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    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz
Monday
Apr132009

Fact, Moment, Light

I once was asked to describe how I think about photography. In response, I used a stick to draw a Venn diagram in the dirt. I labeled the three zones Fact, Moment, and Light.

You can characterize any photo, and any opportunity for a photo, using this model. It won’t surprise you to learn that I believe the best photos occupy the intersection of all three zones—but first, let’s look at each zone individually.

Most of us live our entire photographic lives in the Fact Zone. We take photos of people, events, and places that are important to us. It’s Timmy’s Birthday. We Went To Paris. Cousin Sally Got Married. These are facts, and most people take photos to document facts. They are not seeking to capture emotional truth, they are simply trying to preserve their memories of what happened.

This is why most people are disappointed with most of their photos. They want to preserve memories, but what they really mean by that is that they’d like to create an image that makes them feel like they did when they were there. Crappy photos rarely fail to document the facts, but they inevitably fail to capture emotion—because they ignore the other two zones of the Venn diagram.

Here’s a photo that I made years ago when new gantry cranes were being moved into the Port of Oakland. The mere fact that a boat is carrying the world’s four tallest cranes under the Bay Bridge with only 18 inches of clearance makes this photo interesting—but it ends there. This photo totally fails to capture how I felt seeing this stunning event in person. The Fact Zone is the domain of the snapshot. At its worst, it’s the picture you take with your camera phone to help you remember what floor you’re parked on.

After being repeatedly disappointed with our factual, emotionally-bereft photos, we eventually figure out what the next zone has to offer our photos. We tap into the Moment Zone when we realize that it actually matters when we release the shutter. That Timmy’s anticipation of blowing out his candles might be a more vivid moment than his exhalation. That out of a dozen photos of Sally reciting her wedding vows, there’s only one that brings a tear to your eye. We often start by noticing that some of our Fact Zone photos have accidentally encroached into the Moment Zone—we’ve captured not only the facts, but the perfect expression, the ideal pose, the most dynamic framing.

In this photo, I got lucky with the moment. I had framed up a nothing-but-the-facts shot of Flaminio Vacca’s Lion in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man walking into my frame—just the foreground element my boring shot needed. My Fact shot was about to graduate to an F+M, if an unimpressive one. I released the shutter as he entered the shot, and only later realized that he had been looking right at me, and that he was a dead ringer for the lion.

You’ll notice that there’s no zone for composition. Good composition is, of course, a necessity for any great photo. But good composition is, in my opinion, attainable in any situation, whether you have all three zones in effect or only one. There are such things as unique opportunities for great composition—file those under the Moment Zone.

When we discover the importance of the Moment Zone, we begin to despise our point-and-shoot cameras for how painfully slow they are to respond to our fevered finger-pressing. When we graduate from a sluggish pocket camera to a responsive SLR, we awaken a love affair with the Moment Zone. We now aspire to the Fact + Moment shot, where we’ve got both the subject matter and the timing nailed. With this pursuit in our heads as we snap away, our photos are pretty good.

And then we notice that some are accidentally coming out great. We see that some of our photos actually capture the emotion we felt when we were there. And not just for us, but for others as well—a stranger looking at this photo would feel exactly as you did when you made it, or as your subject did. This is the apotheosis of communicating with photography, and it happens when your shot of the right fact, at the right moment, also has beautiful light.

Photos are nothing but light—it’s literally all they are made of. Timmy’s birthday and Sally’s wedding are reduced to nothing but photons before they become photographs. So getting the light right is more meaningful to a photo than anything else. Yet this is often the last zone we discover. It’s also the hardest zone to control, but not nearly as hard as most people think. Turn off your flash. Ask your subjects to move. Guide them with your body language. But most of all, notice when the light is doing something amazing, and then wait for the other two zones to happen on their own. What you’ll discover is that any photo in the Light Zone is going to be pretty dang good. All the better if you can get an Fact + Light shot, or a Moment + Light shot.

