Why Some Street Photographers Pooh-Pooh The Idea Of The Decisive Moment

Either you’ve read it or you’ve heard it, some street photographers tend to roll their eyes and say something negative when they hear the word “decisive moment” or the name Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer that coined the phrase.  Like anything, you get a few people with enough ears listening disparaging something for whatever reason and people tend to follow along like lemmings.  So why has the decisive moment fallen from favor among some photographers?

What Is A Decisive Moment?

The decisive moment refers to capturing an event that is fleeting and spontaneous, creating an image that represents the entire moment.  Personally, when I think of decisive moments in regards to street photography I think of candid moments…  Images I capture without letting my subject know I am about to take their photograph.  Obviously, this isn’t always possible and if your subject discovers you taking their photograph this does not necessarily mean you won’t still capture a decisive moment (a facial reaction, etc.). 

Path Of Least Resistance

It’s no surprise that many photographers, like anyone else, enjoy the path of least resistance.  Finding and capturing a decisive moment is quite difficult and incredibly rare.  Unfortunately, it would behoove streettogs who want to post a new photograph to their social media accounts each and every day to find a “great” shot each and every time they went out looking for it.  Yet decisive moments aren’t “on-demand”…  To capture one you need discipline, patience, and skill.

When I talk about the path of least resistance I refer to the copious images of random people doing random things with no emotion or story.  Street photographers learn to overcome their fear of photographing strangers by, you guessed it, photographing random strangers.  Some photographers never move beyond the random to the deliberate…  That is the path of least resistance.


It’s common for photographers to give up well before they capture a decisive moment.  When I’m being paid to do street photography it often requires spending 12 or more hours on my feet and walking more than 15 miles a day.  This isn’t to say you can’t get lucky from time to time, but as the old saying goes:  The harder I work, the luckier I get.

When someone heads out day after day without many or any good results it’s not abnormal for their motivation to decrease and their desire to try something else increases.  It’s much easier to ask someone to pose a certain way than it is to wait for a random moment to happen, be prepared for it, and capture it at the exact right time.  Resist the desire to see immediate results and focus on deliberately capturing decisive moments.

Set Expectations

If you’d like to improve your street photography I would encourage you to focus on capturing these fleeting moments rather than following the path of least resistance.  If you set your expectations early on you’ll be less likely to lose interest over time.  Come to grips with the fact that you may not get an “awesome” photograph each time you head out with your camera.  Once you’re comfortable with this you may find that you put less pressure on yourself and, while improving your street photography, you end up enjoying yourself even more.


Some photographers will scoff when you mention the decisive moment or Cartier-Bresson’s name because it shines a spotlight on what they don’t, won’t, or can’t do.  It’s similar to when you were in elementary school and someone had something you did not…  Instead of showing jealously, some kids will react by telling themselves they didn’t really want it and trying to convince others that it is stupid or not as great as they thought.

The best way to react to photographers like this is to simply ignore them, get to work, and continue improving your skills as a street photographer.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading.

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4 replies on “Why Some Street Photographers Pooh-Pooh The Idea Of The Decisive Moment”
  1. says: Robert Boner

    The decisive moment is also important in other types of photography. For example, wildlife and landscape. It seems to me that it is important in any type of photography other than table top.

  2. > Personally, when I think of decisive moments in regards to street photography I think of candid moments… Images I capture without letting my subject know I am about to take their photograph.

    Is that the “the” definition of decisive moment or just “one” definition of “decisive moment”? Is the definition subjective and elusive making a single definition pointless and meaningless? Is the subjectivity of that definition which makes it something that causes some people to dislike the term?

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