Studying Contact Sheets Could Help You Shoot Better
This story was originally published in July 2014.
One of the biggest misconceptions I know runs rampart in street photography is the ‘myth of the decisive moment’. What do I mean when I talk about ‘the decisive moment’ simply being a myth? Well of course there generally is a “decisive moment” when you hit the shutter, to capture that exact moment you desire in a photo.
However one of the common misunderstandings that plagued many street photographers (including myself) was of the decisive moment simply being one shot. After studying many contact sheets from the book titled Magnum Contact Sheets, I was able to gain a new level of insight to read the mind of a street photographer.
Henri Cartier-Bresson defines “The Decisive Moment” as follows: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
When I first read that paragraph, I thought that Henri Cartier- Bresson (as well as many other famous street photographers) would simply wait for the decisive moment and click the shutter once when it happened.
However I was mislead when thinking this way – because Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t only take one single photograph when he saw a decisive moment ready to happen (David Hurn refers to this as a ‘pregnant moment’) but rather took several images of the same scene. One of the best ways to learn how to get into the mind of a photographer is to study his/her contact sheets.
What is a contact sheet exactly? A contact sheet is when you shoot a roll of film, lay your strips of negatives on a single paper, and then develop it so you can see all the shots you took on a single roll on a piece of paper. Of course the shots come out tiny, so you need to use a loupe (a small magnifying glass you hold to your eye) to inspect your images. ‘Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet,’ Bresson said, ‘is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.’
Therefore when you are studying a contact sheet of a photographer, you can get into their brain. For example, you can see what shots he/she took during an entire scene, as well as what image they finally decided to choose.
One of my favorite excerpts from Thomas Leuthard’s book, Going Candid was a chapter he titled Killers Shoot Twice. It is a phrase that is very raw and graphic, and stuck with me. In street photography, if you see a ‘pregnant moment’ (the decisive moment about to happen) don’t just take one shot. As the analogy Thomas used, killers shoot their victims twice to make sure they are dead. I am not saying that in street photography you want to shoot your Eric Kim ‘victims’. I am simply using this analogy because I have found it to stick in my mind!
So if you see the ‘pregnant moment’—work the scene. Shoot it from different angles, and get as many shots as you can. Take your first shot by instinct, then take a step to the left and take another shot. Perhaps crouch down and take a vertical shot. Then if the person looks pissed off or annoyed, smile and say “thank you” and head off.
When David Hurn saw a decisive moment about to happen, he would take around 5–6 shots if possible. Personally I try to take that many, but in reality, the most I can take before I suspect that the moment is over is about two shots. I know that shooting on the streets at times can take a lot of courage, and after getting that one shot, we just want to get out of there. However if you sense that the people don’t mind or are quite friendly, work towards the magic.
A word of warning though. One question I get asked is whether to use Single Shot or Continuous mode. If you choose the Continuous mode, exercise it with caution. Don’t just go into a scene and spray your shots like a machine gun. Rather, use it but still try to be selective when shooting with continuous. I don’t like holding the shutter in continuous mode, but rather click every time I think that there may be a subtle or interesting gesture.
There will be times you can’t take more than one shot. For that’s the way it’s meant to be. Just get your photo, smile, say thank you, and move on. Remember, it can sometimes be the smallest detail that can make or break a shot. The small eye contact, the subtle hand gesture, or the look on the person’s face.
About Eric Kim
Eric Kim is a street photographer who is extremely popular for his educational initiatives. Besides being a huge supporter of shooting film in today’s digital age, Kim is an avid blogger (www.erickimphotography.com/blog), and often writes about the history of photography and all that can be learnt from the medium’s masters.