Capturing a great Street Image is the combination of being at the right time at the right spot while mastering your camera. The first mix is often described as the “Decisive Moment” which is linked to Henri Cartier-Bresson due to his published photo book.

In Street Photography the Decisive Moment is an elusive term, sometimes even going in esoteric directions. While I agree that there are a lot of intangible variables in Street Photography, the Decisive Moment isn’t one of them. Therefore I want to dispell this myth and explain how you are able to spot interesting photo opportunities more frequently

The Process Behind an Image

The goal of Street Photography is to capture the life on the street for eternity to tell all the stories that are happening at that time. Achieving this goal is very hard, Street Photography depends on a lot of uncertain factors that you aren’t able to influence yourself. At the end of the day, we hope to have succeeded, but can’t be certain no matter how hard we worked.

On the other hand, the process of taking an image is pretty straightforward. First, you go on the street, be a part of the world that surrounds you and try to document what is interesting to you.

Then you spot an interesting scene that you would like to show to others. You get closer offering a more detailed point of view, you decide what should be in the frame and what isn’t interesting to you. Out of this entity of your surrounding, you decide that this particular scene is worth photographing and be captured for eternity.

After you discovered this smaller stage, you manufacture your picture, by following basic compositional rules, getting the exposure the way you want it to be and focus on the subject. This is more the technical part of Street Photography.

Coming home with 10,20 or 100 images that you found interesting at first, you have decided which are worth keeping and which should be kept to yourself. In the editing part you filter your images to tell the stories you want to last and that work the best in your opinion.

So the whole process can be sectioned into three parts.

  • Spotting a scene of interest
  • Capturing the Scene
  • Editing your Work

In books and Online Blogs you can read a lot about how to capture a scene. This includes the compositional rules, how to expose correctly or which camera might fit you the best. Even going so far, that you spend a lot of money, only to hope to improve the 2nd step in the whole process.

The editing part is already less spoken about and how to spot a scene is mostly just titled as the Decisive Moment without going further into detail.

What is the Decisive Moment

Street Photography displays a fraction of life. With the help of your camera, you are able to freeze 1/200s of life that happen in front of your lens. In contrast to spotting an interesting scene, it is very easy to describe how to properly expose an image.

Because of its complexity, there is the explanation that a photographer either has a great eye or he doesn’t. Whenever he makes use of this ability and sees something that would be hidden to most people, the decisive moment is used to explain what is going on the picture.

For me, the decisive moment is when everything in the picture makes sense and has a meaning. Every little detail adds to the story, there is nothing that should be removed from the picture or left out. It seems as if the photographer was able to carefully compose the image like a painting.

In reality, this is hard to achieve, since Street Photography is candid and doesn’t leave the option to compose an image like a studio photographer.

Thus the decisive moment seems very random. Either you got lucky and were able to capture a picture that comes close to the perfect arrangement, or the photo gods were against you this day and didn’t deliver the right situation this day to you.

But when looking at portfolios of Street Photographers, it seems that some attract the decisive moment more than others. Are they blessed with the most luck or are they able to actively work towards the perfect image?

Of course, you are able to increase your chance to encounter a scene that has the potential for the often cited decisive moment. Everyone encounters a lot more situations that would make for a decent image. It is the difference between a good and a mediocre Street Photographer to use these opportunities to its fullest potential.

So here are a few tips to miss fewer chances to spot the decisive moment.

Street Photography and the Decisive Moment - Bald Gang

Being Alert

As Street Photographers I kind of feel that it is our duty to show what is hidden to most people. Today, most people numb themselves when they are on the street. They can’t stand the boredom or need to be entertained to pass time quicker. Wandering from A to B but aren’t aware of their surrounding but rather listen to music or occupy their mind with a cell phone.

Not to say that listening to music as a Street Photographer is a bad advice per se. If you feel more productive while listening to your favorite music than this might work out for you. But Bruce Gilden’s statement “If you can smell a Photo it is a good Street Photo” is true for every sense.

The more sense an image addresses the better it is, or the easier it is for the viewer to put himself right into the scene.

Ignoring one of your senses voluntarily will make it only harder to employ sound in your image. In addition, the sound of the street can lead you to interesting scenes. There is so much going on that it is near impossible to take everything in through your visual senses.

Sounds like laughter, music playing from a band or other signs can lead you to interesting places, that you weren’t able to see.

Thus you will have a higher chance to encounter interesting scenes full of life if you stay alert and be aware of your surrounding.

