The Decisive Moment • Tutor feedback and responses

I have had my tutor feedback on Assignment 3 (The Decisive Moment). No rework required (phew!) but we may have a conceptual difference about what the phrase ‘decisive moment’ means. But hey, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’ (course notes, 72) so this is maybe a topic to be developed in future postings.

Feedback here, as a Word document

The substantive text of the feedback is presented below in blue text. My comments and initial responses are in black.

Overall comments

The work presented for this assignment demonstrates a clear understanding of technique and composition. These skills have been applied to the Image making process and have been analyzed to ascertain the most appropriate methods of presentation. There has been good research carried out to underpin your approach to the work and this has been carried through to your reflections upon it.

Thank you.

You have interpreted this assignment in relation to Cartier Bresson and from your own research it is apparent that you are aware of other ideas in making images and also of critical views regarding the concept of the decisive moment.

The images that you have submitted for the decisive moment project indicate a reaction to this genre of photography. In the context of the work of Cartier Bresson the concept of the decisive moment is humanist in nature rooted in the recording of people and their activities. The work that you have submitted could have perhaps been better described as the frozen moment in that your choice of subject matter was capturing sporting moments. The work that you have produced is somewhat static in nature whereas the decisive moment as practiced by Bresson is about movement.

At this stage in my studies, I am not sure that I recognise a difference. My take on the ‘decisive moment’ is that it is the photographer, not the moment that is decisive. We take a subject in motion and isolate a moment of that motion, which will necessarily freeze the action.

You have discussed in your learning log the original phrase used by Bresson “it references the French phrase ‘vendre à la sauvette’ meaning unauthorized street trading or street peddling”. Another translation of this is in haste, hastily, furtively and “image a la sauvette” is generally taken to mean an image taken on the run.

I was aware of the interpretations ‘… on the run’ or ‘… on the sly’ but found them rather strange in a book title. I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ when I came across “vendre à la sauvette” which has an obvious parallel with street photography.

You quote Bresson again “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” This moment encapsulates not only the subject but also the meaning inherent in the image. As such the viewer is invited to contemplate the social, cultural and environmental symbols within the image.

I feel that in this work there is perhaps a barrier that prevented you from fully engaging with the concept and that this may be down to the very nature of the subject matter which is working against you and also that you were anchored to a specific spot.

I agree with this. Given freedom of movement, there would have been other photo opportunities on the water (upwind of the start, mark rounding) and on land (preparing boats, event briefing, launching) which would have allowed me to present a more rounded view of the event.

The genre of sports photography can of course produce many decisive moments and these are usually represented by the struggle of the individual within the context of the activity. The limitations in this genre from the photographers point of view is that they are not always able to be close to the subject and the lack of intimacy often leads to the recording of an event rather than any effort to interpret it.

To get close to the subject would interfere with it and, therefore, change it. I could ‘get close’ only when the competitors got close to me. Incidentally, with sailing there are two levels of ‘individual’; there is the boat and crew as a competitive unit, and there are the individual sailors working to control the boat. I tried to show both.

You researched in some depth the decisive moment concept that has led you into a questioning mode and to reconsider Bresson’s influence within the context of contemporary practice and the cult of personality that has grown up around him. It is worth bearing in mind that photography is prone to fads and fashions just as any other medium and that ultimately you must find the direction that is true for you. There are reassessments of this practice and its relevance within contemporary photography. The writing of Zouhair Ghazzal is worth looking at for an alternative point of view and a quote from the American photographer Les Krims that may be apt to a lot of contemporary practice.

“ I am not a Historian, I create History. These images are anti-decisive moment. It is possible to create any image one thinks of; this possibility, of course, is contingent on being able to think and create. The greatest potential source of photographic imagery is the mind.” 

Two names to check out. Ghazzal is mentioned briefly in the course notes.

In relation to Bresson it is worth recalling that he was one of the founders of Magnum and that this agency’s purpose was to sell photographers work. The creation of myths in no way hinders this purpose

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

The technical quality and presentation of the work submitted is good.

