As photographers, we dream about capturing moments. Moments are validating. Moments are why we become photographers in the first place. We see something pure in the world and we want to capture it.
Unfortunately, moments are pretty illusive.
What is a “Moment,” Anyway?
A moment is what happens when most people aren’t paying attention. Moments can be anything. Sunrise peering over the edge of a mountain. A bug walking from a leaf to a stem. A crying stranger standing on a subway platform.
You’ve seen pictures of moments before. You seen moments, with your very eyes, and you’ve been in moments. You’ve had moments.
Moments occur when you least expect them. Moments are what you remember when you look back at things that happened to you years ago. The second of impact, the last thing your friend said, the way the room sounded with no one in it…those are moments.
They’re delicate things, moments. They’re like snowflakes. They melt into nothing.
Learning to Observe
Before you can capture a moment you must first learn to observe, so you can see the moments when they happen. Like a psychiatrist interpreting facial expressions or a naturalist observing the unfurling of a frond, you must become sensitive to the changing world around you.
Before you can begin capturing moments on your camera, you first must capture moments in your mind. Become a dedicated observer. The best way to do this is to start journaling.
Write down everything you see, everything you observe, from the temperature of the air, to the direction of the wind and the color of your friend’s eye shadow. These small observations can help you become more sensitive to the world. Keep up the journaling, and you’ll start to notice moments.
The Observer Effect is a theory of physics that basically says the observer changes the observed. People change when they feel like they’re being watched; they become actors on a stage. This same theory can apply to animals and other scenes in nature. Birds that are noticed will fly away, mammals that are stared just stare right back.
The photography moments you hope to capture are utterly unselfconscious, unstaged and unplanned. As an observer of those moments, you are at risk of ruining the very scene you hope to capture.
The only way to photograph a moment is to stand back and let it happen, as quiet and unobserved as you can be. In the art of capturing a moment, there’s no stopping the action to get the right aperture or a better angle. You can’t change a thing.
You can only hope that your movements will be fluid enough, natural enough and quick enough that you won’t draw attention to yourself. You have to be ready at all times to take the picture. Which leads us to the next rule:
Know Your Tools
Sometimes photographers capture the moment accidently, but a lot photographers are able to capture the moment because they’ve trained for it. After reading books, taking classes, and turning the camera into a virtual extension of their bodies, photographers capture moments because they know how to use their tools intuitively, instinctively and without hesitation.
Take pictures. Take pictures of everything. Explore all the possibilities. Know all the dials and buttons on your camera. Try every setting, explore every avenue. Only by teaching yourself exactly how your camera will behave will you be able to get the effect you desire.
Photography Education Can Help
It’s not enough to practice by simply taking pictures. Photography classes enable you to become an expert at your craft. They do this by teaching you to explore the road untraveled. You learn to ask questions like: how did I arrive at this finished product? Am I happy with it? Could it have been better? And if so, how?
This kind of internal dialogue is critical for the production of real art, for the capturing of real moments. Don’t trick yourself into believing that you’re ready to capture moments because you’ve memorized your camera’s user’s manual. Photography is where the elements of two-dimensional design meets mechanics and the behavior of light. Classes can help with that.
So, now that you know how to capture a moment, time to get started. Good luck.