How do we predict the decisive moment in street photography?
I want to share some practical tips, insights, and thoughts on how to better capture the decisive moment— by predicting it before-hand.
First of all, capturing the right moment in street photography is the difference between a mediocre and a great photo.
Timing is everything. Not just street photography, but life. You need to have good timing when starting a business, when investing in stocks, when asking someone out on a date, and when to shoot.
1. History repeats
One of the interesting things I learned in street photography is this: history repeats.
What I mean to say is that when you see people doing certain hand-gestures, they tend to repeat it.
For example, let’s say you want to shoot a candid (without permission) street photograph of a guy smoking, and taking a puff from his cigarette. You might see him from 20 feet away, and you try to sneakily walk close to him to take a photo. And the second you are (about) to bring up your camera, he stops smoking.
In that case, what you want to do is hang around, pretend like you’re checking your phone or whatever, then wait for the guy to lift up his cigarette and take a puff. Then at that moment, you need to quickly shoot to capture the ‘decisive moment’ of him taking a puff of his cigarette.
This also happens with couples kissing in public. Often, couples kiss (more than once) in the streets. If you spot a couple kissing, hang around them for a little bit, and wait — I can guarantee they will kiss again. And at that moment, you want to be ready.
2. Predict the future
One practical tip is learn the pace at which people walk. If you notice closely how fast or slowly people walk, you can predict that in about 10 seconds, your subject will be in the right spot at the right time.
You can do this in several ways. First, you can find a good background, and wait for your subject to enter the frame at the right time, and then click to capture ‘the decisive moment.’
Another tip: you can stand at an intersection, and look at the left side of the street and the right side of the street. See how quickly (or slowly) people are walking, and at what moment they will intersect. Often when people intersect, they bump into each other, and an interesting ‘decisive moment’ might occur. At that moment you want to be ready, to capture that shot.
3. Master your focal length
If you want to learn how to quickly shoot street photography and capture the ideal composition, you need to learn your focal length by heart. You need to know what your framing looks like before you bring up your camera to your eye.
For example, I’ve shot with a 35mm for the last 10 years (age 18 to 28). I know the 35mm by heart, I can frame a scene with a 35mm before even lifting the camera to my eye.
And therefore, I know how close (or far) I need to be from my subject to make a good street photograph.
Whatever focal length suits your street photography, stick with it— for a long time.
4. Take lots of photos
One big misconception about capturing ‘the decisive moment’ is that there is only 1 single decisive moment.
In reality, there are many decisive moments you can capture in street photography.
A ‘decisive moment’ can be the second that someone lifts up their hand to shield the sun from their eyes. A ‘decisive moment’ can be the second that someone jumps over a puddle, when they give you the middle finger, or when they start laughing.
Sometimes you can influence the scene and create a decisive moment. For example, in my ‘Laughing Lady’ photo in NYC, I interacted with her, chatted with her, and kept taking photos. She felt awkward, and started to laugh, and I caught that decisive moment, through my presence.
You don’t need to be a ninja street photographer. Know that often your presence can be a good thing. You don’t always need to shoot street photography candidly.
So when you see an interesting scene in street photography, keep ‘working the scene’ and try to capture the best moment. And often, you don’t know what the best moment is until you go home and review your photos.
5. Become a master at choosing your best photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson taught us that composition can only be used as a tool after you have reviewed your images.
The same is with the decisive moment. You never know what will be the best decisive moment, until you go home and look through all of your photos and choose your best image.
If you find an interesting scene and you have taken a lot of photos, choose only 1 photo from the scene. You must choose the best photo.
How to choose the best photo? Follow your gut. Choose the image that strikes an emotional chord in your heart. Also choose an image with strong composition, lines, and form.
Often we don’t know what our best photos are. So if you have a series of images and you’re not sure what is your best shot, ask other photographers you trust for their honest opinion.
6. Use zone-focusing
If you have a camera with autofocus which is too slow or unreliable, I recommend using ‘zone focusing’ in street photography.
The basic idea is that you pre-focus to a certain distance (I recommend 1.2 meters, or 2-arm length distance), shoot at a high f-stop (f/8-f/16), a fast ISO (1600-3200), in aperture priority mode, and you click.
With these settings, you should never miss the ‘decisive moment.’ Especially if you’re photographing people who are moving towards you.
Another practical technical point: to capture a sharp street photo, try to shoot at least 1/500th of a second (shutter speed). If your shutter-speed is slower than that (and your subject is moving, or you are moving) your photos will be blurry.
7. Use a wide-angle lens
One of the reasons we often miss the decisive moment is that our photos are out-of-focus.
When you shoot with a wide-angle lens (35mm, 28mm, 24mm) you are less likely to have an out-of-focus, especially when you shoot at a high f-stop (f8-f16). Because this allows you to have more depth-of-field.
I generally recommend 95% of street photographers to shoot with a 35mm lens. It isn’t too wide, yet not too close. 28mm is also good, but tends to be a bit too wide to fill the frame (especially if you’re a timid street photographer).
But what about shooting ‘wide open’ at f/2, 1.8, or 1.4? I don’t recommend it. Because you are less likely to have your subject in-focus. And less likely to capture ‘the decisive moment.’
8. Be patient
If you want to use the ‘fishing’ technique in street photography (finding an interesting background, and waiting for the right person to enter the frame) you need to be patient. Like a good fisherman.
For example, let’s see you see a puddle, and you’re waiting for someone to jump over it. You want to be patient, and wait for the right ‘decisive moment’ to happen. And you’re going to have to take a lot of photos.
In one of Alex Webb’s famous ‘barbershop’ photos from Istanbul, he apparently shot 10 rolls of film (360 photos) of one scene, to have a nice composition, with depth, layers, and without over-lapping figures.
Patience is a virtue, certainly in street photography.
9. Always have your camera in your hand
I am a big fan of wrist-straps, because you always have your camera ready and in your hand. Neck straps are also good, but most photographers make the mistake of putting it around their shoulder, so it is hard to quickly turn it on, and take a photo.
In street photography, and photography in general — you never know when a potential decisive moment might appear. Therefore, you always want to be ready.
In my personal experience, the best way to always be ready is to have your camera literally in your hand. Nowadays I walk around with my camera in my hand, and use a Henri Wrist Strap to secure it. I don’t always follow my own rule, but whenever I go outside to walk in public, I always try to have my camera in-hand.
The benefit of always having my camera ready on me, and being in my hand— is that by feeling the physical weight of the camera in my hand, I am actively looking for potential decisive moments in street photography. And it doesn’t just apply to ‘street photography’ — by having my camera in my hand, I will see more photo opportunities in general. I will photograph Cindy more, the urban environment, and anything else I might find interesting.
And if you’re walking around and your camera is off, remember to turn on your camera a few seconds before you think a decisive moment might happen. The worst is when your camera automatically goes to sleep when you’re about to shoot a street photograph. Or the worst is when your camera is in your bag, or even worse, at home.
10. Discover your composition while shooting
The last part of the decisive moment I want to talk about is to discover your composition while you’re shooting street photography.
No photographer has such genius of foresight that they know exactly what they want before they approach a scene. Even the master Henri Cartier-Bresson often discovered the photo he wanted while he was shooting a scene.
The last piece of advice I would give you is this: capture your own personal decisive moments. Each ‘decisive moment’ is only going to be decisive to you. Nobody else.
Learn more: Street Photography 101 >