Henri Cartier-Bresson:
How to Shoot at Precisely the Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson is famous for having the coined the phrase “the decisive moment”. Since then, thousands of photographers have pondered the meaning of this phrase which, for HCB, was not meant to be the phrase which would define his work but more of a casual, unthought-out idea which he tossed into conversation.

Nonetheless, it’s recognisable in many street photography shots and many photographers work to increase the chance of finding that special moment when hand and eye work together perfectly to produce a photo in which all the elements seem to add up to something more than the sum of the parts. Perhaps it is a humorous moment, or a sad moment, but there is always a story implied within the shot, and that tiny moment in time that can never be repeated. The glee of the photographer is felt precisely because they know that they have captured something unforgettable and something that will last forever.

When I was in India in 2006, I was drifting around on the street in an idle fashion when I saw three Muslim women walking towards me. They were obviously aware of me and I didn’t want to be too intrusive with my camera so I just kept an eye open until they had actually walked past me and were about to go down another street.

I was still watching them when the woman on the extreme left turned back towards me and as she did so I saw the word ‘freedom’ written on the carrier bag – very clearly! That was the decisive moment for me and I managed to capture it because I was ready at every level.

The shot was taken using shutter speed priority which meant I could freeze the motion, and I had an ISO of 200 which was good for the full sunlight of an India afternoon.

I love the photo because it highlights the Western media view of Muslim women as oppressed and for which the veil has become a symbol. In my travels throughout the world, this has not been my experience and I believe that Muslim women, by and large, choose to wear a veil or not, depending on their personal beliefs, and that it is not something imposed on them by men. If you are interested in this topic, you can read my article on The Media Debate on How Muslim Women Dress by following the link.

So the decisive moment can, and does, come when you least expect it. This means you must be ready with the right settings on your camera but be patient, ready to grab the opportunity when it arises. With time and practice you will develop an instinct for this kind of shot and then the odds of getting more ‘decisive’ moments will increase.

Follow this link to read my article on Henri Cartier Bresson in the Famous Photographers section.

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