Alternative Composition Posts TECHNIQUES

Capturing the Moment – 3 Styles of Camerawork: The Builder

In the kind of photography that works on timelines, there are basically three different strategies for catching the moment. These are divided as much by personality as by task. I call them Fireman, Builder, and Marksman. Why personality and task? Because these three working methods each definitely appeal to different personalities, but at the same time the circumstances on the ground also intervene.

The Fireman approach is to shoot as many frames as possible in the space of time available, and the name comes from the expression “hosing,” which describes it perfectly. The C for Continuous Drive mode on a camera is made just for this: hosing down the subject, taking no chances on missing anything, and waiting until later to edit the take and choose the best moment from many. The Builder approach also results in a number of images all trying to be The One, but it’s incremental, step-by-step. Typically, this is when you think you may have a good moment, but because the situation is still available, you wait for another moment that betters it, and continue like this, hopefully improving one frame at a time— building, in other words, on what you’ve already shot. The Marksman approach stands well apart from either of these, and involves resisting the temptation to shoot before the moment is right, putting all your energy into making one single shot that nails it precisely. As we’ll see, there are justifiable times for using each of these three, but regardless of practicality, one or the other will still suit different photographers’ styles.

The Builder

Second in our competing styles of camerawork is the Builder approach, which at first glance of a typical shoot seems suspiciously similar to the Fireman hosing-down approach. There are indeed some similarities, but here the shooting speed is slower and more care is usually being taken with concern for the timing for each frame. In fact, there is much more to say about a “building” sequence than about either of the other two styles, because the photographer is making a constant stream of micro-decisions.

The reason for this, and the ethos of this kind of shooting, is to try and improve on a competent shot, incrementally. It’s particularly suited to slow and medium-paced action, or at least to situations which afford some time within them to keep on shooting—such as two people in conversation, for example. Or perhaps following a tea picker in Assam and learning the rhythm of her actions so as to find the shot that contains the peak, which is the moment of the leaves being thrown in to the basket on her back. The Builder idea is to stay with the situation for as long as you think there is a chance of an even better moment. This could be a gesture, a stance, and expression, and even if the improvement is small, there’s a case for staying with it and paying attention. Another way of thinking about this is as an improvement curve. It is very likely to obey the law of diminishing returns, and at some point you’ll need to review and assess what you have already, and whether you’d be spending your time better moving on to something else.

In the example here, on a cattle ranch in Bolívar, Colombia, I was accompanying two vets preparing to artificially inseminate cattle, and the first step was an examination. Simply because of the viewpoints available, this was the main shot. The light was good, there was plenty going on. It called for a wide-angle view, and somewhere around 24mm seemed right. Given that, it was the variations from moment to moment that counted, and with 127 cattle passing through one at a time, each occasion promised a slight improvement on the previous. This first batch of 38 cattle took an hour and a half to process. Other factors can also play a part. In this case, there was absolutely nothing else to do for the morning, and no other potential picture competing for attention, so there was no reason not to stay in case of any slight improvement. In the end, quality of the sunlight brought the shooting slowly to an end, but by then I had shot 109 frames, more than usual for a single final image.


Pregnancy examination, cattle ranch, Bolívar, Colombia

In terms of personality, most Builders tend to be conscientious and dedicated to the idea of improvement. In other words, there’s a picture situation in front of the camera, and they’re doggedly determined to get the best out of it. There may, however, be another personality trait involved—indecision. That may sound unfair, but situations that allow you to keep on shooting can also lessen the urgency to make your mind up, shoot, and move on. There’s a tendency to think “well, it’s all still in front of me, so just one more.” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but there’s a surprisingly fine line between taking small critical decisions at full concentration, and lazily continuing to shoot. Looking at it from the point of view of the task at hand, instead of personality, building is usually a good idea if you have the time, provided that you use it in a focused way. Quite often, the main decision is balancing the improvement you may be making to the shot in front of you, and the possibility of other, different pictures still waiting. It boils down to prioritizing. The next photo opportunity may be a short walk away, and the field may be greener. There is usually a nagging feeling that maybe you should give up and move on.

There was only one practical viewpoint that showed everything—perched on a fence and looking down the line of cattle wedged tightly in the pen. Given the positions that people took up around the nearest holding pen, the framing settled in naturally to this horizontal view, at between 24mm and 28mm. It soon became clear that I was looking for the best combination of the following four separate moments: head of the cow being examined up and recognizable; either the vet and his arm clearly visible, or the moment of the injection with the syringe sunlit; cowhand at right pulling on the tail to hold the animal in position; if anyone at left, they should be reasonably clear. A fresh cow entered the pen every two or three minutes, so there were plenty of variables. When the positions of people allowed it, I also framed a few shots vertically.


A day with a cattle vet - Here’s a situation where the framing of the shot quickly worked itself out. Over a hundred cattle were being examined by a vet for pregnancy. The first shot was adequate, but I needed to stay with the situation to refine it. Details of action, multiple actions, posture, and readability all offered possibilities of improvement. Building sequences usually end at the best shot or shortly after, but here, for the reasons mentioned, I stayed with the situation longer than I normally would.

All of the shots were acceptable, and in the final edit, twelve were identified as being better than average, of which seven were considerably better, judged on the combination of best separate moments. Then there was a different set of moments, not showing the typical process, but striking because a few of the cows tried to jump the fence. There were six selected from these, judged on the position of the animal and on sharpness (the first few of these had motion blur because I had not expected this much faster movement and was using a slower shutter speed of around 1/125 second to allow more depth of field from a smaller aperture).

Read a previous post examining “The Fireman” and stay tuned for future post examining “The Marksman.”

Above is an excerpt from the second book in Michael Freeman’s new Capturing series:

Capturing the Moment: The Heart of Photography

Excerpted from Capturing The Moment by Michael Freeman © 2015 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved

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