7 Things Every Photographer Should Learn From Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of the most famous photographers in history.  In fact, we've written about him as a famous photographer before.  Cartier-Bresson was the co-founder of Magnum (a photo agency of the day) who brilliantly captured the events and spirit of the 20th century. His life was packed with adventure and excitement, which he translated into the body of work that we all love.

But have you ever wondered what Cartier-Bresson could teach you, to help you reflect on your own work and become a better photographer? I was checking out a book of his images the other day and began wondering what some of these lessons might be. So I’ve put together a list of 7 things that I think we can all draw from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s life and work.

Cartier-Bresson is a famous photographer
And what if the action is in the middle of a war zone? What then, Bresson? Okay... fine. He would probably still go.

1.     Find out where the action is, and get there!

“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”  –  Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of those people who just seem to find themselves in the thick of it. His life would make an awesome film, taking in, as it did, so many of the twists and turns of the 20th century.

Cartier-Bresson was captured by the Nazis during WWII (escaping at the third attempt!); travelled across the United States; gained entry into the Soviet Union just after Stalin’s death; witnessed the collapse of Imperial China; was present for the upheaval of Partition in India (speaking with Gandhi just hours before his assassination) and, needless to say, extensively photographed his native continent of Europe during some pretty tumultuous decades!

I think it’s safe to say most of us won’t be matching that! But the point is that, almost as soon as HCB discovered photography in the 1920’s, he made it his business to explore new places and sniff out big events. I don’t think that he made much distinction between his own personal curiosity, and his curiosity as a photographer.

You know that surge of motivation to shoot that comes when you travel to somewhere new and unfamiliar? Well, I think that HCB’s career affirms how important it is for us photographers to never get ‘stale’, and to follow our naturally curiosity instead of getting stuck in a pattern.

Really great photographt tips in this article.  Learned a lot!
(PUT YOUR MOUSE ON THIS PICTURE TO PIN ONTO YOUR PINTEREST!) Don't overthink the composition. Just put up your finger frame and walk around like that all day. It will impress others how deeply you think about your compositions. Really. They'll be impressed.

2.     Don’t “over-think” composition

 “In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson is famous for perfectly arranged compositions that bring together all the elements of a scene into a perfectly balanced image. Yet quite a lot of his pictures were taken really spontaneously.

He often spoke about how he worked on an instinctive, almost ‘subconscious’ level. I think this shows in the way he was able to seize on sudden moments of action, and consistently shape them into organized and balanced pictures.

If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes feel a bit over conscious of guidelines such as the rule of thirds, lead-in lines or the golden mean. I think the way HCB approached his work is a good reminder that these guides are just there to assist your natural eye. Sometimes the less you think the better your photos can be!

Joining a photo group (I happen to know an awesome online community....) is a great way to get inspired by others

3.     Be inspired by others

 “I must say that it was this photo that lit the fuse and gave me the desire to study photography through the lens of a camera.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Being a decisive sort of chap, who followed his instincts, it was on seeing just one magnificently vibrant image by another photographer that convinced Henri Cartier-Bresson this was the game for him.

In 1931 he came across a picture by Martin Munkacsi (whose work incidentally was also a big influence on Richard Avedon) of three black boys charging with complete abandon into the breaking waves of lake Tanganyika. The shot combines a wonderful ‘joie de vivre’ with a rigorous composition that completely sold HCB on the medium of photography.

I definitely know the feeling of being knocked out by a photograph, and just wanting to try to emulate it in some way. In fact, along with travelling to new places, this is probably the thing that gives me most inspiration. I imagine you’re familiar with this too? It does seem that most photographers seem to pick up on things in each others work, and then take them off in their own unique direction.

If you look very (very) carefully, you can see the photo in the camera, and it's done right. Keep looking.

4.     Get the shot right in-camera

“Once the picture is in the box, I'm not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren't cooks.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

If you’ve ever read any of Henri Cartier Bresson’s thoughts on his own photography, or watched recorded interviews, you’ll recognize this as one of his big themes!

Sure, with digital photography things have changed a lot. But I still think there’s plenty to learn from HCB’s obsession with the integrity of photographic vision that begins and ends with the press of the shutter release button.

There were actually several reasons why he liked to ensure that what was caught in camera was more or less what was published and exhibited. For a start, he really liked taking pictures! Almost as soon as he had taken a great shot, he was on to the next one. The satisfaction of an awesome capture seemed to fritter out quite quickly for him, and there was certainly no wallowing in his achievement! He wanted to spend as much time actually shooting as possible, and that meant getting things right in camera.

Amazingly, all the dark room work on HCB’s images was entrusted to colleagues that he knew and trusted. As far as he was concerned, the image was the moment that he captured and framed in his viewfinder. Any tweaks thereafter were just tiny finishing touches.