Here’s a Fact + Light shot from my recent trip to Italy. This Duomo in Siena is interesting enough on its own, but it was the light that made me reach for my camera.

Here’s a Moment + Light shot I made in San Francisco’s Union Square. I like the way this image looks, but the photo doesn’t have a reason for being beyond looking pretty—I don’t know these people, and this photo isn’t helping me learn anything about them. Moment + Light with no Fact means a pretty, but empty photo.

Here is a FML shot I made last year near my home in Emeryville. I was returning from an unsatisfying photowalk when I bumped into a group of guys about to hitch a ride on a freight train to attend the Democratic National Convention in Colorado. They were pumped up about their trip, and I offered to commemorate it for them with a photo. I gently guided them toward the best light and made a couple dozen exposures. Of them, this one makes me the happiest. It’s full of fun facts (is that a joint in his hand? Is it so important that he keep it lit that he’s tied a lighter to his wrist? What do those tattoos say? Caution tape?), it’s the right moment, and the golden-hour light is glorious.

I suppose I could have made this shot at 12 noon, or on an overcast day—but the truth is, that light is the only reason I was out there with my camera in the first place, and the only reason I stopped those guys and asked where they were going. After years of working my way through the zones from Fact to Moment to Light, I now start at the end and work back. Light is what gets my camera out of the bag. Moments I know I can find if I’m patient. And Facts matter to me least of all now. The mere fact of being at the Eiffel Tower is not enough reason to make a photo, but the challenge of finding the light and the moment that help capture exactly how I feel at the Eiffel Tower is what makes photography endlessly rewarding to me.

Reader Comments (48)

I love the thought put into this post. As an artist in many senses, I feel that this is what takes something from documentation to art - the informal balance or all these elements.

In my mind, this is the same quality that a good film is able to capture - a series of moments with light and fact (I would call it context). The simplicity of photography is that capturing a moment is doable as an individual, a constant stream of moments requires a few more people paying attention to each aspect.

Prolost continues to payoff for me all the time..

-gl

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Loch

Stu,
Thanks for this post. It's a great reminder of what photography is all about.
~Kingsley

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKingsley

Cool.
Neat summary of the spirit of photography.
The above comments are a bit harsh...

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSagepictures

I've never thought about photography in this way. I submitted this post to stumbleupon, I think it's worth a read for any photographer.

I think of fact, moment, light as...

information
meaning
visual interest

Kinda kills some of the poetry of it maybe, but it helps me to put stuff in other words to get a better sense of what something means. Hope it helps someone anyone.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLen Esten

Great stuff. Although I believe art is not something that you can exactly explain with three circles, I think what you said made sense.

@SalaTar : I think you made your point very clear, several times.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCEP

Salah, I hope you won't be offended that I deleted your five comments. They were confusing to me and not adding much to the conversation.

April 13, 2009 | Registered CommenterStu

not offended

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSalaTar

Stu, sorry but this has nothing to do with the photography post on there but I dont know where else to put it but what I want to say is that I just read your book and well I must argue that you must do a follow up book focusing 100% on color correction, not just on AE but with apple color

thanks

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlex mills

As one who is hoping to soon graduate from point-and-shoot to DSLR, I really appreciate this approach, or better yet mindset, to taking photographs. It's a nice, simple set of steps to go by. Now, which camera to buy...

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Hunt

Stu you are dead wrong.

You ARE a very good photographer.
That may not mean that much as I am not a pro photographer.... but light is everything to me as well.. and I make my living dealing with light, whether CG or real... and I have seen tens of thousands of photos while looking for reference material...

I have bookmarked those links for further reference.
THX!

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMattMoses

One more comment about the Moment part..
A friend of mine was in Monterey around Point Lobos with his new point and shoot... and he was picking and choosing times where he would just Hold the Shutter down.. taking 40-50 pictures while his children played on the rocks (He had chosen the second largest pic size). He never chimped, just kept snapping away, 30-50 shots at a clip. He did all his "chimping" at home, where he could quickly throw away everything except for the handful of really nice moments.

