Everything I needed to know about how to capture a moment, I learned in the Boy Scouts. It's all right there in their motto. Be prepared.
Defining the Moment
Are some people naturally better at capturing a moment than others? Perhaps, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't learn how to capture a moment. The first step is to simply define what you think is a moment. Here's my definition:
Our photos are just a slice of time. There's no motion, no sound, no scent or sense of touch. That's a lot to take out of the equation when you're trying to capture the essence of an experience, but good photographers do it all the time. We see sports photos that show the excitement, energy and passion of the competition. We see concert photos that convey a cacophony of light, sound and gesture. We respond best to portraits that show joy or love in our subject's eyes or their smile. The great portrait moment doesn't come from your camera or lighting setup. It comes from expression or gesture.
How to Capture a Moment
OK, so we know how to define a moment and we know we have to be prepared. What does that mean? It means that you need to be prepared as a photographer, and you need to know how to recognize different types of moments. You can achieve both with patience and practice.
Honing Your Craft
Do you know the difference between a skill and a craft? A skill is knowing which buttons, dials and tools to use to make a widget. A craft is understanding those tools to make something that rises above the average widget. Think about doing something like headshot portraits. It doesn't take that long to learn the skill. You're thinking about exposure settings and lighting ratios. Once you have those in place, you can put any subject in the scene and crank out hundreds of identical portraits – just like mass production widgets.
Advancing from skill to craft takes time. You have to study your images and realize that you want to create more than the average widget. Maybe it helps to change your lighting or exposure, but what really moves your image forward is an expression or gesture that conveys the soul of the person in front of your camera. That isn't a technical problem to work out. It's a connection between you and your subject. You have to do something to get him or her to reveal who they really are, not just the face they want to put in front of the camera.
It usually isn't the expression they planned to have photographed. Sure, you can capture their game face and get that out of the way. The craft comes when you press their buttons a bit to break through that barrier. Some photographers get those expressions by establishing trust. Others just poke at their subjections emotionally until they see a crack in the armor.
Honing your craft means that you already have your technical skills covered so you don't have to concentrate on the gear when you should be concentrating on the person. Don't worry if you're unsure how to begin. Make the effort to connect. If it doesn't work, analyze what went wrong and try again on someone else. Patience is your friend.
Gear Acquisition Syndrome
A friend of mine accused me of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) a couple of days ago. He's not wrong, I've been buying a lot of gear since December. A new camera body, four lenses, lighting gear, filters, etc. Some people buy gear because they can. Some people buy gear because they think it will allow them to make better photos. Maybe that's what my friend thought I was going.
There's really only one good reason to buy gear. You need it to solve a problem. The gear itself isn't going to solve anything for you, but it may provide you with the tools you need to hone your craft.
Let's consider portraits again. You can shoot a portrait with any lens, but your choice will affect how your subject appears. Wide angle lenses may be fine for environmental portraits, but the distortion from shot focal lengths can be unflattering for a headshot. A longer focal length solves the problem, so you buy a lens. You can light anything with an umbrella, but you can get dramatic shadows with a deep soft box.
Just as a connection with your subjects can reveal something about their inner soul, you can enhance that with the use of your tools. Let's face it, the same lighting and exposure isn't right for every subject because we're all different. Would you light a boxer and a ballerina in the same way? Maybe you want hard light on the boxer to define his physique, but a soft light to create an atmosphere for the ballerina.
That's where a bit of GAS comes into play. You may be limited by the tools in your kit, so it helps to have access to the tool that does a job, that solves a problem. There's a reason why craftsmen have the right tool for the job at hand.
The Kronos Moment
Sometimes you can plan for a moment. If you want pictures of snow, you plan for a winter shoot. If you want to shoot the Milky Way at night, you wait for a New Moon period and drive to a very dark place to get your shot. Flickr is full of photographs of the Supermoon when the time is right.
Those moments are defined for us in linear terms. Kronos moments are predictable. You can plan for them, so it isn't difficult to be prepared. If you want to capture a scene of a Christmas tree in New York or Disney World, it's a pretty good bet you're going to see it in December. If you show up in July and complain about the lack of holiday decorations, that's all on you.
If you wonder how to capture the moment of a storm, start by looking at weather history to see when tornados are likely to terrify the Midwest. You won't ever catch me chasing down a twister for a photograph, but there are those who live and breathe to capture that terrifying moment. They know how to plan for the optimum time and place to shoot a twister.
You can plan for moments against type, also. The southwestern USA has a reputation for dry heat, so capturing it after a winter snowstorm can deliver a unique experience that most photographers ignore.
The Kairos Moment
If Kronos is ordinary and expected, Kairos is the moment that forces itself when random circumstances align. You can't plan for it, but you can be aware of the forces in motion. Kairos is your opportunity to seize the day, for it may never come again. When those moments arrive, you'll be glad for the time you spent honing your craft and collecting your gear…or you'll look at your photo and wish that you had.
These moments may be grand or small. It could be as large as a volcano erupting or as intimate as two friends seeing each other after a long absence. the Kairos moment comes from factors thrown together to create unique circumstances. It's up to you to be ready to observe and capture the events as they unfold to tell the story so other's can share the experience.
I'm always thinking about what I want to do with my photography. In most cases, the answer has been to eliminate something. I've desktop and product photography, but I'm not very interested. With the exception of concerts, I'm not very interested in event photography. Most of my interest seems to center on portraits and travel, but I still try to dig deeper than those broad categories.
The answer that appears after I eliminate the things that disinterest me seems to be an effort to learn how to capture a moment, or how to capture the essence of a place. I'm patient. I'll keep whittling away the things I don't like and occasionally adding new things to the mix in order to get at the heart of my photography. I'm comfortable with the notion that my desires will change.
After all, it's not like I'll suddenly arrive at the perfect photo and decide I can't go any further. I'd hate to capture that moment.