The Death of Photography's "Decisive Moment" Has Been Drastically Overstated

High frame rates and UHD video are coming, but don't panic just yet.

The decisive moment is not dead
The decisive moment is in there....somewhere. If you have ever made a contact sheet, however, this probably looks pretty familiar.Stan Horaczek

It's 11 PM on a Thursday night and I'm flipping through a seemingly endless gallery of nearly identical images I shot earlier tonight. I was at a press event for Sony's new Cyber-shot RX100 V compact camera. It was a great event and the camera itself is impressive, but one feature in particular stood out on the spec sheet and in the headlines about the RX100 V: It can shoot 24 frames per second with full-resolution, 20.1-megapixel images.

Discussions about the camera brought up brought about talks of serious changes in what exactly it means to capture "the decisive moment," a well-worn phrase originating with the iconic photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. His book, The Decisive Moment, has been quoted many more times than it has actually been read. But the phrase has new currency amid conflict over whether high-frame-rate capture or ultra-high-definition video will eventually do away with still photography as we know it. Some people believe that technology is taking us into an era of "shoot now, pick later." But, in several ways, technology is taking us further away from just "spraying and praying."

It's 11 PM on a Thursday night and I'm flipping through a seemingly endless gallery of nearly identical images I shot earlier tonight. I was at a press event for Sony's new Cyber-shot RX100 V compact camera. It was a great event and the camera itself is impressive, but one feature in particular stood out on the spec sheet and in the headlines about the RX100 V: It can shoot 24 frames per second with full-resolution, 20.1-megapixel images.

Discussions about the camera brought up brought about talks of serious changes in what exactly it means to capture "the decisive moment," a well-worn phrase originating with the iconic photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. His book, The Decisive Moment, has been quoted many more times than it has actually been read. But the phrase has new currency amid conflict over whether high-frame-rate capture or ultra-high-definition video will eventually do away with still photography as we know it. Some people believe that technology is taking us into an era of "shoot now, pick later." But, in several ways, technology is taking us further away from just "spraying and praying."

It seems important here to take a moment and really analyze what "the decisive moment" actually means. If you look at Magnum's excellent collection of contact sheets (simply called Magnum Contact Sheets) you can see some of Cartier-Bresson's own image collections. It might disappoint some fans to find out that his contact sheets weren't made up of 24 or 36 perfectly timed frames. Instead, he took multiple shots of each scene. It was never about catching only the decisive moment, but about being able to recognize, anticipate, and capture that moment using the tools at hand. He certainly wasn't spraying and praying, but he shot multiple frames of a single scene, using his judgment with each frame to find the right composition. That's a key difference from high frame rate, where the ability to react and reconsider is often nullified.

The era of pulling still photography from high-res video is actually older than you might think. In fact, back in 2009, photographer Greg Williams shot a cover of Esquire magazine by pulling a high-res still from a 4K RED One video camera. The cover looked great and the corresponding video got tons of views, but somehow it didn’t become the standard for shooting magazine covers. Esquire still found the decisive moment, but the process didn’t end up taking over still photography.

There are some inherent technical problems with relying on UHD (4K) video for stills. For one, you often have to choose between very unappealing video or blurry individual frames. The rule of thumb in video is to use a shutter speed that’s the reciprocal of twice the capture rate. So, to simplify with an example, if you’re shooting at 24 fps (a common cinematic frame rate), you’ll want to to set the shutter speed around 1/50 sec to make the video look nice and smooth. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but if you’re trying to capture movement of any kind, 1/50 sec starts to feel restricting rather quickly. Bumping up the shutter speed makes the video feel jittery—it’s a technique often used in action and horror films to make a scene visually distinctive. So, stills from video aren’t exactly a free two-for-one proposition.

There’s also the matter of editing. Earlier this year, I talked to Ken Mainardis, the vice president of sport at Getty Images, before his team of photographers headed out to the Rio Olympics. I specifically asked him if the 14 fps rates achievable by modern DSLRs were affecting the way the pros shoot. You can read his full answer here, but it boils down to that high frame rate being valuable in short, controlled bursts. The really great images come from a photographer who is able to anticipate the action and capture several frames at the key moment. In Getty’s industry—and in the social media generation as a whole—speed matters, and sorting through an endless stream of images gets tiresome very, very quickly. A skilled photographer can get an image shot and sent out while a spray-and-pray shooter is still swimming in nearly identical frames.

Noted street photography expert Erik Kim actually has a pretty interesting and deep look into the misinterpretation of the decisive moment on his site, which is certainly worth a read.

There’s also the matter of editing. Earlier this year, I talked to Ken Mainardis, the vice president of sport at Getty Images, before his team of photographers headed out to the Rio Olympics. I specifically asked him if the 14 fps rates achievable by modern DSLRs were affecting the way the pros shoot. You can read his full answer here, but it boils down to that high frame rate being valuable in short, controlled bursts. The really great images come from a photographer who is able to anticipate the action and capture several frames at the key moment. In Getty’s industry—and in the social media generation as a whole—speed matters, and sorting through an endless stream of images gets tiresome very, very quickly. A skilled photographer can get an image shot and sent out while a spray-and-pray shooter is still swimming in nearly identical frames.

Noted street photography expert Erik Kim actually has a pretty interesting and deep look into the misinterpretation of the decisive moment on his site, which is certainly worth a read.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the idea of the decisive moment hasn’t changed. There’s still one moment in every scene where everything is in place. In sports, news, events, weddings, and many other kinds of photography, the moment of peak action will continue to exist. Sure, you can go shoot Olympic weightlifting and just record every frame, but unless you know the most important part of the pull, you’re still not going to be able to produce an image that anyone with knowledge of the subject will care about. And even then, you’ll have to dig through a lot of files just to find that non-peak moment.

One day, algorithms might help us find those peak moments in our sea of images. Google and Microsoft are already keen on trying to find your “best” photos for you. In many instances, the process works better than you’d think. It’s not perfect, but that technology seems like more of a departure from the original concept of the decisive moment than any capture device alone promises—it’s making the editing decision, whereas the camera is just responding to your finger on the button.

The decisive moment
The final shot from a series of more than 120 images in a sequence shot in high-speed burst mode.Stan Horaczek

That Thursday night, I eventually got through the editing process on the pictures from the Sony event. I made a few wacky GIFs and deleted a whole bunch of photos I never really wanted to see again. I didn’t shoot the way I usually do, and it was a nice reminder of why I use high-speed burst only in small doses. In the end, burst shooting is a tool and you can use it however you want. It’s a tool that has existed for quite some time, in fact, and many photographers are already using it to create work. Just remember that, in the end, most people will only see one final photo and they won’t care at all if you deleted 2, 24, or 240 frames to get there.

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