#1345. Is the decisive moment rhythmical?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Feb 02

Inaugurating a new type of short post, mainly in the form of a question to start an informed discussion, here’s an idea bridging the gap between my beloved filmmaking and its polar opposite, the photographic grail that is the decisive moment.


While photography has been my main hobby for decades, my secret love is filmmaking. And, in particular, editing. While the Director of Photography obviously has more in common with me, it is the editor that shapes the story through the application of great sensitivity to the flow of the raw material that has been shot, and copious amounts of creativity.

Rhythm plays a huge role in editing.

We are creatures surviving in an inherently rhythmical universe (night/day, orbits, seasons, tides …) by pulsating along with it (sleep/wake, inhale/exhale, eat/digest, work/play, earn/spend …) We get high on music. And editors shape the flow of a movie by timing the successions of tensions and releases, directing the flow of energy from one shot to the next, one scene to the next … because that is what our psychology is receptive to.


And there we are, us togs, freezing a moment in time, slicing through the fabric of our rhythmical existence to present to others a fragment of the world that was only real for the duration of the exposure, forever lost immediately thereafter.

It’s no wonder that, for a long time, the – non documentary, non testimonial – photographs that stayed with us the longest and most influenced the art, were those linked to what HCB dubbed the “decisive moment”. If we are going to break the continuum of our life’s flow, it might as well be for something decisive 😉

Ever wondered what that means, though? Decisive relative to what?


Well, I posit relative to rhythm.

Think sunrises and sunsets of landscape photographers. Think cresting waves at the peak of their movement. Think HCB’s man caught in the middle of a jump, right between takeoff and landing. Think the Iwo Jima flag, not on the ground, not standing, but in the flow of being risen. Sure, we can take many other types of photographs, but are they as universally interesting to others? Do they make us wonder how the cycle (i.e. story) ends, in the same way?

Master editors are ultra receptive to movement, flow and rhythm. They listen to music, are often trained in music. They observe the world’s fibrillations, obsess over the body language of actors, feel the flow and energy of each take, and make the subsconcious decisions to cut at exact points in time that no explicit rule in any book or any school can explain. What if we togs learned to do the same, to find and understand the rhythm in every scene and give less attention to those with none? What say you?




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  • Lad Sessions says:

    A very thought-provoking post, Pascal.

    The core issue as I see it is time and how we re-present it. You are interested in the rhythms of time in the midst of its evanescent flow; these are forms or patterns of change, and they are themselves unchanging (though of course you can have “changes” of chords, tempi, scales, and much more). The “decisive moment” is one frozen moment, “decisive” or significant for the subject matter and for the percipient. So in a way rhythms are cascades of decisive moments, decisive not just in themselves but also for the way in they are surrounded by other decisive moments.

    Are photogs committed to freezing time, in decisive or significant moments? (And decisive/significant for whom?) I suppose so. Movies are sequences of images that better capture the flow of events, but even they are freezing time in each moment.

    I think we want to freeze time because we, like all humans, seem bent on transcending the flow of time, not just living in and through it but glimpsing something beyond time, something eternal. At its extreme, we ourselves want to be immortal–or (consolation prize) at least to live on forever through our works. But what if we recognized the Buddhist truth that everything in time comes to an end, including of course ourselves but also our works? Even so, there can be value/significance in being present with some beautiful event, working to “capture” it, and displaying our captures to others–so long as we don’t think any of these transcends time altogether.

    Thanks for the stimulation.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Lad. That is equally thought-provoking. Can you explain what you mean by unchanging rhythms? I get that with the seasons and tides, but when a scene unfolds before our eyes and the photographer tries to get a feel for the pace of one person’s step, the other’s browsing at a shop window, and the general rhythmic energy of it all, don’t you think that is temporary, and that a photographer who’s really in tune with that can sense the moment of greatest interest based on their perception of those movements and rhythms?

      That may be a naive view 😉 And it’s not always adviseable to transfer lessons from one craft (filmmaking) to another!

      Your comment on the Buddhist point of view speaks to me. And Matthieu Ricard, a monk very close to the Dalaï Lama, happens to be an excellent photographer. So, I do agree that being in the moment, with heightened awareness, is key to finding those decisive moments.

      We are probably seeing the same thing from different perspectives 🙂

      • Lad Sessions says:

        Always a pleasure to “talk” with you through our keyboards, Pascal.

        I take patterns in general to be abstract forms (or “eternal objects” or “universals,” as you wish). instanced in innumerable concrete particulars, whether things or events, and whether they are unique or recurrent. Words are particulars, yes, but they mean concepts that are unchanging. The “unchanging rhythms” aren’t the concrete events; seasons and tides are recurring particulars, but their concepts are unchanging forms. [That doesn’t mean we can’t change our concepts! But that is exchanging one form for another, not a changing form.]

