decisive moments

There is always an element of luck involved in photography. Even when everything is perfect, it is possible that at the precise moment that the shutter release is being gently depressed, the camera will suddenly break down or the photographer will be struck by lightning. Neither is outstandingly likely, it is true, but we all have experience of all kinds of other things happening, whether it be the result of our own stupidity in forgetting to wind on or cock the shutter, or pure ill luck from someone walking in front of the camera.

Controlling the decisive moment is, to a very large extent, a question of taking control of everything that you can, then trusting to luck for the things you can't control. You need to reduce the influence of luck to a minimum. This is why the famous saying goes, "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

Civil War re-enactor

Luck? Yes: lots of it, especially with the smoke. But, as the saying goes, 'fortune favours the prepared mind'. Frances shot this on Ilford XP2, using a Voigtländer Bessa-T with a 50/1.5 Voigtländer Nokton on the front, and a yellow filter. This is a sectional blow-up of about one-quarter of the image reproduced in its entirety on the left.

Like so much else in photography, the decisive moment is easier to recognize than to describe. One of the best descriptions we have ever heard is 'when the shapes come together in the viewfinder', but often, that is only part of it. After all, it is most commonly used of photographing people, where facial expressions are often of paramount importance, and it is stretching the definition of 'shapes' to include these.

On the bright side, you don't need everything to be perfect. If the picture is good enough, it can 'carry' minor flaws. Often, the photographer will convince himself (or of course herself) that the picture is ruined by some infelicity, when no-one else even notices that there is a problem. Sure, it's a good idea to be your own harshest critic, but equally, there's no sense in putting yourself down unnecessarily. Then again, there are those who seem to be able to convince themselves that there are no problems, when patently there are. We've always been puzzled by this. Sure, it's easy to try to fool yourself, but we find it quite hard to succeed in doing do. In your heart of hearts, surely you always know when something is not quite the way you had hoped. The important trick lies in deciding which shortcomings are fatal, and which are sufficiently unimportant that the picture can 'carry' them.

completing the composition

Our own view is that the decisive moment is the moment that the composition is completed: when 'more or less right' becomes 'just right'. You therefore need to set up as much as you can, and be as prepared as you can, then wait for the things that you cannot control to come right. When they do, you shoot.

If you're not sure, and you have time to reload, you shoot anyway: if a more decisive moment comes along later, you shoot that too. If you can't reload quickly -- for example, if you are shooting large format, or if you are on your last exposure and have no more film -- then you have to make a hard choice about whether or not things are likely to get better. Our own inclination, and you can call it craven cowardice if you like, is to take the picture if it looks good, and then leave. At least that way we won't know what we have missed.


Boy with gun, Levoca, Slovakia

Small boys always play with guns; if their parents won't buy guns for them, they use their thumb and forefinger. But the way he is looking at this gun is almost as if he has suddenly found a real gun, and doesn't know what to make of it. The girl in the sun hat balances the composition and anchors it in normality -- but suddenly you start wondering just why small boys always play with guns... Roger shot this on Kodak EBX with a Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux.

time and space

The decisive moment is to time what viewpoint and composition are to space. Viewpoint and composition involve taking a picture of the right things from the right place; the decisive moment completes this by shooting at the right time as well. This may be a split second, or it may last for ages: on an overcast day with an immobile subject, for example, it may last for most of the day. Even then, there are always things that can go wrong. A car can drive into shot and park; someone may close an open window. Even when you think you have plenty of time, it is always as well to grab a shot as soon as you see it, though you can always hope for a better one later.

Bridge, Lijiang

Roger saw -- or thought he saw -- the potential for a picture here and loitered while several people went over the bridge (right). Unfortunately it looked better in the viewfinder than it did in the print...

While he was waiting for someone else to come along, the proprietress of the bicycle delivery vehicle turned up and walked across. As she did so, she glanced at the camera: eye contact is often an important part of the decisive moment when people are involved. Note how the extra context improves the image.

Roger used his Leica MP and Summicron 75/2; film was Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DDX and printed on Ilford MG Warmtone.

step 1: be familiar with your tools

It's hard to grab the decisive moment if you are fighting with your camera. Quite often, you need to shoot fast. If you can't make the necessary adjustments without thinking, you don't know your camera well enough.

