Gesture is not a grab-shot


A judge once commented on one of my photographs with the phrase: “What a great grab shot”. It was intended to be a compliment but it also exposed some naivety about street and documentary photography in general. While it is true that in this style of photography you are dependent on the chance action that happens in front of you, hardly ever do you get your shot simply by seeing something, raising the camera, and taking the “grab shot”. To the contrary, those are more typically the shots you miss, not the shots you get. Once you see the action, it is too late.

Capturing good gesture, like photographing birds, requires that you observe and prepare. Sometimes your image will materialize and sometimes they will not.

Here are my tips for capturing gesture


  • Set your background
  • Set your exposure (and possibly your focus)
  • Get comfortable with the subject and setting


Take many images

  • Take as many as 20 or 30 images of the same person
  • Explore different angles
  • Practice your timing
Evaluate your results with the following questions

  • Is something happening?
  • Is there emotion?
  • What is the story?
  • Have you caught the action at its peak?
  • Is there anticipation?
  • Is there mystery?


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Gesture – Not all gestures are created equal


Not all gestures are created equal. There are a lot of pictures with pointless gesture. The gesture must tell the story.

Compare this image with the image at the top of the post.

Weak gesture and weak background

This image has a pointless gesture. The story is weak. The man is walking and pointing at the photographer. Where is the mystery?

The gesture in the image at the top of this post is subtle but the story is stronger. You see the slight lean on his right leg and umbrella, a gaze out side the frame, a slight curl to the lips or raise in the eyebrows. What is he looking for? What is he looking at? The lean provides some anticipation. As a side note, the background and lighting are also stronger in the top post. Look at the rim lighting on the edge of his leather coat, the water one the floor, the detailed repeating pattern of the stairs.

Here is another gesture, the universal sign for figuring out what time it is. Is he late? Is he waiting for someone? The context of the train station adds to the story.


All posts on using gesture

Using Gesture

Lunchtime Ritual

Using Gesture to tell the to the image’s story and to create its mood, emotion, and purpose.

What is gesture? The English dictionary gives us two very useful definitions:

  • A movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning
  • An action performed to covey one’s feelings or intentions

In art, gesture is used more abstractly to include the line of a strong graphic element. As I explored in my last post, gesture just might be at the root of all great images; whether achieved with a human (or animal) gesture or just a strong graphic.

Henri-Cartier Bresson’s concept of Decisive Moment is about finding that moment when all the compositional elements line up, just right, to tell the most compelling and emotionally involving story. Simplified, this involved finding the peak of the action, but also finding the right relationships between object.

Jay Maisel teaches “gesture over graphic”. What he means is that if the action is happening, but there is still crap in the background, just take the image. An image with great story-telling gesture with crap in the background is better than a perfectly clean image with no story. (Yes, we should try to optimize both).

For a more subtle understanding of gesture, study the work of Sam Abell. Sam Abell talks about micro and macro composition, but he too is waiting for the gesture and waiting for all the gestures to line up just right. A good example is this video of Sam Abell produced by the National Geographic where he talks about his book The Life of a Photograph.

Gesture is emotionally involving.

As I think about gesture, I think about passive and active gestures. Passive gestures are waiting or preparatory gestures, coming often before and after the story. You want to capture the active gestures. Here are a couple of examples:

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Passive PoseWith his head down, the story is simple “I’m reading the paper” Active PoseWith his head up and looking out of the frame, the story has more intrigue. “What is out there?” “What interrupted me from reading the paper?”

Another example

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Passive PoseA simple story of a woman reaching into her handbag. She has an interesting look and there is nice color combinations in the image. Active PoseIn this pose we get more action with the tilt of her head causing her hat and head to be at different angles. Also we see her hand then details that it unveils with the her rings. It tells us more about the subject and more specifics about what she is doing.

Gesture on a Mission

Hat Sales

Every other month I give a short lecture at the local camera club on a fundamental compositional technique as an introduction for the following months member submissions. Some recent topics have including using line, light, color, placement, depth, and movement. This month’s topic is “Using Gesture”.

The lectures always start with the same mission statement:

We are looking for exceptional images where the composition component – compositional element goes here – is a major contributor to the image’s story, mood, emotion, and purpose.

I break down this mission statement as follows:

  • exceptional images: focusing on the compositional element only does not ensure that you will create an exceptional image. Foremost, I want to remind the members that we are after great photographs and the compositional elements are only a piece of the puzzle.
  • major contributor: the main purpose of these assignments is to focus on the compositional element and to practice that particular element like a pianist practices their scales. To include the compositional element as a subtle part of the image is missing the point.
  • story, mood, emotion, and purpose: these words are included to make the photographer realize an interesting subject alone does not create story, mood, emotion, and purpose. The composition, among other things such as the use of time, focus, and processing, play an important role in carrying the photographers message.

This mission statement has served my lectures well, however as I worked out the lecture on gesture, I realized that the statement was not strong enough. I realized that gesture is so fundamental to my images that it is more than just a “major contributor” it is their essence. This also provided real insight into why I am so disinterested in most posed street portraits.

Here is the new mission statement I created for working with the compositional element: Gesture

We are looking for exceptional images where the composition component – Gesture – is used to tell the to the image’s story and to create its mood, emotion, and purpose.