This is a subject that runs to the very heart of what makes photography special for many people. The convulsions that many had when Steve McCurry decided he was in fact a visual storyteller show just how passionate people are about this subject.
Indeed, a more recent example of this occurred when a photography contest winner was found to have submitted an allegedly staged photo. To a certain degree, we’ve allowed photography to be romanticized by believing amazing photos are all about the moment of capture. That’s certainly an idea many travel or photography magazines have encouraged. In this article, you’ll learn about staged photos, spontaneous photos, and why learning both approaches will improve your work.
Getting the moment of capture is often what makes or breaks a photo. Landscape photography isn’t always about this, but a lone hiker in your landscape photo can add narrative. Of course, street photography is almost always about moment of capture. So what can you do that will improve your chances of adding that x-factor to your frame?
Visit places with lots of action
If you want to exercise your body, you go to a gym, visit the swimming pool or perhaps go for a run. If you want to get good at taking spontaneous photos, you need to visit places that have lots of decisive moments. These places will train your eye to be razor sharp and alive to the potential of a decisive moment before it happens. This is the opposite of a staged photo.
You’ll want to visit the following places:
- The local market – Find out where your local market is, and when it’s going to be busiest. Some markets are night markets, while your local fish market will be busiest at the crack of dawn. Vendors preparing their stock, street food being prepared, and interaction with customers all have great potential for a decisive moment.
- An event – Events are also great places to practice. These can be sports events, festivals, or parties. Again interaction between people caught at the decisive moment. You’ll often need a lens with a longer focal length to be effective in this setting.
- A busy street – Of course, street photography is what many will think of when you look to take photos with a decisive moment. Get your 50mm prime lens on the camera, and hit the streets looking for interesting characters. It’s often a good idea to choose a location and stop there for a while. Look for those moments of capture to come to you – perhaps against the backdrop of an interesting wall.
Experiment with focal distance
The majority of decisive moment photos you’ll take will be street photos. These will be on the street, or perhaps within a street market. The general rule here is to use a 50mm prime lens, though experimenting with other focal lengths can also give you good results. Using a longer focal length means you can stand in a less noticeable location, allowing the action in front of you to unfold naturally. You’ll also feel more comfortable at a distance, and can anticipate your moments of capture and build your skill for anticipation. Once you have a knack for this anticipation, use wider angles and see how your results turn out. Of course, as mentioned before, sports and often event photography require longer focal lengths to capture the action.
Wait for the moment to come to you
This is a little like staged photos, except it’s a natural moment. It could be argued that this is the very opposite of spontaneous, but it is nevertheless a moment of capture. When you take this type of photo you will have a pre-composed frame, and you’re waiting for a person to walk into the right position within your photo. You will need a lot of patience, as you could well be waiting for at least an hour.
- A frame – Set up your photo and wait for a person to walk into the frame within your photo. This will immediately give your photo a greater narrative. If possible, wait for more than one person to walk into that frame, so you can choose the most interesting subject.
- A shard of light – A great technique to practice a decisive moment is to wait for people to walk into a shard of light. This gives you a defined condition when you need to press the shutter, so you will need to be fast. Look for an indoor location, and a gap in the roof to let the light through. Then expose at around -2 or -3EV for the background, and normal or slightly underexposed for the sunlit area.
Be quick on the draw
Of course, there are times you’re just going to have to be lightning fast. You’ll need to have eyes everywhere, constantly alert to possibilities, and seeing things to the side of you as well. Having your camera setting already setup is essential in this scenario. A more forgiving aperture of say f/8 rather than f/1.8 will also help with quick focus.
In some cases, you will have to use a larger aperture according to the light levels you are photographing in.
If you’ve been practicing in the market where there are many chances to capture a decisive moment, you will get quicker at bringing the camera to your eye and getting the shot immediately – the same skill you’ll have used to capture people walking into a shard of light.
The opposite of spontaneous photos is staged photos. This style of photography will be what you practice regularly if you work with models, or perhaps take pre-wedding photos for people. Of course, the recent controversy surrounding these is centered on travel photography, which is all meant to be natural moments. If you want the most striking photo possible, though, the ability to control all aspects of the photo will give you maximum creativity. So what goes into a successful photo of this type?
Solo vs the group
The photographer who recently ran into trouble with their winning image allegedly used a staged photo from a group photography event.
Of course, it’s quite possible to make a staged photo look natural, and for it to carry a strong message. In fact, if it doesn’t, you need to go back to the drawing board.
The question is, however, when you’re photographing with a group of other photographers, how much are you in control of the creative process? How much is that photo really yours because you pressed the shutter?