The images submitted record part of a sporting event. They suffer from distancing the viewer from the subject due to the fact that the photographer is not close to the subject. As a record of a sporting event they perhaps have to be considered more within that genre and as such they are good images that fulfill their purpose. You have assessed these images and your own criticisms are apt particularly in relation to the images that have the subject turning away from the viewer. The aficionados of sailing would find these images relevant to their own particular interests but how do they impact upon the general viewer?

I hope that the general viewer will be engaged by the image with two boats racing toward camera from a turning mark and, possibly the closeups. I agree that the others may be of more specialist interest.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

There was quite a lot to cover in this assignment and it is apparent that there has been a focused growth in your response to developing your ideas from the brief to the finished work. It is clear that you engaged with a number of ideas in carrying out the exercises prior to formulating your final piece. The research into the work of other photographers and critical reading is good and this has opened up new perceptions and an engagement with new ideas. However there may be a need to reflect upon your relationship with this material. How far has this research influenced your thinking and your work?

It has clarified my thinking about the decisive moment (had I given it much serious thought before enrolling on this course)

It is right to reconsider Bresson’s influence within the context of contemporary practice and the cult of personality that has grown up around him. The significance of Roland Barthes essay Death of the Author refers to this personalizing of work “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.”

I have downloaded ‘Death of the Author’ for future review, and seen a short YouTube explanation of it. The question of whether it is the photographer or the viewer who has the more valid interpretation of an image is parallel to Matthew’s question in his Assignment 1 feedback about whether it is the photographer or the viewer who is the voyeur in the case of candid photography. One for a future posting.

I would like you to have developed in depth your critique of Paul Graham’s work within the context theoretical and critical reading.

Tricky. I considered the work shallow and pointless, therefore difficult to critique in depth – there isn’t any. I gave my reasons in the original posting.

I was interested in your comments “My view on ‘spray and pray’ is that it is a way of delaying a decision. In principle, it allows us to select a ‘decisive moment’ post-hoc and in post-production. In practice, it encourages laziness at the point of shooting and involves lot of work in editing”

Perhaps it might be interesting to consider that new technology has freed us from the potential tyranny of the decisive moment and that it allows us the reflective ability to work on and develop our images.

I wonder if it has replaced one tyranny with another, the need to spend more time in selecting and editing than hitherto.

We would not consider it strange that a painter would make many sketches of a subject before attempting to finalize it in a painting and if necessary return to it many times. Bresson himself may have found this need for reflection when he abandoned photography in 1968 and returned to painting.

I agree, and that is the message that I took from study of the Magnum contact sheets album.

Overall this assignment has evidenced a good broad scope of research and reading supplemented with exhibition visits.

Thank you.

Suggested reading/viewing

Henri Cartier-Bresson “Pen, Brush and Camera”

Death of the Author – Roland Barthes

Both downloaded for future review.

Apart from the above I will not suggest too much specific reading at this point as you are already well underway in this area. I would like you in the learning log for the next assignment to select and refer to texts/photographers that have had an impact upon the work and the development of your ideas.


Assignment 3 – submission and reflection

It is with a certain amount of relief that I have finally completed Assignment 3 and got it safely into the post before the deadline. Here are the photographs and the assignment notes.

EYV ass 3 Decisive Moment analysis

The final task is to reflect and check my work against the assessment criteria.

Technical and visual skills

I am happy with the materials and techniques I used. My visual awareness was assisted by inside knowledge of what the competitors were doing, which enabled me to anticipate developing situations. I am satisfied with the design and composition of each image.

Quality of outcome

In concept and discernment, I was able to apply specialist knowledge as a sailor, as well as technical knowledge as a photographer. I have a clear understanding of what I want each image to say; it is for the viewer to judge whether I have succeeded.

Demonstration of creativity

The weak point of my response to the assignment. I have stayed very much within my comfort zone.


