The Decisive Moment {from an impetuous photographer}

The Decisive Moment {from an impetuous photographer}


I first fell in love with Brooke Snow when she started posting the Inspired by Life video series on her blog and I noticed that she was something I was not: calm. Brooke was chilled out and not frantically running around shooting thousands of images. Now, at this point I’d gotten over the spray-and-pray stage where many newbies begin. And I’d started shooting on purpose. But I still lacked the calm ability to genuinely feel the moment -the millisecond- when, as Brooke puts it, “…composition and emotion reach an apex.”

This is what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called “the decisive moment”.

The term “decisive moment” is used in countless fields of study. Absolutely everything that relies on human say-so relies on our ability to accurately choose the moment when we act. You can describe these moments in so many different ways. Brooke calls them “the moments in between” the typical shots. Henri said they were “…the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event…”  And me? I sum it up this way: “the impetus”. When I began exercising myself to the point of only shooting in those decisive moments, I found that what began as an exercise of my brain eventually became more automatic and finely tuned. It became an impulse or a reflex.

You might be able to call a photographer who clings to the decisive moment careful, circumspect, thoughtful or wise. That is, a photographer whose impulses are so finely tuned that rather than being random bursts of passion, they are truly moments of decision: decisive moments. And although Henri Cartier-Bresson utilized his ability to foresee these moments in high action street photography, I find them in other ways as a portrait photographer. The twinkle in a child’s eye. The moment where a smile turns from fake to real. The moment where a groom is saying everything he feels for his bride on his face. These, too, are fleeting moments that require a calm, decisive photographer.

Here are a few ways I settled myself down in the excitement of pursuing my greatest passion so that I can feel those precise moments milliseconds before they occur:

Breathe. Take a moment to breathe if you find yourself feeling frantic and taking way too many shots.

Restrain. If you’re a film photographer, you probably don’t have this problem because you’re restrained to 12 or 24 frames on a roll of film. Digital photographers can exercise their restraint by giving themselves a set number of frames to get the shots they need. This will force you to slow down and begin feeling the moments that matter.

Restrain more. In addition to not having the luxury of thousands of frames at his disposal, Henri Cartier-Bresson also didn’t have 10 FPS. He couldn’t hold his finger on the trigger and cross the fingers on the other hand, hoping for something good. He could take one shot at a time. Exercise this yourself and you will be amazed at how you find yourself able to eventually make those decisions yourself.

Hunt. Hunters don’t run around with their guns on fully automatic, spraying bullets in the air. Neither should we. Hunt for the moment, the decisive moment. Lay in wait. Hold your focus for as long as it takes.

Embrace the awkward moment. Push past the awkward moments. That’s usually when it happens. Whatever ‘it’ I was hoping for, that’s where I often find it.

My nature is that I can be quite an impetuous person. I’ve had to learn to reign in my shutter finger. In short? Don’t spray and pray. Get to know the decisive moment.

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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Paul March 6, 2012 11:31 pm

    This is sooooooo very different and yet also very good.

  • SOJO November 12, 2011 11:19 am

    Really true, great article. I do photos for hobby, usually reffering to them as "chronicle of our life". Have small son, just 2.5y and tendency to capture every wonderfull moment he brings to our lifes.

    I'm started using DSLR during last spring, previously on compact only, so the shooting frenzy got me as well. I'm realy into capturing the unique moments rather then planned setups. Approx. 2-3 months ago, I realized that the best pictures I ever done, are the one when I 'saw it comming' and waited to collect it ;)

    Recently, I changed my approach a bit, keeping in mind that if I miss to capture the moment on camera, I now do notice all the details, light, positions, gestures which made the object in the frame pleasing for my eyes.
    Next time it's much easier to spot it comming, and in most cases as well shot it right at that 'moment'.

    One to add: it's really improtant to watch the world not just trough lenses. There are millions of moments waiting to be captured, everyone who tries will get it, sonner or later.

    I do understand that many of you can oppose on 'unique moments' which will never repeats, but be honest. Without those misses, we will not have the hits.

  • kimi pal November 10, 2011 05:01 am

    i love doin portraits. n always make it a point to wait fr that precious fleeting moment... a lil tough fr an amateur lyk me bt it is kind of a very satisfying fr both the photographer n even d subject... #portraits
    thanks fr d post.. really connects

  • Hoop November 7, 2011 11:26 pm

    First, Henri Cartier-Bresson never referred to his own work as the "decisive moment" that was a phrase coined by others who wrote about his work. It's just as important to get the facts straight as it is to slow those shutter fingers down.

