The Decisive Moment in Landscape Photography

Today, armed with a little knowledge, almost anybody can potentially show up at a location and take a competent image with anything from a dslr to a camera phone! All being equal, one of the key differentiators between the millions/billions of good, bad & ugly images can simply be a matter of timing. Combinations of time of year, time of day and even exposure time can dramatically make or break images – this is known as “The Decisive Moment”.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

It was Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founding father of street photography, who first coined the famous term known as “The Decisive Moment”. It is one of the best known and most used / abused terms within the world of photography. Simply explained, in my own words, it is that split second where all the visual elements within a scene merge together harmoniously to create that special perfect picture – a split second moment in time most likely, never to be repeated.

Cartier-Bresson introduced this term specifically to verbalize his approach to street photography, but why stop there? It completely sells the concept short. I feel it can literally be applied to all photography genres. Personally, that attempt to capture the decisive moment is the whole essence of landscape & seascape photography.

Purity versus Clutter

For now, we will forget all the modern clutter and complications that exist in the world of landscape photography. We will strip our photography back to its purist & simplest form. Forget exposure blending, HDR, compositing skies or waves, stretching mountains, focus stacking, focal blending, light bleed, Orton effects, etc.

Our end goal is simple – one perfectly exposed & processed single frame. In turn, this image will then perfectly convey exactly what we saw, how we saw it and what we felt at that one perfect moment in time. All the elements in front of our eyes blended perfectly together into this single file be-it by skill or by accident!

Accidents Do Happen

More often than not, these accidents don’t simply happen. Of course, there are always examples (myths) where a person was luckily just in the right place at the right time and managed to get one single amazing image. For the rest of us mere mortals, the struggle and hard work is never ending. Many non-landscape photographers truly believe we simply show up, click the shutter and the jobs done. They don’t understand the background effort put into getting the stunning landscape as opposed to getting the bad/mediocre photo.

We landscape photographers are probably every bit as guilty. I often lament the fact we are at the mercy of the gods by being unable to control the light given to us. Studio photographers have it easy after all! They simply stick a pretty girl in a studio and will get perfect portraits – there’s nothing to it really!! Most of us probably don’t understand or want to appreciate the years of learning subtle lighting, posing, connecting with the model, etc, which go into perfecting their craft.

Just like “The Decisive Moment”, this lack of appreciation into what it takes to make great images can most likely also be applied to all genres of photography. There is a well-known mantra I use in work a lot – “The harder I try, the luckier I get”. Does this not apply so much to photography – remember the 10,000-hour rule!

The Decisive Moment

My sister in law once commented that she preferred portraits because they told a story which she felt was lacking in landscape photography. I was saddened by her view but chose not to debate it.

Our prints tell the story of a fleeting moment in nature witnessed mostly only by the lone landscape photographer. It is these unique moments which we are trying to capture in our effort to show others the beauty of the natural world through our own eyes. The masses would probably struggle to see the difference between one photo of the Giants Causeway and the next unless they were sat side by side. I witnessed this recently when some clients visited my home looking for a print from a local location. When I pulled up all the images they were astounded that one simple location could be captured and conveyed in so many ways. My technique didn’t change greatly from one shoot to the next, but nature provided very different types of moments. As landscape photographers we understand this all too well.

An Port, Donegal

I sat for 2 hours waiting on the sun breaking through the low hanging cloud just before sunset. Without that warm burst of sunlight, the scene was flat. All I needed was a Lee Filters Little Stopper to smooth the water via a longer exposure & a Lee Filters 0.6 Soft Grad to hold back the light in the sky.

How to Capture the Decisive Moment

If only I could bottle this secret, and then sell it…. My understanding is that many street photographers employ 2 techniques which I call “fishing & hunting”.

Fishing is where they find a scene of interest and simply wait for something interesting to happen. Hunting is different in that they walk about until they see something of interest and shoot it (photographically that is).

My preference, is the former – waiting with intent. I simply pick a location, show up, visualize my possible composition’s and hope for something interesting to happen. The decisive moment can be anything from some beautiful side light momentarily bursting through the clouds to illuminate the scene, to a storm whipping up interesting waves in the foreground or cloud patterns.

How Long?

How long is the decisive moment? For most genres, it is usually a split second. Us landscape photographers are luckier than that. Our camera’s sit on a tripod so we have the choice in how long we capture a scene for best effect.

Avoiding Disaster – Improvise, Adapt & Overcome

Just like fishing, 9/10 times, I manage to come home with very little to show as nothing of interest materialized.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking that there is only one decisive moment on each shoot. Landscape photography is literally full of them as the light changes at either side of the day. We must be ready and able to react to changing light conditions or else miss the opportunities presented. Imagine having a beautiful composition set-up as you wait for the light. Suddenly, the heavens open with glorious colour in a different direction? Do you sit waiting or move? Personally, I move every time in an effort to take what’s on offer. My priority is to look for the light first. If its bleak or dull, as it oftentimes is in Ireland, I resort to looking for movement (usually breaking waves).

A dull boring evening changed briefly for 3-4 minutes as a storm blew in right around the same time as sunset creating some beautiful soft colour. The light did most of the work while I simply placed a Lee Filters 0.6 Soft Grad diagonally across the scene.

In Summary

In summary, the difference between good and bad landscape photography can simply come down to timing the decisive moment. The more time spent in the field, opens up more opportunities to capture something special. Lets try and capture it in the field, rather than creating it in photoshop!


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