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The Decisive Moment – What It Is and How to Find It

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the decisive moment.
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In this guide, we will take a look at the notion of ‘the decisive moment’ – where it came from, what it means, and why it is so important to street photographers, photojournalists, and others who deal with candid images. From the long-standing debate about the precise meaning of the term to its many applications and approaches of integrating it into your work, this is going to be a thorough overview of all the essential concepts you need to know if you’ve been aiming to get more serious about your candid photography!

Few terms are thrown around as much yet explained so rarely within street photography as the ‘decisive moment’. Both are cited as the secret formula of success behind many images as well as lusted after by countless beginners. The concept of the decisive moment carries serious weight with a big segment of the community.

But just what are decisive moments? Is there a difference between them and the decisive moment? What makes any moment decisive, anyway? These and many other questions shall be the subject of this guide.

Let’s demystify the art and the science behind the decisive moment and find out what it means to your work!

The Origin of the Decisive Moment

To understand what the decisive moment really is as an idea, we first need to understand where that idea came from. The phrase ‘decisive moment’, describing the particularly well-timed execution of a photograph, is probably as ancient as photography itself.

The idea that great shots are fleeting and that a truly skilled shutterbug combines fast reflexes with superior camerawork to capture these blink-of-an-eye scenes is not a fresh one, to say the least.

But the more modern meaning of the term ‘decisive moment’ can be traced back to a precise point of origin. That origin, as you may have already heard, has a name: Henri Cartier Bresson.

Henri Cartier Bresson: A Primer

An exhibit of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Picture frames by famous French candid photographer in a museum.

There is no discussion of street photography without a mention of Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographs and their legacy. That is not nearly as much of an exaggeration as it may sound. If anything, it’s a true testament to how much the man has shaped and influenced generations of photographers.

Achievements and Fame

To comprehend his lasting importance, it’s useful to know a few key details about Cartier Bresson’s life. Born towards the end of the 19th century, he picked up photography in the wake of World War One. Through his early use of Leica cameras, he became one of the first internationally successful photographers of 35mm film. Back then, this choice of medium was still considered quirky at best. The small, blurry, and noisy negatives were derided by many as not up to professional or artistic standards. But Cartier Bresson instinctively understood how to use 35mm to its strengths.

He learned to exploit the high depth of field and incognito appearance of his gear to snap pictures without his subjects noticing. By developing and expanding on techniques like zone focus, Cartier Bresson became a true master of candid photography. Some claim to this day that he practically invented the idea of ‘the photographer as an observer’.

The result was stunning street photos bearing a signature style that nobody has managed to copy since.

Cartier Bresson’s Literature

A close-up view of a book containing interviews with legendary French candid photographery, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

A seminal innovator and a true pioneer, Henri Cartier Bresson has gained as much praise for his photography as for his writings on artistic theory and creative technique.

One of his books, in particular, stands out for its historical value. Originally published in French under the title of Images à la Sauvette in 1952, it deals with Cartier Bresson’s thoughts on technique in photojournalism. A literal translation of the French title approximates to ‘Images on the run’, which suits the topic very well indeed. A big chunk of the book concerns the difficulty of capturing great shots in the heat of the moment, with little time to think and even less time to frame fast-moving subjects.

Without a doubt, this is the book that catapulted Henri Cartier Bresson to international stardom among photographers. Its English edition would continue to outsell most other photography books for many years. The translated title?

Why, The Decisive Moment, of course. The problem with the meaning of the decisive moment already starts here, on the book’s front cover, famously designed by Henri Matisse. The fact that the English edition bore it as its name has led generations of photographers and critics to take ‘the decisive moment’ as a shorthand for all of Henri Cartier Bresson’s personal and artistic philosophy.

This has led to a muddying of the waters. Some might define decisive moments as mutually contradictory things or as notions that Bresson never really intended.

In order to truly understand the term, then, we need to move ahead and read what its originator really meant.

Perfect Timing or Raw Emotion?

A man running down the street during the day in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. An example of a candid scene caught on camera which may be called a 'decisive moment'.

The crux of the ongoing debate about decisive moments can be summed up as ‘timing versus emotion‘.

This is the question of what makes a moment truly decisive. Is it the particular subject, their emotional expression, their role in a once-in-a-lifetime scene that may be immortalized and turned into a great picture.

If the photographer is quick enough? Or is it more about achieving a perfectly composed, perfectly timed rendition of basic subject material, executed to high precision despite the fleeting nature of the shot? In other words, are street photographers hunting down decisive moments, hoping to catch one in their viewfinders? Or are they creating them out of everyday life through the use of technique?

It might surprise you, but Henri Cartier Bresson himself was firmly a part of the latter camp. The way he described his notion of the decisive moment leaves little room for ambiguity. In short, Cartier Bresson writes of a theory of maximizing your use of composition to make sure that the exact moment you release the shutter is a decisive one. That’s another way of saying, don’t wait up for the decisive moment to come to you! Learn how to create it instead, he seems to insinuate.

Choosing a Modern Interpretation

An elderly couple walking together in public. Candid street photography.

Regardless of how Cartier Bresson originally defined the term, there’s no reason to treat his interpretation of the decisive moment as the only valid one. In contemporary photographic theory, you will come across tons of uses of ‘the decisive moment’. Many of these differ from the thought Henri Cartier Bresson raised over 70 years ago.

A widely popular one is the above definition we have already looked at. That is, the decisive moment is a real, fleeting scene that beckons sharp reflexes and situational awareness to capture. Think of it as akin to an elusive animal.

