The Decisive Moment: My Thoughts (Research Point)

Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log. You’ll come back to this in Assignment Three.


I have struggled with this because when I first read the “definition” of “The Decisive Moment” as described by Henri Cartier-Bresson, I instinctively felt it was too narrow and whilst I admire Bresson’s work I do not necessarily agree with the amount of luck or intuition required to capture these shots.  In fact it seems that Bresson himself “set up” the shot if only by identifying the frame in which he wished to capture a “moment” and then waiting hours for it to appear!  To me the “decisive moment” in a literal definition is something that is in the moment and as such may well be missed because it is fleeting.

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.

– Henri Cartier-Bresson,Foreword,” The Decisive Moment

Bresson made the term famous because of his ability to capture such shots and in doing so influenced photojournalism in the 20th century.

However, Ghazzi in an article suggests that the term is “more a cliche than a reality even for it’s creator”.  He goes on to say however, the decisive moment cannot be ignored because of the impact it has had on photojournalism.  The decisive moment is a small and unique opportunity for a photographer to produce interesting and sometimes humorous moments through the lens. (accessed 25.2.2015)

There is nothing in this world that does not have
a decisive moment.  Cardinal de Retz (b.1613 – d.1679)

Source: The Decisive Moment: Understanding Convergence | FYNN[i]

The concept of the decisive moment is difficult to understand as it can be interpreted in a number of ways and the difficulty in capturing the elements that Bresson describes can be a mammoth task with a lot of luck thrown in.  For this reason some question the literal translation of what is meant by the decisive moment.

Eric Kim[ii], in his zonezero blog “Debunks the Myth of the Decisive Moment”  (accessed 28.2.2015)

In his blog Kim, publishes the contacts sheets of several of Bresson’s shoots which show that he did not just turn up at a location and capture the precise moment in one shot.  It appears from the contact sheets that he took several shots of the scene from different perspectives taking many shots to get that iconic one. This is also the view of  John Barbiaux[iii] in his article Setting the trap for Great Shots. (accessed 28.2.2015)

Where he too has studied the Magnum Photos contact sheets and concludes that Cartier-Bresson would wait at the perfect set up and the perfect subject to enter the luck involved. scene.  Barbiaux also suggests that choosing the right scene reduces the amount of luck involved.

A google search for Henri Cartier-Bresson contact sheets revealed that many of the Magnum and other photographers used this method to choose the decisive moment. (accessed 28.2.2015).

With that in mind I was more comfortable with the concept.

[i] Fynn S (2012) “The Decisive Moment : Understanding Convergence”, SudioFynn  September 2012

[ii] Kim Eric (2014), Debunking the “Myth of the Decisive Moment””Eric Kim Street Photography Blog , May 23, 2014

[iii] John Barbiaux (2015),  Street Photography.


Assignment 3: Draft Images

Submit a set of between six and eight high-quality photographic prints on the theme of the ‘decisive moment’. Street photography is the traditional subject of the decisive moment, but it doesn’t have to be. Landscape may also have a decisive moment of weather, season or time of day. A building may have a decisive moment when human activity and light combine to present a ‘peak’ visual moment. You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’, or you may choose to question or invert the concept. Your aim isn’t to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series there should be a linking theme, whether it’s a location, an event or a particular period of time.


I have found this assignment a challenge and would appreciate your comments on my final 6 images which I intend to print for Assignment 3.  I took many shots in colour and converted them to black and white.  I printed them all in high quality and then sought the opinion of friends, family and visitors to my home to help choose the final 6.

These images were all shot in shopping malls (Metro Centre, Newcastle and Cabots Circus, Bristol).  I chose shopping malls because the weather was really bad when I was shooting (it was at the time of Storm Imogen blowing through).


1 -Photographerphotographer

2 – Taking a breakbored

3 – The Glass Walk

glass walk

4- Looking Lost


5 – Anything but shopping


6 – Making the important call



Colour examples

glass work colourbored colourlost colourPhone colourDave colour

The reason I think black and white work better is because the colour either detracts from the subject as in the “Anything but shopping” image or there is little contrast as in the “Glass walk” image.  I am also emulating the style of images taken when the phrase “The Decisive Moment” was coined and they were taken before colour film existed.

Exercise 3.3 (Project 3 – What Matters is to Look)

1.  What do the timeframes of the camera actually look like? If you have a manual film camera, open the camera back (make sure there’s no film in the camera first!) and look through the shutter as you press the shutter release. What is the shortest duration in which your eyes can perceive a recognisable image.

Using an inherited 1960 Kodak 66 iii a self-erecting folding camera and an optical viewfinder.

The camera has a Kodak Anaston lens mounted in a with a Anaston 75mm, f4.5  lens with a 5 speed shutter (1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/10 + B) and which used 120 film (12 exposures).  I set the camera on B to ascertain how the mechanism worked.  This camera has a telescope type optical view finder but does not have through the lens viewing.  I therefore, opened the back to and looked directly through the lens.

Kodak 66iii -001

Starting with the 1/200 setting and a wide open lens of f4.5 I worked through the shutter speeds and at 1/50 I had my first glimpse of the subject.  The camera also has a double exposure prevention setting and I had to remember to re-set the camera between each shot.  This involved setting the shutter lever and “winding on the film”.  At 1/8 the subject was clearly visible.


Kodak 66iii -012

2   Find a good viewpoint, perhaps fairly high up (an upstairs window might do) where you can see a wide view or panorama. Start by looking at the things closest to you in the foreground. Then pay attention to the details in the middle distance and, finally, the things towards the horizon. Now try and see the whole landscape together, from the foreground to horizon (you can move your eyes). Include the sky in your observation and try to see the whole visual field together, all in movement (there is always some movement). When you’ve got it, raise your camera and take a picture. Add the picture and a description of the process to your learning log.

