Whatever Happened To The “Decisive Moment”?

Photography has been evolving constantly from its birth in 1839. There have been many different kinds of photographs and processes through the years, including the daguerreotype, calotype, ambrotype, tintype, prints from sheet film, prints from roll film, and now images from digital capture. Each process had its advantages and disadvantages but most of us would agree that generally advances in technology have made life easier and better. But in this “Instantaneous, quantity over quality,  throw-away world,” have we also lost the ability to think?

I have been involved in photography for over 30 years with much of that time spent in journalistic photography. I have also taught photography for the past 16 years at a community college.

Recently I sent a student out with a digital SLR camera to cover the school’s show choir during a class break for the student newspaper. The performance was short but packed with high-energy dance numbers. The student came back with some 300 images on the memory card. After plowing though hundreds of images of awkward-looking steps, backs of people’s heads and poor expressions, I realized the student had not come close to capturing “the decisive moment”.

“The decisive moment” is a term attributed to the famous French photographer,  Henri Cartier-Bresson, who defined it as the "creative fraction of a second",  when the photographer “ recognizes – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second– both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning."   (

The student did not have one single image that gave the essence of that performance, or what would be called, “the decisive moment.”  However, there were tons of worthless imaging leading up to and beyond that moment.

The advantage of shooting with film was that the photographer had to wait and choose the image carefully, ever mindful of wasting precious film that might be needed later. In digital photography a single memory card can capture many times over what a single roll of film could hold, so no such visual editing is needed, or is it?

 A digital SLR camera should not be used as a video camera, blindly pointing and shooting as the event unfolds, hoping with all those images you should have something useable. Instead always shoot with the mindset that you have only one shot. The first is the one that counts, the second is simply for insurance and if there is a third shot, surely by that time the “decisive moment” has come and gone.


By Jan Anderson-Paxson

Jan Anderson-Paxson began her photography career as the first woman television newsphotographer in the state of Kansas working for the NBC affiliate station, in Wichita. She later turned to still photography and freelanced and worked for newspapers in East Texas. She has been teaching in the areas of communications and graphic arts at Angelina College in Lufkin, Texas, since 1992. Dr. Michael Roach became her friend and mentor at Stephen F. Austin State University when she completed her MA in Communications degree. She recently has completed both an MA in Art and MFA degree in photography.

3 replies on “Whatever Happened To The “Decisive Moment”?”

Yes, even though digital point and shoot cameras are improving, they are not as good as a DSLR when it comes to having short shutter lag times. The good news is that prices are coming down on DSLR cameras.
In the article, the student was shooting with a Nikon D70s DSLR, so shutter lag was not an issue. The problem involved keenly anticipating and “timing” which is so critical in good photography.

What happened to the decisive moment in regard to digital cameras? Two words: shutter lag.

I’ve been shooting digitally for many years. I have yet to be able to afford a camera that can actually capture what I’m seeing when I press the shutter. The camera I’m using now is really tricky: it freezes the image I think I’m taking, goes to black… then gives me an image captured a fraction of a second later. FRUSTRATING!

Until I can afford a better camera, my successful pix are one of three things: landscape, still life… or serendipity.


Well spoken. Digital technology poses the greatest threat to photography as an art form in the history of the medium. Now, anyone is a “photographer” and can shoot 300 useless images on a memory card and totally miss the point… and the value of photographers and photography in general is in my opinion, diminished. Yes, I shoot more images now that I shoot almost exclusively digital, but I also get a somewhat higher rate of return of excellent images.

Comments are closed.