Taking The Magic Out of Moments

I’ve always been drawn to photographs that capture moments. When I was first starting out I assumed that creating those photographs consisted either of luck or a high degree of skill. While there might be a tiny amount of luck involved and skill is always nice to have, I think that capturing moments is more about following a simple formula. Whether the moments are dynamic or quiet, understanding and practicing a few simple steps can be the difference between missing the moment and capturing it.

Before I walk through the steps I use I want to show two simple images. I’ll use these to demonstrate the outcome of the thought process that I go through when capturing moments.



Ultimately, repeatable success boils down to preparation. Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” which I think really hits the mark. If you want to be “lucky” in the moment you’ve got to have all the other variables figured out first. There’s a lot involved, but with practice these things become second nature.

So here is the process that I go through when chasing moments. I like to think of it as building a scene in a play or a movie. You’ve got a stage, you’ve got characters and you’ve got lighting.

First….find the stage. Like any other type of photography I like to find a situation that interests me but in this case it’s generally more of a circumstance I’m after rather than a singular subject. It may be an interesting environment into which a person might enter or in which there is activity present. I’ll use this environment as the stage on which I will start placing players. I’ll watch the way people move through or interact with the environment and will then try to figure out how best to combine moment and environment.

Second…set the stage.   I’ll define what part of the environment I should include in my photo. If people are moving through the space I’ll ask myself where exactly I’d like them to be when I fire the shutter. If their movement is more or less confined to specific areas within the scene I will ask myself what specific moment works best to tell the story or create the energy that I’m after.


I chose the scene because of the way the lines on the right and convergence of the alley on the left moved you into the background. I love the color of manmade lights at night. I was attracted to the way the scene was darker in the foreground and lighter near the back of the scene.

Third…frame the scene. I’ll choose my lens and pick my camera position based on where the players will be and how much of the scene I want to include. Camera position can bring out the character in the environment or highlight subjects within. Really think about the energy and the emphasis of your photo.

Here are some examples I may ask myself:

  • Is environment primary or secondary?
  • How important is scale?
  • Where is the light and how will that influence the composition?
  • What type of energy do I want in the shot?
  • How will camera placement affect the feel of the shot?
  • How will camera position and focal length emphasize important subjects and de-emphasize (or eliminate) others?



Choosing a wide-angle lens and placing it as close to the wall as possible makes the lines on the right really stand out. The lower camera position emphasizes the wide horizontal band in the middle of the door and will make the subject bigger in the frame once he/she moves into the right position.

Fourth…adjust the lights. Now it’s time to get your camera settings figured out. Think about the following:

  • How much depth of field do you need?
  • How important is shutter speed?
  • Do you want blurred or frozen motion?


I’ll set my aperture first, then get my exposure dialed in and take a test shot. If everything looks good, then I’ve prepared everything that I possibly can and then I just wait for the one thing that I can’t control.


This is ultimately where I want the subject when I fire the shutter. He is larger in the frame and has moved just past the light and becomes a silhouette. I want my subject in silhouette because I want there to be a human element but I don’t want the person to be recognizable. Recognizability would make the photo about that specific person and not about humanity in general.


RizzutoTony__DSC1368The stage is set, the technical has been resolved and the character has appeared. One test shot to make sure everything looks good and then wait for the moment.

Fifth…ACTION! Behavior is pretty predictable. Once you’ve watched the way people move through a scene you can pretty much guarantee that others will do the same thing in a similar way. Sure there will always be something unexpected that happens if you wait long enough but if you’ve got all the other variables taken care of you can react to whatever comes your way. At this point you’ve got all the technical squared away, you know what moment you’re waiting for, now it’s time to be ready and fire that shutter.





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