The Decisive Moment
I enjoy looking at the work of
yesterday’s photographers as the art forms had to be planned, and not
happenstances. With our preparations for a photograph now being in the
province of the electronics, we should wonder at the results of the
One of those was Henri Cartier-Bresson
who was the originator of the phrase in photography, “The Decisive Moment.”
Undoubtedly he was one of the great photographers of the 20th century.
However, according to his biographer Pierre Assouline (Henri
Cartier-Bresson: A Biography, Thames & Hudson) he was also a difficult and
haughty individual with confidence in his own artistic superiority.
He was born in France in 1908 and
initially studied painting, following much of the Surrealist school of
thought of the time. However, by the time he was 22 years old he had dropped
art for photography, and began to apply the art concepts he had been exposed
to towards photography.
Cartier-Bresson was never a technocrat.
He used a Leica M4 or 3G, with the chrome covered with black tape to make
the camera less conspicuous. He had one preferred lens, a 50-mm Elmar, the
one that is closest to the view seen by the naked human eye.
Cartier-Bresson’s cameras had no
automatic metering nor autofocus. His shutter speed was 1/125th of a second,
so he had to adjust the aperture to suit the light. His film stock was Kodak
Tri-X rated at ISO 400 and he detested the use of flash.
The ‘decisive moment’ he explained in
the foreword to his book, published in 1952, “Images a la Sauvette” (The
Decisive Moment). He called it “The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction
of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise
organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
The most challenging of
Cartier-Bresson’s rules was that there should be no cropping of his images.
On assignment for magazines, he reluctantly accepted the prerogative of the
editor and designer to crop his photos, but he always detested the results.
His composition in the Leica viewfinder was, in his opinion, perfect.
In 1937, he was sent to London by Ce
Soir as part of a team to report on the coronation of George VI. Knowing
that the others in the team would be faithfully recording the actual parade,
he simply turned his back on it and took photographs of the expressions on
the faces of the spectators watching it. This catching of the human
expressions is one of the basics of photojournalism, of which
Cartier-Bresson was the adjudged master.
Take a look at the classic photo to
illustrate the decisive moment. The shot was taken in 1932 at the Place de
l’Europe, where the marooned man has finally realized that there is no way
out, and having made the decision, launches himself off the ladder. That
split second, that decisive moment caught by Cartier-Bresson in such a way
the viewer can feel the moment still today, 84 years later. In his words,
“There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint-Lazare
train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my
camera at the moment the man jumped.”
He recorded the Spanish Civil War in
the 1930’s and then WWII, but was finally captured and he became a POW. He
escaped three years later, and was there to record the liberation of Paris
from the Germans.
Of course, he was by that stage
becoming an icon, and in 1947 joined forces with two other ground-breaking
photojournalists, Robert Capa and David Seymour to form the Magnum agency.
However, for Cartier-Bresson, news was much more than the photo-journalists
were showing. It was necessary to get behind the scenes.
Cartier-Bresson and his confreres
forged a name for hard hitting news photography. Cartier-Bresson covered Mao
Zedong’s victory in China and the death in India of nationalist movement
leader Mahatma Gandhi.
However, in 1975 he gave up photography
and returned to painting. In 2004, the world lost a photographer who had
vision and the ability to record his vision in a way the world could
understand. The decisive moment will always belong to Henri Cartier-Bresson.
digital technology is so clever it is promising us sharp photos. Image
stabilization promises to get rid of the blurred images. Some cameras even
make people smile in the final image, even though they might have been
scowling. So, have the days of ‘bad pictures’ finally gone?
Fortunately, the technology does not
cover all possibilities, but undoubtedly the number of ‘bad pictures’ will
be less. With today’s anti-shake in my latest digital I have successfully
hand-held at one third of a second. Or should I say, the camera has been
able to stabilize the image at a one third of a second shutter speed. I am
sure I am not that steady!
Everybody these days seems to have a
small digital camera or smartphone in purse, pocket or handbag, which is
brandished triumphantly as everyone attempts to record the “good times”.
This is an admirable use of the digital camera, but unfortunately the “good
times” can still be spoiled by “bad pictures”. And one of the reasons is the
One-Two-Three. That is the “One-Two-Three” that every social photographer
seems to think has to be said before popping the shutter, which is
accompanied by the photographer holding up One-Two-Three fingers, leaving
the camera held in one hand only.
