Shot while shooting with David McClain Photography

Capturing the Moment

What to look for and anticipate while shooting events

I love shooting events. Although portrait sessions allow me a certain level of intimacy with my clients that I could never achieve at events, there’s a part of me that misses the photojournalistic documentary photography that I was trained for. It’s terribly thrilling. The challenge of pushing your shutter release at the right moment and freezing that half a second forever will never fail to keep me deeply enchanted with photography.

When I am able to capture a true, genuine moment of candor in someone’s face, the reward is worth every failed image. There’s nothing more gratifying because it’s so easy to miss those moments as you fumble over the technical options on your camera, focusing, changing the exposure, or otherwise. People in front of a camera tend to behave predictably; if they’re aware of the camera for that split second that you raise to shoot, their demeanor quickly changes from comfortable to awkward. These moments are also too easily missed because we’re not always anticipating the cue to shoot at the right moment. What is the answer to this conundrum? How can us photographers balance technical perfection with pulling the trigger at exactly the right instant?

I wish there was a simple answer, but this balance is what keep us photographers on the edge of learning. The key to capturing real moments as opposed to the mere postscript of the moment is anticipation. Just like any performance art, if you’re not anticipating the delivery of the note, the line, or the movement, then you are already behind. This is the same when you’re shooting. It is a performance, and standing around waiting for something interesting to happen is not going to produce awesome photos. There are a few things you want to look for when documenting an event, especially when you can’t pose anyone.


  • Expect, don’t react

First off, take an attitude of expectation, not reaction. As I said before, reaction will only result in sub-par photos. This overall mindset will put your head in the game to look for the right cues to follow so that you won’t be a step behind. Keep on your toes!


  • Don’t be afraid to hold position and employ the “decisive moment”

Of course you generally want to aim for aesthetic variety in your shots, it’s more important to seize the second of a truly captivating image.  Those remarkably powerful photos you see in National Geographic or Magnum Photos? Those were not captured by someone getting lucky and reacting at the right moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, my idol since early undergrad, coined the concept of the “decisive moment.” Although he was shooting in the era of film photography, his method was and still very much is the best way to ensure fantastic images.

Shot while photographing with Mandy Paige Photography

The idea is that you position yourself, the photographer, in the right spot so as to frame the way that you want your ultimate image. In other words, you’re composing the photo before the photo happens. There most likely won’t be anything happening just yet, but as long as you are posturing yourself in anticipation, you will be ready to snap the photo right when something interesting does happen. Perhaps someone or something enters the frame at the right moment, or a person already in the frame gives the right gesture or facial expression. The concept of staying grounded for a bit and attentively awaiting the moment is a great foundation for shooting amazing candids.


  • Gravitate towards expressive faces

This is probably a taboo bit of advice, especially considering you’re supposed to photograph a wide gamut of faces and aim for a diversity of images, but trust me on this one. If you notice someone with an expressive face, they are likely to be expressive the whole event. Smiling, laughing, and emotionally animated people make for more lively images. If you stay near them and frame an image, you are also likely to capture something organic if you give it enough time. Most people tend to forget that you’re photographing them after you shoot enough photos of them.


This is not to say that you shouldn’t make it your goal to shoot a good spectrum of people for your collection of event photos. It is necessary to get variation; in fact, this overall purpose should underlying your entire shoot. Just be aware of emotionally expressive subjects and target them for more dynamic images.

If you keep these things in mind when shooting events, you will have an easier time getting those images that will communicate to the people who hired you “Yeah, this event was a blast!” Artsy and detail shots are great to have in the album, but your customer will want to see people at their event having fun. By employing this method of anticipation, you can make sure you get those images successfully.

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