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Decisive Moment Photography: Planned Spontaneity

Why do you enjoy photography? Tons of reasons probably. Me too, but I think one that is as close as any to being the chief reason is this: it involves an interplay between artistic creation and real events that's unlike anything else.

The idea of the 'decisive moment' has always existed in photography, but was crystallized by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. It basically refers to those cool shots where emotion and meaning is revealed, and at at the same time is contained within a structured, pleasing composition.

These pictures combine a sometimes perplexing mix of sheer spontaneity and rigorous order. The first time I came across a book of Cartier-Bresson's photos I just thought, How is this possible! If I take one photo as good as any of these in my life I'll have done well!

But as I've spent more time exploring street photography and doing a bit of photojournalistic work, I've realized that it's actually possible to claw back quite a lot of control over pictures that, at first, seem 100% opportunistic. So I want to share a few of the most helpful tips...


1. Find Somewhere Interesting and Stay There

Image by: Thomas Leuthard

As a prefix to this point I'll just note that you should occupy somewhere only so long as seems courteous (i.e. sometimes that could actually be hours, but don't park yourself in front of people's table at a cafe, or the entrance to a shop etc).

So, guess what Cartier-Bresson used to do to capture all of those stunning decisive moments? Well (shock horror), very often he would scout a really interesting place that could serve as a nice background, pre-compose a shot, and wait for the subjects, like actors on a stage, to come and complete the scene.

This seems obvious to me now, but it was a Eureka moment when I first discovered it as a technique. So I hope I'm not telling you something that's already obvious to you! My street photography has improved immeasurably since I started doing this.

I used to always get either emotion, or good composition, never the two together. Don't ever walk past an interesting scene (steps up to a church, water fountain in a town square, hidden alley-way etc etc, without first stopping and asking, Is there any chance of something worth photographing happening here if I just hung around for a few more minutes?

Oh, and by the way, leave any self-consciousness at the door if you can. Easier said than done, I know, but you just have to eventually. I went on holiday to Switzerland recently and was shooting in a really cool town called Vevey. There was a great little pedestrian tunnel that led on to a cobbled street with shops. I could see lots of interesting characters passing by, so I pre-composed the scene and waited for that decisive moment.

I ended up standing there for about 45 minutes and eventually came away with a couple of pretty decent images. But there was a waitor at the cafe positioned just behind me, who came out intermittently to serve and clear tables. The first time he noticed me he gave a friendly smile and a nod; the next time, after about 5-10 minutes, he looked gently amused that I was still there with my camera; this progressed through to confusion the next time he popped out, then suspicion and finally a mildly concerned look that I might be totally bonkers! Well, I guess he was probably right.

2. Pre-Focus If Possible

Try to do everything you possibly can to control the shot before it happens. When the moment to press the shutter does come, doing so needs to occupy your entire attention otherwsie you'll miss it. So if you're waiting for a person, or a group of people, to spring into life, pre-focus in advance. I like to use the autofocus to lock on to the right spot, before switching to manual focus and then not touch anything.


3. Use A Helpful Depth Of Field

What do I mean by 'helpful'? A depth of field that - a) Gives you a bit of breathing room for your subject to move around whilst remaining in the zone of sharp focus, and b) entails the use of a sufficently open aperture to allow a reasonably fast shutter speed, for freezing motion clearly. But, also, it's good to use a depth of field in street photography that roughly reflects how our eyes see the world. So, what is this perfect aperture? Well, experiment, get to know your lens, assess the results and then realize that f.8 is the best setting!


4. Do A Reccy

My Grandad always drove home to me the message that everything benefits from a quick reconnaissance! This is so true when it comes to photography. It's back to the point about gaining as much control in advance as you possibly can. Starting a shoot knowing that there are 3 or 4 locations you need to get to is so much better than wandering around like a headless chicken, or worse, doing that tourist thing where you mill around looking faintly lost!

The first few shoots I ever did for my local paper I visited the locations the evenings before; granted, this was partly so I knew how to get there and didn't miss the whole event the next day! But it helped me to pre-visualize the pictures I would be taking and think about the best ways of approaching the subject (angles, backgrounds, light direction/sources etc).


5. Anticipate: Pay Attention To the Wider Scene

Image by: hipnshoot

It's always important to strike a balance between being prepared for a shot, eye glued to the viewfinder, and being aware of surrounding influences by scanning the scene. Often photo-worthy moments emerge as a result of collisions (not literal!) between two elements, one that starts within the frame and one that approaches from outside it.

I once took a funny sequence of pictures of an old boy sitting on a park bench, just at the moment a pigeon made a very low fly-past over his head. I could see the bird approaching, and the poor guy nearly leapt out of his skin!

I like to get into a really steady position, preferably leaning against something, elbows tucked in and all that, and just move my head back a few inches so I can see what's going on whilst being able to easily peer back through the viewfinder at any moment.


I hope these 5 quick tips do help you out next time you're looking to capture a decisive moment. I guess quite a few of them are common sense, but I know it took me a while to figure them all out, so maybe this'll speed up the learning curve for you. The first one is the killer tip I think. Pre-composing and playing the waiting game can be a real game-changer.

Inspiration Alert! I came across these 2 awesome galleries exhibiting the decisive moment in photography. I strongly encourage you to have a look: 50 classic examples of the decisive moment / 30 modern examples of the decisive moment. Brilliant stuff.

Always interested to hear your own advice/thoughts/questions in the comments.

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