It might seem that the answer to this is automation: fast autofocus, good auto-exposure. Often, indeed, automation can be a godsend. But almost equally often, in our experience, it gets in the way. The camera focuses on the wrong thing, or refuses to focus on anything: we once had a Contax 645 that was terrible for refusing to focus at all, so we were constantly left pressing the shutter release in the vain hope that something would happen. For that matter, there are still plenty of non-SLR autofocus cameras (especially digital) that are deadly slow, even when they are working properly. Similar considerations can apply to exposure automation: if you have to dial in some form of exposure compensation, it's no quicker than resetting a manual exposure. In fact, it's often slower. This is why we prefer manual cameras.


Bicycle park and attendant, Beijing

The composition here isn't perfect -- the man behind the tree on the right is distracting -- but the bicycle park and its attendant are what get your immediate attention. Frances used her completely manual Voigtländer Bessa-R to shoot this on Ilford XP2 Super; the lens was her 50/2.5 Color-Skopar. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. She used no filter: on an overcast day her usual weak yellow filter would not have added much, and besides, leaving off the filter allowed an extra (faster) step on the shutter speed dial. Her R3A offers auto-exposure but she almost never uses the automation, finding she gets better results, faster, with manual metering.


A perfectly fair counter to this argument is that we can use our manual cameras fast because we are used to them, whereas we aren't used to automatic cameras. If we used automation more, we could probably use it faster. This is almost certainly true, and of course, it doesn't matter. Use whatever camera you are happy with, and can operate quickly.

If you can't operate the camera quickly, take more pictures -- a lot more pictures -- until you can. Above all, don't keep trading in your cameras in the hope that you will get something faster handling. Even the baulkiest camera can be brought under control by a photographer who is sufficiently familiar with it.

This applies to all formats. If you have never personally been pressed for time when using a large format camera, read Ansel Adams's account of shooting what was to become his most famous picture, Moonrise,Hernandez, New Mexico. He spotted the potential for the picture; set the camera up in record time; guessed the exposure because he couldn't find his exposure meter fast enough; and lost the light before he had time to shoot his second, back-up exposure.

Bear in mind the shooting sequence with a typical large format camera. Erect tripod; mount camera; unfold camera; focus and compose; stop down; close shutter; set shutter speed; cock shutter; insert film-holder; pull dark-slide; expose; replace dark-slide. You can save some time on some of this with the right equipment, or by having the camera already erected and even mounted on the tripod, but there is still a lot to do in a short time.


As with equipment, so with materials. We never cease to be amazed by the number of inquiries on internet forums that run along the lines of "I shot a wedding yesterday on ISO 400 film and I needed extra speed so I rated it at EI 1600. How should I process it?"  or "I like really grainy pics so I shot a couple of rolls of Tri-X at the box speed and now I want to know how to process them for more grain."

Both the search for extra speed and the search for extra (or reduced) grain are entirely reasonable photographic goals, but the time to start researching those goals is before you shoot 'real' pictures, not after you've shot something irreplaceable. Some people are perfectly happy rating Ilford HP5 Plus and Kodak Tri-X at 1600. We are not among them, because we've tried it and know that the range of subjects where that sort of push is successful is more than a little limited. Instead, we'd go straight to Ilford Delta 3200 at EI 3200 -- and we've tried that too, and we know what it looks like. This is what testing is about: shooting unimportant subjects so that when the important ones come along, you know what to do.

An awful lot of otherwise sensible amateurs miss this point, and shoot irreplaceable subjects on test rolls in the hope of getting a great picture. This is foolish in the extreme. It's a much better idea to take pictures where if they don't turn out, you won't be disappointed. Photograph your grandmother watching television; photograph the cat hunting butterflies in the garden; photograph the street in front of your house. Then, you'll have a much better idea of what you are doing when you want a moody, low-light portrait, or are shooting powerboats, or want night shots in a place you've never been before and won't be able to afford to visit again in a hurry.

Remember, this sort of experimentation is not 'wasting' film and developer. It's the exact opposite. It's learning to use them, so that when you need to get good results, you can be reasonably confident that you will. If you can't get the results that you want, when you want them, you really are 'wasting' film when it matters.

If you use digital equipment, the argument is even stronger. After all, it costs nothing in materials to see what happens when you crank the ISO speed up to the maximum, or when you try to hand-hold shutter speeds that are far longer than you would normally risk.


