Street photographers love to talk about the “decisive moment,” that slice of time when a scene reaches its compositional climax. But successfully capturing the perfect decisive moment is difficult – and without a careful strategy, it’s often 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 those tips – and I promise: If you follow my advice and you spend enough time out in the street, then you’ll create plenty of decisive-moment style 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 scenes. 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.
Street photography is a two-step process. Yes, you must be able to spot potential scenes of interest as they occur, but you must also raise your camera, dial in the right settings, and press 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 equipment. Make sure you’re aware of all necessary camera 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’s 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. When possible, get set up in advance
While you can capture decisive-moment style shots with any camera, for the best results, you’ll want to use the right camera, and you’ll also want to be sure that it’s set up correctly.
The best decisive-moment cameras are quick, with virtually no shutter lag at all. You’ll also need to get used to timing your shutter actuations. This can be done with practice, by repeatedly photographing moving objects, such as passing cars or bikes, until you’ve completely gotten the feel of the timing, and speed of the shutter release. This is vital, as the coordination between your eye, the shutter release, and the camera needs to be instinctive, to achieve the split second timing that’s needed.
You might find that shooting with a prime lens is faster, as well. Using a zoom will inevitably waste precious seconds zooming in and out; it’s often quicker to just physically move. You might also find that the focus on a prime lenses is a bit quicker, and that you compose better with a prime attached to the camera, rather than a zoom.
As far as camera settings are concerned, again, it’s all about anticipation. Set up the camera, wait, and shoot. Often this will mean using a number of auto controls – try using auto ISO, auto white balance, and generally shoot in Aperture Priority mode. For fast-paced street photography, the moment is far more important than your choice of depth of field, and even having the camera on Program mode is okay. It’s all about emotion and expression, timing and anticipation, and the fewer distractions you have to achieve this goal, the better. If you are a manual shooter, then setting the exposure in advance is critical.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning, that having a camera that writes to the memory card reasonably quickly is important too. You’ll likely need to fire off several shots relatively rapidly, and waiting for the camera to write the card is a pain. Often buying faster, higher-quality cards is the answer!
3. Get in the zone
The best way to capture decisive moments is to spot interesting scenes as they’re occurring (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 street photography 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.
4. Don’t be afraid to do some pre-planning
As you head out, think about where the type of pictures you want to capture, and consider where they’re most likely to happen. It’s often a bad idea to randomly go out looking for photographs, especially when you’re starting out; you really have to put yourself in the best situation, at the best time, to increase your chances of getting the pictures you’re after.
For instance, you’ll probably want to head out in the middle of the day, maybe on a weekend, when the streets are more likely to be filled with people. There will be many more interactions, and your chances of success are higher. It all begins with deciding exactly what type of pictures you want, and where the most likely place are that you will get them.
Once you are in place, pre-visualizing the types of shots you want will give you focus and purpose. If you’re photographing at an outdoor market, for example, how about setting yourself the task of photographing human connections, maybe as people are chatting, handing over money or goods, etc? Or how about looking for interesting juxtapositions between shop window displays and people standing or passing in front of them?
This may all sound rather prescriptive, but by setting yourself some parameters, you’ll get your creative juices flowing, focus your attention, and increase your chances of success. There’s nothing worse than not knowing what you want and randomly taking pictures just waiting for something to happen.
5. 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, you may occasionally have someone ask you to delete a 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 street 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?
6. 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 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 you’re out shooting.
7. Work the scene
The master of decisive-moment street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson, almost always took several exposures of the same scene or moment. He very rarely got the shot in one take!
This means that you need to take a number of frames in fairly quick succession – not on continuous (burst) shooting mode, but close enough together to record subtly different expressions, juxtapositions of people in the frame, and changes of angle and composition.
You should aim to keep moving: try the shot a little to the left, then the right, maybe a step forward or back, or a little higher or lower. Photographing when an interesting scene appears should tire you out, and you should always be in motion. You can then go through the different frames once you’re back home and select the strongest image.
8. Be unobtrusive
The best street photography shots tend to come from remaining invisible, which is why I don’t think that it’s a particularly good approach to stalk your subject from behind a huge 400mm lens!
Instead, it’s much better to use something smaller and less intrusive, to be closer to the subject and more involved in what’s going on. Consequently people will behave in a much more natural and relaxed way in front of you and your camera.
Sometimes, people will notice what you’re doing, and it’s important to remain as non-threatening as possible. This can be as simple as smiling, looking relaxed, keeping your body language open and friendly, and just being respectful of people’s personal space. Yes, you’re an observer, but you have to observe from a position of being emotionally and physically involved. You’ll gain much more acceptance from your subjects, and even if someone does notice your camera, the pictures will be more authentic and natural.
That’s not to say that your presence should influence the scene in any way; it’s just that you have to be accepted to be able to photograph people behaving naturally. If your subjects notice you and then do a pose for the camera or just seize up, you won’t get good images.
A great way of making this work is to move in and out of the scene really quickly – essentially this means waiting for a scene to unfold a little distance from you. As an interesting moment is about to happen, walk toward the scene, camera ready to go. Very quickly, shoot as you are close to the action, then continue to walk out of the scene. If you combine this with unobtrusive body language, you can remain essentially invisible.
9. 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!
11. Don’t chimp!
The decisive moment is often slightly later than you’d expect. If you’ve just captured one shot, you’ll often be tempted, during this time, to take a look at the screen (i.e., chimp). And that’s when the best scene of all will appear and disappear! (This is what I call the chimping effect.)
Many, many times, I’ve taken an image, had a quick look down at the screen on the back of the camera, only to realize that I just missed something better.
So don’t look at the screen. Keep your camera ready, and always wait – even if you think you’ve got the shot.
Relatedly, you will often miss great shots when you are tired and have given up. You need to keep going and going – I know that the longer I shoot, the more high quality images I will get. I also know that by having a complete break for five minutes or so every hour, I am able to keep quick and alert for longer. It’s amazing to consider how, when I give up on a scene, something interesting often seems to just appear!
12. 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 with your camera? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 7 Tips for Capturing the Decisive Moment in Street Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES