Home Cameras/Lenses Canon Decisive moments in wildlife photography Down Under

Decisive moments in wildlife photography Down Under


Last month I received some images recently taken by daughter-in-law Rachelle. She’s a journalist and photographer who sets the bar way too high for me to jump. But it is a lot of fun having someone like that in the family.

We will come to her photographs in just a moment, and you will see why they did set me thinking about Decisive Moment photography. Many, if not most, Macfilos readers would be familiar with the term. The description by Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian way back on 24 Dec 2014 says it well, as follows:

Today, the idea of the decisive moment is synonymous with a certain kind of photography, exemplified by the great European master Henri Cartier-Bresson. He used the phrase (The Decisive Moment) as the title of his – and European photography’s – most famous book, published in America in 1952. (The simultaneous French edition was, intriguingly, called Images a la Sauvette – Images on the Run.)

A Leica model I, accepted by many to be Henri Cartier Bresson’s first Leica camera. Photo by Corinne Moncelli; downloaded from Wiki Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0. Not everyone is aware that HCB preferred and widely used a lens of 50mm focal length. Leica guru and Macfilos contributor William Fagan wondered whether this camera might have been stripped of its original paint and subsequently silvered to show it as seen here.
An image provided by William Fagan of three of his earliest Leicas. The one on the left has no rangefinder, whereas the one in the middle has a vertical accessory finder. Both of these are Leica I Model As. The camera on the right is a I Model C with interchangeable lenses and that bears an accessory horizontal rangefinder. William points out that Cartier-Bresson’s camera would likely have been similar to the one on the left in this photo, and it was probably used in zone focus mode, a technique which HCB used extensively.

What Cartier-Bresson understood by the decisive moment is best explained by the famous quote from his lengthy introduction to the book:

Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.’

The decisive moment has come to mean the perfect second to press the shutter.

So, upon seeing Rachelle’s photographs, I began to wonder what HCB would think about capturing decisive moments using today’s digital cameras, with burst modes spanning that moment.

Humpy jumpy moments

Whale photography was the subject of a Macfilos article last August when whales were moving north up the East Coast of Australia. Since then, they have had their tropical waters sojourn and are now moving back south to Antarctica to have their summer feast of krill.

It was on this return journey during October that Rachelle was delighted by the acrobatic antics of whale calves. The youngsters have been the most energetic and playful that she has seen in many years of whale watching and photographing. Whereas the adult whales will often breach the water surface, it is the calves who put on a spectacular flying display.

Decisive moments? Rachelle does use excellent kit, a Canon 1DXii with Canon 100-400 zoom lens. While this rig has superb autofocus and burst mode characteristics, she does have only one second to catch an image when a whale jumps somewhere out there in the water. She has to be lightning quick to compose, catch focus, and shoot. It’s quite a game to play with over 3kg of telephoto camera kit. Would HCB have had fun with such a camera, weighing almost 7lb in the other weight system?

Young humpback whales having flying times as they head south to Antarctica with their extended families. You need to be quick and accurate to catch them on a sensor

Upon seeing these images, William Fagan drew my attention to the metaphoric comparison of the whales jumping in the ocean relative to Cartier-Bresson’s classic Decisive Moment of the man jumping the puddle. I certainly hadn’t considered that link. He does think that Cartier Bresson’s pre-focusing technique might have had just as much chance of catching the jumpy whales, albeit compromised by slow film speed and the need to be dangerously close to the action with the lenses that he used. In William’s own words “HCB’s camera probably had a 50mm lens and if he were close enough to a breaching whale to replicate your daughter in law’s photos he probably would have had a short life rather than a long one”.

A Special Shot

In late November, Rachelle received a wonderful surprise. The Australian Society of Travel Writers cited one of her images as Best Travel Photograph of the Year. It’s a strong image captured at the right instant.

On assignment in South Africa before the lockdowns. This elephant had been rescued from Zimbabwe and was now living a wonderful life in the SA bush.

Decisive moment? Well, as a proud family member who could only wish to catch an image like this, I do like the way that the elephant’s trunk is curved to perfection, and the way the elephant is passing the sun. The moment has been caught wonderfully, photographing from a distance across the water near sunset. As an aside, Rachelle did find amusing one of the judges’ comments that the only detraction could be the wind ripples on the water. She points out, reasonably, that she didn’t have much choice of water surface as she took the photograph.

Regarding this image, Rachelle described the catch as follows: “Nailing the best wildlife action shot, I think, is all about that critical moment. That elephant walked along the edge of waterhole for a while and, as it was walking towards the sun, I decided that the moment I wanted was when that tusk was going to cut across the sun in a decisive, deliberate way. I held my breath as it drew closer to the sun, hoping it would all happen. Luckily the ele (sic) decided to comply!”

Having seen this article in the early draft stage, William was further kind enough to offer me additional insight. He says that Cartier-Bresson worked hard for his decisive moment photography, leaving far less to chance than many of us might think. He added, “the most important thing about the decisive moment is anticipation and, if you have ever seen video of HCB taking photos, he circumnavigated the scene first on tiptoe and then chose his moment to put his pre-focused Leica to his eye to take the photo he wanted. Your daughter in law has genuinely mastered the anticipation aspect as is also evident with the elephant photo.” Thank you William, she much appreciated the comment and compliment.