Girls, Rhodes

An almost impossible image to capture on slide film, which cannot handle extreme brightness ranges; indeed, Roger is not entirely convinced that he did manage to capture it, and wishes he has been shooting in black and white instead. But this is a single, unbracketed exposure, made with a Leica M4P and 35/1.4 Summilux on Kodachrome, an unforgiving film-stock which was however Roger's standard in the days when he shot this. The exposure was estimated on the basis of prior incident-light readings: when he came upon this scene, there was no time to meter again or indeed to make any corrections other than instinctively. With an unfamiliar film and camera. he would not have had a chance; nor could automation have done as well.

step 2: practice

We have already suggested that you improve your shooting skills and your familiarity with your camera by shooting more pictures, but this isn't always convenient -- and if you use film, it can get expensive, too. Another way to familiarize yourself with your camera is via army-style drill.

One way to do this is to practice without ammunition (film, in our case). As you are walking along, on your way to work or the shops or out for an evening constitutional, pretend to take pictures. Do the same at home, in your easy chair. Raise the camera to your eye; focus; compose; check the exposure. You don't need to take an actual picture: just pretend that the tree on your left is about to do something very interesting, or that your picture of the television is going to win you a Pulitzer prize.

Nor is it a bad idea to take on board another army idea, working by numbers. This is especially true if you use large format or any slow-handling camera. "On the command one, erect the tripod. On the command two..." It may not come easily to your nature to work this way, but consider this: the aim of army drill is to ingrain procedures so deeply that they can be followed almost without thought. Unless you are a war photographer, you are unlikely to be tottering from exhaustion while someone else is trying to kill you, but even if you're just a bit tired and suffering from Delhi Belly, working to a set drill will reduce the chance of making errors.

You don't necessarily need to include everything in the drill, just the bits you risk forgetting. With his Alpa, for example, the only bit that Roger reduces to a drill is (1) shoot (2) wind on (3) cock shutter (4) replace lens cap. He could add a preliminary step -- remove lens cap -- and three other intermediate stages, checking or setting focus, shutter speed and aperture, but as he tends to forget these less often, counting one-two-three-four under his breath as he completes the above drill is sufficient. With the lens hood or an oversize filter, where he can't replace the lens cap, the drill drops to one-two-three-ah, yes.

Ginger sellers, Beijing (above and right)

One way to force yourself to make decisions quickly and operate your camera fast is to shoot from the window of a moving vehicle. Admittedly the vehicle in this case was pretty slow moving -- a bicycle rickshaw in Peking's hutong district -- but on the other hand everything was very close, not fifty metres away in the other side of the road. You can see the edge of the rickshaw in the lower left-hand corner of the picture on the right and the bicycle is at arm's length.


Being in the rickshaw imposed a fixed viewpoint (which meant hard choices about composition) and getting any sort of shot at all meant working fast -- fortunately fairly easy with a Leica MP equipped with a Leicavit-M rapid wind base. The perfect picture would probably have the vertical composition of the shot above, with the cyclist more on the left as in the lower shot -- but there wasn't time for the perfect shot. Analyzing your successes and failures in this way can make for better pictures next time. The lens was a 35/1.4 Summilux, the film, Ilford HP5 Plus processed in Ilford DDX and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

'equipment doesn't matter'

The above, and some of what follows, explains why there is some truth in the rather irritating assertion that equipment doesn't matter: all that matters is the photographer. In one sense, this is arrant nonsense. Of course it matters. If an Alpa couldn't deliver better pictures than a Lubitel, no-one would buy Alpas.

On the other hand, someone who has a Lubitel and knows how to use it is bound to have an advantage over someone who has an Alpa and doesn't know how to use it. This is an extreme example but the truth is that there are many excellent photographers who have more skill than money and can therefore wring extraordinarily good pictures out of equipment that snobs would regard as little more than junk.

Folk-lore to the contrary, there are rather fewer rich twits with super-expensive cameras that they can't use. There are rather more twits with average incomes who have bought middle-priced cameras and can't even use those because they never shoot enough pictures with them before they trade them in. Perhaps the best reason for buying the best kit you can afford is make sure you are happy using it: you'll get better pictures with an inferior camera you know and trust than you will with a 'better' one that you are not comfortable using.


Car and snow, Rochester NY

Frances's father Art Schultz shot this in the early 1940s, just after Kodak's new Plus-X had come out, probably using a 35mm Beira folding rangefinder camera. Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone some 60 years later. If either of us took such a picture today, with this composition and tonality, we would be well pleased, regardless of the fact that all our cameras are much better than the Beira and most modern films are much better than the original 1940s Plus-X.

