#40 in a series of background briefs

The changing meaning of
“The Decisive Moment

TCQ’s allowance for combining exposures reflects a redefinition of the terms “decisive” and “moment.”

  • Overview

    For the better part of a century now, the idea of “the decisive moment” has held almost mythical status in the imagination of photographers around the world:

    The lone photographer stands silently poised, half-hidden in the shadows, camera at the ready, waiting for the geometries of the street scene in front of him to converge in the perfect arrangement, at the precise instant of which convergence he will furtively make a single soft click of the shutter and then quickly slip the camera away, basking in the afterglow of triumph.

    The stakes are high: miss the moment and it is gone forever. When failure happens, there’s no choice but to swallow hard, and to vow to learn from this most-recent disappointment, and to move on to wait for another visual drama — unseen by all others — to unfold once again.

    Alas, the times have changed:

  • 1. The photographer no longer needs great reflexes or a honed sense of anticipation
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    Any recent digital camera or smartphone can take a quick succession of photos.

    In fact, it is now possible to silently shoot — from waist level, without needing to hold the camera up to the eye — 30 high-resolution frames per second.

    “Still cameras” and “video cameras” are becoming ever more similar to each other in how quickly they can shoot high-resolution images (most of the millions of videos posted online every day are shot at no more than 30 frames per second).

    In other words, all the photographer has to do when trying to capture “the decisive moment” is crank up the frame rate, mash the shutter for a couple of seconds, and then choose a “best” from all of the resulting photographs.

  • 2. The photographer doesn’t know until later which moment was “decisive”
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    This is already a reality (see the last paragraph of #1 above).

    But it will boom exponentially if “the next big thing” in photography is eyeglasses and sunglasses that routinely have cameras built into them. (This may be more likely to emerge from small cottage enterprises than from tech giants.)

    Whatever the photographer looks at can be photographed, with no camera or device in hand, and with no awareness on the part of the subject that they are being photographed.

    There will of course be enormous “social” consequences of such eyewear; it could change interpersonal relations as much as anything in history since the origin of language.

    On an individual level, that eyewear will mean that the “decisive moment” photographer can spend the day walking around, constantly taking pictures of people — all without the knowledge of the people in those pictures! — and later go through thousands of photographs, saving only the few frames that fill the goal of showing a “decisive moment.”

  • 3. The term “decisive” increasingly refers to the subject’s action, not the photographer’s.
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    The term “decisive” when applied to photography was originally embraced by photographers to describe what they hoped to do — that is, to deliberately capture with their camera that one perfect moment.

    But because of #1 and #2 above, the term increasingly refers to what the subject was doing, not what the photographer is doing.

  • 4. That “moment” depicted in the photograph may actually be a combination of photos taken at different “moments.”
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    This development is the result of recent smartphone camera technologies: multiple exposures can be recorded in very quick succession (usually without the photographer’s awareness) and then combined to produce what appears to be a single-exposure photograph.

    So while it may be heresy to a 20th-century street photographer hunting for “the decisive moment,” in the 21st century many photographs described by that term will actually be a combination of moments processed to look like only one moment.

    Why does TCQ allow for combining exposures when respected international news agencies have not traditionally allowed it?

  • 5. What is lost? What is gained?
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    Many photographers might say that something valuable has been permanently lost, both in terms of the thrill of the pursuit and in terms of the sense of achievement.

    Unless a photographer shoots with a non-motorized film camera, the legendary quest to deliberately capture “the decisive moment” can never again be the challenge that it once was.

    But for viewers who like to see as many photographs as possible of “decisive moments” — the critical instant when the moving elements in a photo are in their most compelling arrangement — the future looks bright indeed.