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The Decisive Moment - a brief discussion

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932
“Making a photograph means recognising, all at once and in a fraction of a second, an event and the exact organisation of the visually perceived forms that express and signify that event. It means aligning the head, the eye and the heart along the same line of sight. It’s a way of living.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is credited for the expression, the decisive moment. The image at right, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, has become one of the most iconic of his images to represent that expression because it succinctly captures, in a single frame, the whole of his teachings. While there have been many discussions both casual and scholarly, like the image at right, his teachings has been oversimplified and distilled down to a short definition that, to me, has lost a lot of its original meaning or, as in some cases, completely missing the mark.

Rather than getting into a lengthy dissertation on what Bresson considered the decisive moment is I thought I would just share some of my ideas about how I interpret it to be. My take is based on my own interpretation of how Henri Cartier-Bresson explains it, which in the context of his book is very little, and in how he used certain techniques to visually represent the decisive moment visually.


In his book, Images à la sauvette, (The Decisive Moment in English), Cartier-Bresson first used the term decisive moment though very briefly. The majority of the text discussed aspects of his career up to that point of his career as both an artist and photographer. It is in passing that he described his philosophy about what makes a strong image and when to press the shutter in order to record a strong image. The first time the term decisive moment is used, interestingly enough, is in discussing portraiture and the subject, not photojournalism or even street photography (or as was called then, candid photography.) Although he does not go into great detail about what the decisive moment is in the book of the same title, he does expanded on the theme in future writings and interviews.
"The decisive moment and psychology, no less than camera position, are the principal factors in the making of a good portrait."
Man on bicycle, Hyères, 1932 - HCB
For Bresson, the decisive moment occurred when all the circumstances in a scene came together at one junction in time that, when captured perfectly, created a strong visual image. Those circumstances vary from scene to scene but they share some basic principles such as lighting, composition, subject placement, action, emotion, story and so on.

In studying the way he worked, Bresson was not one to let things to chance. Although what we see in his images are those where the decisive moment is perfectly presented, the reality is that he culled that single image out of a series of images that lead up and went past that singular critical moment. While he did, indeed, have a keen eye for anticipating that singular moment it's not as if he just waited for it, took that one shot and called it a day. This leads me to what I call the arc of action.

Arc of Action

In written narrative the writer takes a reader through a story arc that progresses through a series of events that push the story forward. The reader, in turn, also progresses through a series of emotions along with the protagonist.
The diagram at right illustrates a typical story arc, beginning with the exposition, or the setup if you will, and culminating in a resolution of whatever conflict was presented. The high point of emotional investment the reader goes through is in the climax of the action. A great novel will have a variety of these peaks and valleys throughout the narrative.

In photography, whether it be photojournalism, portraiture or just plain casual picture taking, there is a similar ebb and flow of events where each event can be described in an arc of action.

The diagram at left has the same basic principle but rather than an author creating it from their mind the photographer anticipates the action unfolding in front of them (or directing it in some circumstances.)

Active versus passive action

Whether the photographer is creating the scene in front of their lens or simply observing a situation as it unfolds there are two types of action that can happen; active and passive.

Active action is when the subject themselves are creating the scene through some action of their own. A model going through a variety of poses, an athlete in a competition, a performer doing a routine, and so on.

A classic example from Henri Cartier-Bresson's catalogue of work that exemplifies this type of action is the image of the man jumping a puddle behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (shown above). Here is what that action looks like as a diagram;

The action is the man walking towards a known conflict, the puddle. Through careful observation it's easy to anticipate what is going to transpire. While Bresson may not have known exactly how the man would react, it's safe to say that something interesting was about to transpire.

Passive action, on the other hand, relies on the action to occur within or pass through a scene. What that action is usually can not be predicted but what usually promotes this kind of action is the identification of a scene or setting with a strong visual quality. While in this case the action may be secondary, it is no less important.

For this example we'll look at the second image, above, of the man on the bicycle. In this image the action is secondary to the setting. The man on the bike could easily have been a salesman walking along the street or a stray dog searching for food.

Since the setting is the most important part it is more about finding an interesting composition for the scene, identifying a location for the action to occur and then waiting for that action to happen. Again, observation of the environment is critical in anticipating the action.