Materials are a bit more arcane in that what suits some people won't suit others. For example, among ISO 400 conventional films, Roger prefers Ilford HP5 while Frances prefers Kodak Tri-X. We are both convinced we get better results with these films -- so we do! Does it really matter why?

step 3: choose your time and place

Some people can apparently just wander out at random, camera around their neck, and come back with great pictures. We are not among them, nor do we believe that many are, except by chance. Too much depends on when you go out, for a start. Early morning? Lunchtime? Dead of night? Each of these is a choice about what you want to photograph. Then there is where you go. Under the bridges and in the shop doorways where the tramps sleep? The glitzy downtown areas? The villages in the countryside?

There's also the point that if you want to shoot dramatic monochrome landscapes with blue skies and puffy white clouds thrown into relief by a deep yellow filter, you are going to have a problem on an overcast day. The same is true if you want burgeoning spring vegetation in the depths of winter. Be realistic in your expectations.

In one sense, this may all seem to be too obvious to be worth saying, but equally, no-one can dispute that you are likely to come back with better pictures if you set out with something in mind to begin with. There is no problem if you then change your mind and decide to photograph something else, but unless you have something in mind, no matter what, you may well find nothing.


Beer tent, market, Maramures, Transylvania

On a rainy, overcast day, take pictures that don't rely on sunny skies and dramatic shadows. We would much rather have had good weather when we shot this market, but as it was, we still got good pictures by dint of concentrating on subjects where we could reasonably expect a good photograph, rather than ones where we couldn't. Roger used his Leica MP with 75/2 Summicron for this, shooting on Kodak EBX: usually a bit too saturated for flesh tones, but adequate in diffuse lighting with a weatherbeaten countenance like this one.


'shooting yourself into' a subject

Some photographers reckon that they seldom get anything worthwhile on the first few frames, or even on the first roll. Others reckon that a fresh eye is what gives them the best pictures, so their best shots are often in the first few frames. If you have not already done so, it is worth asking yourself which category you are in.

Actually, you may be in both categories, depending on the type of shot you are taking. At the Forbidden City in Peking, for example, we found that the only way to get any good shots was to shoot all and everything: we had very little sympathy with the place, which is a monument to arrogant and over-refined emperors and the appalling way they treated their subjects, as well as being overrun with tour groups. But show us a good market-place and we'll shoot like billy-o, reloading before we realize it, taking good pictures from frame 1. Self-awareness about how you shoot is definitely something to aim for.

step 4: be ready

One of Henri Cartier-Bresson's most famous (and earliest) pictures shows a man crossing a puddle. He has come to the end of a plank, and is jumping the rest of the puddle to reach dry land. At least, that is the likeliest explanation, but because the dry land on the other side of the puddle is not seen in the composition, it looks as though he is walking the plank, pirate-style, and jumping with unusual insouciance into a sea that is much nearer the plank than you would normally expect. It is a reminder that as a young man, Cartier-Bresson professed to have been influenced by the surrealists.

You may, if you wish, believe that HCB clocked the potential of the subject in the twinkling of an eye; raised his trusty Leica; took the shot in a moment; then strolled on. It is possible. It is however a great deal more likely that he saw the different ways that different people dealt with crossing the puddle; carefully composed the shot to include only the plank and the puddle; and then waited for the right person to come along.

Even if he didn't, that is what most of us would have to do: we can rarely work fast enough to see and capture the perfect picture on the fly, without breaking stride. On those rare occasions when we can, we have to be thoroughly prepared, camera ready, alert, aware of everything around us.


The traditional way to be ready for a picture was to have the camera pre-set at the likeliest shutter speed, aperture and focused distance. In a way, this turns your expensive camera into a snapshot machine, suitable only for taking pictures at a set distance. We do this all the time with our Alpas. The trick, of course, lies in choosing the right shutter speed, aperture and distance, which is where you are rather ahead of the person with a single-use camera.

This approach may sound like a poor substitute for automation, but in reality, it has significant advantages. First, it is invariably faster. A camera that is already focused must have an advantage over one that has to be focused, even if that focusing takes but a fraction of a second. Almost equally importantly, you can set what you think is the best exposure (aperture and shutter speed) instead of relying on automation -- which, as we have already said, sometimes has to be overridden, usually at the most inconvenient times.

Immediately following on from this, however, are yet more benefits of familiarity. If you really are familiar with your camera, you can, as you raise it to your eye, make whatever adjustments are needed to the various settings. This is why we particularly like lenses with focusing tabs, also known as spars or spurs. You can tell the distance at which the lens is focused by touch alone; a twitch this way or that will bring it to the correct focused distance. A click or two on the diaphragm or the shutter speed dial corrects the exposure at the same time: your pre-set is within sight of the optimum setting, and your almost instinctive correction brings it still closer.


