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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Decisive Moment

How to catch that instant when the whole photograph comes together with universal impact

This Article Features Photo Zoom

1. 1/250 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 200; flashes set in manual mode at 1/16 power (this creates an effective “shutter speed” of 1/10000 sec.). Nikon D300, Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, 3X Nikon SB-800 AF Speedlights, rig set in a Phototrap

The concept of the decisive moment applies to most photographic endeavors. If narrowly interpreted for wildlife photography, however, it becomes clear that the moment in question is often a very familiar one. Predator and prey, birth and death—wildlife photographers are in the business of retelling these timeless tales. Is there nothing new under the sun for the wildlife photographer? Are the perpetual dramas of the natural world still worth recounting? The shot that goes beyond to reach even the most jaded of audiences is one that possesses universal impact.

Universal impact in wildlife photography means that an image has the power to transcend demographics and generate a unanimous reaction in viewers. For instance, a bird photograph that’s awe-inspiring not only to ornithologists, but to other photographers, non-photographers, the young, the old and, in particular, any demographic that would otherwise find nothing interesting about a picture of a bird, is an image with universal impact.

What knowledge must the modern wildlife photographer possess in order to capture decisive moments and generate a reaction in as large an audience as possible? And what elements, if accounted for beforehand (or recognized after the fact), will result in an image that has greater value than the sum of its parts?

Identify Key Elements
1 Whenever shooting in wetlands, seeing the various frog species hopping around in the shallows always tempted me to try and capture that common, yet decisive moment. The thought of wading around in the swamp, shoulder-deep, in order to produce the eye-level point of view and then hoping my reflexes were up to the task of tripping the shutter at the instant of the jump, led me to try and find a better way. This image represents my first try at tripwire photography. I brought the green frog home (temporarily) and placed him in my artificial swamp, complete with duckweed and other native vegetation. The Phototrap was used to trip my camera at the instant that the frog felt the need to hop. After the short visit, the frog was returned to its home. Although I have some more exotic species of frogs in midair leaping poses, this one is by far the most published, perhaps due to the everyday nature of the species.

2. 1/3200 sec., ƒ/4, ISO 400; camera was tripod-mounted and the photographer was inside a blind. Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G VR
2 In order to elevate the image beyond what already exists on the market, other critical elements need to be accounted for, particularly when the decisive moment is a familiar one. Having explored a number of North American hot spots for photographing osprey catching fish, I eventually concluded that I needed access to a unique blind situated on the southern tip of a small pond in Finland. The most impressive osprey images that I had seen originated from this location. Here, we have a photographic location dedicated entirely to capturing a well-defined decisive moment: the osprey catching a fish. Having arranged to visit in late August during the peak daily dive frequency, I ended up with a number of images to choose from. But I believe the unanimous reaction to this image is a matter of the checklist of elements that I decided were crucial beforehand: clear eye contact with both the predator and prey—check; the osprey should be looking in the direction of the photographer—check; the splash doesn’t distract or obscure the subjects—check.


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