The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson will always be remembered for his iconic black and white street photographs, but he will also be remembered for a famous phrase that is known by almost every serious photographer, ” The Decisive Moment ” . The term comes from his 1952 book Images à la sauvette, the English edition was titled, The Decisive Moment.

Photography is not like painting,” he 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.”


Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography has not only influenced my photography, but many generations of other photographers as well, including many of the greatest photographers that have lived. Including one of my personal favourites Richard Avedon, who said ” Henri Cartier-Bresson was the greatest photographer in the 20th century “, that is high praise indeed from coming from someone whom many consider to be one of the father’s of modern fashion photography ( the other being Irving Penn ). While I don’t agree with Richard Avedon that Henri Cartier-Bresson was the greatest photographer in the 20th century ( it is too broad a term in my opinion ), I will concede that Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, and that there has never been a better street photographer in any century.

The decisive moment

So what is the decisive moment? To put it simply it is the moment, the perfect moment. A single moment in time that is happening right before your eyes, that may last for only a fraction of a second, in which all the elements of the perfect photograph are combined. A beautiful balance of elements that may include the light, subject matter, colour, tones, contrast, lines, movement, expression, and the proper composition, all in a perfect moment of harmony.

It is usually a fleeting moment that has passed you by, even before had a chance to think about photographing it. In fact it is not something you think about at all, it is something you see and feel within a moment, and are hopefully photographing it as it happens. If you are thinking about it, then you have already missed the decisive moment.

Where is this perfect moment ?

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a street photographer so for him it was the marrying of the environment and the people within that environment. Real life in real time with unpredictable spontaneity. He once said, ” Photography is, for me, a spontaneous impulse coming from an ever attentive eye which captures the moment and its eternity.”  What I take from that is, there are always opportunities around you and if you are aware of everything that surrounds you and are observing closely what is in front of you, those moments will present themselves to you, but it is not enough to be aware of these moments as they happen, you have to be ready for them.

Is the decisive moment only for the unpredictability of real life street photography?  Absolutely not, the decisive moment transcends that notion and can be found in many fields of photography. You can have a decisive moment while shooting a portrait, a fashion picture, reportage, or in sports photography, because of the emotion, movement, and the unpredictability of people. I do think that people being in the photograph is a very important element to a photograph having the quality or feeling of a decisive moment, but it is not a absolute requirement.

The reason the decisive moment is so important to street photography is because the photographer can not control or predict what will happen, where in other areas of photography the photographer has some control, or in some cases complete control over the image that is being created. In street photography there are no do-overs, you either have gotten the photograph or you did not get the photograph, it is that simple.

Street photography, Paris, France, Man walking past roman columns,  Copyright ©Paul Kerins, All rights reservedMan walking forcefully past Roman columns, Paris, France.

In street photography there are no do-overs, you either have gotten the photograph or you did not get the photograph, it is that simple.



For most photographers the decisive moment is luck. Even Henri Cartier-Bresson said as much on the subject. You can’t really predict what will happen, but you can anticipate the decisive moment by being in the moment and making sure that you are ready beforehand. So how do you do that? Well part of it is paying attention to what is happening around you, and part of it is making sure you are properly prepared by having your camera ready.

A list of things you can do that may help you be better prepared to anticipate the decisive moment.


  • Check your camera and lens ( make sure everything is clean and working ) before you head out to make photographs.
  • If your camera uses batteries then make sure they are fully charged.
  • If you use a manual lens then set your hyperfocal distance.
  • Make sure you have plenty of free exposures left on your memory card or on your film.
  • Be constantly aware of the quality of the light that is around you, and of any subtle or dramatic changes to it.
  • Have your camera settings preset for the current lighting conditions.
  • Be aware of your environment.
  • Be aware of how the light effects everything within your environment.
  • Observe people and how they interact with other people and their environment.
  • Be aware of movement.
  • Have your camera in your hand with your finger on the shutter release.


If you feel that you are a naturally observant person, and that you do see on occasion those moments in life that most people are completely oblivious to, then learning to anticipate the decisive moment should not be very difficult to learn. Otherwise you would first need to learn to pay attention to your environment, which you can easily do by just going outside and sitting down by yourself somewhere in public, like a outdoor café or at your local park and just start people watching. Don’t take any pictures, in fact don’t even bring your camera, just observe life. Do this every time you are in public, make it a exercise because you can only get good at it if you continually practice it.

When you are walking you should begin to pay attention to everything in your environment, this can be more difficult than when sitting for two reasons, because you are moving ( it is more difficult to be observant while on the move) , and because walking is a repetitive motion and can become like a meditation. People zone-out when in a meditative state, it is one of the reasons why most people are completely unaware of what is going on around them, it is because their are deep within their own thoughts. You need to have a clear head and to focus on being in the moment, it is the only way to be completely aware of everything that is going on around you. If you can learn to do this, then you will begin to see, and then you can begin to anticipate the decisive moment.


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