Mao in a shop window, Beijing hutongs

A 'hutong' is just a lane, and there are many hutongs in Beijing, but 'the hutongs' is used to describe a particular area north of the Forbidden City that is a maze of small streets, shops and markets. When you are wandering through such an area, never entirely sure what you will see, it's a good idea to have your camera pre-set and ready to use. Roger used his Alpa 12 WA, with the 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon and 44x66mm back loaded with Ilford HP5 Plus; the lens was zone-focused at about 3 metres and f/8. With an extreme wide-angle like this (almost the exact equivalent of 21mm on 35mm) zone focusing is pretty easy.

Shutter speed was probably 1/60 second, based on a combination of guesswork and occasional meter readings, adjusted up or down (1/30 to 1/125) according to his estimate of the light, erring always on the side of generous exposure. Without the iconic figure of the old bandit himself, there's no picture. Printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

focal lengths

The pre-set, in our view, should in many cases extend to focal lengths -- at which point, of course, you might as well use a prime lens instead of a zoom. Of course there are times when you can set up your shot, choosing one lens instead of another or setting the focal length of a zoom, but equally, if you have a single favourite focal length you already have a pretty good mental image of what that lens will frame at a given distance. We would argue, in fact, that there is more danger of losing the decisive moment while fiddling about to get precisely the right composition with a zoom, than there is of losing the optimum composition by having the wrong focal length. The cropped picture at the beginning of this article bears this out.

This is why an awful lot of street photographers standardize on either a 35mm lens or a 50mm lens on 35mm cameras, but it is also relevant to any format, even 8x10 inches: again, remember the story of Moonrise, Hernandez. You would feel pretty sick if you missed the shot of a lifetime because you had the wrong lens on the camera.

There is a certain amount to be said for associating a certain focal length with a certain camera: you get used to it. Thus, although Frances is perfectly happy with the 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon on 6x9cm on her Alpa, almost exactly the equivalent of 15mm on full-frame 35mm, she almost never uses 15mm on 35mm. Her standard 'street' lens on her Bessa-R2 is either a 50/2.5 Color Skopar or (increasingly rarely) a 28/1.9 Ultron.

keep your eyes open

This is important in both figurative and literal senses. Figuratively, you need to be as aware as possible of everything that is going on around you. If you are shooting from the middle of the road and are about to be run over, the importance of this is obvious; but in India, for example, you need to be aware of the possibility, nay, likelihood, of an inquisitive crowd gathering around you in such numbers that you cannot shoot. This is another example of a time when it is useful to be able to work quickly. In practice, in a situation like this, one of us will often try to set up a distraction so that the other can work: an advantage of working together. A similar consideration is beggars: even if you do intend to give them money when they have shuffled over, do you want to be distracted from what you are doing? If not, better to get the picture as soon as possible. If you think you may have to wait a few minutes for the light, you may do better to go for a short stroll as a diversionary tactic, so you can get back to your shooting position, unencumbered, when you need to.


Windsurfers, Rhodes

There's a real swirling movement to this picture. Time and again, we have got our feet wet when shooting by the sea-shore, but at least we have never shared the disconcerting experience of one photographer of our acquaintance, who saw his Billingham bag floating gently away from him, drawn back by the receding waves. He managed to recover it before it capsized but since then he has always been very careful indeed when working at the water's edge.

Despite our strictures above about associating one lens with one camera, there are times when you need to switch, and this was one of them; Roger put his 90/2 Summicron on his Leica M4P to shoot this, because his usual 35mm Summilux just wasn't long enough. The film was one of the last few rolls of his Fuji RFP ISO 50, bought when it was discontinued and then frozen.

In the literal sense, you will find it easier to see what is going on around you if you can keep both eyes open, even when one of them is looking into the viewfinder. Most people (though not all) find that they can switch their attention from one eye to the other reasonably easily, even if the magnification through the camera viewfinder is a long way from life size. The easiest way to learn, though, is probably to use a 1:1 finder, whether optical or a simple frame finder.

If you are thoroughly familiar with the field of view of your camera, you do not even need to use the viewfinder. Perhaps the leading exponents of this were portraitists with large format cameras. They would set everything up; insert the film holder (at which point, of course, they could no longer use the ground glass); pull the sheath; and then fire the shutter when their subject had exactly the right expression, thereby demonstrating that decisive moments exist even in studio portraiture.


