Guide to Composition in Photography - The Decisive Moment

Composition | Capturing the Decisive Moment in your Photographs

The idea of the “decisive moment” in photography is of course most associated with the great French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. But what did Cartier-Bresson mean by the “Decisive Moment”? The great man himself said the following:

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

Henri Cartier-Bresson

In the case of Henri Cartier-Bresson, this meant clicking the camera at the exact moment a man leaped over a puddle behind Gare Saint Lazare or capturing the fleeting cheeky expression of a French boy as he joyfully carried a bottle of wine in each hand through the streets of Paris.

The following collection of photographs showcases a few examples of my own efforts to capture some “decisive moments”.

The Decisive Moment: Cyclist Crossing a Bridge in Bruges

The Decisive Moment: Cyclist Crossing a Bridge in Bruges
Bruges, Belgium

In this photograph, a cyclist crosses one of the many stone bridges that cross the canals of the handsome medieval city of Bruges in Belgium. This was one of those occasions when I had to wait for that exact right moment to press the shutter. I crouched beside a canal side wall, composed my shot and waited…. and waited…. and waited some more.

Every so often, someone would cycle across the bridge but the shot would be ruined by a car coming in the opposite direction or perhaps the cyclist would look too modern for the mood I was trying to create in the final photograph – very inconsiderate in my opinion! Finally, after about 45 minutes, I saw the gentleman you can see in the photo approaching the bridge. I waited until he was right in front of the light coloured building you see right behind him so he would stand out and pressed the shutter.

It was one of those moments I knew I’d gotten the shot I wanted from this location. I think it was worth the wait. This was by far my favourite photo from the trip. I was quite lucky as there was a car coming from the opposite direction ready to spoil my shot. Thankfully for me the cyclist just beat him to the bridge. I believe he will be taking part in the Tour de France this year.

The Decisive Moment: Light Trails in Amsterdam

The Decisive Moment: Light Trails in Amsterdam
Keizersgracht Canal, Amsterdam

I took this shot along Keizersgracht Canal in Amsterdam. In this instance I wanted to capture the light trails of one of the many boats that whiz along the waterways of the Dutch capital. Most of the boats made a slow left turn at this intersection leading to some very awkward looking light trails. Finally, one speedy little vessel shot straight through the scene providing me with the straight light trails I was looking to capture.

The Decisive Moment: Dancing in the Streets of Paris

The Decisive Moment: Dancing in the Streets of Paris
Pont d’Arcole, Paris

The next shot comes from one of my favourite photography locations: Paris. The French capital is one of the places Henri Cartier-Bresson plied his trade after all. It’s a superb location for street photography. In the shot above, I captured the moment a couple danced to a street musician on the Pont d’Arcole. This was one of those lucky moments as I just happened across the scene as I was walking towards Notre Dame Cathedral. The guy with the cigarette leaning against the railing between the guitarist and the dancers seems completely unimpressed by the whole thing. Maybe he just prefers Johnny Hallyday.

The Decisive Moment: A Kiss at the Phoenix Park Tea Rooms

The Decisive Moment: A Kiss at the Phoenix Park Tea Rooms
Phoenix Park Tearooms, Dublin

I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time while taking photographs at the Tea Rooms near Dublin Zoo. This Victorian era building is an attractive subject in itself but as I was framing the shot, an opportunity to capture a very human “decisive moment” arose. A young couple entered the frame and shared a kiss at the entrance to the Tea Rooms as they said their goodbyes. Capturing this momentary act of tenderness turned a decent shot into something much more special.

The Decisive Moment: Deer in the Phoenix Park

The Decisive Moment: Deer in the Phoenix Park
Deer in the Phoenix Park, Dublin

We stay in the Phoenix Park for the next photograph. This one was actually taken on the same morning as the last one! While photographing this herd of deer as they crossed the park, one stopped and looked back. Once again that morning, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

The Decisive Moment: Entering the Souk of Hammamet

The Decisive Moment: Entering the Souk of Hammamet
Souk of Hammamet, Tunisia

We move to North Africa for the next shot, the entrance to the Souk of Hammamet in Tunisia to be exact. This archway into the busy market area seemed liked the perfect location to get an interesting shot. Again, this required some patience and a lot of unsuccessful attempts to capture the right person as they entered the souk. After about half an hour, I finally managed to get the shot I was after. Notice how the person is framed by the archway. As I mentioned in an earlier tutorial on creating a sense of depth in your photos, arches are perfect for using the “frame within a frame” technique.

A Combination of Patience and Luck

The idea of the decisive moment is a concept that you should always keep in mind when you head out with your camera. Some of the photos in this series were captured as a result of being patient and waiting for that moment of interest to happen. Others were a result of sheer good luck and being in the right place at the right time. Either way, there is always a great sense of satisfaction when you succeed in freezing some never to be repeated moment in time simply by pressing your camera’s shutter at exactly the right second.

The next time you are out taking photographs; don’t just start clicking as soon as you find an interesting location. Take a look around the scene and see what the possibilities are for capturing a “decisive moment”. I’d prefer to wait in order to take one special shot than several mediocre ones.

Composition Series Conclusion

Several times in this series of tutorials on composition, I have told you that it is often possible to combine two or more of the composition ideas I’ve covered in one photograph.

Combining composition techniques in photography
Arcade du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

This shot taken in Brussels combines several of the ideas we covered in this section: centred composition, symmetry, rule of thirds, leading lines, rule of odds, framing and colour theory.

Obviously, it would be impossible to have all of these composition ideas in your head as you are out shooting. Your brain would melt! However, a good exercise is to try to use one or two of them each time you go out with your camera After a while, you’ll find that a lot of these techniques become ingrained. You will begin to use them naturally without having to think about them. As you can see from the golden ratio, I used one of them without even realising it!

I would also encourage you to ignore these guidelines completely when you think it will make for a more interesting composition. As I said at the beginning, these are ideas, not rules that must be obeyed at all times! Many of the ideas here however will help you come up with interesting ways of composing your photographs.

In the next series of tutorials, we will take a look at light and weather conditions and examine what type of photography works well in different conditions. Our first tutorial will focus on taking photographs in the morning light.

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I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

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