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Any time you photograph people or animals in action or motion, the moment at which the image is made is crucial. There will always be that split second in time that the movement or expression is at its optimum point. To learn how to anticipate and capture that instant takes practice, knowledge of your subject and instinct.
Many photographers have staked their claim being able to capture the decisive moment. Casual viewers of these images can often be heard saying how lucky the photographer was to press the shutter just when the action reached its peak. But what they don't understand is that certain photographers are consistently "lucky" and are able to reproduce this luck over and over again. Obviously, there's skill involved.
Some of the ingredients that go into knowing when to press the shutter are becoming thoroughly familiar with your subject, being able to anticipate its movement, being patient, waiting for that once-in-a-lifetime look or expression, and being persistent by working and reworking the same subject. Capturing the decisive moment can be a spontaneous thing or thoroughly thought out. Both have credibility. The bottom line is that the finished photo depicts the precise moment in time that captures the most drama.
In the before-and-after shots that accompany this tip, patience and persistence allowed me to capture the image I wanted. Both images were made while leading a photo tour to Yellowstone and the Tetons in the spring. I wanted to illustrate to my participants that perseverance pays off. A number of bison were slowly on the move toward the small pond seen in the image but it meant waiting for them to amble to it. I envisioned the bison in the water with their reflections. I suggested we wait them out and capture images of any interesting behavior that may occur along the way, as there were babies in the group. I also brought up the fact they may veer off and not even go to the pond but my instinct told me they would. I rolled the dice and was rewarded. While the image of the bison just standing in the water is better than a shot of a bison standing in sage, the photo of it with its eye more alert and kicking up a splash of water is the decisive moment.