The decisive moment approach to Photography

“The decisive moment” is something that has puzzled many photographers capturing scenes on the street. The truth is that the decisive moment most often is a choice between several moments but much more about composition. There is rarely just one shot of a scene, but several pictures taken in a row and sometimes from shifting angles and perspectives. From a series of photos, the best one is selected according to framing, balance and what happens in the scenery.

When reading the sentence “The Decisive Moment” by Henri Cartier Bresson, it may give the wrong impression that he only took one photo of a scene and nailed it with that one shot.

Taking a closer look at the old contact sheets tells a different story. Like most great photographers Cartier Bresson never only took one photo of a great scene of interest. Looking at contact sheets shows almost all great images captured by Henri Cartier Bresson required multiple photos of the same scene. He worked hard to get the shots wanted.

A test strip from Henri Cartier Bresson.

The decisive moment is about the composition

Here the decisive moment is described: (Quotations are from Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment”, Simon and Schuster/Editions Verve, 1952).

“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality… In a photograph, the composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material since it is impossible to separate content from form. The composition must have its own inevitability about it.”

So form is everything. We can’t put away the full scenery and only have an eye for the main object. The full scenery around us impacts on what we have in focus within the framing.

The  moment

The moment of a scene that makes it interesting is a glimpse of a second is related to timing and framing. The two can’t be separated. Rarely do you hit that with just one pressure on the camera shutter button. It might be so in a few cases, but taking more pictures around a scene adds more possibilities to select the best possible shot.

This contact sheet isn’t original but sampled from several photos because the original negatives were unnumbered and cut into individuals. Done by Bresson earlier than 1939. This is scanned from Magnum Contact Sheets (2011) and shows several moments of the scenery. Bresson patiently took one picture after the other until the desired moment was captured. That moment can be the first or last picture or everything in between.

Notice how the broken wall makes an interesting framing of the boys. Secondly

 Henri Cartier Bresson took several pictures of the same scenery searching for the moment where it became interesting.

Hard work pays off

Well, it doesn’t have to be hard work. Circling and taking pictures is fun and with some training, it is possible to train the brain and mind to find the good scenes. Below is a photo from a cultural festival place at Mors a few years ago. As usual, I walk around a place and observe to find moments of interest. When I see something of interest I take one picture or more. In the “darkroom” at home, the selection is made and all uninteresting photos are opted out.

Sometimes we know we hit the moment when the picture is taken, and at other times it is discovered when the photos are examined afterwards on the computer. In this case, I had two photographs of this man and ended up selecting this one.

A little man. The surroundings add to the history and make the man stand out of the crowd. Without the surroundings, the story would lack depth and interest.
Photo: Morten Albek. Leica M9 with Summilux 50mm, f1.4

Below is the modern contact sheet in Lightroom Classic showing a series of pictures. The scene is a field where an amateur rocket enthusiast is about to launch a rocket. The optimal picture of course is when the rocket fires, but the chances of getting the rocket when lifting off is relatively low unless you shoot a high series of pictures and still it demands a bit of luck.

Usually, I never shoot series setting the camera on continuous mode, simply because it is very low on the M9, so I get used to shooting single shots. These pictures are shot on the Sony A7rII though performing way better than the Leica M9, but have this old-school habit of timing my shots rather than having too many pictures.

Above you can see the 22 pictures made including 2 (3 and 4) used to check exposure which is a method I will come back to later.

There are different photos but the most expressive one is number 20 which can be seen lower down on this page. I tested a black-and-white version too as a copy (21), but the colours were the best because of the flame below the rocket. As important is the expression on the face of rocket enthusiast and physical education teacher Kasper Solberg when he launches the rocket. This is the decisive moment in this scene both regarding timing and framing. One was selected from 21.

Worth mentioning, that I would have some extra possibilities firing a few more times to nail it, but we stayed with the one because I didn’t believe in a better shot. This was it.

The balance in the picture is simple but not without importance. The low angle is at eye level with the man, the rocket on its way up in the sky into the empty room in the picture. I think the expression on his face tells everything. A man in his world having a great time.

The launch. Photo: Morten Albek. Sony A7rII with Summilux 50mm, f1.4