I believe that my research shows reflection and critical thinking about the concept of ‘the decisive moment’. I found good reason to dispute its popular significance, but I also dispute the idea that it is either irrelevant or a cliché. I have formed my own view that it is an important but slippery concept and, ultimately, has a circular definition..

Assignment 3 – random further thoughts (and a decisive moment of my own)

In a previous posting, I concluded that the ‘decisive moment’ is a tautology; it is the moment that the photographer decides the timing and composition is right to press the shutter button. It is not the moment that is decisive, but the photographer.

I also discussed ‘spray and pray’ and concluded that it was a way of deferring that decision until post-processing. Except in fast-moving situations, I considered it a lazy way to work. It is therefore slightly worrying to see how much I used burst-fire in each of my three possible sets for Assignment 3 (regatta, white water or pub gig). In my defence, most bursts were of only 2 or 3 images, rather than a full ‘machine-gun’ treatment.

With a deadline looming, it is time to decide which set to move forward with as my assignment. I have decided to work with the regatta for several reasons. It is the subject matter that I am most comfortable with; as a racing sailor myself, I was able to anticipate developing situations better than with the other two sets. It is also the set that has the greatest variety in situations and subject matter.

The next stage is to select the final images. There is good guidance in the literature.

Michael Freeman (2010,156) in a chapter titled “Interactive composition” gives a case study and describes the process of exploring a scene to find the best composition and timing. Although the image finally selected in that case was the last shot (no.37) he notes that this is by no means always the case.

The Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben (ed) 2014) is a fascinating read – and will be the subject of a review – which highlights iconic images and presents them together with the contact sheet and sometimes the photographer’s notes. This gives a good insight into the process of editing, although I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the editor’s choice.

I hope to live up to a comment by HCB, “Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share” (Cartier Bresson, quoted in Lubben 2014, 18)


Freeman, M. (2010) The Photographer’s Mind Lewes:Ilex

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Decisive moments at a pub gig

As a change from water-based activities, I photographed a performance by a local veteran-rock band in a public bar. This brought its own set of challenges, some of which are illustrated by this image. The challenges fall into three main types.


Space: The venue is not designed for performances, so the band is crammed into a small space at one end. The two musicians in the back row (drummer and bass guitar) are obscured by the front row. The bar itself was crowded, so I had limited freedom to move around (I eventually found three vantage points I could move between without annoying too many of the audience) It is also necessary to consider the visual clutter of music stands, mikes and speakers.

Lighting: There is no ‘stage lighting’ and the general pub lighting is rather dim and designed for visibility rather than effect. The singer/lead guitarist stands below and slightly behind a ceiling light, there is bright light on a white painted alcove at the rear left and, for the early part of the evening, there is light from a window. All three sources have different colour temperatures. I dealt with this partly by avoiding the alcove and window where possible and partly by tone control and partial desaturation in Lightroom. The camera is a Pentax K-1, mostly used at ISO25600 which I regard as magic in comparison with the low-light ‘performance’ of my previous cameras.

Subject: It was necessary to watch the performers carefully to pick my decisive moments. Although they tend to stand in one place, there is a lot of body movement. Facial expressions change rapidly, and a singer can make some rather grotesque expressions. Also, for some reason, musicians tend to shut their eyes while performing.

In this set of images, I have isolated each performer in a sort of environmental portrait. Exposures were between 1/15s and 1/50s at apertures between f/2.8 and f/5.6. The most difficult capture was the drummer as I had to wait for the front-row performers to move out of the way and give me a clear shot. In attempting to find a typical pose, I had to observe and analyse each man’s movements to decide what constitutes a ‘typical pose’, then to anticipate and shoot it.

Of course, the whole point of a band is that the musicians are performing together. The final set of images in this posting each show two or more band members and, in my opinion, convey the atmosphere of the evening.


Decisive moments in white water

A camera club outing to Lee Valley White Water Park gave me an opportunity for another sport/action set. On the day, the only activity scheduled was white-water rafting as team-building for a large accountancy firm. Because the water channel and weirs are artificial, there are set-piece dramatic opportunities, although viewpoints are some distance from the water and there is a lot of background and foreground clutter.