For this part of the exercise I decided to experiment and incorporate the exercise into a trip to a shopping mall to begin shooting for the assignment.

I chose a first floor position looking down the mall and which had a large poppy installation in the centre.  My eye was drawn to the poppy installation and I decided to try to capture a panorama view  which included the installation.



ISO 200, FL 27mm (4/5 crop sensor – 54mm full frame equivalent), f5.3, 1/100sec.


I focused first of all on the people going about their business in the foreground, and then on the middle distance of the platform and the poppy installation and finally on the glass roof and the arched architecture.  There was a walkway on the left hand side with lots of people on it.  This made the shot look very busy and my eye was distracted by this activity on this walk way so I moved as far as I could to the right and placed the poppies that I was originally drawn to on the left hand third.  I liked the contrast between the three areas so I raised the camera and took the shot.

In the editing phase I realised that I had some lens aberration and tried to correct it but this was difficult and when I got the vertical correct the horizontal was skewed.  This final edit is a compromise between the two.

The apex view beyond the poppies gives the impression that there is more to the shot and this was more apparent with the naked eye. In many ways the poppy installation actually changes the perspective of the mall and I would have liked in retrospect, to have tried another shot beyond the poppies as there were other cross platform walkways and I think that may have given a better view of the mall.

I realised the lighting between the foreground and the distance of the roof would be a challenge in terms of exposure but I managed to set the camera to avoid blowing out the highlights.

Overall I was quite pleased with the end shot.

Exercise 3.2 (Project 2 – A Durational Space)

………. using slow shutter speeds, the multiple exposure function, or another technique inspired by the examples above, try to record the trace of movement within the frame. You can be as experimental as you like. Add a selection of shots together with relevant shooting data and a description of your process (how you captured the shots) to your learning log

Ex 3.2-021

f22@1/4sec., fl105mm, ISO 100

Using an ND filter to prevent glare and aid exposure and using a combination of slow shutter speed and a stack of 10 shots this is reflections in a pond on a very windy day.


f22@0.3sec ISO 100, fl 100mm

This shot is taken through a glass door using a slow shutter speed.  This was the first shot I took and was overexposed.  Later I added an ND filter to compensate for the exposure but I rather like  the effect on this one.


untitled shoot-610

f4,2@1/40sec. FL40mm, ISO 100

This shot uses a combination of burst and panning to capture the motor cyclist sharply whilst throwing the background out of focus.






Project 2: A durational space

In the first part of this project we are asked to think about the problem of capturing movement within a still image.  A number of photographers  attempt to resolve the problem by “leaving a trace of movement within the frame”  and we are then tasked with researching how individual photographers approach this topic.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa is famous for his iconic capture of the D-Day landings in Normandy during WW2.  At first I was sceptical that Capa had deliberately blurred the shots  and I was more convinced the pressure of the situation was more likely to have affected how quickly the photographer had had to decide on camera settings.  However, further research on  revealed that although he used blur in other D-Day landing photos, there are others which are not as blurred.  Additionally there is a shot in Barcelona during an air raid warning where Capa uses the same technique.

via Magnum Photos Photographer Portfolio. (accessed 1/2/16)

So clearly this is a deliberate attempt to increase the intensity of the shot.


Robert Frank

Elevator Girl by Robert Frank Linked image (accessed 1.2.16) is another image cited for is use of motion blur –see final paragraph.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

When I first viewed Contacts film I had difficulty understanding what was happening and what Sugimoto was trying to achieve.  I then looked at his website where under his portfolio tag he provides us with an explanation of what he was trying to communicate.  He wanted to capture a whole movie in one frame and so with a wide open aperture he set up his camera and left the aperture open for the duration of the film.  Because the moving image on the screen is fast the end result is a white screen.  This creative use of extremely slow speeds to portray movement is interesting.  Most photographers using slow speeds  end up with images that are more recognisable e.g. blurred or smoky water, light trails of vehicles, blurring of moving backgrounds.

However, Michael Wesely used shutter speeds of up to 3 years and claims he can use expose for 40 years.  The link in the course notes is no longer available but I was interested to see what such a long exposure produces so I Googled Michael Wesely and found the link below. (accessed 1/2/16)

Some of the interesting aspects of these images is the way the changing light because of the position of the sun over the period of time producing diagonal lines and the ghostly images within the image of buildings and some vague people movement in the Construction of the Museum of Modern Art image.

We are asked to consider “Can the shutter create psychological drama in an image” in the course notes and  Mike D’Angelo’s review of  Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) commenting on how Wong Kar-Wai turned 22seconds into an eternity  is cited.

The scene in the movie is of a cop drinking a cup of coffee whilst being watched by the waitress who served him.  There is no dialogue and it appears to add nothing to the movie D’Angelo claims that it could be cut from the movie and it would have no effect.  But what is happening in the shot is very powerful, we are in fact led into the thoughts of the waitress because of the expression on her face and the “long” period of time she watches the cop. .

The same could be said of Robert Frank’s “Girl in an Elevator” where a dreamy doe eyed lift attendant is quite obviously day dreaming whilst letting people out of the elevator and the viewer is encouraged to imagine about what. It seems that by capturing movement it is quite possible to create psychological drama.  Francesca Woodman’s use of blurred images to hide her identity and producing a ghostly feel to the shots.  Woodman uses prolonged exposure to produce a surreal feel to the images.