Things To Think About Before You Press The Shutter

Things To Think About Before You Press The Shutter

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Street Hunting is a sport for the quick. It requires quick thinking and quick reflexes. You’re not shooting in a studio. You’re not shooting a landscape. You’re shooting on the street and things happen fast. Motion and action everywhere. So much so that it feels like the city, even the streets and the structures are alive. Awareness is key. Scenes, shots… some unfold in an instant. And then some seem to develop in slow motion. The prize, the shot, goes to the predictor. But, even the most accurate of seers can be surprised when their prediction changes course and the shot streams off onto another destination, into a frame that is now lost to the shooter. So the hunter must be aware and decisive. There’s no time for indecision. Again, we return to speed. The shutter is fast, and so should be the shooter’s mind. Analyzing, calculating, and composing… these are all things the hunter’s mind is processing while the eyes seek the target. It’s a beautiful mess of science and art, the left and right sides of the brain colliding in milliseconds before you press the shutter. There’s so much going on, that it can be easy to lose the things we should think about before we fire. Let’s examine some of the things I think about before I press that magic button.

What story do I want to tell?

After the initial thought process that considers a possible shot, I believe this is the most vital decision that is to be made. That being said, the next questions i ask myself are one of the following, or a variation of one:

  1. Are you shooting a candid portrait?
  2. Are you going to ask for a posed street portrait?
  3. Is this a “scene” shot… am I going to incorporate the background?

These are the “big three” questions I ask. These determine the course I’m going to take. This may seem over-simplified, but I make it so on purpose. Basically my shots are boiled down into these three categories. Candid and posed portraits, which highlight one person, and “scene” shots. The “scene” shot is a catch-all for any other shot that is not a “portrait” shot. A scene shot means it can involve several subjects, or a solitary one with landscape, background or action coming into play. Also, it may not involve a person at all. Putting a shot into one of these three categories simplifies the process and speeds the flow of decision making. Now I offer this from the perspective of someone who is still trying to find their style. For a seasoned veteran shooter, who is settled into their style, this may seem like rubbish. Of course there’s many other types of shots than these three, but again… I simplify. If it’s not a portrait shot for me, it’s a “scene” shot. Easy. After that decision is made, I go to the next.

What’s my focus?

After simplifying things with the first decision, I become a bit more critical. I’ve decided what kind of story I’m going to tell, but now I must decide what’s the point. What direction do I want this story to take? Where is this story going to go?

In my portrait work, the decision can seem simple… it’s the person, right? Not necessarily. Sure it can be the person. Their face. An expression. But what about action? Is what the subject’s doing making this portrait? Hailing a cab? Daydreaming?  Say they’re eating, for example. What is my focus? The look on their face? The food itself? The act of biting? The aura of anticipation they’re giving off? Just that one simple act, eating, presents many different ways in which I can compose the shot. In turn, it offers up many different points of focus. And by focus, I don’t mean just the focal point… the bullseye of my target. The focus also means the plot of the story. This decision may be the hardest to make and the one that can make or break my shot. This decides how the shot is ultimately composed.

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On the occasion I ask for a posed street portrait, the decision is much simpler. The focus is the person, and their face tends to be the focal point. When I do ask for a posed portrait, something had driven me to do so. That variable is also incorporated into the posed shot. It could be their attire, hair color, or the wrinkles on their face. No matter what that variable may be, it’s incorporated into the portrait with consideration to the face.

The “scene” requires a different set of processes. If it’s a group shot, I must ask, am I going to focus on the group, or am I going to single out one subject amongst the crowd? If I’m focusing on the group, am I focusing on what the group is doing or am I focusing the group against a larger.action or background? The same questions apply when focusing on one person in a group. Am I focusing on what the one person is doing or on them in relation to the larger group?

When shooting an urban landscape style “scene” shot, the focus question varies yet again. Is there a person involved, and if there is, are they the focus or is the background? Am I just working the contrast of a solitary figure against a particular element? Is it the looming shadow of an imposing building? Is it the color of an awning or is it the lines of the building or crosswalk? Sometimes the answer present itself clearly. When it doesn’t, instinct or “gut” must help guide the way. With experience and practice, this sense develops and helps to answer the questions were asking. It guides our focus as we blaze onto the next thought.

What do I do with my feet?

The story has been outlined and the plot defined, now it’s time to fine tune the composition. Since I shoot with primes, I must decide how close or far I’m going to be. Since any zooming is done with the feet, I must literally be on my toes and ready to move. Forward. Backward. A little to the left. A step to the right. Action must be taken immediately in conjunction with the thought. Abandon all hope of cropping in post and try to nail it with your feet. See the frame. Make the frame. Then I raise the hammer and ask myself…

Do I nail the focus down?

Here I bounce back to the original focus question. I know what the focus is but how in focus is it going to be? Am I going wide and everything is in? In this case I’m already dialed in and everything’s set. Or am I going for a more shallow DOF. If I am, I must act immediately. This is the last chance for adjustment before the big bang. As I’ve set myself up with my feet,  I must hit the bullseye if I’m going for a shallow DOF and lovely bokeh. Once I drive the focus home the mother of all the questions pops up for my chance to win the grand prize.

Shoot now or wait?

The ultimate decision. Do I press the shutter now or wait? But… why wait? The answer is yet another question. Is this… the moment? Or is the moment 100th of a second away? Or a second away? Or seconds? This is where prediction skills are essential. They’re everything. In that split second, so many things can happen. A change in expression, a twitch, anything. If I’m in stealth mode, my cover could be blown. Sure, you could shoot in continuous mode, but it’s not going to “nail” that shot is it?

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When you ponder this, appreciate the power of your brain. Patience, anticipation, and instinct, are all slugging it out in a war to control your index finger. I’ve noticed, through my own journey, that experience makes the fight shorter. It gives instinct the edge and reigns in patience and anticipation. But the war begins anew the next time you frame a shot. It never ends. Practice, practice, practice they say, and they’re absolutely right. Scenes, scenarios and shots may seem to almost repeat themselves and you can find yourself in the zone. You’re less nervous about shooting. It sharpens your weapon.  Experience, without a doubt, helps you decide when to press the shutter.


The act of pressing the shutter is not one to be taken lightly. Think about what you’re doing. You’re freezing that moment in time. A moment that’s forever gone a moment later. You’re snatching away a scene that time is tossing away into the litter pile of the past. I feel it’s important not to lose the sense of importance in the act of pressing the shutter. Whatever you consider yourself, a storyteller, an artist, a documenter… the press is your masterstroke.


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