In photography, timing is everything.

In photography, timing is everything. And one of the best way to capture that “star moment” is to predict and anticipate what is to come. In photojournalism, where few things are staged and moments are captured as they unfold, this can be especially challenging.

In my early days as a photographer, I tended to maintain an unobtrusive, stealthy stance when I photograph. (In research terms, I maintained distance from whom I study for fear of “contaminating” the reality.)  To the novice that I was, this was much easier on the soul. For reasons I won’t get into here, a subset of the population fear the camera lens, get grossly uncomfortable when they realize the presence of a photographer (even when they weren’t the subject), and respond with dirty eyes. This can be unnerving when one is only starting out.

This stance, of course, made it more difficult to capture those star moments. Sometimes, you just need to interfere in order to get the shots that you need.

As I become more comfortable with myself, I have become more assertive and directive in order to produce quality photos. I’m slowly coming to terms with entering a scene and making my presence known.

However, this changes the role of the photographer from a silent observer to a participant observer. The constructed reality represented in the photo is not going to be the same as the one without photographer intervention. Quick illustration: ever decided to photograph a famous speaker, musician, or the host at a wedding, and as soon as they notice you’re photographing them, they suddenly give you more “star moments” by smiling bigger, speak slower, or gesture grander?

So when might this photographer intervention be acceptable if photojournalism requires the photographer to accurately report on reality?

Perhaps it is not a question of to-do-it or not. What matters most, for me, is how a photographer does so ethically. The rule for me, then, is that the photographer may not request subjects to do something that wouldn’t otherwise be doing. A photographer should not suggest, incite, or otherwise provoke or promote subjects in order to the shot he needs.

But as you will see, some shots just aren’t mean to be.

I had wanted to grab a shot of these students doing a cheer. I set them up and was all ready to go. I held off their execution several times due to oncoming traffic. Finally, the road looked clear, and I gave the go-ahead. But as you will see, suddenly a truck pulled up, and gone was the star moment.

In photography, timing is everything.


By Chi Yan Lam

Dr. Chi Yan Lam is a Credentialed Evaluator and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of evaluation at the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Health Sciences, Queen’s University; he is also a full-time evaluator practicing in public service. He specializes in evaluating large-scale, complex programs and incorporates multi-, mixed- and design methods in his evaluations to answer questions of importance to program administrators and policy makers working on educational and social programs. His articles on evaluation have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the American Journal of Evaluation and the Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation. He has been a holder of the professional designation in evaluation since 2014.

2 replies on “In photography, timing is everything.”

Great illustration Chi. We call the “star moment” the “defining moment”. Rather than blasting away, it is anticipation, observation, conversation and following your gut that are key to capturing moments that are defining.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s