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color portrait of brigitte bardot smoking

Instant Classics: Exploring Perfectly Timed Photographs

Some of the most magical pictures occur when a brilliant idea, lots of patience, and a little bit of luck coincide. Photographers are often at the mercy of time, nature, light and other elements beyond their control. Clicking the shutter at the perfect moment can make all the difference between a good photograph and a great one—when everything comes together for the perfect split second.

Explore Iconic Images Gallery’s archive of perfectly-timed shots from artists including Terry O’Neill, Greg Brennan, and more.

Ann-Margret on a chopper motorbike, 1971

by Douglas Kirkland

By 1971, Douglas Kirkland had captured some of the world’s biggest stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Coco Chanel, and Ann-Margret. A Swedish-American singer and actress, Ann-Margret was known for starring in hits such as Bye-Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas. In her spare time, she was also an avid motorcyclist.

For this shoot, Kirkland decided to capture the actress engaging in her exciting hobby, as she cruised down an empty highway outside Las Vegas. The shot would not be possible without Kirkland’s wife, Francoise, who drove the photographer as he snapped away from the back of a convertible.

He noted, "Finally I said, 'We got it, Ann-Margret!' and she threw out her legs and said 'WEEEE' out of joy that we had gotten the pictures, but instead her reaction became the picture.”

The Phantom Punch, 1965

by Neil Leifer

To this day, this shot is considered by many to be the most iconic sporting image of the 20th century. In 1965, Muhammad Ali was at the height of his career when Neil Leifer captured him defeating Sonny Liston at the World Heavyweight Title Fight.

The rematch took place at St. Dominic’s Arena in Lewiston, Maine, and was one of the most anticipated, most watched and, later, most controversial fights in sporting history. In this shot, Ali is captured seconds after his first-round knockout of his opponent. Leifer was not only positioned perfectly but was able to capture the exact split second when Ali (and the spectators behind him) reacted to his victory.

Many later speculated that Liston threw the fight against Ali for several reasons, including mafia intimidation. However, many of these claims were debunked, as those present for the fight recalled the sheer power of Ali’s knockout hit, nicknamed the “Phantom Punch.”

A mother holds her child's hand in Long Island, New York, 1950s

by Eve Arnold

Although well-known for her work featuring some of history’s biggest celebrities and political figures, including Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X and Paul Newman, some of Eve Arnold’s most famous work captured the lives of everyday individuals.

These photographs of ordinary people—those whose daily existence was often overlooked—document the lives of everyone from new mothers in the United States to industrial workers in China. For one of her more personal projects, Arnold focused on the mechanics of childbirth at Mather Hospital in Long Island, New York, after suffering a miscarriage.

During this time she produced a series titled “A Baby’s Momentous First Five Minutes,” later printed in Life. In capturing the exact moment when the newborn grasped their mother’s finger, Arnold was able to convey the beauty, intimacy and power of the very first seconds of a child’s life.

Of the series, Arnold noted, “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.”

Brigitte Bardot smoking a cigar, 1971

by Terry O’Neill 

“The funny thing about Brigitte Bardot is that I am certain I was in love with her. But she couldn’t speak a lick of English. And I didn’t speak French. So our relationship, regrettably, was only between my camera and her beauty.”

In 1971, Terry O’Neill was on the set of The Legend of the Frenchie King (Les Petroleuses) when the elements for one of the most iconic photographs of Brigitte Bardot ever taken occurred to him.

“It was a windy day and she was standing waiting to film a scene. I noticed she kept brushing the hair out of her eyes. I thought if I could get a close-up of that moment—the moment when the wind would blow her trademark hair into her eyes, combined with the cigarette dangling from those lips—it would capture how sexy, strong and wild her image was. I didn’t have many frames left, so I went in closer. But no wind. Then the wind blew and I clicked the shutter. I had no idea if the photo would match the image I had in my mind until the film was developed, which, in the end, took several weeks. Even now, remembering the first time I saw these images, I get chills.”

O’Neill was already an established professional when he took this photograph, having documented the ‘60s by capturing many of the biggest names of the decade. Even so, he would always remember this image of Brigitte Bardot smoking as a personal watershed—the first time an image arrived fully formed in his mind, which he then realised with his camera.

Audrey Hepburn and a dove, 1965

by Terry O’Neill 

This famous print of Audrey Hepburn required the perfect combination of technical skill, excellent timing, and a professional subject. Hepburn was one of the most photographed people of her time and understood the importance of taking direction from the photographers with whom she worked. For this shot, O’Neill was in St. Tropez on the set of the 1967 film, Two for the Road, shooting portraits of the star, when a dove suddenly landed on her shoulder.

“She stood as still as could to allow me to get a few frames before the bird flew off,” O’Neill recalled. “She really knew how to work with a camera, with a photographer. Anyone else would have moved right away, but Audrey understood what makes a great image. She was a wonderful person to work with, a real star.”

HM Queen Elizabeth II profile portrait, 2015

by Greg Brennan

Greg Brennan is one of Britain’s longest-standing press photographers, and has captured some of the biggest news moments of the last 25 years. One of his greatest subjects, however, was someone he was determined to get right: HM The Queen.

As Brennan recalls: “Every year during the State Opening of Parliament there would be a procession. I knew that would be my best chance of capturing an image I’ve had in my head for decades. I wanted to show HM The Queen in portrait, a modern interpretation of the iconic image that appears on our stamps.

“Every year I would stand in a different place, at a different height and wait for the moment to arrive. I was determined to capture the image I had in my mind.”

And determination paid off. “It was at the State Opening of Parliament in 2015 when she rode by in full regalia. I took a series of photographs and after she passed, I looked at what I captured. And there it was; I had it. It took me 12 years to take this one, single photograph. I sent a copy to the palace and received a kind letter in return asking for a copy of the print for the Royal Photographic Collection for posterity.”

Due to Brennan’s persistence, vision, and remarkable patience, he was able to capture one of the most recognisable images of HM Queen Elizabeth II.

Brigitte Bardot with a dog while filming The Novices, 1970

by Terry O'Neill

In another well-timed shot of Brigitte Bardot, Terry O’Neill shot the star on the set of The Novices, directed by Guy Casaril. Best known for his ability to capture candids of celebrities and artists, O’Neill once remarked, “I’m a reportage photographer, and I just like fading into the background. The more discreet you are, the better off you are.”

His ability to discreetly document the world around him is displayed in this photograph, which came together rather serendipitously. As remembered by O’Neill: "Between takes on the set, I stumbled upon Brigitte sleeping. As if on cue, the dog jumped onto the bed and stuck his tongue out. Brigitte woke with a start and began to laugh – but not before I’d taken my shot."

About Iconic Images

Iconic Images represents many of the world’s most renowned photographers, including Terry O'Neil, Douglas Kirkland, Greg Brennan, Eve Arnold, & more. Our archives are expertly curated by an experienced team of experienced, in-house art advisors. Our archive includes one of the world’s largest collections of David Bowie and Elton John, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, and more. 

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