Now I am aware of the fact that the new
mini, compact digitals will easily fit in one hand, but to get a sharp
picture, you have to make sure the camera is still while the shutter is
tripped. One handed picture taking just doesn’t keep the camera still
enough. Especially as when the happy photographer is waving the free hand in
the air, the camera is also waving!
The manufacturers are trying to
counteract this by either the lens or the sensor being programmed to move to
counteract unsteadiness in the camera, caused by the photographer not
holding the camera firmly – or perhaps suffering from Parkinson’s disease,
or trying to photograph the moon hand-held at a five second time exposure.
However, this technology is not the be
all and end all. It has its limitations. You only need a slight movement in
the camera to produce ‘soft’ photographs. You will not realize this when you
look at the postage stamp sized LCD screen on the back of your camera, but
when you go for larger prints it all becomes too obvious, or when you
digitally magnify areas of the image.
With the larger cameras, SLR’s and the
like, it becomes even more important to avoid camera shake. After all, why
spend thousands of baht to buy super sharp lenses and get soft “blurry”
photographs. You might as well have stuck with a cheap disposable “camera in
a film box” and saved your money for alcohol – which will also give you the
shakes just as easily but possibly more enjoyably!
The simple fact of the matter is that
to get sharp photographs, the camera must be held still while the shutter is
held open, despite all the electronic gizmos. Now, in most daylight
situations if the camera is set on “auto” it will select a shutter speed of
around 1/125th of a second, and while that sounds “fast” it really isn’t.
You will still get noticeable “softness” in the final print if the hand
holding the camera has allowed any movement.
The secret really is in the grip. And
it is a two handed one. You will not see professional photographers taking
shots with one hand free. I also recommend that you take a short breath in
and then hold it while gently squeezing off the shutter. Another good
practice is to keep the elbows in by your sides, and even lean against a
solid object, like a telephone pole! In overcast weather when the camera
will select slower shutter speeds, this is even more important. Your camera
will also most likely have two “hand/finger” grips on either side of the
camera body. They are not there for decoration. Use them!
No, if you really must let your
subjects know that they are about to be recorded for posterity, a simple
One-Two-Three (while hanging on to the camera with two hands), is all that
is necessary. I guarantee you will get pictures sharper than you used to get
Glamor, glamor, glamor
What is the most popular photographic subject of all time? Hands up all of
you who said “girls”. Correct again! And that includes you, doesn’t it!
Actually there have been more books written about “How to Photograph Girls”
than any other photographic texts. What’s more, photographers have been
snapping girls since we first managed to record blurry images on Daguerre’s
sensitized glass plates.
However, unless you are careful, you
will end up with shots that are far from glamorous, and are disappointing
for both the subject and the cameraman. The answer lies in following some
simple rules which will make your lady look glam, and you will want
enlargements of the very ‘professional’ result.
Let’s start with the basic pose. The
first rule with all amateur models is to get your subject to relax. (Note I
refer in this article to amateur models. Professional ones know which poses
to adopt, and which poses make them look the best. That is why professional
models are professionals – and expensive!)
Now, if your favorite lady is standing
rigidly to attention in front of the camera, I can guarantee that the end
result will not be pleasing. When photographing Thai people in particular,
it is even more important to get them relaxed and happy, as they tend to
“stand to attention” with arms held straight at their sides, looking as if
they are on army parade. The other favorite position is to place thumb and
forefinger under the chin, which does not look glamorous, but rather looks
faintly ridiculous as is the two fingers held aloft, and the reason for
these escapes me.
I have found that it helps to have an
album of different poses cut from magazines, adverts and the like to show to
your subject. When the sitter knows what “look” you are trying to achieve,
it makes it easier all round.
The pose to avoid at all costs is the
subject straight on to the camera (such as you get with a ‘selfie’). This is
unfortunately the commonest pose – but it is the worst as far as looking
attractive is concerned.
Here’s what to do to get over this
problem. Simply. Sit your lady in a chair, and then turn it 45 degrees away
from the straight ahead position. Now ask her to slowly turn her head and
look at the end of your camera’s lens. Now you look through your viewfinder
– see? It looks better already, doesn’t it!
Now ask her to gently raise the
shoulder closest to the camera and smile. Guess what? You are starting to
get a glamorous image.