Images in this set were made with a Pentax K-1 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. Most of the images were shot between f/2.8 and f/4 to use shallow depth-of-field to concentrate on the subject and reduce the clutter.

I started with the preparation and briefing area, which is surrounded by a first floor terrace, giving almost all-round viewing access. The principal problems are that there are just too many elements and that the predominant colour scheme is red, which does not fit with the predominant blue of events on the water.

This set illustrates some of the problems to be avoided. Visual clutter is noted above, best dealt with in most cases by tight framing. In places , the crews are instructed to hold their paddles vertical, which gives boring shapes, not as dynamic as when they are actively paddling. Where two rafts are close together, there is confusion of shapes. Water splashing, despite being the whole point of the activity can also obscure the boats and crews.

This sequence, shot in burst-fire mode, shows a boat passing through a weir section. The ‘decisive moments’ are shortly before the plunge, with expressions of anticipation and anxiety on the faces, or as the boat emerges from the spray. However, at the end, the crew are more randomly arranged which is often not photogenic. In the two middle images I feel that the white water hides too many important elements. On examination of the whole day’s contacts it appears that the bow of the boat is particularly important.

Here, I am exploring the effect of focal length to give some variety. Broadly, there are three ‘scales’ of zoom which seem to work: (a) filling the frame with a single boat, (b) framing very tightly to concentrate on the faces of some crew members or (c) showing a complementary but blurred ‘wider picture’ background. If I select this theme for my eventual assignment, then I will use a variety of framing.

Small changes between images can make a difference. In the second image the boat is oriented pointing directly to camera, which shows the helmsman/instructor to advantage. Also in the second image, the starboard front crew member has started to actively paddle and has a more determined expression.

The activity carries managed risks. In this case, a boat had nearly overturned and has spilt most of its crew. The sequence shows them in the water near the boat, and then being swept away downstream. The large image is the best compositionally as the boat forms a strong diagonal and appears to ‘enclose’ the people in the water. In the later images, they are more disconnected.


This image illustrates the difference between ‘peak of the action’ and ‘decisive moment’. The helmsman has been catapulted clear of the boat and is at maximum height. However, the crew have not noticed, so there is no reaction, and the airborne figure’s face is turned away from camera.


This is my favourite image of the day and is a real ‘decisive moment’ as all of the composition elements have come together well. The boat is emerging from a splash  with several faces visible and reacting. The paddles make a good arrangement and the helmsman is upright, attentive and clearly in control.

I believe this venue shows promise for Assignment 3 but I do not have enough variety of images. If I am to use it, I will need to revisit when there is white-water kayaking scheduled and combine the two activities into a single series.

Decisive moments at a regatta

Over the past weekend, I was Race Officer at a regatta for Shearwater catamarans at my local sailing club (Isle of Sheppey SC). Seeing the possibility of an unusual (although not exactly unconventional) theme for the ‘decisive’ moment assignment, I took my camera along and finished the weekend with about 1000 images. I used a combination of single-shots and short ‘machine-gun’ sequences (usually 3-5 in a burst)

Let’s be honest, most of them are rubbish for reasons discussed in this posting but I will be able to find the required 6-8 images if I decide to use this event for my assignment. I have posted a subset in a Facebook album.

The main issue is the viewpoint. I spent most of my time on the committee boat, anchored at a fixed point, the start/finish line, but could not capture starts or finishes because I was otherwise engaged. Likewise, because it takes an hour or so of preparation to set up the racecourse, flagstaff etc. I was not ashore to photograph the competitors setting up their boats and launching, which would have given plenty of off-water decisive moments to complement the on-water action.

For instance, in this sequence early in the day, raising a mast has echoes of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the US flag being raised on Iwo Jima. The decisive moment in the sequence is the third image, before the mast is secured; the man is still holding it up, the woman clearly has the forestay in two hands with good arm positions, and there is eye-contact between them. Unfortunately, the background is cluttered.