Windsurfers, Rhodes

These well illustrate the diversity of the 'decisive moment'. Roger was quite pleased with one of his early shots, shown on the left, with a single wind-surfer; but he was still more pleased with the shot on the right where there are four of them in line, and the shot above was the best of the set as far as he was concerned. We shot these in the couple of hours that we were waiting for a delayed flight back to the UK: never give up shooting until the last moment. Technical information as above. The fact the the horizons are on different levels is curiously disconcerting when the pictures are laid out like this.

step 5: look carefully through the viewfinder

As well as knowing what is going on all around you, you need to know exactly what is going on within the picture area. At first, this requires real concentration. In everyday life, we concentrate on what is important -- the person walking past, friend, foe or lover -- and ignore the tree behind them. The camera doesn't ignore the tree: it shows it growing out of their head. Likewise, unless we have particular need of its comforts (or are travelling with someone who does) we don't notice the WC sign. Another thing that is all too easy to ignore is power cables and telephone wires. These are so ubiquitous, world wide, that we call them 'Himalayan blight' because they spoil pictures even in the Himalayas. Then there are the other people wandering in and out of the shot. There's plenty that can spoil a picture.

Nowadays, we find that we can spot most of these problems in a moment, and decide almost instantaneously whether or not they fatally damage the picture. This is, however, the result of years (and indeed decades) of training ourselves to do so -- and it is a conscious effort of will. Also, you need to do it twice over: first when you shoot the picture, and then again when you print it (or have it printed, or examine the transparencies on the light table, or review the LCD screen on the back of your digicam, or whatever). The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and once again, you can do it by 'dry-firing' the camera, or indeed just raising it to your eye and looking hard through the viewfinder. You're not looking for the subject: indeed, there doesn't have to be one. Rather, you are looking at everything that isn't the subject, and there's always plenty of that.


Man in doorway

Of course, we don't always get it right. The pattern on the door, just above the man's head (see right) turned out to be far more obtrusive than it looked in the viewfinder; in fact, we just didn't notice it (we're not going to confess which of us got it this wrong). If it had been a little darker, it would have been relatively easy to burn in the offending area, reducing it to insignificance, but there's more tone in the shadows than is immediately obvious and by the time it was too dark to see, there was a very nasty black splodge instead. So we cheated. Frances made the print, then Roger scanned it and cloned out the coxcomb in Adobe Photoshop.

We are convinced, incidentally, that one reason why so many devotees of 'the decisive moment' use direct-vision cameras such as Leicas and Alpas is that they can see what is going on at the moment of exposure; the same advantage applies, of course, to twin-lens reflexes, but we don't really get on with these. With a single-lens reflex, where the image disappears at the moment of exposure, you never really know what you have got. Not only that: the delay between pressing the shutter release and taking the picture is necessarily greater with an SLR, because the mirror has to get out of the way, and this takes time.

step 6: keep on shooting

This is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the decisive moment. As we said in the free introduction, there cannot be just one decisive moment, or you would only ever take one picture in your life. Also, some moments are more decisive than others. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there are a dozen different items in your viewfinder and that they can come together in ten thousand ways. It is possible that a single one of those ten thousand ways will be the perfect picture, and that a boddhisatva (one who has achieved enlightenment) would shoot that picture and only that picture. It is at least as likely that ten or even a hundred pictures out of the ten thousand possibilities will be equally good, but different.

Most important of all, you don't know what is coming next, so when you see something that looks good, it makes sense to shoot it. If you get a better shot later, all well and good, but if you never get as good a moment again, and you haven't shot it, you've missed the best possible shot.

Of course you can overdo things. There are photographers who seemingly rely on nothing more than the law of averages to get good pictures. It's a bit like the ten thousand monkeys typing for all eternity and producing the complete works of Shakespeare; shoot ten thousand pictures and you'll probably get a few good ones. We have to confess that we sometimes overdo it ourselves, but we'd argue that it is better to err on the side of over-shooting than on the side of under-shooting.



Saddhu by the banks of the Ganges

The picture on the right was the first Roger shot (on Kodachrome with his Leica M4P and 90/2 Summicron) but the one on the left seems to him to be better: the pose on the right is good, but cropping out the other people changes the mood and better reflects the nature of renunciation.


