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The Decisive Moment



Chefchaouen, Morocco



'As I have practiced it, photography produces pleasure by simplicity, I see something special and show it to the camera. A picture is produced. The moment is held until someone sees it. Then it is theirs. Photography, alone of the arts, seems perfected to serve the desire humans have for a moment - this very moment - to stay.'  , Stay This Moment : The Photographs of Sam Abell by Sam Abell (Photographer), Robert E. Gilka.  


The phrase ‘the decisive moment’ is associated with French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) the title in English of a 1952 collection of images.  Cartier-Bresson had a philosophical  approach to photography and it is perhaps tempting to over simplify the concept. In 1957 he told the Washington Post, ‘ There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. 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. That is the moment the photographer is creative’. (See for a full biography).


The frontpiece quote on the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation’s website gives another expressson of the idea,  ‘For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to “give a meaning” to the world, one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression.

To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy. To take a photograph means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.

It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.’


Put simply, ‘in every possible photographic opportunity, there is a moment when the light, colour, or gesture is just perfect, as it realises your vision with the greatest clarity or simplicity’ (David duChemin, ‘Within the Frame’, p21-22).


There’s a good deal of luck in capturing just the right combination of subject, movement and composition but a good deal can be done to improve  the odds  - find a promising location and wait; return to the same location; do your homework on sunrise/tides/the seasonal possibilities for photographing specific birds or animals; set you camera up – shutter speed/aperture/iso etc in anticipation; use the rapid multiple exposure facilities available on contemporary Digital SLRs.


Two images a fraction of a second apart but the first one is 'just right' in terms of the positioning of the man and boys.





It's not always easy to judge which is the best image out of a set together close together. These three were part of a series - boys leaving school running up steep steps in Chefchaouen, Morocco. The third one has the boys better separated and the man below clearly separated. The top boy is a little tight to the left of the image 9I cropped to avoid a distracting wall so it's not absolutely 'just right'.







In these two images of Aremnd, High Atlas, Morocco - again a fraction apart - the first is much betterbecause of the position of the last muleteer and his gaze straight across the image.


Two images in Palestine where the moment was captured. 








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