the mirror when it flips up away from the opening shutter (except in a very small number of pellicle mirror cameras). Cartier-Bresson used a rangefinder camera where the viewfinder is offset from the lens, not looking through it, allowing the photographer to see the action during the exposure. The use of the rangefinder camera gave Cartier-Bresson better advantage in capturing the decisive moment because he could watch events unfold through the viewfinder and more accurately predict when to press the shutter to capture the single exposure. Today, we have continuous motor drives shooting 8 – 14 frames per second and many photographers adopting the “spray and pray” method, hoping within the mass of exposures that they “got it.”

The next photo is “Fire Escape Collapse” by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Stanley Forman. This photo is a prime example of “right place, right time” coupled with preparation and awareness. Forman, as he arrived on scene, was listening to what was going on and heard a call for a ladder truck because there were people trapped on the fire escape at the back of the building. He chose a position on top of the firetruck as the best position to view what was expected to be a routine rescue. But, as the rescue ladder was positioned, the fire escape gave way. Forman was able to shoot two exposures as the woman and child fell. The story of the fire escape collapse photograph is Here.

All the technical skill available is next to useless if you’re not “at the right place at the right time”; the coming together of light, subject, moment, viewpoint, and technique.

Being There can encompass many things:

* the time of day, season, or year/decade
* serendipity (simple luck)
* hard work, research, and preparation
* juxtaposition (the arrangement of elements in the photo)
* being aware enough to capture a gesture or emotion
* selecting a shutter speed to show or stop motion
* positioning yourself at a good viewpoint (to boost serendipity and juxtaposition)
* understanding what’s happening so you’re able to think ahead and anticipate what’s coming next, etc.

The right place and the right time may only last a second, so you have to be ready. Cartier-Bresson masterfully describes it:

The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box
Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on Earth which can make them come back again

We’ve all “partly been there”, when we’re in the right place but the wrong time, at the right time but the wrong place, or have selected the wrong camera settings for the situation. Bringing the primary conditions of “right place” and “right time” together takes work, knowledge, practice and patience, and experience teaches us to identify when that moment occurs or is about to. To put ourselves in a position to maximize our “luck” and Be There at the Decisive Moment we likely need to do some serious and in-depth research on our subject or subject matter, acquire special access and/or permits, learn new skills (photography and non-photography-related), hike or drive long distances, climb hills, cliffs, trees or buildings, stand, sit, or lie down for long periods of time, or generally spend hours, days, or longer waiting, waiting, waiting. Or, it can happen in front of us in nearly an instant. A good percentage of the time, however, “being there” is simply being aware of your surroundings because opportunities for good and great photographs happen all around us all the time. We have to be ready for the unexpected and prepared for the long haul. And, once the moment arrives we need to have the technical skills to accurately capture the moment the way we intend to interpret it.

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