The Decisive Moment - tyneholm
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The Decisive Moment

Assignment S07

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, ‘The Decisive Moment‘, is said to have changed photography forever and that phrase has become part of street photography lore. The phrase ‘the decisive moment’ refers to that very brief moment when all the elements come together to make the perfect frame; you’re in the right place at the right time and manage to fire the shutter at just the right moment. It can be exhilarating and many would say this is the purest form of street photography.

Sometimes the decisive moment can refer to a quick, spontaneous capture, but at other times you will see the potential in a scene and wait until the right person or thing comes into play to make the frame complete. Either way, it is a question of timing and using your instinct to capture the decisive moment.

The first step on the road to producing images that reflect the decisive moment is to become highly observant, which is a skill that can be developed with a little practice. To develop your powers of observation try walking the streets regularly without a camera; live in the moment and look at and listen to the world around you. The lack of a camera will be frustrating at times, but it will help you appreciate the world around you and allow time to see more.

Then, set your camera to ‘walk around’ mode and shoot for a day without changing your settings. Instead, concentrate on what is happening around you and seek out the decisive moment. For inspiration, look at some of the wonderful street photography produced by ‘the greats’ over the years; Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, William Klein, Vivian Maier and Joel Meyerowitz. Have a look at some current great photographers such as Sean Tucker. They all display impeccable timing and the ability to react instantly to a scene unfolding in front of them.

View the images


  • Have a tried and tested combination of settings for your camera that becomes your default or ‘walk around’ mode. If your camera is preset to f/8, 1/250 sec., and Auto ISO, for example, your are pretty much ready for anything and can reach quickly to whatever presents itself.
  • Always have your camera switched on and ‘awake’. Disable its sleep mode and keep your fingers on the shutter-release button at all times.
  • Try setting your camera to manual focus and use zone focusing to make you even faster and more instinctive.
  • Always ‘work the scene’. Once you have got your image, start to explore other possibilities in the same scene. Can you change your position? Is there a better viewpoint? Could you vary your camera settings to achieve a different look?

Field Notes

  • Be patient! This is like fishing, and it can take hours – maybe seven days or weeks – to stumble on the right opportunities. But when they do come along (and they will) it can be hugely rewarding.
  • Walk slowly, be curious, look at everything, and linger. This will heighten your sense of awareness of what’s going on around you.
  • Don’t hesitate! As soon as you recognise a good opportunity, shoot it. Worry about whether ‘it’s right’ later.
  • Timing is everything! There’s always a splint-second when everything is ‘right’.