Lessons from the Scene: A Slice of Life by Stanley Leary

by Stanley Leary


Military Funeral

“The instant can be the end product of long experience as well as that of immediate surprise” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

There are two ways to approach a photograph where elements need to line up in time for the photo to come together.

One waits for a figure—any figure—to walk into an open space to fill a “composition,” then the photographer trips the shutter and walks away.

The other way waits too, but the photographer’s thinking goes something like this: “I need a figure in that space, but just any figure won’t do. It must not merely fill the space but also give the space a meaning that is as yet incomplete. The figure will need to have a believable reason for being there, will have to relate to the space in a significant way, and, above all, add something to it. Its appearance in that space must have sufficient importance to make the resulting picture a clear expression of what I want to say.”



Understanding does not necessarily mean a technical knowledge of the subject.  Understanding is interest, empathy, curiosity, the human element of the equation.  As the result of our understanding of the subject, we have a reaction, an opinion or feeling about it. On the basis of this reaction, we make pictures.

Alertness in photography is a combination of enthusiastic involvement in the situation being photographed and an excited readiness of expectancy. It’s not only for what may appear to be logical, but also for anything that may happen.



When the needed figure appears, the photographer trips the shutter. That’s “timing” in the true sense of photography.

That split second quality cannot be taught. It’s inspired and drawn out by a sympathetic teacher, looking at your pictures, discussing it with the photographer, or by listening to speakers who have something worthwhile to say.

The other is called “timing” also. But it is mechanical, thoughtless, and of little value as a real expression. The first photographer merely fills space. The second photographer fills the space with a new personal interpretation.

Timing is a two-way relationship between the photographer and the subject, in which the photographer holds a major responsibility.


"Luck" comes from a receptive eye

One cannot know the right moment to take a picture unless one has a fairly clear idea what the subject says.  When one is interested in a subject, one wishes to learn more about it.  With these pictures, viewers dig below the surface value, to the underlying truth.

Some call some photos “lucky.” The “lucky” one is in reference to the photographer.  But with an eye keenly receptive to the action, good photographers have trained themselves to take nothing for granted and to be ready for the smallest change of nuance of the main subject.  In these terms, “luck” has nothing to do with it.