It just struck me that people with a lesser trained eye could really benefit from this method. Especially if thier camera was set to keep auto focusing as they held the shutter down.

This is a great post... maybe a sticky needed on this one. THX again!

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMattMoses

I'd just like to thank you for putting my mind straight.
I'm an aspiring photographer myself, but I'm an animation student in the sf bay.

"The mere fact of being at the Eiffel Tower is not enough reason to make a photo, but the challenge of finding the light and the moment that help capture exactly how I feel at the Eiffel Tower is what makes photography endlessly rewarding to me."

I've never really known how to go about explaining to myself and others how I take photos. But this article definitely sums it up.

So again thank you.

~Keaton

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKeaton Tips

Stu,

You are brilliant! You sell your photography short, you are a great photographer. Our family is always amazed by your beautiful images when you post them.

I love your point about the light. Makes me not feel so silly for wanting to slam on the brakes, grab my camera and start snapping when I see "that light". Next time, I am doing it!

Cheryl in N.D.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

Great post Stu.

A little off topic - the Nikon D5000 has just been announced - seems to have the same video mode as the D90 - not great... but at least it has a swivel screen! Just goes to show how on the game Panasonic's GH1 is.

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStu Mannion

Hey are these true gh1 testing ?

http://forums.steves-digicams.com/forums/view_topic.php?id=602764&forum_id=93

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertimw

Thanks for putting words on a loose bundle of thoughts that have been developing over the last years. You've summed up my trigger trigger perfectly: "interesting enough on its own, but it was the light that made me reach for my camera."

April 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJonas Hummelstrand

Hey Stu,

great post. I think of the circles not as a receipt to make good pictures but as an evaluation method for pictures taken. An then learning an understanding intuitively what makes a nice picture.

One addition to the moment circle: I think thats what was called "the decisive moment" by Henry Cartier-Bresson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Cartier-Bresson#The_Decisive_Moment

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOliver Jeskulke

One addition: you can study great photos with these circles in mind and learn something from it under:
http://www.worldsfamousphotos.com/

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOliver Jeskulke

Yep, Henry Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris is pretty much the ultimate Moment shot.

April 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterStu

Aesthetics (location, light, composition) aside. It's all about content baby. Not facts. Good photography tells stories.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterYannick

Hey Stu, Great article. I was wondering how do you go about approaching people. Do you just walk up to people and shot or do you introduce yourself and ask to take the persons picture. I guess what i'm asking is how do approach street photography when it comes to people

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDovelyn

yet another reason this is my favorite blog on the net

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstephen v2

Stu, you are a genius. This is absolutely awesome.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDiego

Stu,

Your thinking on this post is greatly appreciated. As someone who has taught and practiced image making for a long time, your model is a fabulous and easily understandable view of photography. This makes for a good introduction that will leave room for greater understanding as each of us considers these three components.
I find that although I can critique well in the classroom, I have had some trouble with my copious commenting on images on Flickr as the audience there is not versed in the language of critique. This model is a great guide with which to briefly comment on the qualities that succeed or not in the many images we come across there.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJSBanks

Yannick: I would submit that the "story" is made up of fact and context (moment in Stu's post). However, in my mind, you cannot separate the aesthetic as it helps communicate the story. If it is done well, aesthetic brings the story to the viewer.

-gl

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Loch

Dovelyn, I'm no expert, but I've tried to get less shy about approaching people. Here's one approach that has worked for me: I printed up business cards with a simple gmail address. I offer to send the potential subject a copy of the photo if they email me. People often respond very positively to this.

I also have a policy when I travel that if someone hands me their camera and asks me to take a photo of them, that I also get to take one with my camera!

April 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterStu

Stu, I owe you an online, honest apology, and am doing so now.