    Second, digital is so instantanious that many people don't ever think about slowing down; they think that is the only way to shoot ........ blam!blam!blam! rapid fire. It's the switch from hunter/gather mode (which requires waiting) to urban plentiful (no waiting required). Many of my students don't understand how slowing down to think can help them. So, I do a heavy critique on "what's your subject?" and "how do I know that?" early on in the course so that they start to understand that they have to actually show their viewer something interesting in order to capture their interest.

    The old computer adage of "garbage in/garbage out" also works in this type of thinking. I reference the invention of the gatling gun several times during the first few weeks of my courses so that they start to understand that the shotgun approach does not always "cover the subject".

  • Paul Furniss November 7, 2011 08:34 am

    On reflection, I would be interested in your comments of the below:
    I have just been browsing through my latest purchase, "The Essential guide to portrait photography" from the Digital Photography School website, "Free" where interviews with various professional photographers giving advice and venting their opinions. Below is the advice of Chase Jarvis:

    Twitter: @chasejarvis
    e-book: Chase’s recent book
    ‘The Best Camera Is The One
    That’s With You’

    Q: What mistake do you see beginner photographers making most when it comes to portraits?
    How could they overcome them?

    A: Beginners don’t shoot enough frames. It’s as if
    they’re shooting the last roll of 36 exposure film
    on the planet. Click. Pause. Pause. Pause. Click.
    And that’s it. Should be more like click, click, click,
    click, click, and then repeat. Even the highest
    quality memory cards and the best hard drives
    for saving your photos are reasonably priced.
    You have to swing to get a hit in baseball. Same
    rules apply hear. Don’t be afraid to push the shutter
    button a lot. And then push it some more.

    And your opinions are???????????????

  • Paul Furniss November 7, 2011 06:35 am

    Oh Stephanie, I cant wait for that instinct to know when the right moment is?
    I wouldn't say I was ever a prayer & sprayer, but I did take far to many meaningless shots only to delete them later,.
    I am now trying to move to the next stage of going out with a purpose, to shoot something in particular, to set up my shots,and wait........................................for the moment.
    It is not an easy thing to do, its time consuming (if you have any spare time in the first place) then the elements have to be right, the light, the composition etc.
    I am still waiting for that shot, the one that is worthy of the wonderful frame I have ready to adorn my living room wall, but when it happens I will know it and it will all have been worth it.

  • Riana Ambarsari November 6, 2011 02:47 pm

    Exactly what i need. And I'm on the bring of giving up. Thank you so so much!

  • GariRae November 6, 2011 11:24 am

    What a great article! I,too,struggle with burst, especially when shooting birds. My card always seems to be writing at the perfect shot, busily working on the 5 previous not-so-great images. Also hard to slow down the clicker when shooting water and weather; the fear of missing something drives me filling up cards. That said, I will continue to work on controlling that errant finger or cable release. I would love to feel that sense of connection in that "decisive moment".

  • photomiser November 6, 2011 11:01 am

    Great post. I started photography in the film days, and brought that economy with me (until I learned how to use bracketing, lol.) Personally, I hate weeding through hundreds of uninspiring shots at the end of the day, which is another motivation to keep it lean.

  • Ronny November 6, 2011 09:57 am

    Very nice post. It made me think about my attitud behind the viewfinder.

  • ray November 6, 2011 06:11 am

    @ccting too have d5100.u r using live view!! it will delay!!
    and u r supposed to use the view finder..... :P then there will not b any probs...

  • Jim November 5, 2011 08:39 pm

    Thanks very much for this post. Just having purchased Sony's new 12-fps Alpha 77 camera, it is tempting to spray and pray, as you say. But at 24MP a shot, the largest hard drives in the world would be full in about 4 minutes! An afternoon with a film camera is a good remedy for sprayin' and prayin'. "One and done" is quicker, cheaper and often more satisfying.

  • GENorkus November 5, 2011 01:25 pm

    Unless you really need it, my suggestion is real simple. Do not use any kind of burst mode! (...yes I did learn photography in the film days.)

  • Stephanie November 5, 2011 10:16 am

    It's amazing how knowing the decisive moment eventually becomes instinct. I learned photography by shooting on film and when you're a student on a limited budget, you can't really afford to waste a shot! You really have to be patient, observant, and in tune with your chosen subject. Now that I shoot in digital, it's tempting to just rattle off a bunch of shots and delete the ones that don't work. But if you choose to go for quantity, then quality will inevitably suffer.

  • John Deir November 4, 2011 03:58 am

    (On Whidbey Island, just got in), Yesterday Morning I was up again very early and on the computer; then I noticed a moment was to happen. The weather changed, clouds perfect, sky would be bright before an approaching storm so I hurried my gear together and drove to my favorite spot only to miss a blazing colored sky just by minutes, the freezing gusty wind was my only reward.
    This morning I was not going to miss out so I went out and waited in the dark hoping for the magic to appear. Nope, just more cold (below freezing) and kicked myself for leaving my coffee behind.

