There is an old saying that "you only find what you are looking for." It's critical for any artist, including we photographers, to know what it is that we are working to create. To have a vision and stay true to it so that it will become a reality. When you go out with the intent of creating images you know what you want, right? You choose the location, the time of day, maybe the lighting, certainly the subject, and of course what gear that you need to bring it all together. We tend to be control freaks to make sure that we get what we want.
But what about all the other frames that we don't see because we are so hyperfocused on our singular vision? What other wonderful images are around us but we either don't see them or worse, don't take them because they don't fit into the plan? Well silly, stop missing out on wonderful images that are right around you.
What Is the Other Moment?
Consider this. All around you, right where you are reading this, are beautiful and intriguing pictures. Millions and millions of them. Do you see them? Maybe but maybe not. Bear in mind that this is when you are casually looking about and not focused on actively making photos. When you are in active "looking to make photos" mode you have a different mindset. You are looking to find something out there in the world, usually something very specific, that you can make into the image that you want to create. But again, there are all the other photos around that you are able to make if you stop and see them. These are the "other moments" that we are passing by.
Stop Hunting and Start Browsing
The military has a term: "Keep your head on a swivel" which means to always be looking around and aware of your surroundings so as not to become fixated on either one object or one direction. They do it so that they can spot the enemy and not get ambushed. In our photographic world I believe that we should always have out heads on swivels for finding both photographic opportunities and creative options. Face it, we all get tunnel vision when we go hunting for pictures. It's part of that whole looking for something mindset. You are looking for, tracking, and focused on your prey, which in our case are pictures. As you are hunting you will walk by the photographic possibilities along the way that are hidden underfoot. If you weren't in "hunt mode" you would likely notice those things. One way that you can make sure to see is to intentionally put yourself is a different mindset. One that is still focused but more at ease and open to the unexpected. Like this: imagine that you are going into an interesting new store, not intending to purchase anything but want to see what they have. We have all been there before. This is the browsing mentality where you are focused but looking for the new; aware of the depth and subtlety of your surroundings, maintaining a low but constant curiosity. Making this your normal mindset takes a while but is highly rewarding. News, documentary, and sport photographers tend to be good at getting the other moment because their coverage is on location where they have little control over the situation and are usually trying to tell a story that is beyond that of a specific image.
I was doing a photoshoot at a large printing company showing the scope of their facility. I came upon this gentleman and simply said "How ya doin today?" He spontaneously smiled and flexed. I shot it. Why not? The client wasn't going to use the image but it's just delightful. I had my camera in hand and ready to grab this unexpected little moment.
My Approach: Always Be Ready
I am primarily a location photographer of people. I don't work with models or subjects that I can pose. My subjects are essentially interesting but normal people. As a result, I have to know generally what I want and coax my subjects into that direction through my interaction with them. If my assignment is to do a magazine portrait of an executive, I may only have a few minutes with my subject. From that brief time I need to get a range of emotions and energy so that I have options that my editor can use. To do this I intentionally talk with them about things that interest them to sort of have a combination friendly chat, and interview. Conducting that flow is almost as critical as capturing those fleeting expressions and inner moments from my subjects.
What I'm going for in these sessions is something compelling so that the unsuspecting viewer will stop and want to read an article that they were initially uninterested in. I want to create something that makes you say, "Hmm, who is that?" Going into the shoot I don't know what will happen in that short time so I need to be able to react to interesting moments that come naturally from my subject. In essence my whole job is to find and make "other moments" because we have no idea what I will find or come back with.
For my portraits I set up my composition and lighting beforehand so that the only real variable is the energy from the subject and the moments that come from it. That done, I stand behind my camera, which is on a tripod, and I trigger the shutter with a remote release. This way they are looking at me directly and not me hiding behind the camera. That helps build and maintain the connection to my subject. The critical part is that I always have my finger on the button ready to shoot every tiny thing that looks interesting. This is in essence an extension of my fourth tip from my "Five Steps To Photography Greatness" article.
In the photo below I had just set up my lights for a location portrait and was chatting with my subject, a delightful and energetic lady with a huge beaming smile. I asked her to sit where I wanted to start things off. When she did she looked down at her pants and picked at a piece of lint. In that moment her expression totally changed. It was quiet and thoughtful. Almost demure. A total reversal of the energy that she had given off up to that point. I instinctively hit the button. It had nothing to do with my paid assignment and would not be used by the client but I had to make the photo. It cost me nothing and it gained me a lovely moment that, at least to me, said a lot about her.
