A decisive moment

Kittiwakes, Sizewell.
Kittiwakes, Sizewell.

After what turned out to be a slightly disappointing day at Minsmere (see  this post) I moved on to Sizewell, a couple of miles down the coast. The nuclear power station forms the backdrop to any view of Minsmere from the north, and is perhaps not what you might expect in a rural area like Suffolk. But I remembered an item on Springwatch which showed kittiwakes nesting on a rusty old cooling water outfall from the power station. I thought it might be a good subject for my ‘birds in the landscape’ series.

Conditions were ideal for the subject at hand. It was evening by this time and partly cloudy, so there was a choice of bright but cloudy or pale sunlight. There would be little or no disruptive shadow. Kittiwakes were lined up along the metal framework of the tower  in some numbers. There were a few abandoned nests and rather more part-built ones which I suppose could have been practice nests built by inexperienced adults. I played around for quite some time, trying different viewpoints, focal lengths and crops, uncertain really how to best tackle the subject. Every so often a bird would land on the “ledge” and there would be a flurry of activity amongst nearby birds. It proved to be one of these images that to me was the most successful, taken at 600mm and cropped quite heavily again.

On my way over to Suffolk I had spent the day at Birdfair, the rather overwhelmingly massive bird-themed extravanganza at Rutland Water. During the morning I happened to come across the Canon stand where David Clapp was giving a talk on travel photography. Amongst the selection of really excellent images that he showed there was one of a group of young people lined up along the bank of the river Seine in Paris. One of the figures, he explained, was absolutely key to the composition.  He hadn’t noticed it at the time but by virtue of their posture and behaviour this person linked up all the other human elements in the image.

In the kittiwake picture above the bird just to the right of the ladder is equivalent to that person (click on the image to enlarge it). The species and the setting might be completely different but the principle is the same. It was the decisive moment. This concept was linked to the renowned street photographer and photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, who told the Washington Post in 1957:

“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.”

He was able to predict when all the elements of his images would come together. We all do this to some extent but during his fraction of a second our motor-driven cameras are able to fire off several separate frames. He would only have been able to manage one before having to wind the film on manually. In the calm environment of our office, studio or spare room it is now so much easier to select one image from a sequence that portrays that instant.

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2 thoughts on “A decisive moment

  1. Nice shot Jerry, and interesting to read the thinking behind it, even if it didn’t appear at the time!

  2. Thanks Brian. Photography these days is usually a three stage process – at least. There’s the taking, then the selection, then the processing. I suppose it always has been but it is more marked now.

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