Learn basic composition rules with Henri Cartier-Bresson


Everybody has a camera nowadays, so it is very common to take pictures and share them around. Some of those photographs are significant, other are quite good, but the majority is average. How to make your images stand out in the crowded world of digital media and internet? Maybe you should concentrate on mastering compositions skills by learning from legendary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson? I am convinced that a trained eye will make you a much better photographer than a fancy camera!

Text and picture by Joanna Wróblewska
Photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson are available on Magnum Agency website

“To take a photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in a face of fleeing reality. It is at that moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson (Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was one of the most famous documentary and street photographers of the 20th century. His photographs are legendary and recognizable around the world. He worked for the most influential newspapers and magazines worldwide. Moreover, he was also one of the founders of Magnum Agency, the first independent photographic agency in the world.

Before Cartier-Bresson started working as a photographer, he studied painting, which probably gave him a substantial knowledge of composition principles. Then he turned to other media. After 1931, he worked mainly as a photographer, but also as a filming assistant of Jean Renoir. After achieving everything he could in photography, he turned to drawing and devoted it the last years of his live.

What can we learn from Henri Cartier-Bresson when it comes to composition? Let me give you just a couple of examples.

Become an excellent observer
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a vigilant observer of everyday life. Exercise the mindfulness when shooting photographs! Learn to look at things, people and events consciously. Ask yourself questions about the essence of each particular situation. Is there a way of strengthening it and making it as meaningful as possible? What angle would be the best to do so? What light effects would make the picture more appealing? Do not be afraid to experiment and remember, that we all learn the best from our mistakes.

Wait for the decisive moment
Are you familiar with the Cartier-Bresson’s concept of the decisive moment? He developed it in the times when photography was still a pretty new art discipline. It says that the circumstances will never happen in the same setting, so the photographer has to be patient, but also quick and ready to take a picture at all times. Take a camera and go out! Observe the world around you and use the idea of the decisive moment. Maybe you will take an amazing picture of a dog jumping on a bike or a surprised girl getting a basket of flowers? You never know! Just one thing is sure: this particular moment will never repeat, so be quick, catch it and share it!

Use the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental composition principles. It is all about breaking the image down into three horizontal and three vertical fields so that nine equal image sections are created. Simplifying, placing the subject on the crossing of lines or along those lines can make your photograph more balanced. Study Henri Cartier-Bresson pictures to see how he took the advantage of the rule of thirds. He truly mastered it throughout years.

Be aware of the visual flow
Sometimes the picture looks more appealing when build according to certain visual flow. It is a way of playing with directions and positioning of objects within an image. Cartier-Bresson was a great master of creating a visual flow in his photographs. Take a look at some of them: Where do your eyes go when looking at the picture? Do you follow certain directions? Are those directions linear or circular? Do you keep looking at the photo or do your eyes go some place else quickly, and you cannot actually follow the visual story? Always remember that a smart construction of the photograph and an interesting visual flow can indeed improve your pictures.

Practice, practice, practice!
The last but not least. Never underestimate the power of practice! Those who do not take pictures, will not improve. You can learn composition in theory, but exercising and experimenting with it is a different story. All the famous artists and photographers were making thousands of small sketches, taking hundreds of proof pictures and writing pages of notes on their work. Without getting into the process it is not possible to make progress, so I kindly invite you to grab an iPhone, a simple compact or a more advanced DSLR and start to shoot more often. The exciting world of never repeating moments waits for you on every corner!

Learn more:
Henri Cartier-Bresson pictures gallery (Magnum Agency)
Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson at MoMA


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