Everyone should have a hero or heroine who inspires them to become better at what they do. We’re all photographers here so it would be odd if we didn’t have a photographic hero or heroine or two between us. Some of the photographic folks who inspire (and occasionally intimidate) me are landscape photographers. That’s probably unsurprising given that landscape photography is my preferred subject. However, there are three photographers whose work I find delightful and, yes, inspirational, but who are not known for landscape photography.
In no particular order, the three are Martin Parr, Elliott Erwitt, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. All three are documentary photographers, a genre I’ve dabbled in but never seriously committed too. So, if they don’t shoot landscapes, why are these three amongst my photographic heroes?
Let’s take Henri Cartier-Bresson as my example. Firstly, because he helped set up the renowned Magnum Photos in 1947 with fellow photographers, Robert Capa, George Rodger and David Seymou. (Not coincidentally Magnum is the photo agency that both Elliot Erwitt and Martin Parr later joined.) Secondly, because his photography is so human, concerned with chronicling life in all its wonderful absurdity. And, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, because he was the first photographer to articulate the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’.
During an interview with the Washington Post in 1957, Cartier-Bresson was quoted as saying ‘Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative’. This in four sentences describes the essence of the ‘Decisive Moment’. Fortunately, Cartier-Bresson later, and more succinctly, explained it as ‘Oof! The Moment. Once you miss it, it is gone forever’.
As a photographer, Cartier-Bresson looked for that one precise moment when every element – composition, light, and subject – of the photo came together, and which allowed him to shoot a compelling and visually or socially interesting image. If he missed the moment the chance would be lost, never to be repeated.
Remarkably, Cartier-Bresson achieved this with a purely mechanical film camera, and without the benefit of modern technology such as autofocus. So, how did he create the remarkable photos that he did? It was partially through keeping life simple and using prime lenses only – typically either a 35mm or 50mm lens. By consistently using one or two lenses only Cartier-Bresson could accurately pre-visualise a photo before he even raised the camera up to his eye.
Cartier-Bresson also prepared his camera beforehand. Arthur ‘Weegie’ Fellig, another documentary photographer, coined the phrase ‘f/8 and be there’. It simply refers to the technique of setting the aperture of the lens to f/8 – which would give a decent amount of depth of field on a short focal length lens. This, combined with prefocusing, allowed Weegie (and photographers like Cartier-Bresson) to go out and shoot without worrying too much about the shots being out-of-focus.
Now, there are some types of photography to which the concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ could never be applied. Still life photography is one that immediately comes to mind. Architecture is possibly another. However, the ‘Decisive Moment’ can be applied to more than just documentary photography . It can – sometimes – be applied to a genre such as landscape photography.
Some landscape (and nature) shots could be taken at any moment in time. Anything that’s completely static, or moves in a repetitive way, wouldn’t pass the ‘Decisive Moment’ test. (Think flowers for the first, and a waterfall for the second.) You could set your tripod, compose and, as long as the light or conditions don’t change, you could press the shutter at any point and take essentially the same photo.
It’s when the landscape is in constant flux that the ‘Decisive Moment’ applies to landscape photography. Think clouds scudding rapidly across the sky, casting constantly changing shadows across the landscape. Think also of sunset or sunrise, when the light can quickly change from one moment to the next. There are also subjects when a particular element of the scene is in constant movement. Waves washing on a shore is a good example. (Although waves are repetitive, the difference between the effects of one wave and the next can be significantly different.)
The key – as Cartier-Bresson would have known – is being ready for the ‘Decisive Moment’. Some of this is done long before going on a shoot. Ironically one successful landscape photo can take hours of preparation, from checking weather forecasts, looking at maps, and consulting tide tables when applicable. And then there’s the preparation once you’re in position. Setting your camera up on a tripod and waiting for one thing, setting exposure and focus beforehand is another.
Even using something as simple as a cable release will help too. Before going on further I have a confession to make first. I do own a cable release, but most of the time I use self-timer to fire the shutter when shooting landscapes. (It saves rooting around in the pockets of my rucksack for the release, and then fitting the thing. It’s pure laziness.) However, for ‘Decisive Moment’ landscape shots you (I) really need to use the cable release. It’s almost impossible to judge two seconds ahead of time when the shutter should be fired. The ‘Decisive Moment’ really does need split-second timing.
Think about the ‘Decisive Moment’ the next time you’re out with your camera. It’s an interesting concept once you know about it and fully embrace it. And, you never know, you may end up shooting the type of photo that ultimately inspires other photographers.