        What interests us in particulars, I think, is the way they are pregnant with meaning, and the more meanings and the more coherent the meanings the more interest (and value). A good photograph brings together so many elements we couldn’t enumerate them (and why would we want to do so?), all harmonious. It’s what I think of as beauty.

        I’m not describing this very well, but there are some very old and very deep issues here: universal/particular, form/matter, event/duration, time/eternity. It’s hard to sort them out.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Thank you, Lad. I agree with everything you say, and in particular with the concept of harmony. In this context, the “best” photograph a moment offers might be the one that maximises harmony? Or decreases entropy the most, which isn’t synonymous but has a similar intent?

          When we photograph a mountain, the concept of timing doesn’t appear to be that meaningful. It’s far more evident in a busy street scene, where movement and rhythm might be apparent. But even with a seemingly static subject, we don’t just snap at random (or if we does, it rarely gives us the best result). There is a moment that feels the best. For technical photographers, that’s just the moment all settings have been dialed in. But for more receptive folk, I think there is something else that feels right. Maybe the rhythm isn’t that of the subject, but that of the photographer, in such occasions. Frederick Franck writes about such things in “The Awakened Eye”, I need to read it again 😉


  • Jon Maxim says:

    Interesting concept, Pascal. You may have something there. HCB is always on my mind when I do street photography. Yes I do look for the decisive moment. One way I do it is standing at an intersection waiting for the traffic lights to change. And then, there is definitely a rhythm and I find myself ebbing and flowing with it and training my muscle memory to shoot at the right moment. The same can happen when photographing the water breaking on the seashore. Those are mechanical rhythms.

    But I also find myself responding to seasonal rhythms. I know that in the fall I cannot resist the autumn colours with which we are blessed, and my Fujis mysteriously get set to the right settings without me apparently changing anything. and in summer I equally mysteriously only reach for the Sony’s. I know that these explanations are not as metaphysical as your and Lad’s postulations, but I do see them as irresistible forces.

    As for freezing time – for me it is pure nostalgia.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jon. Very interesting. The beauty with the idea is that it is very personal. I mentioned editors and they deal a lot with timing. And we photographers also need to time out shots. Their cuts and our shots are both unconscious decisions that the time is right. There is not formal theory to explain that choice, it is purely instinctual. So your traffic light and wave examples are perfect applications of this.

      But, as you suggest, there are other factors at play, such as the choice of gear. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of a link between seasonality and gear choice, but it’s an interesting idea.

      What I am sure of is that we make loads of unconscious decisions that are significantly impacted by our environment and implicitely learned processes. I’m reading more about this and will try to write more if I ever understand it properly 😉


    • pascaljappy says:

      Quickly: is it just nostalgia? 😉
      If you often look at those photos and sigh longingly, then it is. But if you feel a need to snap, I think it is also our innate need for creativity 🙂

      That in itself would be worth another post 😉

  • Peter Backhouse says:

    Sans the boring analysis of how HCB actually went about photographing a scene ( take a look at the few examples of multiple shots taken from same scene location time and subjects) the decisive moment was an American marketing expansion on what he actually said. the romance of the reportage era – was a contrivance and all the photographers ( of course) were enthusiastic participants…

    The music analogy is interesting- but my first reaction was to note that music moves whereas photography is still – perhaps the held note might be closer analogy…

    take music out of a ‘moving picture’ though and the director/writer’s intent becomes more opaque..I watch movies these days for the cinematography and costuming – but the quiet achievers are indeed the musicians who compose the sound that partners the light.

    atb – I admire the energy and effort that goes into keeping the blog going – a pity about the Google rules.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting, Peter. Sadly, you are right and the whole decisive moment thing was blown to much larger proportion than what HCB ever said.

      However, I do think his modus operandi was to follow an unfolding scene and click at high points. His body of work certainly doesn’t feel random 😉

      And the selection process, from all his shots, reminds me a little bit of the work of an editor. You are right to say that music flows, whereas photographs stop. That’s why I feel composition is such an important part of photography, it creates movement in a still image. And I would love to get a better understanding of what makes us chose a specific composition over another and rhythm may be a clue here, though I have no idea of how useful or not it might be 😉

      Cheers and thanks for the kind words.

      • Peter Backhouse says:

        Looking at the photographer’s proof sheets was instructive to me.

        Is there a difference between ‘working a scene’ and pressing the continuous shooting button as one moves around? Agreed ‘random’ wouldn’t apply to his body of work at all – nothing random about working a scene – but to then describe a chosen image out of 10.15. 20 or thirty snaps taken at the same time in the same scene featuring the same characters and settings – hardly ‘decisive’ moment.

