The Decisive Moment in Landscape Photography

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The name Henri Cartier-Bresson does not immediately remind most people of landscape photography. It shouldn’t; he wasn’t a landscape photographer! Instead of course Henri Cartier-Bresson was a street photographer — arguably the founding father of the genre. However although he rarely took photos of nature, his intimate approach to street photography still has value to people who prefer the company of grand landscapes. One technique is especially worth learning, no matter what genre of photography you do: the decisive moment.

1) What is the Decisive Moment

Sometimes, a photograph is taken at such a perfect moment that it feels as though no other point in time could express the essence of the event so perfectly. Henri Cartier-Bresson defined that as the decisive moment.

Every time that someone moves — or does anything, really — there is some point along the way which perfectly encapsulates the moment. If someone jumps, it is the moment that they are in the air. If someone catches a baseball, it is the moment their glove touches the ball. Henri Cartier-Bresson aimed to capture this exact moment in his street photos.

In street photography, one good way to capture the decisive moment is to stand in front of an interesting background and wait for something to happen. The goal is to be prepared. For example, if you point your lens at a billboard advertising cat food, it is inevitable that someone will walk their dog past the location. If you are ready to take a quick photo you could capture an interesting and ironic image.

This is admittedly a simple example from someone who rarely takes street photos. Instead, I tend to photograph nature and landscapes. So why is the decisive moment relative to such a different type of work. Quite simply, everything moves. Even landscapes, which tend to be relatively static, move and change dramatically as the day goes by. This means that you can apply the concept of the decisive moment just as easily.

2) Landscape Photography

On the recent Photography Life visit to Grand Teton Park, our first goal was to find a good location to take sunset and sunrise photographs. I assume that this is the case for many landscape photographers — you go out in the middle of the day, search for locations, and find somewhere interesting to set up for sunset. This process is also known as scouting, and it is one of the hallmarks of landscape photography. Every time that you visit an interesting location even if the conditions aren’t right for taking photos you can still lay the groundwork for a successful photograph in the future.

I took this photograph at an overlook in the Grand Tetons. A lot of things are wrong with this shot. First, the light is relatively uninteresting. There aren’t any beautiful colors or unusual cloud patterns, and the entire image just feels a bit like a snapshot.

At the same time, there are some good qualities to this photograph. The mountains are beautiful, of course, and so is the river in the foreground. It’s not a bad location or a poor composition; the main problem is the light.

So it was time to wait for better light. This sunset didn’t turn out to be very exciting — there still were no clouds in the sky — but the next day’s was very beautiful. The photograph below is the final result.