    That moment will come, I only need the one shot; but you know, I would not trade these moments for what I was doing in the past. Its the anticipation of the search, then finding it.

  • Kyle Franklin Neuberger November 4, 2011 02:42 am

    Beautifully written. So true. Sometimes we dwell on what we might miss rather than focus on what we are waiting to create.

  • bycostello November 3, 2011 09:53 pm

    lovelly image

  • ccting November 3, 2011 07:01 pm

    me too. I have around 1-2 second delay... by the time i press the button,the captured one is not wht i want. Perhaps it is the slow response of my entry level D5100 + myself....Prediction is important

  • Brett November 3, 2011 02:53 pm

    This is still difficult for me. I actually seem to get worse with my "spray-and-pray" stage because, after all, it's digital. Just delete. Terrible reason, I know. Thanks for the tips as I continue to battle my inner-self.

  • ccting November 3, 2011 10:53 am

    WOW, a very beautiful photo..

  • Anthony November 3, 2011 05:30 am

    As a nature photographer I agree whole heartily with your hunting suggestion, but what do think about using the bracketing setting on the digital SLR. I have used it with film cameras for many years, especially in landscape and macro photography.

  • sillyxone November 3, 2011 04:32 am

    just thinking of the $250 cost to replace the shutter when it reaches the rated limit will slow me down :-D

    BTW, the posted photo is spendid, her smile is very natural.

  • Fuzzypiggy November 3, 2011 04:21 am

    I used to do a lot of archery when I was young lad, one thing I learned through my father was to make your actions become second nature, you must stop thinking about what you're doing and simply go through the motions you have practiced over and over, almost perform them in a trance. That only came through years of practice to the point where I would dream perfect shots on target. It paid off, I got to shoot in the national youth team and broke several UK target records.

    Now I do photography as my main hobby, all those thoughts my father drummed into me ( he was also an avid amatuer photographer! ) come back to me now. Visualise what you want, try to imagine the scene before you get there. Imagine how you'll react as the light changes over the scene, you've shoot enough rubbish shots to know what a bad one looks like. You don't have to think too much about the camera settings, you can almost set the camera in accordance with the scene, while in your sleep.

    I used to be a spray'n'pray type as we all are when we start, I would come home with 500+ shots and pull out 1 or 2, now I come home with maybe 50-60 after 5-6 hours and I can pull out maybe 10 shots I like. I aim for the day I can simply set up, wait, click one shot and go home! LOL! May never happen but without targets and goals, all that practice will come to nothing.

  • THE aSTIG @ November 3, 2011 03:13 am

    This is very true. More and more as my skills have improved I have been spending more time in preparations than actually shooting. I guess it comes with experience, as you already know how to achieve a desired look for every image you want to shoot.

    Like this photo for example, which I took for a client who manufactures aftermarket wheels for cars and SUVs. Took me about 20mins to prepare but only took about 3 frames to get it right.

  • Andy Mills November 3, 2011 02:51 am

    I used to be guilty of the spray and pray method, but have also learnt to be more measured and to think more about what I'm doing. Saying that though, there's no point in over thinking it, you do have to rely on instinct as well.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck November 3, 2011 01:51 am


    i love the comment about not running around on automatic spraying shots everywhere, best to lie in wait! I did just that to capture this shot of the emotions of three toddlers, one of which loved to eat sand and was encouraged by an older sibling. It is just prescious.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer November 3, 2011 01:51 am

    When photographing people it is easy to rush more as I do not want to keep the client waiting. When not photographing people, I find using a tripod instantly slows everything down and makes making a photograph much like the author above describes. I took my time and waited for things to line up for these motion blur carnival ride shots:

    When talking about restrain, and restrain more, I think that should apply to editing too. As soon as I see post processing gimmicks applied to a shot, that tells me it is not strong enough to stand on its own. However, it would seem the photo the author included was pretty strong to start with, so I wonder why the vignette and other effects?

  • Gnslngr45 November 3, 2011 01:44 am

    I am learning to slow down. And remain calm. Missing "the shot" can be quite frustrating - especially with young children - as it is doubtful you will get another chance. So often I have set everything right (camera, composition, lighting, etc.) and then the child's eye's are closed. And they are done with posing - ready to have fun. And while I am there fuming inside that I missed that shot, I am missing the next "shot" as the child relaxes. Patience is a virtue.


  • Tom_Vienna November 3, 2011 01:04 am

    Thx Elizabeth remembering us to slow down.
    Several month ago i stopped using the burst mode and the quality of the pictures increased dramatically.

  • John Stracke November 3, 2011 12:39 am

    Reminds me of a line from Pratchett: "A bad hunter chases. A good hunter waits."

    Oh, and it's "rein in", not "reign in".