Opinion: Missing The Moment And Capturing It At The Same Time

I see this sight with increasing frequency.  People holding up their phone in front of face recording a cool event or situation, like a concert or speech, watching the three-dimensional live event through a tiny screen. It’s a conscious decision – choosing to record the moment rather than experiencing the purity and reality of that moment. It’s a choice photographers know something about.

It’s true, a photographer walks and balances on a thin line between the world we inhabit and the world we photograph. We’re usually not the active participants doing the things that people in our photographs are doing; and we’re not the passive audience watching them. It’s a unique space between the two worlds that I know well and I’m comfortable occupying. To do my thing I don’t need to be in the actual moment but need to concentrate and be in the “photographic moment”. It’s often a lonely pursuit.

I was thinking about this because I recently watched Ben Stiller’s re-make of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s a scene that addresses the idea of putting the camera down to experience the actual moment–not through the viewfinder.

Ben Stiller’s character asks Sean Penn’s character–pro photographer Sean–who has been been waiting hours to capture a snow leopard that finally wanders into the frame–an obvious question…

“When are you gonna…take it?

To which Sean replies….

“Sometimes I don’t…if I like a moment…I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera…so I stay in it (the moment).”

Really? You didn’t take the shot?

It’s a great sentiment and I think non-photographers watching the movie can enjoy the scene and move on but for me, it took me right out of the movie.

It’s just not realistic and no photographer I know would ever -not- take the shot…but maybe that’s  just cynical me. I can enjoy moments in my life when I’m not shooting but when I’m with camera I much prefer capturing that moment rather than just seeing it; every time.

I see photographers depicted in movies and often it’s just not realistic…a gang of press photographers awkwardly holding their cameras without fingers at their ready on the shutter release– and it takes me away from the story. I’ve seen it in big-budget films where there’s no excuse for the lack of attention to detail and realism. (By the way, I don’t remember when in time the Walter Mitty film is purported to take place, but that’s a Nikon F3 Titanium -nice- and what looks like a more modern AF super-telephoto lens)

In my photography career I have occasionally put my camera down for my own personal safety or out of respect for privacy. But if there is a great image in front of me, I may not always get it but I’ve always tried. In those situations I never put the camera down to enjoy the moment and not take the picture. In fact, if I see great pictures and don’t have a camera I almost look away. (Which is why I always have a camera with me).

I realize that photography is a big umbrella and I’m generalizing here but maybe there’s something about a photographers’ personality that keeps us on the line between living the life we capture and finding the perfect spot to view and record it. I’m basically shy and I thank my camera everyday for dragging my butt out into the world and bringing me to amazing places to witness magical moments I would never get to without it. No regrets; it’s who I am.

Though photographers don’t always participate in the life we shoot, our eyes are wide open, alive and on the lookout for beauty and meaning; something the people staring into their phones as they dangerously navigate the streets are missing. Good thing we were their to photograph it for them.

Where do you stand on this issue?


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  1. says: bruce

    I have dropped the camera from my eye. There have been a very few moments when because of the situation, death or a horrible accident that I could not capture the scene. What would be the point!

  2. As soon as yI put the viewfinder to my eye there is a separation between me and the intended subject. It is a distraction that can take me out of the “moment”. Which is why as a street tog I do not use the viewfinder nor (most of the time) the lcd screen. I have just trained myself to point the camera in the right direction. I may still not be in the “moment” but then it is a question of my internal psychological state not being “in the zone” rather than due to a mechanical device in front of my eye.

    1. says: Steve Simon

      Interesting technique, there must be a lot of serendipity in the compositions…do you crop or live within the frame?

      1. Serendipity -perhaps yes, faultless composition -certainly not. About 10% get deleted in camera another 60% don’t make it through to develop in Lightroom. Probably less than 10% (more like 5%) see the light of day on Flickr or elsewhere. The most common fault (after all the missed timings and “why the hell did I take that?”) is out of kilter horizon -which unless the composition merits it -I do not like So I like to leave myself a little wriggle room around the edges of the frame to correct that and any other unwelcome distortions. I have no problem with cropping if it suits the composition e.g 1:1 instead my usual 4:5. I use zone focusing and rarely have problems with sharpness unless I am playing about with an unfamilar lens. Thats my process in a nutshell. The many faults that occur are not down to the gear or how I use it but purely down to my mind being distracted and not being “in the zone” . More serendipity -yes please :))

  3. says: Bill Harris,

    An interesting question… I usually (not always!) have a camera with me and if not, I have my phone. I had an incident a few years ago where I was walking with my family and we stumbled upon a FL Panther in our neighborhood. I only had my phone and was busy trying to capture the shot while the rest of my family enjoyed the very fleeting moment. They were in awe of the beauty of the animal. I was frustrated in that I knew I didn’t get a good enough shot… the cat was just too fast. If I could do a “redo,” I would have just enjoyed the moment. My children still talk of the incident 3+ years ago and I feel like I missed a special opportunity.

    That said, when I’m in “shooting mode,” I turn into myself and fully embrace my subject and the process of capturing the image in the way I want it to be seen. Practically nothing gives me more enjoyment….

    1. says: Steve Simon

      I too have had those situations but mostly I make up my mind right away…sometimes afterward i think that maybe I should have taken a shot, but rarely.

  4. says: Jeffrey Mendieta

    I agree, if I’m with camera, I would always want to take the shot, but there are times when I purposely leave the camera so that I can focus on being a part of the experience.

    I would love to take great photos of a rock climber but I would also love to be the one doing the rock climbing.

    I would love to get the perfect sentimental photo of my wife hugging my daughter in some special occasion, but I also want to experience that same intimate moment personally.

    We photographers are burdened with the need to choose between the 2.

    1. says: Steve Simon

      yeah, know it…there’s always GoPro for the rock climber and maybe that could be the solution to the wife/daughter moment too…:)

  5. says: Liz Roberts

    I relate as well, and agree wholeheartedly with your perspective. For me personally I need to also slow down and not rush through the process. Technology can be bad for this; always checking my phone, checking the time, rushing off from places to only learn later that had I have taken just a few moments longer I would have captured something more. The timing of your post is pretty awesome Steve, because as it turns out, I am spending four days in the Rockies mid-June on a photographic journey! No stringent agenda, a true exploration of the majesty of the mountains! You have just given me the reminder I need to make my trek a personal success (and hopefully the photos will be great too, ha ha). Thanks for all you do to keep us inspired!