Last month I received some images recently taken by daughter-in-law Rachelle. She’s a journalist and photographer who sets the bar way too high for me to jump. But it is a lot of fun having someone like that in the family.
We will come to her photographs in just a moment, and you will see why they did set me thinking about Decisive Moment photography. Many, if not most, Macfilos readers would be familiar with the term. The description by Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian way back on 24 Dec 2014 says it well, as follows:
Today, the idea of the decisive moment is synonymous with a certain kind of photography, exemplified by the great European master Henri Cartier-Bresson. He used the phrase (The Decisive Moment) as the title of his – and European photography’s – most famous book, published in America in 1952. (The simultaneous French edition was, intriguingly, called Images a la Sauvette – Images on the Run.)
What Cartier-Bresson understood by the decisive moment is best explained by the famous quote from his lengthy introduction to the book:
Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.’
The decisive moment has come to mean the perfect second to press the shutter.
So, upon seeing Rachelle’s photographs, I began to wonder what HCB would think about capturing decisive moments using today’s digital cameras, with burst modes spanning that moment.
Humpy jumpy moments
Whale photography was the subject of a Macfilos article last August when whales were moving north up the East Coast of Australia. Since then, they have had their tropical waters sojourn and are now moving back south to Antarctica to have their summer feast of krill.
It was on this return journey during October that Rachelle was delighted by the acrobatic antics of whale calves. The youngsters have been the most energetic and playful that she has seen in many years of whale watching and photographing. Whereas the adult whales will often breach the water surface, it is the calves who put on a spectacular flying display.
Decisive moments? Rachelle does use excellent kit, a Canon 1DXii with Canon 100-400 zoom lens. While this rig has superb autofocus and burst mode characteristics, she does have only one second to catch an image when a whale jumps somewhere out there in the water. She has to be lightning quick to compose, catch focus, and shoot. It’s quite a game to play with over 3kg of telephoto camera kit. Would HCB have had fun with such a camera, weighing almost 7lb in the other weight system?
Young humpback whales having flying times as they head south to Antarctica with their extended families. You need to be quick and accurate to catch them on a sensor
Upon seeing these images, William Fagan drew my attention to the metaphoric comparison of the whales jumping in the ocean relative to Cartier-Bresson’s classic Decisive Moment of the man jumping the puddle. I certainly hadn’t considered that link. He does think that Cartier Bresson’s pre-focusing technique might have had just as much chance of catching the jumpy whales, albeit compromised by slow film speed and the need to be dangerously close to the action with the lenses that he used. In William’s own words “HCB’s camera probably had a 50mm lens and if he were close enough to a breaching whale to replicate your daughter in law’s photos he probably would have had a short life rather than a long one”.
A Special Shot
In late November, Rachelle received a wonderful surprise. The Australian Society of Travel Writers cited one of her images as Best Travel Photograph of the Year. It’s a strong image captured at the right instant.
Decisive moment? Well, as a proud family member who could only wish to catch an image like this, I do like the way that the elephant’s trunk is curved to perfection, and the way the elephant is passing the sun. The moment has been caught wonderfully, photographing from a distance across the water near sunset. As an aside, Rachelle did find amusing one of the judges’ comments that the only detraction could be the wind ripples on the water. She points out, reasonably, that she didn’t have much choice of water surface as she took the photograph.
Regarding this image, Rachelle described the catch as follows: “Nailing the best wildlife action shot, I think, is all about that critical moment. That elephant walked along the edge of waterhole for a while and, as it was walking towards the sun, I decided that the moment I wanted was when that tusk was going to cut across the sun in a decisive, deliberate way. I held my breath as it drew closer to the sun, hoping it would all happen. Luckily the ele (sic) decided to comply!”
Having seen this article in the early draft stage, William was further kind enough to offer me additional insight. He says that Cartier-Bresson worked hard for his decisive moment photography, leaving far less to chance than many of us might think. He added, “the most important thing about the decisive moment is anticipation and, if you have ever seen video of HCB taking photos, he circumnavigated the scene first on tiptoe and then chose his moment to put his pre-focused Leica to his eye to take the photo he wanted. Your daughter in law has genuinely mastered the anticipation aspect as is also evident with the elephant photo.” Thank you William, she much appreciated the comment and compliment.
Decisive moments today
Overall, I enjoyed getting the images from Rachelle, and the escape they provide as I sit here myself thinking about what HCB would himself think about Decisive Moment photography today. Certainly burst modes and ultrafast autofocus provide technology to make it easier to catch our decisive moments. But the photographer still has to be in the right place at the right time with good subject matter, knowing where to look, hopefully with the right light, and with a healthy dose of luck – All good fun. Wonderful times.
I do thank William Fagan for his detailed and thoughtful comments upon seeing the draft. t’Editor Michael and I sent the early manuscript to him specifically for his input on the authenticity of Cartier-Bresson’s camera. He came back with so much more valuable insight.