Capture: The Decisive Moment

Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne A7RII and FE 35F28 ZA @ f/8 (f/8 and be there)

The famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1954 described the visual climax to a scene which the photographer captures as being the ‘decisive moment’.

The moment when the photographer chooses to release the shutter may be influenced by the visual climax to the action and the moment when the moving forms create the most pleasing design. In the flux of movement a photographer can sometimes intuitively feel when the changing forms and patterns achieve balance, clarity and order, and when the image becomes for an instant a picture.

To capture decisive moments the photographer needs to be focused on, or receptive to, what is happening rather than the camera equipment they are holding. Just like driving a car, it is possible to operate a camera without looking at the controls. The photographer must spend time with any piece of equipment so that they are able to operate it intuitively. When watching an event unfold the photographer can increase their chances of capturing the decisive moment by presetting the focus and exposure.

Caught in the Light – RMIT University – City Campus (the figure in this image is backlit by the rising sun and illuminated from the front by the sun’s reflection in a window behind me – and this is why the figure has two shadows)

f/8 and be there

One of the things that may delay a photographer from capturing a decisive moment is the camera is unprepared. The ‘f/8 and be there’ rule is an excellent way of ensuring that the camera is ready to seize, or capture, the decisive moment. Many ‘Street’ photographers switch the camera to Manual Exposure if the ambient light is a constant, e.g. a clear sunny day. When the sun is shining brightly the exposure (no matter where you are on the planet) can be set using the ‘Sunny 16 Rule’. The Sunny 16 rule states that if you set the aperture to f/16 and the ISO and Shutter speed to same number, e.g. ISO 100 and 1/100 Second, then you will correctly expose your scene. This can be adapted to the ‘f/8 and be there rule’ by setting the camera to Manual Exposure and opening the aperture up by two stops to f/8 (an increase of +2 EV) and speeding the shutter speed up to 1/400 second (a decrease of –2.0 EV) to compensate. This will ensure the correct exposure is maintained and provide the photographer with an aperture that provides enough depth of field for street photography and a shutter speed that will freeze movement in the street. Many photographers will adapt these settings to suit their needs, .e.g. raising the ISO to 400 will give the photographer the option to stop down to f/11 and raise the shutter speed to 1/800 second.

Manual or Autofocus?

The standard focal length for many ‘Street’ photographers is widely considered to be the 35mm focal length when using a full frame camera. When using a crop sensor or APS-C camera the equivalent focal length would be 24mm to achieve the same ‘angle of view’. When this 35mm focal length lens is used in conjunction with an f/8 aperture, the depth of field is often sufficient enough to enable the photographer to switch the camera to Manual Focus and pre-focus at a distance of approximately 5 metres (16 feet). This manual focus setting provides enough depth of field to ensure your subject would be in focus anywhere between 2.5 metres (just over 8 feet) to Infinity. It is even more advantageous for a photographer using a 24mm focal length on an APS-C sensor because they could pre-focus at a distance of 3.5 metres (11 feet) and ensure everything from 1.75 metres (just under 6 feet) is in sharp focus. The advantage of choosing Manual Focus over Auto Focus is that the camera will not hesitate in taking a picture as soon as the shutter release is depressed (it does not need to lock on prior to capture). The other advantage in choosing manual focus is that the camera will not automatically shift focus to Infinity and render foreground subject matter unsharp (by choosing manual focus you are basically selecting the ‘hyperfocal distance‘ to ensure you have the biggest zone of focus in the your image). Use this Depth of Field calculator to check the appropriate aperture and distance with the lens and sensor size you are using.

Choosing to prioritise the subject or the scene?

Many photographers find the scene first, rather than walking around looking for interesting people. In this way we can find an empty stage that is beautiful lit or with a striking design and then wait for the players to enter ‘stage-left’ or ‘stage-right’. The photographer has a greater chance of being ignored or going unnoticed if they were present in the location before the subject arrives. The photographer simply frames the stage and then waits for the people to take up their positions by walking into the appropriate spot.

The art of becoming invisible

Many photographers further practice the art of being ignored by adopting certain strategies that will ensure the focus of attention does not fall on them. These include:

  • Using a tilt screen to frame the scene rather than the viewfinder.
  • Shooting from the waist rather than from eye-level.
  • Appearing to be distracted with something else while taking the picture, i.e. not looking at either the camera or the subject when clicking the shutter.
  • Pretending to be waiting for the subject to leave the frame before you take the picture, i.e. pretending the subject is in the way rather than being the focal point of the image.
  • Using silent shutter mode if available.

Subject sees photographer – Although this image looks like a possible source of potential conflict, the camera is down at my waist and the barber is looking at me smiling at him. There is nothing to indicate I have captured, or are capturing, his image. The moment was over in a split second and he resumed trimming the man’s beard just a moment after the image was captured.

Avoiding Conflict

In most countries you are well within your rights to capture daily life as it unfolds in the streets. You are on public property and people do not have the right to privacy when in a public space. Knowing your rights, however, does not mean that your subject knows you are within your rights to create images of strangers in the street. If you continue to hold the camera to your face after being observed by a person within your frame you are inviting confrontation. As soon as eye-to-eye, or eye-to-lens, contact is made it is advisable to lower the camera, smile and diffuse the situation by offering up some non-threatening explanation as to your motives for taking a picture. If you are uneasy about this style of photography you can try capturing images at a public gathering such as a parade where your subjects expect to be photographed. This will ensure your technique is well polished before you extend the range of time and place.

Photographs as an important historical document

It is only through photographic evidence (street and documentary photography) that we can see what life was like during a specific period in history. If we engage in street photography we are creating a factual document that can be passed forward to future generations to show them what life was like during our own time. This un-glamourised view of history offers a counterpoint to the imagery carefully crafted by the photographs created for the advertising industry that shows a world of fantasy rather than actuality.

Breaking all the Rules (namely the ‘f/8 and be there’ rule)

Although I still use the f/8 and be there rule (I especially like to ‘park’ my camera in the camera bag with some or all of these settings in place), I often like to capture street images with an 85mm focal length lens (often considered to be a portrait lens). I still like to move close to my subject but I choose a wide f/1.8 aperture that decreases the depth of field. The advantage of this approach is that I can isolate my subject from their background (trying no to lose the ‘sense of place’ in the process). The disadvantage to this workflow is that focus becomes exceptionally problematic. I can’t pre-focus so I must either move a single point focus (‘Flexible Spot’) quickly or use Face-Detect AF in Wide Screen AF or Eye-AF in AF-C mode (available on the latest Sony Alpha cameras such as the A6300, A6500, A7RII and A9 cameras). Another side-effect of this workflow is that I find myself talking to the subjects who are in my images so I cease to be invisible. I personally like this transition from ‘Street’ to ‘Portraiture’ and this is possibly because there is always the possibility of extended narratives forming from the images I am capturing.

Mark is a Global Imaging Ambassador for Sony, an experienced educator and an Imaging Ambassador for Adobe. As well as public speaking he offers training in the form of creative workshops and one-on-one training.