The Decisive Moment

The idea of the “decisive moment” in photography is of course most associated with the great French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. But what did Cartier-Bresson mean by the “Decisive Moment”? The great man himself said the following:

“Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera”

In the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson, this meant clicking the camera at the exact moment a man leaped over a puddle behind Gare Saint Lazare or capturing the fleeting cheeky expression of a French boy as he joyfully carried a bottle of wine in each hand through the streets of Paris.

This idea has always intrigued me and over the years I’ve attempted in my own way to capture some “decisive moments” during my travels and at home in Dublin. Sometimes this involved choosing a location, being patient and waiting for that moment to arrive. On other occasions, it was a case of sheer luck and a case of simply being there at the right place at the right time.

The following collection of photographs showcase a few examples of my own efforts to capture some “decisive moments”.

Decisive Moment - Cyclist on a Bridge in Bruges
Cyclist on a Bridge in Bruges

A cyclist crosses one of the many stone bridges that cross the canals of the handsome medieval city of Bruges in Belgium. This was one of those occasions when I had to wait for that exact right moment to press the shutter. I crouched beside a canalside wall, composed my shot and waited…. and waited…. and waited some more.

Every so often, someone would cycle across the bridge but the shot would be ruined by a car coming in the opposite direction or perhaps the cyclist would look too modern for the mood I was trying to create in the final photograph. Very inconsiderate in my opinion!

Finally, after about 45 minutes, I saw the gentleman you can see in the photo approaching the bridge. I waited until he was right in front of the light coloured building you see right behind him so he would stand out and pressed the shutter. I knew straight away I’d gotten the shot I wanted from this location. I think it was worth the wait. This was by far my favourite shot from the trip.

Decisive Moment - Figure on the Ponte Romana in Tavira
Figure on the Ponte Romana in Tavira

Including some human interest in a scene can help add a sense of scale. As in the previous photo, this photo which wad taken on the Ponte Romana in Tavira, Portugal required patience.

Thankfully I didn’t have to wait so long this time as a local walked past my tripod as she crossed the bridge. I waited until she had almost gotten to the far end of the bridge before taking the shot. Her presence in the scene helps to add a sense of scale to this urban landscape.

Decisive Moment - Swan by a Bridge
Swan by a Bridge

The stone bridge on the Rye Water River on the Carton Estate in Maynooth is always an attractive subject especially during the morning golden hour. This estate and manor house was once home to the Duke of Leinster no less.

I noticed Henry the swan (as I named him) heading towards the bridge and ran into position among the reeds by along the riverbank. Henry then obliged me by gliding gracefully into the frame to add life to my shot. I do love swans but I couldn’t eat a whole one.

Decisive Moment - Light Trails on the Canals of Amsterdam
Light Trails on the Canals of Amsterdam

I took this shot along Keizersgracht Canal in Amsterdam. In this instance I wanted to capture the light trails of one of the many boats that whiz along the waterways of the Dutch capital.

Most of the boats made an awkward left turn at this intersection leading to some very awkward looking light trails. Finally, one speedy little vessel shot straight through the scene providing me with the straight light trails I was looking to capture. As in the previous photos in this series, being patienct was an essential part of the process.

Decisive Moment - Dancing in the Streets of Paris
Dancing in the Streets of Paris

The next three shots all come from one of my favourite photography locations, Paris. The French capital is one of the places Henri Cartier-Bresson plied his trade after all. It’s a superb location for street photography.

In the shot above, I captured the moment a couple danced to a street musician on the Pont d’Arcole. This was one of those lucky moments as I just happened across the scene as I was walking towards Notre Dame Cathedral.

The guy with the cigarette leaning against the railing between the guitarist and dancers seems completely unimpressed by the whole thing. Maybe he just prefers Johnny Hallyday.

Decisive Moment - Sunburst Over Paris
Sunburst over Paris

Sometimes the “decisive moment” consists of a brief moment of interesting light. In the shot above, a golden sunburst momentarily casts a gorgeous warm glow over the city of light.

I have to admit that I was not ready for this particular “decisive moment”. In fact I was sipping a glass of wine in the cafe at the top of the Montparnasse Tower. I caught the sunburst out of the corner of my eye and knew I had to act fast. I raced up two flights of stairs to the viewing deck throwing small children out of my way as my tripod flailed in all directions.

I made it just in time to photograph the sunburst before the clouds once again obscured the golden rays of the evening sun. No children were harmed (permanently) in the making of this photo.

