The Decisive Moment



The gestures of the boys, their position in the frame and the two crows, make a brilliant moment. Exposure: 1/800sec at f/5.6 (ISO 100). Photograph/Alok Brahmbhatt

The gestures of the boys, their position in the frame and the two crows, make a brilliant moment. Exposure: 1/800sec at f/5.6 (ISO 100). Photograph/Alok Brahmbhatt

Ever wondered why you missed out on that perfect shot? Ambarin Afsar explains how focusing on the right moment can help you achieve better compositions.

Have you ever expected that something is about to take place and realised that a minute later, it actually does? This is exactly what photography is all about. For instance, imagine that you are out shooting on the streets and you spot a group of children running back home from school. Your camera settings are in place and you manage to get a few shots before the children are gone. But when you review the pictures later, you realise that the frame does not tell a story. This is because the decisive moment was missed.

Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term ‘decisive moment’ and explained it as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of forms, which gives that event its proper expression.” Simply put, it is a photograph taken at the precise moment that defines or illustrates the entire story or action.

Wildlife photographers will tell you that you need to be familiar with the behaviour of the wild animal, so that you are able to predict its actions for a perfect capture. Similarly, when you are shooting candid people portraits or pictures of family and friends, learn to predict their reactions to get that perfect moment.

Here is a situation you must have probably photographed—a child blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. You know what is going to happen and you have positioned yourself in advance to get the best shot. Suppose you have shot a nice photograph of the child with puffed-out cheeks, extinguishing the candles. But what about the moments that take place before or after that shot—like the child drawing in his breath with a look of pure determination on his face as he is about to attack the candles? What about his elation at having accomplished the task as his joyous family and friends cheer him on? As Cartier-Bresson himself, said about such missed moments, “Oops.”

Why Moments Are Missed
Usually, moments are missed because the shutter was released too soon—the photographer did not wait long enough or wanted to get to the next shot too soon. Waiting is a very essential part of capturing the decisive moment. Shooting frantically will make you realise that you are missing great shots, because you are in a hurry to get to the next. Cartier-Bresson said that one needs to be able to catch the immediacy of life in a single photograph, and let the camera become the extension of one’s eye.

A Common Misconception
The decisive moment is not really the moment you press the shutter-release button. In fact, it is when you compose the shot in your mind, and all you have to do is wait for the action to actually take place so that you can release the shutter. Previsualisation is the key to capturing that perfect shot.

Capturing the Decisive Moment
So how do you actually capture the decisive moment? You can do that by trying out the following:

  • Observe the activity taking place in a scene. If you are shooting in a heavy traffic area and want only a few vehicles in the frame, wait till the road clears. Alternatively, you could wait for the signal to change.
  • Pre-visualise the shot. Compose and frame it in your mind. Also, adjust camera settings in anticipation of the moment. For example, you need a fast enough shutterspeed to freeze the motion of a fast-moving subject, like a bird. However, if you want to capture a motion blur, an appropriately slow shutterspeed will do the trick.
  • Select a composition and check if a defining element is missing. Wait till the element enters the frame. It could be a bird flying across the vast expanse of a sky or a motion blur of a person walking past a group of children.
  • When the element enters the frame, all you have to do is press the shutterrelease button.
  • There are times when you know that an element will reach a particular position in the frame. For instance, you are capturing a sunset and a boat is gradually moving along the horizon. Wait for it to reach the point where it will define your composition, and then shoot your image.

Sometimes, you find that you have shot the wrong composition. Do not panic. Instead, wait for the right shot as it is crucial to be patient and unhurried. However, do remember that while waiting is important, capturing the perfect moment also involves quick reflexes, fast thinking and trusting your gut feeling. You could also take multiple shots to avoid missing the moment. Since digital cameras give us a lot more freedom, in terms of the number of photographs that we can shoot, it is essential that we keep the above points in mind.

In the picture-making process, there is a fraction of a second when your eye must see a composition or an expression offered by the scene. You must learn to intuitively recognise when that fraction of a second comes, because that is the moment when you are at your creative best. Once you miss it, it is gone forever. So, attempting to capture the decisive moment can play a central role in making better pictures.


Tags: Ambarin Afsar, Composition, decisive moment, February 2010, framing, moment, Shooting Technique