Anticipation and recognizing 'the moment'

It is easy to recognize the decisive moment in the two illustrations above because that is what Bresson wanted you to see. You know that moment because you can see that moment and you see it because it is given to you. But what do you do when it is you in the field looking for that moment?

Sifnos, Cyclades, Greece, 1961
This is where keen observation comes into play. Not just watching the action around you but where you, as photographer, become mentally, if not physically, involved in the action. It is one thing to passively watch an event unfold, it is another when you are invested in the outcome of an action. As a photographer you must be invested because the outcome results in an image.

One tool we have at our disposal that works hand in hand with observation is experience. Utilizing experience as you observe your surroundings allows you to make educated predictions to various behaviors. You already know most people will avoid a puddle in order to not get wet. They will either jump over it, go around it or, on some occasions, traipse right through it without care. Even in the latter you can come away with a strong image. What is key is there are predictable actions to any given situation, you only need to observe the situations and recognize their potential for a strong image and that comes with practice.

As much that experience can give you, people always have a way of surprising you and that needs to be factored into capturing the decisive moment. Like all true professional photographers, Bresson only showed the best of the best. The one, two or three frames just before and after that decisive moment, while never destined for publication, did serve a purpose at the time of capture. Any arc of action can have more than one decisive moment and they can be separated by a fraction of a second. A last minute glance over the shoulder, a misstep on the part of the subject, an extraneous element breaking into the frame. All these can alter the intention of an image, for better or worse. Having multiple frames allows the photographer to ensure the best possible moment is represented.

Convergence of visual and emotional elements

Understanding the basic principles of composition is vital to creating a technically accomplished image but may not result in a visually captivating image. As a photographer, you have to analyze all the elements that go into a frame and make sure they are arranged and working together in a cohesive manner. Light, background, foreground, subject, incidental characters and props all play a major role. Another element needed is emotion.

Trained as an artist, Bresson understood the importance of composition in all it's iterations. Much of his work was based on the use of strong visual elements of line and form, shadow and light and, more importantly, how the human element fit into that composition. It is that human element that gives us the strongest emotional reaction to his images.

Observing the environment, therefore, goes far beyond just watching what is going on around you but seeing what is unfolding as a narrative to a story. You can then select from among all the players that little thread of a storyline that will result in a compelling image.

It is far easier to see the story after it has been presented (or after it's gone and you curse yourself for missing it) then while it is happening. How many times have you looked at a photograph and imagined the story behind the image? Next time, instead of building the story after the image try telling the story as the scene unfolds in front of you. Voice it aloud if it helps. Then, as an arc of action begins to present itself you'll be in a better position to know when to press the shutter.

The decisive moment

As I mentioned earlier, Bresson's definition has been watered down to simply mean the moment the photographer trips the shutter when the subject is at the height of action. For me that is only one element and it goes beyond that. It means carefully observing your surroundings (the head) finding a strong visual composition (the eye) and capturing that subject at it's height of action to convey a strong sense of emotion (the heart). Yes, there is a lot packed into Bresson's decisive moment and that is why his images have survived the test of time to become so iconic. He learned how to aligning the head, the eye and the heart along the same line of sight and he brought that sight to us.


  1. I always heard the picture should tell a story but was often at a loss at the story. Your article gives me two choices. Both start with looking , then focusing on either an individual element or the environment as a whole. So we have waiting for the individual to do something the environment and the environment to be arranged in a particular way.

    1. Creative photography, as a whole, is about showing to our audience something we see in our environment. Henri Cartier Bresson, for much of his work, utilized the two methods illustrated in this article as tools for creating his imagery. While in some situations he indeed waited for something to happen he was also an active participant in the creation process. One needs to keep their head on a swivel and a keen eye open to all the possibilities of an image. Rather than just take a snapshot, however, Bresson "worked" the scene in order to have all the pieces (background, light, subject) fit the story.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Really wonderful, Duck. I'm a big fan of the French B&W photographers like Bresson and Robert Doisneau. Life all around us is a series of perpetual time/event sequences. Photographers often see a dot on a time line and move on - as a current of potential stories rushes by undetected. But they should remember to sit and observe, letting the players and action come to them. They should watch and wait as the stories unfold before them, and then anticipate and prepare for the climactic moment and magical shot. Thanks for your blogpost. I started a new Shutter-Buds WordPress website and look forward to adding resources and ideas. Nice blog, Duck.

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed this article. Looking forward to seeing what you put together.


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