Decisive moments today

Overall, I enjoyed getting the images from Rachelle, and the escape they provide as I sit here myself thinking about what HCB would himself think about Decisive Moment photography today. Certainly burst modes and ultrafast autofocus provide technology to make it easier to catch our decisive moments. But the photographer still has to be in the right place at the right time with good subject matter, knowing where to look, hopefully with the right light, and with a healthy dose of luck – All good fun. Wonderful times.


I do thank William Fagan for his detailed and thoughtful comments upon seeing the draft. t’Editor Michael and I sent the early manuscript to him specifically for his input on the authenticity of Cartier-Bresson’s camera. He came back with so much more valuable insight.


  1. Lovely to see the final piece, Wayne. I was delighted to be able to assist you with this. Your daughter-in-law has the eye and the anticipation and the ability to capture the ‘decisive moment’. Although it is different to the style of Cartier Bresson, a lot of the same essential elements are there.


    • Thank you again William, for your critique and thoughtful commentary in the preparation of this article, along with input from our Editor Michael.
      My first book on Cartier-Bresson has been ordered and is in the post. And Mr X1 has ordered the new edition of the classic Henri Cartier-Bresson Photographer book. After we have studied them we can perhaps sit the exam that you might set, but set it easy, not too hard 🙂

  2. The images of your daughter in-law are truly amazing. It does take a lot of practise and anticipation and serendipity also.
    Thanks for sharing the images

    • Hello Jean.
      Yes, Rachelle says that practice, practice, practice is important.
      And I know that she’s also thinking, thinking, thinking. For example, she says that she prefers to take whale photos from the bottom deck of the boat, as low as possible – the perspective is better down at the water line.

  3. Congrats to her!,those photos show she deserved her award. Mastery of a rig that big, is something I could never do. My question is when will her photo books be available? Thank you both.

    • Hi John.
      I don’t think Rachelle has considered compiling a photo book. She seems to be always ultra busy on whatever latest assignment she has…..and preparing for the next one.
      But it’s a good thought. I’ll raise the topic next time I see her, and I’ll here predict that the reply will be a sideways look with the added words “No, no, no. I’m just miles too busy to even think about that right now”.

  4. Those photos Wayne, purely amazing. I love the elephant shot, and in the article I could imagine your daughter sitting there waiting, watching the scene unfold before her. And above all else, hoping the nature bit played its part. Thankfully all the elements came together exceptionally well.

    I love the additional work by William, as it adds another layer to the whole story.

    Excellent stuff. And yes I’m slowly recovering from my Covid exertions. It’s going to take a while, but I will get back in the game.

    • Gday Dave.
      Glad to see that you are getting over the trials of the virus. Keep on the recovery path.
      It was fun to put the article together with the inputs from William and our Editor Michael. Good thoughtful interactions.
      And a welcome diversion from the 24 hour news cycle. In fact, that’s the fun of Macfilos – it takes us to a different place a number of times each week.

  5. Yes, I love the elephant shot, too, but I’ll bet that elephant wasn’t as fast-moving as those humpback whales! Most of us would have to shoot a video and then hope to extract a usable single frame.
    I’m very interested that HCB used mainly a 50mm lens. I had thought everyone was following him by using 35mm and am glad to know he didn’t – with all respect to my X2 !

    • Thanks John.
      Rachelle says that for whale photographers the shot that they themselves really appreciate is the one where the whale is vertical, at an early point emerging from the water. For that sort of shot the photographer has to be really quick.

  6. I like the way your article brings together the two elements of firstly being in the right place at the right time and secondly the equipment. I try and follow the photographer Sam Abell’s father’s mantra of “compose the picture and wait’. However using a camera with such a long lens and efficient autofocus means we are much more likely to capture the moment. Beautiful photos!

    • Cheers Kevin.
      I admire your discipline in adhering to “compose the picture and wait”. William indicated that Cartier-Bresson also took considerable care with this, far more than many of us realize.
      Me? My better half will tell you that I’m just plain terrible at “waiting”!

    • Thank you Andrea.
      I’d defer to William Fagan on all things Cartier-Bresson. He provided significant input while preparing this article, and likely has further insight into the gear that Cartier-Bresson used.

      • Cartier Bresson mainly used a 50mm lens. His technique largely revolved around what I call ‘walking around’ photography. I sent Wayne and Mike today a link to a video in French about Cartier Bresson. It is mainly a discussion between HCB and two other men about his photography and shows many fine examples of his work.

        The first two minutes of the video, however, show the master at work with a black M3 and a 50mm Summicron lens. He tended to walk around and circle a likely subject while holding that camera/lens combination behind his back. He would move in and out to find the right distance for what he wanted in the frame. He would often stand on tiptoe to get a better or different view of the scene to be photographed. Then only at the last moment would he raise the camera to his eye to take the photograph.

        While he was a Leica enthusiast, HCB was never never a ‘gear head’ in the modern sense. He always used the most simple of equipment set ups and he had exposure and focus already settled before he raised the camera to his eye. He certainly knew how to use zone focus which is always the fastest way to focus. Cartier Bresson never altered his photographs and forbade cropping of his images. He always knew what he wanted from an image. Some of that came from experience, but he seems to have acquired the ability to master the type of photography he wanted to do at a relatively young age. In its day, the Leica was ideally suited to what he wanted to do. I wonder what he would use if he was still alive today?




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