Others see the decisive moment as the instant that tripping the shutter transforms a real-world situation into an immortalized photograph frozen in time. In that sense, the finishing touch that transforms a study into a finished painting or a draft into a masterpiece novel is also a decisive moment.

In that sense, every single one of us has experienced countless of these moments already!

The Importance of Decisive Moments in Street Photography

Now that we have the basics outlined, we need to ask what the significance of this concept truly is for today’s street photographers. Is the idea of the decisive moment still relevant, or has it been diluted so much and weathered by time as to be passé?

Not quite. No matter which school of thought you subscribe to, the decisive moment can serve as a meaningful element in any kind of contemporary street photography.

If we base ourselves around the original thought as defined by Cartier Bresson, it’s easy to see how. Think back to that original French title, Images on the Run. The core of modern street photography implies a sort of genuine character. That is to say, a raw, unedited rendition of a larger truth taken from an everyday scene.

A London double-decker bus driving by at high speed. Nighttime long exposure in candid street photography. An example of the 'decisive moment' in action.

Unlike staged photography, this ‘raw’ and candid style relies on the photographer to tell their picture story without much planning. Rather, it’s paramount to master the art of skillful composition and envisioning the image before hitting the shutter. With that skill, it doesn’t truly matter whether you are shooting on the streets of Paris, France, or Paris, Texas.

Thus, what Henri Cartier Bresson was urging his readers to do was not to develop a sixth sense for picking up the most unlikely and immortal moments that may be happening all around you. Instead, it’s all about taking pictures that add composition to a spontaneous, even ordinary slice of life. This way, he argues, you can create something special.

Adopting this perspective will prevent you from lying in wait and anticipating the perfect shot to come to you. Instead, you can embrace the fact that great photos are all around us, waiting to be taken!

Composing Images On the Run

Now comes the hard part: learning the technique. How do you master the art of composition in an environment where a single image may hinge on a literal fraction of a second?

After all, even landscape photographers, who have all the time in the world to get the framing of their photos just right, don’t exactly consider it a cakewalk.

There is no easy answer to this question. Learning this organic coordination, the fast reflexes, and the eye for quick composition that ‘images on the run’ require can be tough, and it can take time.

A photographer composing a candid outdoors shot using the rear LCD screen of their DSLR camera.

Cartier Bresson himself had a few different approaches for that very reason. For example, he would shoot a series of pictures to make sure that he could fully express the ‘essence’ of the scene in front of him without relying on one lucky frame.

At the same time, he warned against a rapid-fire approach. Many photographers turn to burst mode to make sure they don’t miss anything important. But according to Cartier Bresson, that may be misguided. In his words, photography implies selection at the hands of the photographer. You can’t possibly capture every single image of everyday life, so you need to discriminate at least somewhat. That discrimination, applied with careful thought, is where personal style and real images à la sauvette come from, according to the master.

Following a more contemporary interpretation, you could also critique the same behavior from a different angle. Shooting at too high of a volume may prevent you from thinking deeply about the decisive moment at all. That, in turn, prevents you from truly learning from and understanding your environment.

Do You Need a Decisive Moment for Impactful Photography?

A male figure sitting lonely on a low wall. Black-and-white candid street photography.

With all that said, is the fascination – which can sometimes morph into obsession – over the decisive moment really that necessary? Can you create important photobooks and do an amazing job in modern photojournalism and street photography without relying on a notion developed in the early twentieth century?

To put it in a nutshell, of course you can. There is no need to rely on any single idea, no matter its esteem. If you want to produce photography that moves your audience and comments on the everyday world in a meaningful way, you probably already have all the prerequisites ticked off. All you need is a camera, mental and physical focus, and some patience.

It’s also worth noting that you don’t even need to pay attention to take a great shot. Plenty of important works in photography have been taken not just candidly but without conscious intent. It’s not necessary for you to ‘hunt out’ the decisive moment in order to capture one moment of unforgettable emotion with your camera.

After all, the portfolios of countless street photographers, from Henri Cartier Bresson’s himself to Robert Frank’s, go to prove that memorable shots are often hiding in the unlikeliest of places.

Any of the approaches we have mentioned so far can bear fruit. You may scour the streets with an attentive eye, staying on the lookout for an unforgettable frame to hit you. You may, as Henri Cartier Bresson once did, assemble iconic compositions in record speed to turn hum-drum scenes into exposes on the human condition. Or, you may just show up on the street and take a picture – no afterthought superimposed, no rigorously established methodology. Sometimes, the decisive moment is as simple as that!

How to Use the Concept of the Decisive Moment to Your Advantage

A man crossing a street. Black-and-white street photography composition which may be dubbed a 'decisive moment' capture.

As you have learned today, the decisive moment, as dominant as it is, remains an elusive concept in the world of candid photography. Removed from its origins in the streets of twentieth-century France, it’s an almost timeless, indefinite idea. At the same time, it never ceases to hold serious and important value for the current-generation photographer, something that my own experience can only confirm.

No matter how you define or interpret the decisive moment yourself based on what you’ve read today, I hope you took from this article one important lesson. Namely, the way we handle our camera, the way we compose our photos, and the way we go about capturing them matters. It matters even if this issue is entirely removed from the question of camera settings or technique. And it matters even when we are shooting images à la sauvette, and we only have a fraction of a second to make the crucial call.

In that sense, the decisive moment is really so in every sense of the word: not only does it decide the outcome of the image, but it is in turn, also the result of your decision as a street photographer.

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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  1. Hey Jonathan,

    Great read. Sometimes hunting for that decisive moment is the limiting factor in achieving it. Keep up the good work.

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