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The Decisive Moment (When to Click)

A while ago a friend made some very encouraging comments about my photos. She basically said she saw big improvements in my work. It caused me to stop and think. What has changed? What is it that caused her to notice?

Photography is one of those things that you continue to learn and improve over time. It's pretty simple really. If you continue to do things the way you've always done them, you'll continue to get the same results. You've probably heard that in one form or another before, and it's true. It's just the way it works.

My advice to you is to open yourself up to some new ideas, and try some new things. In this digital age it's easy to take an extra picture or two and experiment. You just need to take the first step, and that's how you can improve, one step at a time.

What Changed?
For me, a big change came after reading a book by Michael Freeman titled “The Photographer's Eye”. It's a great read. I'm actually planning to go through it again to give myself assignments based on the techniques and thoughts presented in the book.

While it's full of great information, there's one particular thing I'm thinking of that helped me out a lot. In general, my eye for composition was improving, but there is still one thing I believe has made a big difference in the way I capture images. What is it?!

“The Decisive Moment”

In The Photographer's Eye Michael Freeman discusses one of photography's most famous expressions “the decisive moment”. It originates from Henri Cartier-Bresson, a famous French photojournalist, who took it from the 17th century Cardinal de Retz, who wrote, “Il n'y a rien dans ce monde qui n'ait un moment decisif,” (“There is nothing in this world without a decisive moment”). Henri Cartier-Bresson defined it for photography as follows:
“Inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.”

Michael Freeman explains “Whatever the action, whether it is a person walking through the scene or clouds gathering over a mountain, it will certainly have to move across the frame. The action therefore inevitably affects the design of the picture, because it alters the balance.”

It's about When you take the picture, Not, if you take the picture.

Another aspect is expressions on faces. Timing the shot to get an expression that tells a story. Earlier in my photography pursuit I usually approached an event without any thought other than “I need some pictures of this”. That thought has changed to “I need to tell a story about this”. You tell a story with pictures by capturing the decisive moment. This doesn't mean that other design and composition considerations aren't important, they definitely are and they will be discussed in other articles.

What Does it Look Like?
Maybe an example will help you to visualize this. Children are sitting at a computer watching a video that is making them smile and laugh. So you grab your camera and take a couple shots to capture the moment. Upon reviewing the shots you see a smile on their face, but it's not as powerful as you thought it would be. What happened? You captured the moment, but not THE decisive moment. There is not always only one decisive moment, sometimes there are several. Identifying them is the key. So how do you do that?


By observing and through trial and review you can learn when those moments are going to come. In our children watching the video example (which is a moment I was experiencing recently) I noticed that one particular part of the video really made them laugh. So I waited for that decisive moment to repeat itself then I clicked the shutter.

Remember my friend? I think one of the things she was noticing was my growing ability to capture the right moment. Here's some things you can do to help you discover those decisive moments:

  • Observation – Observe the scene unfolding around you. Make mental notes of what is occurring, what might repeat itself and consider anything you might know about the event already. Maybe it's something you have experienced before, so you may already have some observations in your head about what might happen.
  • Anticipate – Anticipate what's going to happen next and be ready for it. This may include the harmonization of several elements falling into place.
  • Wait – Sometimes you just have to wait. Ready and waiting for the moment to unfold. Time and time again I see folks take a quick picture of a scene before anything exciting has happened. Then, a few seconds later a perfect opportunity presents itself. I wouldn't sacrifice not getting any memories waiting for the exact moment though. Take a picture, but then wait for that special moment you believe is coming.
  • Confidence – Sometimes being nervous about raising the camera and taking a picture prevents you from taking a picture at the right time. You want to get in, get out, get it over with. Being confident that you know what you're doing allows you to slow down and plan your shot a bit. This confidence will come through experience and will grow after you start seeing your results getting better and better.
  • Review – Look over your past shots and analyze them a bit. Ask yourself what you could have done better. Look at photos of others whose work you admire, and identify what it is about the image that you like.
  • Plan – When you are heading into a situation, have a plan, or at least an idea of the objects, views, or emotions you want to capture.

"To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life." - Henri Cartier-Bresson

In this image at sunrise I noticed the kayak moving toward the area I was framing my shot. So I waited until the paddler entered the reflection. I felt it would add more interest and become a more powerful photo.

After a long night of shooting at the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, I was headed back to my vehicle. I hadn't put all my gear away just yet (don't pack up until you've completely left the area). Behind me in the distance I saw a patrol car making its way onto the bridge. Knowing that a slow shutter speed to capture the city would also create a nice blur of the cars taillights, I setup my tripod and waited for the car to pass, then tripped the shutter. I made a few more shots on my way back across the bridge, but thought this was one of the better ones.

More examples, and why I chose the moment I did are available in
(opens in new window)

More About Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson (August 22, 1908 – August 3, 2004) was a French photographer considered to be the father of modern photojournalism, an early adopter of 35 mm format, and the master of candid photography. He helped develop the "street photography" or "real life reportage" style that has influenced generations of photographers that followed.

"Photography is not like painting," Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative," he said. "Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

Famous quotes
“It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.”

"The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression... . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif."

“For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.”

“To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

“To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.”

"There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment."

The Photographer The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
*Shows how to explore situations and locations in order to find the best possible photographic possibilities

*Uses clear examples from real photographic assignments, with schematic illustrations of how and why the pictures work

Design is the single most important factor in creating a successful photograph. The ability to see the potential for a strong picture and then organize the graphic elements into an effective, compelling composition has always been one of the key skills in making photographs...


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