7 Tips How to Capture “The Decisive Moment” in Street Photography

Seoul, 2009
Seoul, 2009

“The Decisive Moment” — a fabled concept introduced by the founder of street photography (Henri Cartier-Bresson). The “decisive moment” is that beautiful fleeting moment– where all the compositional elements come together, and you only have a split second to capture the moment. How can you better capture the “decisive moment” — or better yet, identify the decisive moment?

1. What is a “decisive moment” for you?

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

To start off, you need to identify what is a “decisive moment” for you.

For me, a “decisive moment” is a moment which I find personally meaningful, emotional, or stirring.

When I see what is a “decisive moment” for me, I feel excited. I feel my heart thumping. I see the beauty of life. I want to capture that moment and share it with others.

2. Follow your intuition

Santa Monica, 2010
Santa Monica, 2010

When I’m out on the streets, I try to follow my intuition. I try to get into a zen-like meditative state, when I’m walking, I don’t think of anything else. I either turn off or silence my cell phone, and I just wander the streets with no destination in mind.

I keep my options open. I try not to have any pre-conceived ideas when I’m out on the streets. The less restrictive I am with my thinking, the more open I am to “decisive moments.”

3. “Set it and forget it”

Santa Monica, 2010
Santa Monica, 2010

When I see a potential “decisive moment” I don’t think. I just click.

In terms of technical settings, I like to “set it and forget it.” Meaning– I generally shoot in “P” (program mode, where my camera automatically chooses the aperture and shutter speed), ISO around 1600 (so I can have a fast shutter speed), center-point autofocus, and I just click.

The less I worry about my camera and the technical settings, the more open I am to capture a “decisive moment.”

4. Photograph what you’re afraid of

Berkeley, 2016
Berkeley, 2016

Whenever I see a person or a scene that makes me feel afraid, that can also be a potential “decisive moment.” I use my fear as a gauge whether a scene might be interesting or not.

For example, if I’m walking down the streets and I see a person or a scene that makes my heart beat fast, I make sure to take the photograph. I want to reduce any sort of regrets in my street photography.

0-one eye contact - mikie

Sometimes I see an interesting character and I walk by them. I feel nervous. I then turn back, and approach them and ask for permission to take their portrait. Sometimes they say no; most of the time they say yes.

5. Look for emotion and gestures

Downtown LA, 2016
Downtown LA, 2016

I think the best “decisive moments” are the ones in which I see powerful gestures or emotions. I prefer not to photograph people with their hands by their sides. Rather, I look for people who exude emotion. This can be shown through hand gestures (hands on their face, hips) or the look on their face.

1-la sweat contact

I also listen to my own emotions. The days I feel alone and frustrated, I look for others who feel or look solitary on the streets. On other days when I’m feeling more extroverted and confident, I look for more joy on the streets (like kids playing, or an old couple in love).

6. What is personally-meaningful to you?

Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject

Lastly, I look for personally-meaningful “decisive moments.” This doesn’t just need to be on the streets.

When I am focusing on “personal photography” (documenting moments with the love of my life, Cindy) I make sure to always have my camera ready and on me. I look for moments when she feels stressed, anxious, happy, sad, or even mad. I try to make photographs that affirm my love for her, and sometimes even the frustration I have with her. But the key thing is that I make photos that I find meaningful, not necessarily what others will think is meaningful.

7. Work the scene

SF, 2016
SF, 2016

So at the end of the day, the “decisive moment” isn’t some sort of objective thing. It is whatever interests you. And know that there are millions upon millions of “decisive moments” happening everyday. If you happen to miss a decisive moment– know that there is just another around the corner.

Lastly, often you need to click the shutter a lot before you can capture or identify a decisive moment. Don’t just take 1-2 photos and run away. Always “work the scene” and take lots of photos whenever possible.

Contact sheet
Contact sheet

I would rather shoot 300 photos of one scene and get 1 interesting shot, rather than taking 1-2 photos of 300 scenes.

Be selective in terms of what you find interesting, but when you find that moment– try to make the best photo of that scene possible.

Conclusion

Life is short, and moments are fleeting. Your job as a photographer is to capture a few decisive or meaningful moments to you, and to share that beauty with others.

Never give up friend– share your vision with the world.

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