Visual Stories

Learn From Cartier-Bresson: Spotting the Decisive Moment

By Lars - 8 min read

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Iconic photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson made the "Decisive Moment" famous. We delve into what he meant – and the lessons to be learned from his masterful approach to photography.

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is rightfully recognized as a master of the craft. He was one of the first true street photographers and artfully captured everyday life through the lens. But he also coined a term: The “Decisive Moment”.

building exterior, architecture, water, full length, built structure

With it, he described the exact instance when a unique event is captured by the photographer – when something that may never happen again is frozen in the frame. He said it best himself, in an iconic quote:

“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.”

flag, variation, multi colored, hanging, person
young adult, lifestyles, person, looking at camera, casual clothing

Cartier-Bresson always tried to keep his eyes open and his camera loaded – to be ready at the “fraction of a second” when an event warranted a photograph. This readiness has fascinated and inspired countless photographers over the years, who try to look at their surrounding in terms of possible photos.

“Of course it’s all luck.”

But the theory of the decisive moment isn’t just fascinating because it casts photos as chance encounters between time, light, and subjects. It also questions how many imagesweren’ttaken: How different would an iconic photo be if it had been taken just a few seconds later? How many great potential pictures never happened, simply because there was nobody with a camera at the ready?

low angle view, sky, cloud - sky, cloudy, connection
transportation, mode of transport, vehicle interior, tree, land vehicle
sky, lifestyles, leisure activity, casual clothing, cloud - sky

Fortunately, Cartier-Bresson wasn’t overly dogmatic. “Of course it’s all luck”, he is said to have remarked about the secret to taking great pictures.

Capturing the decisive moment, then, isn’t about just being ready to snap – but to do what Cartier-Bresson did best, something he isn’t quite as famous for: Roaming the streets and waiting for time, light and subjects to arrange themselves.

 Blue,  Day,  Diving Into Water,  Enjoyment,  High Angle View
one person, one woman only, standing, day, indoors
transportation, clear sky, built structure, sky, copy space
architecture, built structure, city, building exterior, two people

Header image by @Flanerie.