The Decisive Moment in Travel Photography

As art goes, photography seems to be an immediate medium. More so with digital photography where we can snap a photo and see it right away. Instant gratification. That fleeting moment we take the photo, we have either succeeded in telling  the story that we saw or we have missed it.

This is what I love most about travel photography. It’s always a game when I arrive at a destination to find a photo that speaks of the essence of the place, that indefinable personality of a location that draws people. To capture that essence, take what photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson — the so-called father of today’s street photography —  called the “Decisive Moment.”

What is the Decisive Moment?

This photo by Cartier-Bresson tells the story of a place with precise timing and composition. (c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum photos

The Decisive Moment is that exact fraction of a second when you press the shutter button and tell a story by means of the composition of everyone and everything in the photo. It’s that precise instant when everything in the frame comes together.

Cartier-Bresson explains the Decisive Moment in the preface of his book of the same name,

“Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace it on the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.”

The pink in a girl’s outfit brings life and contrast to the greens and blues of a New York reflection. A single rust-colored leaf hints that autumn has arrived. (c) 2016 Barb Gonzalez

The Decisive Moment is crucial in telling a travel story — composition, lighting, expression of subjects or the movement of bodies, a wave breaking, a passerby stopping in front of a colorful wall.  The moment you take the photo is crucial to its success in conveying mood and telling a story.

How to Capture the Decisive Moment 

There are two important methods to capturing that decisive moment in travel photography and they are on opposite sides of the spectrum. The first is that instant gratification moment, capturing the fleeting part of a scene that says it all. To get it, you must always be prepared. Your camera must be turned on and easy to reach. The camera should be set for the right exposure for your current environment, so it only requires a quick spin of a dial to over- or underexpose to suit the mood of the story you want to tell. You must know your camera well enough that you can dial in the controls to capture the shot in its best exposure and focus. To tell your story, you should have so much practice with your camera that it’s second nature to make adjustments. This requires being present, being in the moment and being open to what a place has to say.

The second method is to compose and create the scene. I’m not talking about getting models (that’s a different lesson).  I’m talking about seeing a scene and waiting for it to be perfect. Imagine that a horse-drawn carriage, a child and mother, or a car drives into the frame to create the perfect composition and interest. To get this moment takes preparation and waiting, then shooting at the precise Decisive Moment.

The wait for the right moment method is also found in landscape photography.  Waiting for alpenglow to creep down a mountain.  Waiting for the light to dance through the trees, or rise in the sky to illuminate a rock.

My experience with the Decisive Moment

A rainbow appears on a sunbeam. Luckily, I glanced back and went for the decisive moment. (c) 2017 Barb Gonzalez

I have two photos that illustrate that wait-for-the-moment method.  The first was when I was shooting at Proxy Falls in the Oregon Cascades.  The falls were a little too bright with direct sun hitting the water and washing out the highlights.  As I waited for the light to change, the sun filtered through the trees.  I thought I had the shot when I took several frames of light beams coming through branches.  I packed up my tripod and cameras to head out, walking through the stream. As I walked toward the trail, I glanced back to see that not only had the rays of sunlight intensified, they were creating a subtle rainbow.  Quickly, I set up my tripod and camera and took some shots of the rainbow sunbeams. Just as quickly, they disappeared.  I came away with a unique shot of the falls that expressed the beauty and magic of the area. It was a lesson in how the Decisive Moment can come just minutes after you think it will.

The other photo speaks to what Cartier-Bresson says about focusing on a specific aspect of a location.

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of forms must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.”

Two eagles hang out on a branch as a super moon rises behind them on Canada’s Salt Spring Island. (c) 2017 Barb Gonzalez

As I was out shooting what promised to be a beautiful sunset in Ganges harbor on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, I noticed that the moon was rising behind a tree just beyond the docked boats.  And on a branch was a familiar sight.  In the past few years, I’ve been able to shoot several bald eagles in the Pacific Northwest.  I recognized the small figures on the branch as a pair of bald eagles.  From the many photos I’ve shot, I know when eagles are just hanging out and I knew I would have a few minutes to get a shot of the rising moon and the eagles.

It was important to get the moon in close proximity to the raptors to create a balanced photo with the right relationship. But I was in a parking lot that was too far away to get a great shot. Quickly, I threw my gear into my car and wound around through streets until I saw a path out to a point.  I grabbed my tripod and cameras and ran to a point where I could get the composition I wanted, with the eagles and the giant moon. I took several shots, then waited as I knew the sunset would kiss the clouds with color. I took several more shots to get the right angle of the eagles’ heads.  As the moon got higher in the sky, I just soaked in the majestic scene.

The most important tip I can offer to get better travel photos is to be ready with your camera and to be present with an “eagle eye” to what is going on around you.  The perfect photo may only be there for a brief decisive moment.

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