Slow Down and Look Around
It's hard to keep your head swiveling when interesting things are going on and your excitement is high. It naturally brings us to full attention. However, there are still interesting images happening behind you or on the edges of the action. In sports photography this is the "reaction to the action" photo. You know the one. The guy leaps into the air to get the ball but just barely misses the catch. He lands, gets up, and then pounds his fist and yells in frustration. A lot of beginner sports shooters miss that reaction shot because they are busy setting up to get the next play but that reaction could be a storytelling shot because that was the team's only real chance for the comeback win.
I've programed myself — yes, I do that — so when things are really rolling along I turn around to see what I'm missing behind me. Sometimes there isn't anything interesting and sometimes it's something really cool. I even have a term for it, the "Crazy Ivan." I got that from one of my favorite movies "The Hunt For Red October." It's also just a great way to force yourself to temporarily disengage from your main subject and clear your head for other things. It slows you down just enough so that you are keeping your eyes and mind fresh.
I was doing a news story on fire safety and the fire department did a demonstration of how quickly a house can catch fire. The flames and smoke that almost instantly came out of the mock house were dramatic and dwarfed the firefighter who was handling the event. It was a good shot. But then I did a "Crazy Ivan" and saw the varied expressions of the families who were behind me watching the scene. It produced a less cinematic frame but a much more emotional and human image about fear.
Stop Thinking and Start Feeling
I believe that to be able to really see the world you must be able to feel it. Very often when I arrive at a shoot my handler will say, "So, what do you think?" and my answer is always "Nope, no thinking. Thinking gets in the way. It's about how this makes me feel." No joke. That's the artist dude in me. But the practical dude also knows that our emotive systems pick up more information than our rational selves do and react faster as well. If you are thinking too much about what you are seeing then you are missing a lot of clues to making your photos, certainly of people, better. When you can learn to open yourself emotionally to your subjects and let their emotional state into your experience then you can be in synch with them and be able to instantly react to their emotional flow, letting you capture those fleeting moments.
This is Bess Dougherty when she was the head brewer at Wynkoop Brewing. I adore her. She's ginchy as heck and makes wonderful beer. We had a great time making photos that day. At one point I remember that I said something totally ridiculous. Hey, it just came out! And she tried to stifle a gasp and laugh combo. Her reaction was great, so I shot it. It wouldn't have been used in the business publication that I was on assignment for, given that it's a quiet and personal sort of image, but it's a very "Bess" moment. Yes, shoot everything.
Be Ready to Risk
I ask a lot of stupid questions. I think that I have to. If I don't find out what I can really do then all that I have left to work with is the obvious which is sometimes just not quite interesting enough. "Will you jump on the trampoline?" "Can I crawl inside the big machine so that I can shoot you with its guts in the foreground?" "How about I attach a camera to the forklift and shoot you driving around the production floor?" As you would suspect, I get told "no" a lot. That's OK. We are expected to push our vision and through that the experience of our viewers. Right? That by itself can lead to frames and moments that you didn't initially consider.
If all you shoot is what you intended to get when you left your house then all you will get is what you expect and not what you find. Even if it has nothing to do with what you set out to shoot but it has possibilities you owe it to yourself and very likely your subject as well to make the image.
This is one of the strangest images that I've ever made. I was to do a portrait of the head of a small software company and they were super cool. I did the portrait, it was good and all that, but he was so fun that I asked if we could do something silly. They had a set of insane rubber masks all over their office, so I asked him and his assistant to put on the one that they most liked. Not only did they agree but this bit of bizarre came out of it. I think that it's just nuts but the funky thing is that they loved it so much that they bought a copy for themselves. Who knew?
Wonderful photos and moments that can delight, inspire, and transform are everywhere. But only if we are not only open to them but are prepared to capture them with as much gusto as we give the images that are our main focus. Try to embrace all that the world gives us.
Bonus Tip: Carry a Second Camera
Most professionals already do this because you can't get to your job only to have your camera stop working and botch the shoot. Backups for a pro are a given. What I'm talking about is to have a camera readily available that is set up for the shot that you aren't expecting. If you, say, head out to photograph birds and have your super long lens on to get that shot bring a second camera with a normal to wide lens for the landscape that you stumble upon. If you have your wide lenses for your landscape shoot, bring a macro lens for that delicate detail.