We've all seen stunning pictures of spontaneous events of human dynamics or mother nature engaged in some sort of spontaneity. Some of these images become icons in the world of art. Some win Pulitzer prizes. And in some cases, an image becomes a visual instance for social and political change.
It may be nothing but pure luck for being in the right place at the right time, but it is many times no accident that the camera was ready to capture the scene. It's the photographer behind the camera who was in control of the camera and knew to take the shot before the event actually happened.
Let's start with fine art photographers. If you've ever studied some of the well known street photographers, you will learn that many of them will find an interesting scene and then sit down and wait for something to happen. They will literally sit there for hours, hoping for some instance of human interaction. It's just a matter of time where you will be rewarded with gallery-quality work.
In this case you are controlling the scene. Composition, lighting, angle, it's been all worked out beforehand, all you need is people to show up and do something interesting. You may not know the name but if you search on Henri Cartier Bresson, you will instantly recognize many of the images.
However, waiting for the action to come to you is many times not very feasible. We've all seen some type of human action or act of nature and wishing we captured the scene despite having the camera in our hands. The first thing you need to do in these situations is to be aware of what's happening around you. You don't need superpowers to predict something interesting may happen. For example, let's say you're in one of those lively and dynamic markets somewhere in the world. You see a face that stands out or a group of people engaged in some type of activity.
In addition, the focal point of your interest is moving along through the crowd. How can you have any control over this?
First of all, you should be able to predict where your subject is going to move to. You can work your way through the crowd and be ahead of the action so that it comes to you. Also, what kind of light is available? Are you in a hard sun? You're going to want to maneuver so the sun is at your back. Controlling the light and predicting where the action is going to be, you do have control over the situation! This simple strategy of awareness will do much for capturing those spontaneous moments and can be applied to many situations.
Having the right camera equipment is also something you have control over. For whatever situation you're in, you need to make sure you have the camera set properly and you're using the correct lens. If you're shooting people on the sly, it may be best to use a telephoto lens. Everything changes when a person realizes you're taking pictures of them.
So that's it, just a few pointers on how to control a situation for which you have no control. Predicting where the action is going to be, having the patience for waiting the action to come to you, being aware of the composition and light, and using the camera properly for the situation, these are elements that greatly increase your chances for getting that winning shot. Knowing these things and using them to your advantage, you will begin to realize that many of those famous "lucky" shots you see had little to do with luck. It's all a part of becoming a master photographer.
Most of us will never win the Pulitzer prize or be hanging the the Louvre, but that doesn't mean we can't get those shots most other photographers don't. I was at a wedding a few years back- I wasn't the "Wedding Photographer" but I brought my camera along. I took many photos of the people and the wedding party. The bride and groom were unhappy with the photographer they hired but I was able to give them the photos I took and they say I "saved" the wedding. One of the shots they absolutely loved is when they were shooting the wedding party. The bride already had a long day and indulged with a moment of silliness. I captured her while crossing her eyes. It was just one of those goofy moments but they loved having the image.
No Pulitzer prize for me but it was one of those fun split-seconds of life and a photograph the couple will always treasure.
The next time you're in the middle of some sort of chaos, remember... you're in control!