        Many of the most iconic reportage-era photographs were staged to look like candids.

        and yet – the phrase “decisive moment” has stuck and ( I think) confused and misled – far too many.

        From another perspective – I greatly admire the ‘framing’ of many of HCB’s shots where the character is as much the positioning of people within the context of the environment in painterly fashion – perhaps the ‘music’ is in the harmony of the elements that make up his most iconic compositions….

        • pascaljappy says:

          Very interesting comment, Peter. I think the danger for many photographers is to snap away at a scene. And the gear market actually encourages that with its “the camera will take care of everything” value proposition (30 fps, any ISO you want …) HCB followed the unfolding of a scene and clicked when he felt it was appropriate. His success in this purely intuitive act was the result of a lot of experience (and training in arts such as painting and music, presumably). But I’m really curious about the moments he chose to click and the unspoken reasons he had for chosing the best in a sequence. There’s probably no easy answer to that that can be explicited, but reading about editing and rhythm did strike a chord 😉

  • Paul Perton says:

    I think you should have become an engineer like me, Pascal. Not that it’s such a benefit, it just permits me to use those thought processes to be totally single minded when I have a camera in my hands.

    What did Susan Sontag say? Can’t remember. How did Diane Arbus shoot this? Can’t remember. What would Hans Strand do? Peter Turnley? Don’t know, don’t know and so on. Single minded and then when the decisive moment arrives and that tiny nerve somewhere upstairs briefly tingles, then it’s time.

    For me, that’s true contentment. I’m not blurring what I want to achieve and capture with someone else’s ideas, no matter how good they seem.

    Occasionally, a picture glimpsed on the Internet, in a ‘paper, magazine or book will stick, driving my photography in the coming days and weeks in a search to recreate its impact in some shape or form. If I didn’t find it today, there’s always tomorrow. Life moves just too quickly to muddy my thought process – note the use of the singular – with how HCB or Dovid Goldblatt might have opined about what I can see in the viewfinder.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Fair point, Paul. And my background is indeed scientific and technical. It might show 😉

      Thinking about someone else’s work while photographing ourselves is a sure recipe for failure. It breaks flow, that you describe as single mindedness, the tingle and the contentment. I think the work of others seeps into our own in the form of intuition, which we train ove long periods of reading books, articles …

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    your post intrigues me,
    and I’ve smoked a pipe or two distracting myself from too conscious thought about it, trying to find the right words…
    agreed, rhythm is often there, but it can also be about “cutting” an unrhythmic story at a “right” moment.

    “Decisive moment” to me really means what’s behind that moment in time.
    And there is the kind of decisive moment too, when something that wants to be photographed finds one.

    Consider as a first simple example a sports photographer following a football match. (S)he may want to catch the moment the ball on its way to the goal is squeezed by a foot ( – a classic photo).

    Or, if more experienced, more (or less) unconsciously allows the trigger to be squeezed so that the photo – at least to those knowing football – shows how the situation was built up and what (certainly) follows, and probably wasn’t taken at the moment of the squeezed ball.

    Which story, to me, here is the “real” decisive moment – the exact time being one of several possible or one within some interval of time.

    About my second meaning of “decisive moment “.
    When I go for a photo walk intending to catch a certain kind of images there usually isn’t one, and though I may get some keepers there’s rarely a *real* keeper.

    On the other hand, when I go about other things just keeping a camera with me, occasionally something that wants to be photographed finds me.

    That experience is my second kind of “decisive moment”, and if the scene is ready to be taken I just get my camera ready and then it (hopefully) pulls down my finger on the trigger button.

    But often enough there are obstacles, some junk disturbs, or the perspective wouldn’t work in two dimensions, or…
    So long as I adjust instinctively my “moment” may stay with me, but as soon as I begin to think about it that moment most probably leaves me and will be hard to re-find.
    And the photo will probably look contrived!

    As to filming,
    at least when doing it singlehanded, I think in this (second) sense “decisive moments” apply to filming also.

    And when editing film, doesn’t the timing of cuts have something in common with timing a photo?
    Pascal, might that be a part of a connection between your two favourites?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Indeed ! And the football analogy speaks volumes to me. I’ve only photographed one match. That was with my X1D (no bust mode) and a slow focusing lens. So it was all prefocused and clicked purely instinctively. The post is here: https://www.dearsusan.net/2019/11/30/hasselblad-x1d-does-football-photography/ As you can see, the results are quite different from what the pros give us (my focal length was very short, which is another difference). And in many of the photographs, it feels like the players are dancing. There’s definitely rhythm in some of those 😉 Maybe I should have discarded the others 😉

      It’s interesting that you get more keepers when you are not looking for something specific! There’s probably a lot to think and write about there. An open mind is more receptive to opportunities, I think.