Learning with the group is a great way to improve your work. However, to really allow your own creativity to come to the fore, it needs to be you (and only you) who controls how the photos are staged.
Control the narrative, and you’ll get the photo. To be a good visual storyteller, you need your photo to have that strong story as you guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. So you no longer need to capture the decisive moment. Instead, you’re going to create it.
To do that you’ll need to think of the following:
- Design elements –You can choose your location to perfectly match the photo you want to take. Use frames, or perhaps even create your own frame. Leading lines such as paths or tunnels make for good photos. Good composition skills and a composition that harmonizes with the story you’re going to tell are things you are looking for.
- The story –This could involve your subject looking off into the distance, cooking some food, or perhaps talking with a friend. The aim is to make these moments look as natural as possible, even though they’re staged.
- The background – Lastly, the background should look after itself if you have applied the points made for design elements. Nevertheless, keep an eye on the background. Unless you’re in a studio, people can walk into the background of your photo, affecting the narrative of your photo.
The management of the photo can go beyond what’s list above. You will want to really micromanage your photo. That means controlling all aspects of it from lighting to what people are wearing in the photo.
- The time of day – The position of the sun is going to dominate your photo. With staged photos, there is absolutely no excuse for getting this aspect of the photo wrong. The same goes for spontaneous photos as well. You should only be attempting these with the sun in the right position.
- Lighting – You’ll need to decide whether you want to use natural light only. If if you only use natural light, you still have the potential to use reflective surfaces to bounce light where you want it to be. Beyond this, you can use strobes, and give your outdoor photo a studio look.
- Clothes – Ahead of the photo shoot organizing with your model what they’ll wear is another aspect that can be controlled. Spend the time liaising with them so that the clothes match the location you have in mind.
- Location – Where you choose to photograph can be controlled for any type of photo, whether it’s spontaneous or not. You’ll need to think about how this location will play off against the model and narrative you hope to acheive. Do you want the area busy with other people, or would it be better to choose a quieter time of the day?
Unlike spontaneous photos, you can use creative techniques with your staged photos. In most cases, creative techniques take time to set up – time you only have when you stage the photo. There are many ways to be creative in your work. You don’t always need to use techniques like these. So take the following as some ideas you could use:
- Light painting – You’ll need to photograph at night, but light painting is a great way of adding interest to your image. You’ll also need a model who can stand or sit very still. Think about the pose position. Some poses are much easier to be statuesque than others.
- Refraction – Photography using prisms, fractal filters or lens balls can give your photo another twist. Your results with such techniques will be better if you stage the photo.
- Flour – Throwing flour in the air is a great way to add a more dynamic feel to your photo. You’ll need to combine this with off-camera flash. The flash needs to be directed so it correctly lights up the flour while it’s mid-air.
The commercial aspect
With staged photos, you are almost certainly aiming at the commercial market. You’ll be photographing with a model who it’s very likely you’ll pay. If you’re new to this type of photography, you might consider building a relationship with your model, where you both give each other time rather than money to build each other’s portfolios.
- Contests – Contests will ask for the model release of the person in a photo. So, to a certain extent, this rather says a commercial element to the photo is okay.
- Publishing – It’s always nice to see your work published. Look at the photography type you have produced, and see if you can match that to a magazines style. You may well need to produce a set of images, and even write the article that goes with it.
- Stock – As long as you can’t tell the photo is staged, staged photos work very well for stock photos. They’ll be model released, so you’re really ready to go. That extra passive income never hurts, and can pay for your next photo shoot.
Why you need to learn both
There is a temptation to say “I’m going to be a street photographer,” and not look to other types of photography. There is merit in becoming the master of your field and not diversifying. However, a model can transition to photography. They have the advantage of knowing what’s going on in front of the camera. Taking the time to take staged photos will allow you to see the potential for spontaneous photos in a different way as well.
Having staged the photo using off-camera flash, and seeing where things should be positioned in your frame is a skill that can be brought across to the more organic environment of street photography. That is to say; you should be a fashion photographer for a day, learn those ideas, and see what you can bring from that across to your street photography.
The desire for that perfect photo is always there. The purist is likely to want to achieve this organically, using honed photographer instincts to get that moment of capture. There is a lot to be said for learning the other side of the coin and getting in touch with your inner visual storyteller.
Which style of photography do you prefer and why? Would you consider photographing in a different way, even for a day? Here at digital photography school, we’d love to see your example photos.
Please let us know if you took them spontaneously, or if you staged the photo. You can even post an image, and see if the community can guess whether you staged the photo or not.