How To Find The Decisive Moment In Street Photography

Kaua'i 2015

Part of the difficulty of being a street photographer is the challenge of predicting when the decisive moment will happen.  You’ve got to look two or three steps ahead of your subject or situation and be ready to snap the shot.  If you walk around with tunnel vision, always pushing to see what’s around the next corner, you’ll miss a ton of decisive moments.  We all face this dilemma, do you walk around or find an interesting spot and wait for an interesting subject?


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found an interesting subject walking around and followed them until I had the perfect background or gesture, if you’ve practiced street photography for a while I’m sure you can relate with that.  As I follow my intended subject I avoid tunnel vision, I refuse to miss a better opportunity because I’m too focused on one subject.  Sometimes, when I’m stalking my prey, I see other potential subjects or scenes and I quickly asses whether I should continue on the same path I started or divert for a more interesting shot.

Just the other day my wife and I were walking through Pittsburgh, me with my camera and her graciously putting up with it, looking for interesting subjects when I came across a scene rather than a subject.  The Harris Theater is one of the more memorable landmarks in Pittsburgh, if you’ve ever visited you may recognize it…  If you are from Pittsburgh and you don’t recognize it then you should be ashamed.  It’s got the iconic neon lights and architecture that old-timey theaters had.  Anyways, the theater makes for an awesome setup for a street photograph.


I’ve made a mental note to spend an evening in that area and wait for an interesting subject to walk through making some sort of gesture, the decisive moment.  Not all decisive moments are spur of the moment unexpected events…  A little planning goes a long way.

Wait Or Walk?

There are a couple of different variables that help me determine whether I should stake out a scene or walk around until something catches my eye…  How crowded the area is and how interesting the scene is.  If the area I’m shooting in is not very crowded I find looking for an interesting scene and waiting for an interesting subject to walk through usually pays off.  If the area is very busy, like a festival or NYC street, I tend to keep moving with my camera at the ready for a quick shot.  Either way, if I find a scene that would be perfect for a shot busy or not I’m going to stake it out for a while.


Even on a busy NYC street it pays to stop when you see a background that is ideal for a street photograph.


Look, I know you probably can’t read minds…  Humans are predictable though, especially when in crowds.  When you’re walking down the street always try to look a few steps ahead of the people you are interested in photographing.  Be observant and notice situations that are developing all around you.  I assure you that the worker bees all around you are nose deep in their smart phone or so deep in thought that they won’t notice situations that they are about to walk into.  Simply keeping your head up and being ready with your camera will help you stay a step or two ahead of everyone around you.

If you walk down the street and find something that causes a reaction in you, maybe surprise or disgust, you can be sure others will react in a similar way.  Set yourself up in an out-of-the-way area to photograph other people reactions as they walk into the same scene you did.  You can even zone focus so you can let your camera relax on your strap and discreetly snap photos in the direction of your subject if that makes you more comfortable.

0615_untitled_006-2This shot was captured by simply noticing kids playing on the pier and assuming that they would try to out-do one another (I can relate, I’m slightly competitive).  I don’t know the ethnicity of the kids, what country they were from, or if they even knew each other…  All I know is when a group of boys are around one another they tend to peacock a little (that means they try to outdo each other with daring escapades).  Simply watch the people around you and put yourself in their shoes, you should be able to stay a step ahead by looking from the outside in.

Be sure to check out DecisiveShot’s Flickr page!  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.