      Losing the moment … tell me about it. To me, this sounds like losing flow. Which is the topic of my next post.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Yes Pascal, I suppose flow is a good enough word for that, but I’ve not experienced it as flow, possibly because it’s over too soon to make me recognise it as such.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        ( > “… when you are not looking for something specific!”),
        in several posts or comments here on DS it has been said that serendipitous moments more often give *real* keepers, so I’m not alone with this!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I just looked at your football post.
        Some photos are ballet scenes!
        Well, 😉 , planned or spontaneous?

        • pascaljappy says:

          Entirely spontaneous. I had no idea I was going to a football match earlier in the day, and the teams would probably not cooperate with my whimsical requests 😉

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Another thing about using the camera’s
    x frames/sec.

    If one wants to follow, say, a diver from 5 or 10 meters, even 5 frames/sec gives a useful result although 10 would do it more than good enough.

    On the other hand, if one tries to catch a human posture or expression by bursting, even 50 frames/sec will not be enough!

    ( It happened to me when video filming and editing.
    There was a cut that didn’t work at all. There was only a short time interval for it to be good enough, but however I moved it back and forth the result looked weird.
    Until I realised that one of the actors (friends of mine) had very quickly made a sideway glance turning her head and back – between two frames, so that a part of that movement was in one frame.
    And if I cut to close to that frame it turned strange and I would have to remove it.)

    • pascaljappy says:

      I think part of the key is exactly that. It’s when we try to photograph human beings (as opposed to trees or mountains, for example) that the intuitive sense of rhythm becomes useful.

      • zbigniew czudek says:

        There’s always a first time. And so it is here. Excuse my English, I write in Czech and deepl translates. So I really don’t know what exactly he’s communicating. I’ve been following DS for a while now and I can generally say that you are my blood type. Today I decided to give it a try and although I won’t put my own photos, I will offer something on the subject of rhythm and the decisive moment.
        He’s an amateur photographer who lives in a village in the southeast of the Czech Republic and the bulk of his work takes place in that village and four others. As he says, he knows them very well. And he doesn’t really enjoy taking pictures elsewhere. And since I agree with the unknown person who said that a picture is worth a thousand words, I am giving a link to the person who, according to me, carries the term “decisive moment” in the index finger of his hand
        So if you want to take a look. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.

        Greetings (also from the village, but quite different from the type of photos taken by Mr. Josef Vrážel:-))


        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi Zbigniew, thank you very much for your comment and for the link to Mr Vrážel’s portfolio. His photographs are superb. He has a lot of talent and a great dedication to very interesting topics!
          Have a great day, Pascal

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    talking of rhythm…
    Try this :

    And when you want to come back to more normal, try Evelyn Glennie:

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Well, over the years I’ve certainly come to agree with this phrase – “no explicit rule in any book or any school can explain”.

    Way back, as a teenager, I used to haunt my local camera shop. Poor guy – he should have located it elsewhere, it was right next door to my barber’s, and when you’re a teenager you head off for a haircut twice as often as you do at my age! And amongst the treasures I found, was a book on composition. To a beginner, this was the “sesame” of learning photography. Except I later decided it wasn’t, and the book’s been languishing on my bookshelves for 60 years as a testimony to something that “isn’t”.

    For a start – framing guidelines as “rules”, in the context of one of the creative arts, is utter piffle, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe that’s because I don’t appreciate being “told” – told what to do, told how to behave.

    For another – rules stifle creativity, and creativity is the name of the game, as far as I’m concerned.

    So I get that rules don’t “explain” – art, music, sculpture, photography – anything at all, that’s “creative”.

    I guess you could use one of them once, and then discard it and move on. After all, we all learn by trying. So trying a “rule” out should surely help us to learn something.

    But if you want to become wedded to them – get them to do the heavy lifting – you might as well wait for AI to take over, while you go and play tennis or something.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete,

      I think some rules are rooted in human psychology, visual psychology. And others are purely derivative and repeated over and over again by people who do not question them. I’d put the format of the frame among the first, our visual system responds extremely strongly to frame format. And I’d put the rule of thirds among the latter. Why off-center your subject without a good reason to do so? That reason goes back to the frame format. Our eye is drawn to the center of the frame, so putting the subject away creates a sort of visual tension between the two. But is that what we want? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

      Understand (1) what you want to do and (2) how our eyes read a photograph is the key to creative photography 🙂


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