Personally, almost as soon as I’ve taken a shot that I’m proud of my mind turns to how I can make it even better in post-production! I love that whole process of working towards the finished article. But Cartier-Bresson reminds us that the true interest of any photo is carried by the subject matter and the manner in which we have captured it in-camera. Who knows, perhaps in today’s convenient digital world he would have been a Photoshop fan-boy!?

See! The photographer got so busy with the gear that he forgot to step into the studio to take the picture. What a clutz! 🙂

5.     Stop talking about your gear for a second!

“Photography has not changed since its origin except in its technical aspects, which for me are not important.”- Henri Cartier-Bresson

I’m not somebody who dismisses the importance of good equipment. That would be a pretty daft thing to do for any photographer frankly. But I do definitely think that there are times when most of us over-emphasize the technical quality of photos, to the detriment of their overall character and interest.  Apart from anything else, it can be tough to really focus on technical and creative matters at the same time.

HCB never made any bones about the fact that the intricacies of photography equipment just didn’t much interest him, “…” In 1932 he discovered the Leica 35mm camera and used it for the remainder of his career, almost always with a 50mm lens. It was simple, discreet and easy to carry, giving him everything he wanted.

So there was never any danger that Cartier-Bresson might take his eye off the ball of what was going on around him. He was always far more absorbed by “life” than “photography”, and that’s why his pictures are so interesting.

Another benefit of working almost exclusively with a 50mm lens (which is the closest to human vision) is that it forced him to move around amongst his subjects, rather than simply tweaking the focal length. In my experience this is almost always a good thing to do, especially for the kind of documentary work HCB did. As his friend and Magnum co-founder, Robert Capa, said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.

A picture of a bear is plain. A picture of a fish is plain. But combining the two at the decisive moment is jaw-dropping.

6.     Choose your moment

“The marvellous mixture of emotion and geometry, together in a single instant.” – Henri Cartier Bresson

The expression, ‘the decisive moment’, first entered the lexicon of photography as the U.S. title of Cartier-Bresson’s book, “Images a la Sauvette”. We all have a rough idea of what is meant by it: that fleeting instant when everything required for a great photo presents itself at the same time.

It’s a really great concept to bear in mind. One of the things I like most about photography is that it can be a very economical form of expression. A lot of what we see, hear and generally take in from the world around us is fluff; we could do without it! But a great photo is just one still image that was taken in a tiny fraction of a second, and hits on something pertinent about the subject.

When I start to get a bit trigger-happy with the shutter release, I remind myself how Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t waste any film by aimlessly snapping innocuous subjects. He made everything in his shots count – from faces, gestures and poses to the overall composition. We can all vouch that’s easier said than done! But Cartier-Bresson did give away one or two really interesting insights into his method:

He often compared his love of shooting, in the hunting sense, with shooting in the photographic sense! The parallels are obvious: waiting patiently for the prey/subject to emerge, lining it up in the sights/viewfinder and timing the shot just at the right moment. I think this comparison shows how HCB never fell asleep with camera in hand. His eyes were always peeled for the next moment of action, emotion or humour that he could “trap in [his] little box”.

Sometimes I look at a Cartier-Bresson picture and think, “There’s no way he could have just spun around, grabbed this shot at the perfect moment and simultaneously composed the whole scene to perfection!” Well, quite often, he didn’t.

What he would do is find a really interesting backdrop for a photograph (like a set without the actors), and take the time to position everything carefully. He would then wait for the subjects to come into place and complete the image. Incidentally, I watched an interview with the wonderful Steve McCurry the other day, where he also spoke about using this method on his shoots.

This is a very simple photo, but it shows so much about the LIFE of the person being photographed

7.     Focus on the subject rather than the photography!

“Photography is nothing – it's life that interests me.” – Henri Cartier Bresson

I think a great deal of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s approach to photography can be summed up in the idea of keeping things simple. All he needed was a 35mm Leica, a 50mm lens and a burning curiosity to see the world and capture it in ‘decisive moments’.

Even if your photography necessarily involves a lot more equipment than HCB got by with, I still think there’s something to learn from his approach. As satisfying as it is to use the amazing quality equipment we all have access to today, it is only ever a means to an end. Cartier-Bresson’s attention was 100% consumed by his subject, which allowed him to capture so many fascinating scenes.

In fact, even when it came to the subject and ‘meaning’ of his photos, HCB had a pretty simple approach. I read one of his interviews recently where he was talking about the decisive moment. He spoke about how it was not always necessary to know why you’re taking a picture at the time.

The ‘decisive moment’ occurs when various things come together at the same time, and you just know the photo has to be taken. These shots have a quality about them that doesn’t always have to be defined – they’re just wonderful to look at! It might only become clear to you at a later point exactly what captured your attention about someone’s expression, or a certain grouping of people.