Now get her to slightly bend the neck
to move her chin down towards the body, so that she has to look slightly
upwards with her eyes at the camera. This makes the eyes look large and
That basic pose can be modified by
turning to the left as well as to the right, shoulders up or down, open
mouthed smile or shy grin. Each shot will have a different look.
For these sorts of portraits you do
need to make the subject’s head fill the viewfinder. Keep the top of the
hair just inside the top edge of the viewing area and the lower edge should
just keep the shoulders in the frame. In other words, walk in close. The
best lens for this is around 135 mm, if you have a choice. This focal length
is even known as a ‘portrait’ lens.
Lighting is the next important factor
in producing that romantic glamor portrait. The trick here is to use gentle,
soft lighting to avoid harsh and unflattering shadows. One super little
trick to take shadows away from under the chin, nose and eyes is to open out
a newspaper and place it in the sitter’s lap. The reflected light will
gently lessen the dark shadows.
Another trick used by the professional
glamor photographers is to “back light” the subject and then reflect light
back into the face with gold foil reflectors. The gold imparts a very “warm”
and flattering color to the skin. The reflector will also be picked up as
small highlights in the eyes, which gives sparkle and an “alive” feeling to
Developing the photographic eye
Acquiring what I call the “photographic eye” is something that
can be learned. Certainly there are those who have the artistic
streak in-built, but developing the necessary vision will
increase your ability with a camera, and is not dependent upon
hi-tech toys. A humble point and shoot will do.
Begin with a different viewpoint. To make the photograph really interesting,
you will end up recording something which was always there, but until you
have captured that image, nobody realized it was there.
Start with that different viewpoint,
which I call “Looking Up, Looking Down.”
There is a great tendency for us all to
take very ‘standard’ shots. By ‘standard’, I mean from a very standard
viewpoint, so we end up with standard pictures. For example, when was the
last time you took a photo that was not taken while you were standing and
looking through the viewfinder? A long time, I am sure.
However, when you take a photo from the
standard position, you do get something that is instantly recognizable,
because the subject of the photo is presented as we normally see that
subject. We look up to see street lights, we look down to see children. All
sounds boringly obvious. But it is that ‘normal’ viewpoint that can also
make your photographs boring.
I have mentioned before that when
taking photographs of children, you should get down to be at the same level
as they are. This way you will get a much more pleasing photograph of your
little bundles of joy. However, when you are down on your knees you have
also produced the situation whereby you can get some other different shots.
These are a baby’s eye viewpoint of the world.
Looking up at everyone and everything.
It is well worth trying to take some shots of adults, or even the
environment of the house. You will be amazed at just what your infants see!
You may also be horrified when you see the dust under the computer table!
While still in the ‘looking up’ mode,
when you look higher than the ground floor shops, you may find there are
some sights well worth blazing off a couple of frames. Even just washing
hanging out can be quite noteworthy. Just try it. Remember too, that you get
a distorted shot when you tilt the camera towards the sky. Buildings appear
to lean over backwards, the trunks of trees look much more substantial than
they really are. It is a kind of exaggerated perspective effect.
Now ‘looking down’ can probably be even
more rewarding, as this is a viewpoint that you never usually try (other
than on children and lift wells). It also will present you with a kind of
‘helicopter’ view that, from that aspect alone, makes it very different.
Look at the shot used this week. This was taken looking down a spiral
stairwell, the different viewpoint making you wonder just what it is.
So what lens should you take? This is
one of the rare times when I recommend a zoom lens. From the lofty
viewpoint, it is difficult to predict what focal length you will need, and
rather than taking several lenses up to the platform with you, the zoom can
do it all.
There is also the fact that if you go
very high up (or even out of the helicopter), a Skylite 1A filter does help
get rid of any altitude ‘haze’, but I would expect that most photographers
already have the 1A permanently screwed on the front of the lens, just as
It is important that as you develop
your artistic eye you experiment with different viewpoints. Not all of them
will be successful, but some will be, and the new viewpoint can be the
catalyst for some unique art. And surely that is what many of us are trying
I personally believe that by applying
some different viewpoints to some traditional Thai subjects you would
produce some excellent wall art that could even have commercial
possibilities. A trip around the local Wat, looking up and looking down,
would be an interesting project for all photographers, from school age to