Lessons form the Henry Cartier Bresson exhibit in Paris.

What better idea on a cold and rainy Saturday to revisit a classic like Henri Cartier-Bresson? Plus the night spent trying to dry out the caves of Le Petit Littré (the best bar in Paris) left me with quite the hangover, so a long walk can only do me good.

Why is Henri Cartier-Bresson's work essential to study for anyone who truly wants to learn photography? Well, unlike some talentless and rapy photographers (you know who I mean), Cartier-Bresson's work is a great exemple of technique well mastered mixed with creativity. If  you analyse his shots beyond the initial feeling, you realize that there is a lot of decision making being them. He started  building a shot from an idea, an set of fix variables he was going to use for composition, and was then waiting / hoping that the subject would come together at the right place and time, to in the end produce an image both spontaneous and sophisticated.

Lesson 1: learn and train. 

Photography leads to an illusion, the illusion that the camera makes the picture. Which is about as dumb as saying that the brush makes the painting. As a consequence, most beginners assume that photographic technique is about mastering a camera. But photographic technique is about composition, playing with lines, volumes, surfaces, tones and shades. Indeed, the camera is merely a tool.
The painting comparison is crucial: always keep in mind that you have a paper rectangle, and on that rectangle you will project shapes, tones and even a 3rd dimension via depth of field. But, unlike a painting, you will splash the frame all in one go! So you really have to think about it before you hit the shutter.

Lesson 2 : make sure your equipment doesn't get in the way.

If your camera prevents you from turning your ideas into the expected result, it means that you either need to read the manual, or that it's too bloody complicated. In order to learn photography, you need a spot metered aperture priority camera. Nothing else.  In case you wonder, a cheap Nikon FE2 is for exemple exactly that camera.
Of course most of you will run away from analog because it's pricey to use and constraining, which is a very valid reason why to. So if you buy a digital camera, set it on A (aperture priority) and spot metering. Once you've set the ISO to the level of light you have, you will now only focus on those 4 things:
  1. Framing 
  2. Focus point, to determine where there sharp part should be (it's really your artistic call)
  3. Aperture to determine how much depth you want to be sharp
  4. Exposure, or what part of the image should get what level of light
And all of this should probably happen within seconds if you know what you're doing. You now see why it takes as much practice as painting. Cameras do well exposed and sharp pictures, that's all. However they don't compose for you, and they make arbitrary decisions when it comes to where to focus, depth and light. 

Also I recommend you start with black and white, you are removing the color variable from the equation, and since it's pretty hard to control what colors will be in a scene, it'll make the learning process way easier.

Lesson 3 : trigger luck

Even Cartier-Bresson had to hope for luck while shooting. He said it himself, he picked elements of decors that allowed interesting composition (he was obsessed by the golden number rule, which I admit works well), then hoped for people to come together nicely within that pre-composition. If most of his shots seem so spontaneous, yet so well composed, that's because he identified an opportunity for composition, then hoped for the best.

Lesson 4 : you are only as good as your worse picture

In the above mentioned exhibit, there was 400 photos. Not all where masterpieces, so let's say he shot 250 master pieces, including those that weren't at the exhibit. It means that in 50+ years of photography, he's produced 250 exceptional shots, and he was doing this all full time.
Given the fact that you the dedicated amateur will shoot 10, 50, a hundred times less than Cartier-Bresson? Your portfolio, the display window of our best work, should be maximum 25-50 shots, depending on how diversified you are.
Once you've selected you very best shots -and really you should be splitting hair, struggling to remove one more- you know have your personal standard. You should then aim at producing images that are better that this selection. If you new best work is not as good, you need to keep practicing and mostly, questioning.

That is essentially how you do good photography. Techniques has to become instincts, that will flow thru your camera without you having to think about it. Now that is much easier said than done, and that is without taking into account the talent factor.

Also, it does require illustrating a bit, so let's do that with Cartier-Bresson's work. When looking at his work, keep in mind 2 rules he was using.

  • The rule of third, a classic statement that elements of a picture should be aligned on thirds of a image.
  • the golden number rule, a strange rule that is supposed to lead to harmonious distribution of elements in an image.
Golden number rule
Rule of thirds

This picture illustrates that a photograph is a 3D scene projected on a 2D surface. A wall can become a triangle, a shadow can become a shape. Notice how the shade and the darker part of the left wall make a single shape, although not being at all of the same nature. Here the work on lines is great. Look at how composition on this shot is just a matter of shades and wall edges. Look at how it is displayed  according to third and the golden number rule at the same time, creating harmony.

This masterpiece is an other great example. he uses a part of the shelve, has its front side parallel to the image plan in order to use the boards edges to split the image according to the golden rule. Exposure is perfect, the bright and darker areas show great details, it's not too contrasted and the dynamic range of film does great here. In addition to composition, his subject if perfectly treated: the emotion doesn't require a full face, posture and body language are enough. A mix of academic composition and true moment.

Boom ! Look at how great that shit looks ! Seriously. Here again, the golden rule is key in the composition, as well as the rule of thirds. Nothing is centered, lines are uses perfectly, from the wall details to the fence. Subject are looking away from each other, following the guiding lines and giving you the impression of intense street life beyond the limits of the picture.

Titties ! We all like them. Here again, golden rule, not being parallel to the picture plan to add perspective and dynamism, lines playing a key role, even the floor one on the right. It's like there is a cross road from all lines, in the bottom right section, and everything expands for there. The bike is in a very specific place: just between the boobs. You are forced to look there, no matter what, for the boob or the bike. 

Pure genious here. Architectural elements are so perfectly used for composition, exposure is perfect: the inside of the room is exposed proper while the outside comes out super bright (spot metering on the two boy at the front). Small aperture to have sharpness all across the image too. Then the people, those two girls back to back, the man's pause, the dog, the kids' expressions. A true moment of photographic grace when perfect technique meet the perfect moment. 

I hope more and more new photographers would focus on those things, instead of buying stuff. Get inspired, think, be critical, work the basics until they become reflexes then go full creative. Keep shooting tons, and for sure you will pull a few great pictures like that. A good thing about photography, unlike painting, is that we all have a chance to produce a masterpiece.


  1. Great writing, thanks for sharing

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