Perhaps fortunately, there are two serious constraints on overshooting. One, which applies only to silver halide users, is the practical point that film is expensive and bulky: ten rolls cost ten times as much, and take up ten times as much space, as one roll. The other, which applies to both silver halide and digital but is arguably even more important with the latter, is visual fatigue: what we call being 'pictured out'. This is more likely to happen at the selection stage (see below) than at the shooting stage, but there does come a point where all pictures look alike and you can't seem to summon the energy to shoot any more. Obviously a lot depends on the subject matter but sooner or later you realize that you have shot all you want of a particular subject and it is time to go.

step 7: selection and afterwork

Unless you have taken the one perfect picture, and only that picture, you have to decide afterwards which picture is best -- or, if you decide to use more than one picture of a particular event, as so many photographers often do, which pictures are best.

If you are lucky, there are a few that jump out at you and look really good when you do your initial selection. If you are really lucky, and extremely confident as well, you may not need to go any further than this. You need to be really confident, though, because often there are pictures that lack immediate impact but continue to grow on you in a way that the others, the ones that jump out at you, do not. We call these 'slow burn' pictures.

What we normally do, therefore, is categorize our shots into four groups. The first group is the 'jump-outs'. The second group is the 'possibles'. The remainder are categorized into 'spares' and 'rejects'. There is a big difference between the two. 'Rejects' are pictures that are unusable: examples include pictures of the inside of the lens-shade, those where someone blundered in front of the camera, those where the subject turned away, and so forth. 'Spares' are pictures that we see no use for at the time of selection, but have no glaring faults. Sometimes we find unexpected treasures among these when we come back to them; sometimes we find that the picture we picked as a 'possible' has some unnoticed fault and is better substituted by a 'spare'; sometimes we find that a couple of 'spares', though unremarkable in themselves, round out a collection of other pictures.

Lijiang market (right and below)

Compositionally, Roger felt that the picture on the right jumped out from the contact sheets, but the mood isn't quite right: the girl with the knitting looks as if she is being talked at, rather than talked to. The picture below, initially classified as a 'possible' or even a 'spare', worked rather better because of the eye contact. A still better shot would probably have combined the composition on the right with the eye contact in the picture below, but as Mick Jagger reminded us, you can't always get what you want. Both these shots are 'decisive moments' and the one that got away would have been one too. Roger shot this sequence (and a lot more at Lijiang market) with his favourite combination in black and white: Leica M-series, 35/1.4 pre-aspheric Summilux and Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DD-X and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

As noted above, a major risk in any picture selection process is visual fatigue: there's just a limit to how many pictures you can look at in a single session. This sets the upper limit to overshooting, as far as we are concerned. Quite honestly, film and processing just aren't all that expensive from our point of view, because (of course) it's what we do for a living and it's all tax-allowable. But even if you are a rich amateur, and can afford all the film you like, visual fatigue will still hit you sooner or later. The same is even more true, as far as we are concerned, of reviewing digital shots on a computer screen.

making comparisons

Unless you are really tired, it is usually fairly easy to rank pictures: A is better than B. You may not always be able to say why, but you should always try, because it will help you to understand what went wrong and what went right. Even if you can't put it into words at the time you make the choice, you should be able to come up with something later.

Mother and baby, Beijing

Frances took the picture on the left a few seconds after she took the other. Several things make it a better photograph. The direct engagement with the child is the most obvious thing, but there is also the fact that the man in the background is in a better pose and more separated from the young mother. Also, the concrete support for the railings is a lot less obtrusive in the picture on the left: all in all, a good example of how 'the shapes come together' as described above. Voigtländer Bessa-R2, 50/2.5 Color-Skopar, Ilford XP2 Super printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

digital reviewing

If you shoot digital, there is an inevitable temptation to review as you go along: partly, just because you can, and partly because it reduces the editing burden afterwards. It is, however, a temptation that should be resisted as far as possible, for at least three excellent reasons.

First, time spent reviewing is time that is not spent shooting. Having watched numerous users of digital cameras, we are convinced that there is no better way to lose the decisive moment than to spend time 'chimping' or looking at the screen on the back of the camera.

Second, there is always the risk of deleting a good picture by accident, in the heat of the moment. It may be that you have a cooler head than this. If so, we salute you.

Third, there is always a temptation to delete what we described above as 'spares'. As well as the reasons stated above for hanging on to 'spares', there is the point that you never know what may turn out to be important later. A classic example was the picture of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinski behind him: a worthless spare, until it wasn't. On a more personal note, you may well find that a 'spare' contains a picture of someone you get to know later, or a particularly poignant or typical pose by someone you know already. It may not be a great picture, but that doesn't necessarily stop it being a good souvenier.

