The Right Kind of Timing

“The instant can be the end product of long experience as well as that of immediate surprise.”

— Henri Cartier-Bresson

There are two ways to approach a photograph where elements need to line up in time for the photo to come together. One waits for a figure — any figure — to walk into an open space to fill a “composition;” then, the photographer trips the shutter and walks away.

The other way waits too, but the photographer’s thinking goes something like this: “I need a figure in that space, but just any figure won’t do. It must not merely fill the space but also give the space a meaning that is as yet incomplete. The figure will need to have a believable reason for being there, will have to relate to the space in a significant way, and, above all, add something to it. Its appearance in that space must have sufficient importance to make the resulting picture a clear expression of what I want to say.”

When the needed figure appears, the photographer trips the shutter. That is “timing” in photography, in the true sense.

The other is called “timing” too, but it is mechanical, thoughtless, and of doubtful value as a real expression. The first photographer merely fills space. The second photographer also fills the space, but in addition, he fills it with a new, personal interpretation.

Timing is a two-way relationship between you and the subject, in which you bear the chief responsibility. How can you know the right moment to take a picture unless you have a fairly clear idea of what the subject means and what you are after? When you are interested in a subject, you want to learn more about it. You dig below the surface values to the truth beneath. That way you get to know it intimately and are able to photograph it understandingly.

Understanding does not necessarily mean a technical knowledge of the subject. Understanding is interest, empathy, curiosity, the human element of the equation. As the result of our understanding of the subject, we have a reaction, an opinion or feeling about it. On the basis of this reaction, we make pictures.

Alertness in photography is a combination of enthusiastic involvement in the situation being photographed and an excited readiness, or the mood of expectancy, not only for what may appear to be logical, but also for anything that may happen.

This quality cannot be taught, of course, but it can be inspired and drawn out by a sympathetic teacher, by looking at your pictures, by discussion with photographers, by listening to speakers who have something worthwhile to say. Under these influences, the serious photographer becomes increasingly aware of the smallest details. To him, nothing is unimportant.

Some people call certain photos “lucky.” Usually though, the “lucky” photographer is the one keenly receptive to the action — who has trained himself to take nothing for granted and to be ready for the smallest change, to turn in any direction. The “lucky” photographer has mastered the craft to work the camera instinctively. Vision is translated into camera action almost as rapidly as a muscular movement responding to stimulus.

Which often means that the most skillful photos are the ones that appear the luckiest.

[tags]Stanley Leary, photography tips[/tags]

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