Lessons from Masters, Photography

11 Lessons from Henri Cartier Bresson.

Henri Cartier Bresson is one of the most cherished photographers in history. He was a French humanist photographer and considered a master of candid photography. He was one of the earliest users of 35mm film. One of the founders of Magnum Photography, Cartier-Bresson published his book “Images a’ la sauvette”, whose English edition was titled “The Decisive Moment”.

A philosopher as well, Bresson once said; “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” His life was packed with adventure and excitement, which he translated into the body of work that we all love.

Here are some valuable lessons every photographer needs to learn from Henri Cartier Bresson:


This is one of his most famous sayings. It is important to practice to be a better photographer. You master your skill through trial and error.

“Photography is, for me, a spontaneous impulse coming from an ever-attentive eye that captures the moment and its eternity.”

Henri Cartier Bresson

Cartier-Bresson was an improvisation enthusiast. He never used to pay importance to the technical aspects of making a picture. He believed in the importance of the creative act over the robotic action of taking shots.

“I find emotion in black and white: it transposes, and it is an abstraction… reality is like a chaotic deluge and within this reality, one must make choices that bring form and content together in a balanced way; just imagine having to think about color on top of all this!”

Henri Cartier Bresson

For Bresson, color used to be a private domain for painters.

“…composition should be a constant preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements. Composition doesn’t just happen – there must be a need for expression…”

Henri Cartier Bresson

Most of Bresson’s compositions are perfectly arranged bringing together all the elements of a given scene into a perfectly balanced image. Yet then, a significant amount of his pictures was taken spontaneously. He often spoke about how he worked on an instinctive, almost ‘subconscious’ level.

“The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.”

Henri Cartier Bresson

‘The Decisive Moment’ was a term coined by Henri Cartier Bresson. We all have a rough idea of what is meant by the term – a single fleeting instant where everything required for a great photo presents itself at the same time.

A lot of the information we take in from our surrounding through the five sensory organs are fluff – we can perfectly function without it. However, 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.

“Drawing is slow, it’s a meditation, but you have to know how to go slow in order to go quickly – slowness can mean splendor.”

Henri Cartier Bresson

Cartier-Bresson used to teach time, patience, and effort as the keys to being a good photographer. He believed one needs to learn to wait for the right photograph to reveal itself, and not rush the process.

“To photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”

Henri Cartier Bresson

Cartier-Bresson once said that he engaged all the faculties to capture the fleeting reality. He used geometry, painting, and optics to generate amazing images.

“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”

Henri Cartier Bresson

Cartier-Bresson was captured by the Nazis during WWII (he escaped in the third attempt). He traveled across the United States, gained entry to the Soviet Union just after Stalin’s death, witnessed the collapse of Imperial China, and was present for the upheaval of Partition in India (speaking with Gandhi just hours before his assassination). He even extensively photographed his native continent of Europe during several riotous decades. Henri Cartier Bresson just seemed to find himself in the thick of it.

“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

In 1931, Cartier-Bresson came across a picture by Martin Munkacsi of the 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 Bresson on the medium photography. Being knocked out by a photograph, he just wanted to emulate it in some way.

As photographers, it’s important to look for inspiration and ideas in other people’s work. You sometimes need to pick up on things in other people’s work and then take them off in your own unique direction.

“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

With the introduction of digital photography, people started viewing photography in a new light. Several photographers become complacent while taking the shot, thinking that they can work on it during post-processing. However, Cartier-Bresson’s obsession with the integrity of photographic vision began and ended with the press of the shutter release button. He was in love with the process of shooting and did not wallow in the achievement of his one great shot – as soon as he was done taking a great shot, he was on to the next one. Entrusting all his darkroom works to his colleagues, he spent most of his time actually shooting. 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.

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

Henri Cartier Bresson

Us photographers, often tend to overemphasize the importance of good equipment and not take into consideration the creative aspect of photography. It is really tough to really focus on both the technical and creative matters at the same time.

In 1932, Cartier-Bresson discovered the Leica 35mm camera and used it for the rest of his career, almost always with a 50mm lens. It was simple, discreet, and easy to carry, giving him everything he wanted. This allowed him to completely focus on the creative aspect of composing his shots.

Another benefit of working almost exclusively with a 50mm lens (which is closest to human vision) is that it forced him to move around amongst his subjects, rather than simply tweaking the focal length. As his friend and Magnum co-founder, Robert Capa said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”