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSalaTar

well said, I always consider "the moment" to include all three areas, fact, moment, light - when they all converge is when photography is the most rewarding

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRafael

As a professional/commercial photographer for more than 20 years... and also a serious passion for photography as art.... I think you nailed it.

Funny thing.... I did not get glasses until I was 30, but should have had them all along ( stigmatism ).... I have a theory that I compose my images in a way that has balance and no particular point of detail or obviousness because of my early years of poor eyesight.

Witzke
witzke-studio.com

April 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterwitzke

completely and utterly off topic but slightly related to previous descussions and photogogeraphy in general

http://imaging.nikon.com/products/imaging/lineup/microsite/d5000/en/main.html

hadnt seen any kind of mention of the d5000 on here and wondered if it were totally crap and thats why?

but this footage seems to have minimal skewing even considering the fisheyedness of some of the shots

if anyone has more details

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPEW36

What about (in a coming future) RED DSMC (digital stills and motion camera) with a Misterium Monstro sensor to take the moment? Perhaps for some photographers that is cheating. For me, not.

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

I'm in the market for a dSLR right now, and the d5000 grabbed my interest as well. I've shot film SLR for so long, I finally decided it was time to make the process a little easier. I came here because Stu is one of the biggest followers of the new dSLR video functionality whose opinion I respect and agree with, and I was surprised to not see anything on the d90's (same as the d5000's) video feature. Seeing how it's 24p (only 720, but still nice) I figured it would be a happy item on Stu's radar.
And in the topic of dSLR video, I know you're showing it at NAB, but being in Alaska I can't make it... so hopefully you'll post that "I shoot stunt people" short you made entirely with a dSLR in available light up here soon.
And to comment on the topic of this post: great explanation of what makes a good photo. I've been doing photography for a long, and I see this being really helpful to the people you mentioned: those making the transfer from their snapshots to photography. Teaching a little bit, I also think the diagram would be helpful to highschool photography students.
Long time photographer, short time filmmaker, first time poster. Just wanted to say the blog is great Stu, and thanks for sharing and being so interactive with the community.

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Nice job. I really enjoyed this post and it gives those of us who are learning to shoot some concrete things to consider.

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeerzie

Ahh, a little reading on a review and it sounds like the d90 kicks into auto exposure in "movie mode", so I'm guessing the d5000 will do the same. That would be why Stu's not too happy about it... I'm not either. Maybe they realized the dumbness of not allowing manual controls and changed it for the d5000? Maybe they can fix it with a firmware update? Who knows... maybe not.
Now the Lumix DMC-GH1 on the other hand, now THAT looks like a video capable dSLR!! Gotta stay focused though... I have an HD video camera and DoF adapter... I'm looking to replace my still camera, not my video camera! As amazing as the GH1 is sounding, it still will not likely perform as well as our HD video cameras. What a crazy and interesting topic. Hard to not keep things in perspective when it all sounds so appealing. dSLRs are still best for photography, and video cameras are still best for video.
Things were much more simple with my Nikon FE2...

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

@Steve: if you have a video camera and want a good still camera, I highly suggest you buy a prosumer body over a consumer body. Even if you have to buy last gen's prosumer body to match the price of current release consumer bodies. You'll get more features, a more rugged body, and fewer "megapixels" jammed onto the sensor. (Just my advice to a first time DSLR buyer.) As a Canon shooter (10D, 20D, 30D, 1dsII), I'd even suggest a 30D over a brand new Rebel. (almost 1/2 price.) And definitely a 40D over a new Rebel. (Same price.) But a used 5D would be your best bang for the buck. About $1000 for full frame 12MP. Nice.

I'm sure the same would go for Nikons, I just dont know their lineup.

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I work in a world of fiction, where the facts are lost, the moments are contrived and only a semblance of the original light remain. The images are polished and idealized, so what does this little Venn diagram of yours mean to my work ? It means a lot. The images are so unreal, yet so believable and when you believe, it's a fact to you, even for a moment. The lighting is not lost but enhanced. And despite the act, no matter how contrived, the moment has to be engaging, nothing short of amazing.

