You have probably seen those marvellous shots that capture the precise instant of best action or perfect placement. We are led to believe that the photographer has the reactions of a Jedi and the philosophy of the Deer Hunter’s Mike.
…And then you get to see, or someone talks about, the Magnum contact sheets.
And you learn that even the best of us are still quite like the rest of us. The fabled single shot was preceded and followed by multiple other attempts or the exploration of a theme. What’s probably different about the experts though, is that they often develop a theme.
I admit to, some years ago, blasting a whole film on minor variations of the same subject. In my defence I was watching the sun go down over Uluru/ Ayers Rock. There was a fair chance that I would never be in the same place and time again, so it was worth trying every combination of exposure and creeping sun position. There was no single moment that made me think “that’s the shot”, just a later inspection of variations on the theme for me to choose from. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that every shot felt like the winner, but I was worried that if I waited for the perfect shot, I would realise that the best combination had just passed me by. So I had an indecisive period. But film is cheap compared to a flight to Australia.
I’ve heard people talking about the moody shots they took with beams of sunlight and a walking figure arranged perfectly. And what they do is find the scene and wait until someone walks into it. Very rarely do they have a focused camera to their eye at exactly the right moment.
Similarly with something like motor sport. I will stand at a point on the track and take the same shot multiple times as the racers come by. I will get the same arrangement of vehicles in multiple frames with nothing to choose between them. Except occasionally something will happen, and if I wasn’t taking the picture I would never have reacted in time. This is where digital beats film, as you can end up with hundreds of pictures where the only difference is the changing race numbers on the vehicles. At least the cost per frame of digital is zero, so you don’t mind so much. Decisive moment? Not unless you get lucky or have the reactions of a gunfighter.
The same thing happens at Press conferences: listen to the waves of shutter noise as the talking head emotes. The smudgers are playing the same numbers game: digital shots are free, the camera has a high frame rate, so blitz it and pick the best one later. The decisive moment becomes your favourite nuance of expression.
So are there ever any single unrepeatable moments? Yes, there are, and sometimes fortune favours the prepared. More often though the prepared means getting the first shot, then the next one, then the next one as either the situation develops or the photographer moves around to develop the scene. So don’t worry too much. Your perfect shot may be the one you are about to take, or your best effort might be one you just took. Just be prepared to take more than one but to show only the best. Then it looks like magic.