Civil War re-enactor

We often regard it as a blessing that we can't check our images on film cameras as we go along, because we know it would slow us down grievously. It also reduces your interaction with your subject: if you are constantly looking at something only you can see, it's rather like being on a mobile phone the whole time. If you show the pictures to the subjects, on the other hand, it changes the whole direction of what they are doing. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus in his Leica M4-P with 90/2 Summicron; Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, toned in home-made sulphide toner.

the decisive moment and technical criteria

A strong case can be made that technical quality is a part of the decisive moment: it's not just the moment that the composition came together, but also the moment you go everything right technically as well, with the correct exposure, optimum depth of field, just the right amount of blur or frozen motion, no camera shake...

In fact, if you are bracketing your exposures (there's a free module on that, remember), you may often be torn between a picture that is technically superior and one that is artistically superior. Which compromise you choose is up to you -- but always remain open to the possibility that it could be either. This is a fundamental truth in photography: it's an art and a science. In an ideal world, we would always get both right, all the time. In the real world: well, there are some times when you just have to accept that you have learned a lesson, but not necessarily taken a usable picture.

Then again, as we have said above, you will often get better pictures if you use a camera you know, like and trust than you will with one you don't know, or for that matter with one that is so valuable you are afraid to use it for fear of damaging it.


Ansel Adams famously likened photography to music, saying that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. With digital photography, the scope for interpretation is even greater: to stretch AA's analogy still further, you can present the same piece as a jazz improvisation or a mobile phone ring-tone -- or indeed a door-chime, which is normally even more irritating than either a mobile phone ring tone.

In addition to what might be called the normal manipulative tricks of cropping the full-frame image or selectively lightening or darkening specific areas, there is an inevitable temptation to bring the picture nearer to the heart's desire by cloning out bits that you don't want, or even (in extreme cases) by 'comping' two or more pictures together: the right pose here, the right expression there.

We are not purists about this: we don't believe there are any rules in art, and we do believe that photography can be art (which is not the same as saying that it invariably is an art). On the other hand, we are generally against extensive manipulation for two reasons.

First, you need to be good at it. A lot better than most people. This is what might be called the practical objection.

Second, there is what might be called a philosophical and historical objection. Look at a picture of a street scene from a hundred years ago. No doubt there were photographers who would have loved to get rid of an awkwardly placed horse and cart or shoe-shine boy, to say nothing of telegraph wires. But they couldn't; at least, not easily. They had to show us what was really there. Sure, they could choose their viewpoint and their focal length and their time of day and exactly when they pressed the shutter release, but when they did, they captured what was in front of them for that fraction of a second. That's worth quite a lot.


Little girl lost

When you break the rules, break 'em good and hard. Is she really lost? We don't know. Probably not, and if she were, her parents would have been near at hand. But the pose is so much one of 'What am I going to do next' that Roger grabbed the picture in the split-second before she moved away.

It isn't too sharp, due to camera shake, but it still captures the moment. What's important is that it's very heavily manipulated: compare it with the original on the right. But as Frances says, it's a different picture: it tells a different story. In the one where the signs are left in, she could be just checking what they say. In the other -- who knows? Voigtländer Bessa-R, 50/1.5 Nokton. We've run it fairly small so the retouching isn't too clear...

the bottom line

Our view of the decisive moment is somewhat coloured by what we said a moment ago back: the decisive moment in its pure form is primarily a record. As soon as you start setting things up, or borrowing this from one place and that from another, the likelihood of a decisive moment in any classical sense diminishes rapidly. This doesn't mean that set-up shots are necessarily inferior to traditional 'decisive moment' shots, nor does it mean that decisive moments cease to exist in set-up shots: the studio portrait has already been adduced as an example, and there are a couple of shots in this module that go quite a long way from being straight records. What it does means is that there are a lot of different ways of taking pictures, and that what works best for one picture is not necessarily what works best for another. In short, the decisive moment is like the Zone System: neither a panacea nor an infallible curse.

Lijiang Market

Decisive moments are not just about composition: they are a lot about context and content too. The small shot below is arguably a better pictorial composition, but the larger shot on the left with the doll-like child is closer to the decisive moment. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus using his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux; prints on MG Warmtone.

The seven steps or headings above will not guarantee mastery of the decisive moment, because there are no guarantees in any field of artistic endeavour. They should however greatly improve your chances. After familiarity with your equipment, we'd say that the greatest revelation about the decisive moment for us was then we realized that there isn't just one of them: our Step 6 above.

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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks