Street Photography the Moment of Decisive Action

Ever since digital photography took off, and street photographers began to convert their equipment from analogue to digital camera bodies and lenses, there has been a rise in the presence of the online photography geek. The geek, or equipment nerd, has been beguiled and wooed by the marketers who are selling prestige rather than tools.

The real tools of photography are all within yourself. You must find them, and develop them.

Sunlight on Potsdamer Platz Berlin, Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2020 copyright
Apricots on a windowsill in Berlin
When I go shopping I always glance at the fruit stalls. I saw these four apricots, and they jumped out at me. The colours and tones said, take me home. I knew a moment would come when I would know how to photograph them. Two days later the sun came out and cast a shadow on my windowsill. Somehow, shadows and apricots became the most important thing to me, and I placed them within the frame of the shadows. The sun came out, went in, and I worried that I’d miss the intensely sharp edges of these beautiful shadows. I like the shot. I think it’s a moment of intense and enjoyable folly, but a nice shot.

It’s important to have a good camera and a good lens when you want to achieve results. Every artist dreams of creating something so great that everybody agrees that a photo has something special, a quality and a vision that is undeniably wonderful. Often, that quality is a full on connection with the expression of human emotion. The street photographer, or portrait photographer has connected so well with the subject, and a special moment was captured so precisely, that we can see that it expresses the meaning of the decisive moment.

Henri Cartier Bresson, talked of the “decisive moment” in photography. This includes the idea of photographing street photos, and portraits, but it also means that when we decide to create a little still life, and put our heart and soul into the process the decisive moment will be just as important as when we want to capture a fleeting moment of human emotion. Henri Cartier Bresson always talked of being sensitive to the moment. And that’s what he meant about the decisive moment. Be sensitive to what you are looking at.

Sensitivity allows us to see deeply, and to recognize the decisive moment when it reveals itself.

A patch of grass in the middle of a city.

A patch of grass in the middle of a city.

The patch of grass in a city is an interesting example of sensitiveness towards what you are looking at. It’s also a very difficult subject to photograph and make interesting. I attempted to use the sunshine hitting the grass to create contrasting interest in the composition.

In the photo there is a main subject, the flowers on a long stem. In the background we can see the dandelions to the right of frame. These two elements create points for the eye to survey and consider. They are shapes, and they create bright areas that attract the eyes. The fact that there are two elements to look at causes the eyes to shift back and forth and to try and decide which is more important. The foreground always wins.

The shadows and sunshine help support the flowers as main elements. The grass and its texture are probably the most interesting things in the photo. It’s a moment where a motivated viewer would stop and consider the grass, take notice of it in a way that they had never done before. It’s an eye opener for a sensitive onlooker. Most people would see that something about the photo could be interesting, but in this modern fast moving world, most people would miss the peacefulness of the photo.

The grassy photo is like a side thought. A moment when we can stop and look, feel something and enjoy. We don’t have to have an intention when looking at photos. Just enjoy and feel.

Sensitivity of thoughts, the feeling of building the emotions around what you are looking at, is a mental tool that costs energy but not money. Nobody can market it to you and get you to pay for it. So, it’s not on the most important list of equipment to acquire for a photographer.

As a photographer, regardless of whether you do street photography, still life, portrait, or like photographing your family in the living room, you should work at really “getting deep” with emotions. You stand silently behind the camera, but you are a pot of bubbling power, finger touching the button, waiting like a hunter for the decisive moment to reveal itself as you edge the frame millimetre by millimetre into position. Your eye bulging in front of the viewfinder, flickering about as you observe each corner of the frame. The composition flows, and you just know that the moment is now, if you wait it will pass, so you click – and sometimes, it’s as if you expect to hear an audible release of human emotion. It can feel like you were holding down the lid on a box and a wild animal was forcing itself out. That’s how it can feel when you are taking a photo. It’s how it should always feel.

The photographer feels this emotional urgency. The subject is eating a sandwich in a cafe. Or they are watching T.V. in your front room, chatting between bites. They don’t feel what you feel. It’s all up to you to capture the moment. To do this, you must feel the moment – be sensitive to your environment.

Lou Reed, the singer songwriter, once said in an interview, “It’s important when writing a song, to believe that your thoughts are real, as if someone was talking to you. It’s intimate. If you don’t allow yourself to feel it, you will tune out of it.” (paraphrased).

If you take photos by clicking the button again, and again, and hope something will turn up in the batch, then you are tuned-out. What’s the point? Why take photos and hope they might be good?

"Selfie" , taken in a moment of inspiration when I was alone on the train. Each time the train passed through a tunnel I saw my reflection. So I did my best to photograph it.

Better to go into the situation with a strong intention so that when you start searching the subject, framing, feeling the nuances, and allowing yourself to be spoken to by the visual aspects of subject, then you’ll see it when it reveals itself.

In the moment, the frame you look through is all that matters. The sound of city traffic, voices shouting in the street, they create a fabric of feeling for you. But when you look through the frame your world should become silent, and you should only see. Be sensitive by allowing the subject to touch you deeply.

Lou Reed – Singer songwriter Wiki