Henri Cartier-Bresson Technique


The father of photojournalism, a pioneer in street journalism and an early user of 35 mm film, Henri Cartier-Bresson said his photography came down to "sensitivity, intuition, a sense of geometry. Nothing else." Schooled as a painter, Cartier-Bresson developed a well-trained eye, making him an artist whose tool was the camera. He developed styles that would influence generations of photographers and had a knack for being present when things happened, whether it was photographing Gandhi hours before his assassination or being in China when the communists arrived.

Handheld Cameras and 50 mm Lenses

  • Cartier-Bresson traveled light. In 1932 he started using a 35 mm Leica camera that he could carry with him always and capture a photo in an instant without taking time to set up or pose his subjects. He used it for the rest of his career. Most often he used a 50 mm lens, which is closest to human vision. It forced him to be up close to his subjects and be able to see what the picture would become. These essential tools helped create street journalism.

The Decisive Moment

  • Cartier-Bresson developed the idea of "the decisive moment," in which a photographer recognizes in an instant why an event is significant and how to frame it in the camera. This requires quickness and a sensitive finger. He believed the photographer does all composition when snapping the picture, not adding it in post-production. A photographer needs to be constantly surveying the environment, turning his head, bending his knee, finding the right angle so that the camera will capture the right picture. Once he takes the picture, the opportunity is gone forever. This requires that a photographer develop the artistic sense to be able to see composition as it exists in the world and to capture that on film. "In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct," Cartier-Bresson said.

Photojournalism vs. Surrealism

  • Cartier-Bresson trained with surrealist painters, and the principles of that movement influenced his photography. He was practical enough, however, to realize that surrealist photographers couldn't get work while photojournalists could. Surrealism, with its principles of irrationally juxtaposing images and combining the dreamlike with reality, became how Cartier-Bresson looked at the world and how he composed his photos. As a photojournalist, he searched for human details, eschewing stereotypes or images that were typical or sensational. He took to the streets where news was occurring and found the photos that told the news.

Full-Frame Photography

  • Cartier-Bresson stressed that photographers should do all edits of an image -- how to frame and light it, where the subject appears in the frame -- in the moment of taking the picture. He disdained the use of color film, flash, special lighting, image augmentation, dark-room effects or even cropping. He displayed all his photos as full-frame, 35 mm images in the 3:2 aspect ratio, referring to the ratio of width to height. Because he didn't develop his own photographs, he made the labs file out the negative holders to print a bit of clear film around the images, which printed black. This helped ensure that the lab printed the entire frame.

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  • Photo Credit Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images
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