Practical issues on the water (see below) include the rolling motion of the boat, the fact that much of the action takes place up to a mile away, and that there are assorted ropes and other obstructions.

Action immediately after a start has all the competitors moving away, and stern views are usually not as dynamic as bow-on shots of a boat moving toward the camera. Sometimes (larger image) it can work well, in this case making a sort of study of concentration.

It is possible to get good views of competitors closer to the committee boat. For the purposes of this assignment I would eschew single-boat ‘portraits’ and action images where the boats overlap too much, causing confusion of shapes.

There is a length of course, of about 200m downwind of the committee boat where there is good dynamic action and plenty of opportunity for decisive moments. Burst-fire or ‘machine-gun’ mode shooting is useful because the relative positions of the boats changes quickly, as do sailors’ positions and eye-lines. Compositionally, it is better for both sailors to be looking forward, in the direction the boat is moving. In practice, a good sailor will also spend a lot of time looking at his sails and at the tactical situation with other boats, or checking the precise moment to tack for a mark. These five images were taken in a single burst.

My favourite is the large image (which I have cropped slightly to remove the third boat) because of the eye-line and apparent concentration of the crew of the leading boat and the position of the trailing boat relative to the leading helmsman’s head and the trapeze wires.

I believe this event shows promise, but there are other ideas and outings to explore before firming up on the assignment.

Assignment 3 – first thoughts (rambles?)

Submit a set of between six and eight high-quality photographic prints on the theme of the ‘decisive moment’. … You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’, or you may choose to question or invert the concept. Your aim isn’t to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series there should be a linking theme, whether it’s a location, an event or a particular period of time. … This will be a personal response as there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course. You’ll find it useful to explore the photographers and works referenced in Project 3, if you haven’t already done so.

This is going to be the most challenging assignment to date, mainly because ‘the decisive moment’ is a slippery concept that we all define in our own way. My view from a previous posting is that it is a circular concept: the decisive moment is the moment I decide to press the button, for whatever reason. Ideally, it is because I have found a composition that I like in the viewfinder. Therefore, I am not convinced that there is a ‘theme of the decisive moment’.

Still, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’, so I have some licence so long as the result is defensible. My first thoughts:

  • I want to avoid ‘street photography’ because (a) the link between ‘street’ and ‘decisive moment’ is a bit too clichéd and (b) I’m not particularly good at it.
  • The image elements have to be in motion, or at least changing, in order for a decisive moment to emerge.
  • I need an element of control or predictability because I have to produce a linked set rather than a group of random one-offs.

My first opportunity and attempt will come this weekend when I will be officiating at a sailing regatta, from the committee boat, which will give me a theme, movement and developing situations.

I have looked at many of the photographers referenced in Part 3 (there are not many in Project 3 alone) as I have worked through the exercises. My thumbnail reactions are:

  • Eadweard Muybridge: good analysis of movement but a basically mechanical/automated approach to exposure. Can any of his moments be considered ‘decisive’ if the shutter was activated by tripwire rather than by hand?
  • Harold Edgerton: single high-speed images show normally-invisible ‘decisive moments’ but still mechanically triggered (or incredibly lucky)
  • Eyoalha Baker: ‘Jump for joy’ images are ‘peak of the action’ rather than decisive moments
  • Jeff Wall: staged reproductions of ‘decisive moments’, which could be said to be cheating.
  • Robert Capa: war and street photographer. Decisive moments and not afraid of a bit of unavoidable blur. Panning, as in the Barcelona air-raid image, is worth considering to simplify backgrounds.
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto: long exposures smudge any suggestion of ‘decisive moment’
  • Michael Wesley: ultra-long exposures, avoiding the decisive moment altogether
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: forever linked with the phrase ‘decisive moment’ by a lazy translator. Skilled at finding formal compositions in messy situations.
  • Paul Graham: Nothing here for me. Randomness presented as something meaningful.

My inspirations are likely to come from photojournalists such as HCB and Capa, or from sports photographers.