Behind the Image: Damien Demolder on decisive moments and fortune telling

Smoking at the Bank – Tonal contrast for emphasis

To celebrate the lead up to PhotoLive 2014, we’ll be featuring a different image from each photographer speaking at the event.

Sometimes a spectacular image happens when you least expect it. Damien Demolder explains how playing the active fortune teller and being in the right place with the right camera settings can create a single cohesive moment.

Decisive moments - timing in street photography

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 with Leica DG Noctilux 42.5mm f/1.2

Decisive moments – timing in street photography

We have all heard of the decisive moment, and understand that it relates to the split second in that which the multitude of disparate elements within our view come together to form a single harmonised image in which all those individual entities suddenly somehow relate to each other.

When many of us think about this concept we visualise the world moving and the photographer passively standing by waiting to catch what happens next.

To some extent this is true, but the part of the successful photographer is of the active fortune teller who analyses the lines on the palm of the situation to guess what MIGHT come to pass in the seconds and minutes that follow.

When we spend the time to see and to predict we can try to ensure we are in the right place with the right settings on our camera, and prepared to capture that future in a way that communicates the essence of the moment.

I liked this man’s hair and the way the light and dark streaks emphasised his style and shape in the pale overcast evening light, and I hovered around behind him waiting to get a shot.

I wanted him taking a picture down the river, with The Shard softly setting the scene in the background, but I needed to wait for those elements to come together in a single cohesive moment.

He decided to create a sweep panorama with his iPad Mini, and I could see he was going to swing from left to right as he captured the view, so I quickly composed my own view so that I would be ready for the moment his iPad was in the right place.

As I have a building in the shot we need to activate our mental architecture mode, making it essential to keep the camera upright and straight so the viewer doesn’t have to face the distractions of London falling over.

Guessing where the iPad would be I set my AF point for that spot using the Touch AF feature of the camera I was using.

This allows the photographer to position the focus anywhere in the scene by touching that place on the rear screen.

I set a wide aperture of f/1.2 to create a tiny depth of field that would blur the background behind the iPad and even the man’s hair in front of it.

And as he swung the iPad in to position I was ready and just had to trigger the shutter at precisely that moment.

SEE MORE: 5 street photography projects every first-timer should try

Smoking at the Bank – Tonal contrast for emphasis

Smoking at the Bank – Tonal contrast for emphasis

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 with Taylor Taylor Hobson 2in f/2 Telekinic lens

If you asked twenty people in the street ‘What’s the best colour to make a white object stand out?”, they would probably all say ‘black’ (except those who know that black isn’t a colour!). It is obvious, isn’t it?

But in the heat and excitement of the moment the street photographer can easily forget the most obvious principles and miss the opportunity to make a scene into an effective piece of communication.

This picture is clearly about the whisps of smoke that appear above the man’s head. We know that because they are probably the first things we notice when we look at the picture.

They are the first things we notice because they stand out, and they stand out because the difference between their brightness and the deep dark shades of the doorway represent the strongest tonal contrast in the scene.

Tonal contrast: brain v camera
When I saw the potential of the shot I’m not sure where the smoke was, but it stood out because my eyes and brain were able to separate the smoke from whatever background it was against, but the camera can’t do that on its own.

When I came to take the picture I adjusted my position so that the light toned smoke would be against a dark toned background – not against the stone wall or the pillar in the distance.

It is this slight shift in my position, and the differences in the tonal values of subject and background that make the shot work. Had the smoke appeared over the wall of the Bank the picture wouldn’t have worked at all.

The reason I moved was because I had thought all that through in the seconds between seeing and taking the shot.

I didn’t just get wow’ed by the smoke, I thought about the best way to get the message to you that the smoke rising from the man’s head looked cool with the light shining through it.

And it is that few seconds of thinking that make the difference and which are so often missing.

Contrast, depth of field and saturation
The shallow depth of field helps, of course, as does the soft light of the rainy day that allowed the camera’s dynamic range to capture the full scale of the tonal values of the scene.

I exposed for the smoke, not for the man’s jacket, because I didn’t want it to appear pure white and featureless.

It was a muted sort of morning, and there are no strong colours in the scene. I’ve desaturated the image it a little more to give it a stronger monochromatic atmosphere. I also cropped square for a classic feel that suits the moderate tones and colours.

Smoking is of course pretty bad for the health of humans, and as prices and prohibition increase fewer and fewer people are doing it. That’s great for the lungs of the nation, but one day scenes like this will be rare. Go out and make the most of smokers while we still have some.

Check out Damien’s website to see more of his amazing pictures.

Damien Demolder is running a session on street photography, Seeing and Taking Better Street Pictures, at PhotoLive 2014.

PhotoLive takes place in Leeds (23 Aug), Edinburgh (30 Aug) and London (06 Sep). You can view the full schedule and book tickets at photo-live.com. Use code DCAM20 and get 20% off your ticket.

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