Decisive Moment - Wallace Fountain and Shakespeare and Co
Wallace Fountain and Shakespeare and Co in Paris

The streets of Paris are dotted with elegant nineteenth century dark green Wallace Fountains. The one in this shot is located just outside the legendary Shakespeare and Co bookshop on the Left Bank of the River Seine.

Although I did wait quite a while to capture this scene, there was a major element of luck too. As one woman passed the fountain, another was walking into the shop creating a pleasing sense of coordination and movement in the scene.

The statue on the right looks down towards the woman on the left, who walks towards the second woman who is walking into the shop. It’s a simple moment in time, that will never be replicated in exactly the same way.

Decisive Moment - Man by a Fountain in Bucharest
Man by a Fountain in Bucharest

The fountains of Bucharest are a sight to behold. Every evening for one hour, this impressive assortment of fountains comes alive in a colourful visual and musical extravaganza. For sixty minutes, the water dances to the music of Tina Turner and Queen among others.

I actually didn’t realise there would be a show on the evening I visited them and it was a happy accident that I arrived just in time to witness this sensory feast. This was an accidental “decisive moment” in itself.

On my way to the fountains I took a few photos including the one above. Normally this area in thronged with late night revelers but for one brief moment the crowds cleared and I captured a lone Romanian chatting on his phone with the fountain as a backdrop. He was gone seconds later.

Decisive Moment - Deer in the Phoenix Park
Deer in the Phoenix Park

This decisive moment was definitely a result of sheer luck. I was out for an early morning shoot in Dublin’s Phoenix Park with my photographer sister when we saw a herd of deer crossing the park in a long procession.

I’m not much of a wildlife photographer but I pointed my lens towards the herd and hoped for the best. Just as I clicked the shutter, one deer stopped suddenly and looked back, giving me a far more interesting photo than I had envisiged at first. Maybe he’d just remembered that he left the immersion on.

Decisive Moment - Couple by the Phoenix Park Tea Rooms
Couple by the Phoenix Park Tea Rooms

I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time for a second time that same morning, this time at the Tea Rooms near Dublin Zoo. This Victorian era building is an attractive subject in itself but as I was framing the shot, an opportunity to capture a very human “decisive moment” arose.

A young couple entered the frame and shared a kiss at the entrance to the Tea Rooms as they said their goodbyes. Capturing this momentary act of tenderness turned a decent shot into something much more special.

Decisive Moment - Man Under a Mural in Dublin
Man Sitting Under a Mural in Dublin

The mural in this photograph is one that’s always caught my eye and I’ve often felt there was a possibility of an interesting shot with it in the background. I carry a compact Panasonic ZS100 in my pocket at all times as you never know when a photographic opportunity or “decisive moment” might arise.

I was walking through the Italian Quarter of Dublin one afternoon and spotted this gentleman sitting under the mural. The compact camera allowed me to discreetly grab the above shot, something that would have been much trickier with a bulky DSLR.

Decisive Moment - Man in an Archway
Man Walking Under an Archway in Hammamet

We move to North Africa for the next shot, the entrance to the Souk of Hammamet in Tunisia to be exact. This archway into the busy market area seemed liked the perfect location to get an interesting shot.

Again, this required some patience and a lot of unsuccessful attempts to capture the right person as they entered the souk. After about half an hour, I finally managed to get the shot I was after.

I was then free to head into the souk myself and do some shopping. I found a genuine Rolecks watch for myself and a lovely Billy Vuitton bag for my wife made from real camel leather.

Decisive Moment - Mediterranean Sunset in Tunisia
Mediterranean Sunset in Tunisia

We all know that sunsets offer a fantastic opportunity to create a really attractive photograph. There is that one moment when the sun hovers over the horizon before disappearing that is a particularly special moment to capture.
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That was my aim in the above photo, again taken in Hammamet on the Tunisian coast. It was tricky to achieve however as I was using a 10 stop ND filter that neccessitated an exposure time of several minutes. Luck was on my side on this occasion and I managed to record this “decisive moment” that lasted for only a few more seconds after I finished taking the photo.

The decisive moment being captured doesn’t have to be anything spectacular (although it can be). Even capturing the simplest split second of interest such as a man crossing a bridge on his bicycle can result in a much more interesting photograph. Imagine that same photo without the cyclist. It wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact. The same could be said for all of the photos in this series.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of photos inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the “Decisive Moment”. As I’ve explained, some were captured as a result of being patient and waiting for that moment of interest to happen. Others were a result of sheer good luck and being in the right place at the right time.

Either way, there is always a great sense of satisfaction when you succeed in freezing some never to be repeated moment in time simply by pressing your camera’s shutter at exactly the right second.

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