31 thoughts on “7 Things Every Photographer Should Learn From Henri Cartier-Bresson”

  1. Great article! Thanks for the write-up.

    Hate to be that guy, but the last picture of the girl with both hands cropped off or chopped off makes me uneasy…

    Then it might be just me. I’m just an amateur.

    1. @Michael – Thank you for your comment about the hands being cropped off in the last photo. One of the reasons photography is so interesting is that it is ENTIRELY subjective. You obviously don’t like the hands cropped and that is totally fine. Personally, I was surprised to read that because I thought that picture was absolutely captivating. The woman’s expression and the simplicity of the lighting combined to make, what I think, is a fantastic photo.

      Your comment did make me think, though. Sometimes, I believe, we say things in a photo are “wrong” because they violate some technical rule that some photographer thought up somewhere along the way. However, those who don’t know the rule of what they are SUPPOSED to like or dislike about a photo, can absolutely love the shot. I guess my point is that sometimes great photography doesn’t fit into neat boxes or follow the rules. Sometimes it just looks good despite the way the rules say it should be shot.

      Anyway, I am glad you posted that comment, Michael. It really got me thinking about how each person enjoys photography differently. Very thought provoking.

  2. Thanks, Jim, for the excellent and detailed reply. You show much professionalism in expressing your ideas, which leads reader like me to find the fellowship meaningful.

    The link to my flickr account probably will show how I’m not following rules. I don’t dislike the lady’s portrait, it’s just that the initial impression when focusing on her face is great; but the latter effect when my eyes scan down the image is discomforting because subconsciously the brain says the hands are missing. The placement of the cropline probably accentuates the uneasiness I guess…

    Since I love to learn from others, there are just tips and advices I remember from other photographers. You’re so right in pointing out the different perspective of each person. I also find the subjectivity of photography is what allows each artist to express freely and creatively.

    Thank you very much again for providing fantastic wealth of information for fellow photographers. I am sorry if I have been offensive or ungrateful.

    1. @Michael – Offensive or ungrateful? NO WAY! I really appreciate your comment. No kidding, I’ve been thinking about it all morning and am planning on recording a video for my online photography class to continue this discussion we’re having about the rules of composition. Getting thought-provoking comments like yours is what keeps my creative wheels turning.

  3. Liked this read allot. Had a bunch of stuff in there that honestly I think – gasp – could be common sense! I do get the impression that he was a bit of a purist, but then again it’s a different age. Aside from that, I don’t think good advice ever gets old.

    Thanks for the read.

  4. I’m pretty new at all of this, but getting it right in the camera seems very important to me. Of course, I like to capture portraits of my family and friends (expressions are my favorite), but landscapes and scenery are what I really love. Usually if the scene is breath-taking enough to get a shot of it then I have a hard time envisioning it as something else. I do need some editting help, though. Maybe then I could really create something great! 😉

  5. Loved this post, very well written. I got a lot out of it! I really like the quote about hunters aren’t cookers, so true! I really need to get it right more in camera!

    I recently went to see HCB at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane where I live. Their exhibition was one of the best they’ve ever had, maybe even better than Picasso.

    Another thing to add to this list could be: add people to your landscapes and city shots. Many of his photos contain humans in some form and that gives it more meaning. It’s hard to do in practice though without staging it. Something to work on and be inspired by!

    Great read!

  6. Good day, I noticed that the photos are uncredited. Did you take them? If not, did you have permission to use them here? Thanks, Ray

  7. Please disregard…I had mistaken a shot for another. My apologies; I should have checked before writing. Once again, sorry.

  8. Good article. I agree with MOST of what HCB said, but somebody’s got to photograph rocks.

    I strongly agree in getting it right in the camera. When everyone was using film, the trend was to shoot loose – it can always be cropped later. In reality, a lot of film real estate was wasted, and the resulting images were less sharp than they could have been. I always teach people to crop in the camera, and make each grain (pixel) count. Why not get 36 keeper shots out each roll (another film reference) instead of 10?

    Thanks for the insights.

  9. Bresson is an inspiration to me, as well as Ansel Adams, as both taught us to, see, first, then, make the exposure, not just shoot willy-nilly hundreds of frames in the quest for one good shot.

  10. Really interesting article. Coinsidently I took a photograph of my grandaughter reading a book the other day and when I cropped it I deliberatly cropped the book and forearms. The first thing my wife said was “pity you can’t see the book and her hands”. Just shows we all look at things in a different way.

  11. excellent put up, very informative. I wonder why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t realize this. You must continue your writing. I am sure, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  12. Eric_Andriolo

    Loved the article, congrats! but there’s a thing: there are no Cartier-Bresson’s photographs issustrating it!! I think it would make it better

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