Well, at least most of the time.

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Omoyele

@Brian
Thanks for your input. I've actually been caught up in that thought process already, looking at the NUMEROUS models of cameras out there. The reason I'm looking at Nikon is because that's what I've been shooting all these years, so to continue to use my nice manual lenses would be a big benefit.
The Nikons seem to have the same kind of assortment as the Canons (which would make sense, as they're always trying to keep up with each other), except none of their FX cameras (full frame) will probably meet up with a used 5D's $1000 price. I could be wrong, I haven't searched the used market much. With so many choices, you're always asking yourself just how much more you're willing to spend. Good thing my wife slows me down sometimes :)

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

You cant go wrong with Nikon. I only ended up with Canon as I owned no lenses and Canon was far ahead of anyone else back in 2001. My 3rd DSLR was the Nikon D1, but when the Canon D30 came out, Canon had left the other makers in the dust. Canon continues to remain "ahead", but the tech is so advanced and Nikon is so good, that the "race" really doesn't matter much anymore until the next big technological breakthrough happens. And I dont think that "breakthrough" is video, unless you care about video. There are millions of professional still photographers that have never needed nor will ever need video. I am one of those. (Even if I am also a motion picture filmmaker as well.)

Anyway, Nikons are great - no good vs evil argument here, I just dont know their lineup, prices, or resale values.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Brilliant post. Clearly communicated. Thank You

April 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDal Wolf

Thanks Stu. That was way awesome.

April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNels Chick

Good analysis. Love the comment about the light is what makes you take out the camera. The discussion got me to thinking about the progression from picture taker to artist. It's sort of like golf. You work and work and work on the mechanics. Then you get a natural feel for something that was initially difficult. Your game improves a bit and you discover a whole new set of mechanics that need work. As a photographer you need to work. Practice on framing and composition. Shoot a lot and look at what you shoot. Break it down and discover what makes it work. Those elements will become second nature. Your subconscious will make those decisions and free your conscious mind to concentrate on other essentials such as light and contrast. It never ends, but you can always raise the bar a bit higher -as long as you want to and don't become complacent.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Wow, nicely put Larry!

April 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterStu

Larry,

In racing, the related principle is the "attention budget", and it's a perfect fit for artistic work. As "ordinary" mechanics fade into muscle memory, it frees you spend your attention on different, perhaps previously unknown, problems.

As for the Fact, Moment, Light theme, I've got to start searching for a wedding photographer soon. I knew I wanted someone who was a people photographer foremost, and this approach to discussing photography will definitely help me communicate what I'm after.

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterClintTorres

And like Golf, the majority of people believe that buying a newer, more expensive set of clubs will improve their game—when in reality they're just distracting themselves from the need to knuckle down and learn the fundamentals.
I'm guilty of this myself from time to time, in the land of cameras anyway. Whereas I purchased my only set of golf clubs at a garage sale for 10 bucks.

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Maffitt

Stu, I've been on the verge of buying a dSLR and diving into photography for a while, but I got crosseyed just looking at how many options there - thanks to this post, and others (and your book, etc, etc), I'm going to finally go get something and get to work. Thanks for the inspiration!

May 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKevin George

I am new to photography. And this post has been very helpfull.
Cheers.

May 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGareth

Wow, this is so elegant, I'm a painter not a photographer, but it applies perfectly and puts into words a lot of feelings I've had and never been able to explain...thanks so much, what you packed into this little diagram will stay with me for a long time and be a real help in my art.

April 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercolleen

very insightful, and well articulated and demonstrated. happy to have found this post (via mostly photo). as someone who started following you a few months ago and missed this post, i'd recommend repositing it for those of us newer to prolost.

thanks again and keep up the good work!

June 3, 2011 | Registered Commenterkettlepot
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