This approach requires a lot of concentration and can be very exhausting. There is so much going on in the city that it is really difficult to keep up with everything and to process it. Usually, after two to three hours I need a break to reset my mind and be able to concentrate again. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to keep up the concentration don’t hesitate to rest earlier.

With training and repeated photo walks you will be able to be aware a lot longer and finally see what may be hidden to most people that are walking on the same street as you. Keep up your concentration to the fullest and try to absorb your surrounding. Filter what might be interesting to you and take a picture.

Perseverance

To capture one of the decisive moments you have to be able to spot them first. In the paragraph before, I explained that you need to absorb your environment completely to increase the probability of seeing something outstanding.

One picture that comes up when discussing the decisive moment is the man jumping over a puddle taken by Henri-Cartier Bresson.

Street Photography and the Decisive Moment - Henri Cartier Bresson

The Decisive Moment in this image is created by the man in the foreground jumping, replicating the poster in the background.

If you came across the same scene, imagine you would be able to discover the poster and just in that moment there is someone jumping, but missed to take a picture. Would you curse the moment and be totally let down, or take the opportunity and wait for the perfect moment to arrive again?

Although you might think that the chances are very little that the action might happen again, if there is one thing I learned over the last year of doing Street Photography, then it is that situations repeat. I don’t know the exact reason for it, but if you ever happen to witness a similar unlikely action happening, there is a very high chance for it to happen again.

Therefore, you should definitely take your time to work the scene and wait for the right moment again.

The Decisive Moment is less a moment of luck, but more a test of your patience and how much time you are willing to invest.

Curiosity

Besides being able to intake everything there is the threshold of “interestingness” that decides whether you feel to invest time in a scene or just try to find another opportunity.

As a Street Photographer, it helps to be open to explore new places, people, and situations to take interesting images. Curiosity can lead you to these decisive moments when you discover new things.

If you aren’t interested in the world around you, how should your pictures you present be able to excite the viewer?

Whenever I feel uninspired and not in the right mood for Street Photography it really shows in my pictures. Not only are they of lower quality, but I tend to take fewer of them as well. Obviously, this will result in less productive days.

Curiosity, on the other hand, can help you to re-kindle your passion for Street Photography. It helps you to overcome your worst days and inspires you to take better pictures again. Be curious in every aspect, not only in photography but in life.

This approach will lead you to unexpected and new situations forcing you to go out of your way and find new solutions.

Decisiveness in Color

Street Photography and the Decisive Moment - Blue

Although the puddle image by Henri-Cartier Bresson is often described as the Decisive Moment in Street Photography, the picture above taken in Havana by Alex Webb is my personal favorite when it comes to the Decisive Moment.

The players are great with the main subject, the boy balancing the ball, in the front and other kids in the middle and background filling the frame.

Another detail that stands out in the image are the vertical and horizontal lines in this image, especially seen in the polo shirt worn by the kid in front and the design of the buildings.

The most important part that makes the image so outstanding are obviously the colors. A mix of blue and white dominate the image. There are no other colors drawing the attention away from the subjects.

Conclusion

The Decisive Moment describes a striking composition where seemingly everything comes together and makes sense in a way that it adds to the story or beauty of the picture. Although this moment is often connected to luck that just happens out of the blue, it is more a combination of hard work and practice than pure randomness.

Although this moment is often connected to luck that just happens out of the blue, it is more a combination of hard work and practice than pure randomness. Even though in Street Photography we can’t just compose a picture like it would be possible in a studio environment, there are variables we can influence to increase the likelihood of capturing such a decisive moment.

First of all, you need to learn how to see in terms of photographic visions. Studying classical images, that are composed and capture a moment of beauty, can help to improve your own vision.

After that, keeping the concentration high while out on the street makes you more aware of your surroundings. Intake the world with every sense and through your own curiosity, you will be lead to interesting places.

Be creative and combine all of the interesting elements to compose the decisive moment yourself. If you see potential in a scene but are uncertain and loose your patience quickly, be assured that things repeat more often than you might think.

Did you mess up the first shot and didn’t get the picture you wanted? Hang in there and take your time to capture what you desire.

The Decisive Moment is less “magic” and like so often in life the result of hard work and constant practice. While there is randomness involved in Street Photography, you can increase the likelihood of capturing such a magic moment and force the luck upon you.

In the end, as a Street Photographer, it is our fate to photograph such “once in a lifetime” moments on a regular basis.


Stay Curious

Sebastian Jacobitz