Street photographers love to talk about the “decisive moment,” that slice of time when a moving scene reaches its compositional climax. But successfully capturing the perfect decisive moment is difficult – and without a careful strategy, it can often be impossible.
I’ve been doing street photography for years, and over time, I’ve developed a handful of tricks and techniques that’ll increase your chances of nailing that decisive moment. Below, I share these tips – and I promise: If you follow my advice and you spend plenty of time out in the street, then you’ll create consistently outstanding photos.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Become quicker with your camera
While slow, deliberate photography is often relaxing, the street is not a place where you can slack off and take all the time in the world to grab a shot. There is no second chance to catch candid moments. A decisive moment can last for five, three, or just one second and then be gone forever.
If you don’t catch it in time, you’ll lose it for eternity.
(By the way, if you’d prefer to do low-stress, peaceful photography, I’d recommend looking into landscape or macro shooting. Both can be done at a leisurely pace, and the results are often breathtaking.)
Street photography is a two-step process. Yes, you have to be able to spot potential scenes of interest as they occur, but you must also raise your camera, dial in the right settings, and hit the shutter button. If you’re not intimately familiar with your gear, then you’ll fail – no matter your decisive moment instincts.
So spend some time learning the ins and outs of your camera. Make sure you’re aware of all necessary settings and how to adjust them on the fly. Know the best methods for acquiring focus (I’d encourage you to try zone focusing), know how to change your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO without looking, and know how to adjust your camera burst mode speeds.
That way, when you see a decisive moment occurring, you can instantly lift your camera to your eye and hit that shutter button!
2. Get in the zone
The best way to capture decisive moments is to spot interesting scenes as they’re occuring (predicting them in advance is even better!). But to do this with consistency, you need to have the right mindset.
Specifically, you must be focused. You’ve got to cast out your attention and keep your head on the swivel, looking around for opportunities. Just walking in a good location while thinking about work or home life won’t land you the money shots. To absorb the chaotic environment and notice decisive moments, you need to concentrate.
I’d encourage you to pause before you step out onto the streets. Take a deep breath, and wipe away any distracting thoughts. Then, when you walk out the door, you’ll be ready to capture beautiful moments as they appear.
By the way, there are a lot of distractions in the modern world. If you have the option, turn off your phone before you shoot and leave your gadgets and gizmos (such as your smartwatch) at home. Remember: The more focused you are, the better you’ll do!
Also, don’t get too distracted by your camera. It’s a tool that helps you capture your vision, nothing more. You don’t need to look at every image you take, and you don’t need to spend long seconds agonizing over each setting (see the previous tip!). If this becomes an issue, try using a film camera. The minimalism may help you get in the zone.
3. Overcome your fear
Once you spot the perfect scene, you’ll need to translate it into a photograph – but if you’re afraid to get close or to raise the camera to your eye, you’ll find your creative freedom restricted. (And if you’re deeply afraid, you may struggle to see interesting moments in the first place. Not good!)
In other words, if you want to be a great decisive moment photographer, you must get over your anxiety. There’s no need to be afraid of strangers! Thanks to my years of experience, I can assure you that nothing truly bad will happen to you – as long as you use common sense. Don’t go around flashing people in dangerous areas, and you’ll do just fine.
In reality, the worst that can happen is that someone asks you to delete the picture. That’s pretty much it. And as long as you shoot in a bigger city, even that won’t happen very often.
Honestly, fear of the streets is mostly irrational. It’s your mind playing tricks on you! At the same time, everyone feels uncomfortable when they first start out on the street. We’re all conditioned to avoid invading the private space of others. But the best street photographers get past this discomfort, and they reach a point where they can shoot without feeling intense anxiety.
To overcome your fear, I’d recommend asking everyone you pass for a portrait. Most people will be relaxed, and you’ll eventually get rejected – which will show you that it isn’t the end of the world. Make sense?
4. Perfect your compositional skills
The decisive moment is all about composition – so if you don’t have strong compositional instincts, you’ll struggle to notice the best scenes even if they’re right in front of your eyes.
Plus, it’s important that you learn how to quickly position yourself and frame the scene for the best result, both of which rely heavily on composition.
In my experience, a huge number of images are ruined because the composition is slightly off – images that would’ve otherwise turned out amazing. I know that street photography is often seen as a genre of freedom. But when it comes to aesthetics, there are certain arrangements that look more pleasant than others.
If you’re relatively unfamiliar with street photography composition, then I’d encourage you to start with the rule of thirds. It’ll help you position your main subjects in a way that appears both balanced and dynamic.
I’d also suggest using leading lines; a line or two that points toward your subject will guide the viewer’s eye in the right direction. And if you want to really take your compositions to the next level, try incorporating layers into your images. If you can combine an interesting foreground subject with an interesting background scene, your images will turn out so much better.
Pro tip: Find some street photographers you like and study their images. Ask yourself: What makes this composition compelling? How did the photographer balance objects throughout the frame? Did they use the rule of thirds? Leading lines? The golden ratio? Over time, you’ll start to internalize these different compositional guidelines, and you’ll get better and better at applying them when out shooting.
5. Get inspired
If you don’t already look at street photography on a regular basis, start doing it right away. Follow photographers on Instagram, set aside time to look at websites, buy some photobooks – just make sure you’re spending lots of time contemplating the best work in the genre.
Because the more you look at great street photos – especially those street photos that rely on decisive moments – the better you’ll get at identifying the perfect scenes and opportunities when you’re out with your camera.
Plus, looking at the work of other photographers will offer lots of powerful inspiration. You’ll feel more excited to hit the streets, and you may discover ideas for photos that you would’ve never considered otherwise.
By the way: The right mood can also help you capture interesting photos. So don’t feel like you must only look at pictures; you can also listen to music, watch your favorite movie, or read a good book. As long as it helps you be more creative, it’s fair game!
Street photography is a lot of fun, but it’s not a discipline that’ll offer a quick and low-effort path to great photos. While you can certainly manage to capture beautiful decisive moment shots when you’re just starting out, it often takes months and years of work before you can regularly capture stunning images.
So if you’re struggling to get what you want, don’t give up. Know that results will come eventually. You just need to practice.
To accelerate the learning curve, spend plenty of time looking at other photos (as emphasized in previous tips!). And consider forming a group of other photographers who have similar goals. If you can walk the street with other street shooters – especially those with more experience – you’ll start to see the world from a new perspective. You’ll notice photo opportunities that you would never think of otherwise!
7. Stay curious
However you approach decisive moment street photography, don’t lose interest in your environment and in humankind. Cultivate your curiosity, embrace your inner tourist, and look for scenes that might normally seem boring.
If you’re struggling to find subjects to shoot, think back to the last time you were on vacation. Didn’t everything seem so interesting? The most mundane places offer lots of opportunities if you have the right mindset. A restaurant, a car, an old door; these might seem boring to a longtime resident, but to a photographer with the right mindset, they offer dozens of outstanding photos!
One more tip: Don’t ever restrict your shooting. It’s better to shoot too much than too little! Digital storage is cheap, and missing a decisive moment can be deeply frustrating. So keep your finger on the shutter button, and be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.
Decisive moment street photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some decisive moments.
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Get out on the street, be mindful, stay focused, and have fun. Over time, the results will follow!
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? How will you capture the decisive moment when out shooting? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 7 Tips for Capturing the Decisive Moment in Street Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES