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Composition Techniques From the Great Photographers – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Today we look at the compositional techniques of Henri Cartier-Bresson for help and guidance.
Composition is one of the most difficult and frustrating areas of photography. The technical aspects are easier to pick up. Those depend on the amount of light and what kind of scene you are shooting.
Arranging the elements within that same scene is a challenge.
Say you find a perfect location, but you feel it misses something. The human element could add a sense of scale, or add a meaning or story to the scene.
But it can take hours for someone to walk into your frame. Having a very good working knowledge of how light works isn’t going to make it go faster.
This is one of the reasons we look towards the masters of photography. Our techniques are the same as they used, but for one reason or another, they are famous for using them.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Bresson (1908-2004) was a French photographer, who predominantly used the medium of 35-mm photography. A street photographer who became a master of candid photography.
He travelled around the world capturing scenes and telling stories with his images.
One thing that he is renowned for, was his work on what he calls the decisive moment. Every photographer has to make a choice when to press the shutter release and capture the scene in front of them.
The decisive moment is when that photographer decides to act.

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” – Bresson

Here, we are looking at six different themes that Henri-Cartier Bresson used throughout his photography.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a two men lying on grass, with composition grid overlayed

Figure-to-Ground

Figure-to-ground is a relationship between the subject and the background of an image. This compositional technique states that both areas need to be easily differentiated.
What that means is, for a subject to be truly separated from the background, they need to be of contrasting colours or contrasts. White on black or black on white.
It stops the subject from melting into the background, making their shape and form stronger.
Using this technique is a great way to make the subject much stronger in the frame.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson street photo of a man in black hate posing for the camera

Likeness / Repetitive Theme

Repetition is a great compositional technique to make an image more interesting. Here, Bresson’s image of a mother and son in India shows repetition throughout the whole image.
We first turn our eyes to the mother’s hand gripping the son’s head. That hand gives us four very strong lines from her fingers.
The same lines are found on the hands of her son, and the son’s very visible ribs.
By continuing to look around the image, we see the same lines from the spokes in the wheel. Both areas of the image left and right, show these same lines.
The repetition strengthens the impact of the image tenfold. This makes the image purposeful, very powerful and interesting.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a starving bay in the arms of his mother

Shadow Play

Shadows are very important in photography. For lack of a better description, they are areas that lack light. Photography is all about painting with light, and you can’t have light without dark.
Shadows can offer us shapes, forms and textures as an overlay in any given scene. They give us two scenes within one frame. Here, in Bresson’s image, the idea is no different.
The shadow is the imprint of the top of a building, played out on the wall of the scene. The building, on closer inspection, looks like the minaret of a mosque.
This adds religious connotations to the image and helps to give us a better idea of the place.
The man sleeping also gives us a feeling of his own tendency towards religion. He is either sleeping to escape his rituals, or tired because of his own devotion.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a man lying outside a building

Diagonals / Golden Triangle

One area that Henri-Cartier Bresson utilises very well are diagonals, or rather, the golden triangle. This compositional technique is a mashing together of the rule of thirds and diagonal lines.
Imagine a scene where the subject lies on a diagonal axis across the image. Now imagine that along this line, either 1/3 or 2/3 along this line is an intersection.
This is the point where the interesting part of the image should be.
The diagonals draw the viewers’ eyes into the frame, and the intersection is what keeps it there. Look at the below image of two lovers on a train.
The diagonal line lies across the woman, where their heads repose.
It makes the image more interesting than just having the figures in the centre of the frame.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a two people on a train, with composition grid overlayed

Fibonacci Spiral

It is human nature to crave balance. When an image becomes balanced, it lacks tension and it gives us a sense of harmony. The Fibonacci spiral offers this exact concept.
It goes by many other names, such as the Golden Spiral, Phi Grid or The Golden Ratio.
This concept bases itself on a sequence of numbers, namely the Fibonacci sequence. The ratio of 1:1.618, which when divided, gives you an exponentially growing line, that looks like the red spiral in our next image by Bresson.
Thankfully, you don’t need to understand the math to use this compositional technique in your photography.
Learning the spiral and all eight (four portrait and four landscape) positions the spiral can have in your images.
Just like the Rule of Thirds, or Golden Triangle, the most interesting parts of the scene should find themselves in the intersection. This is where the spiral turns into the Phi Grid.
Our eyes follow this fictitious line, landing on that intersection. This is best used when the landscape also offers the viewer some visual delight.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a man on a bike, with the golden ratio composition grid overlayed

Decisive Moment

Lastly, but by no means leastly, we arrive at Bresson’s crowning achievement. The Decisive moment has been discussed to death within the photographic community.
It is the most important area when it comes to compositional technique.
It is less about how to frame your subject and more about when you need to capture the scene. Here, the power lies with the photographer to know when to press the shutter and immortalise the vista, once and for all.
In Bresson’s image of a man jumping into a puddle gives us an incredible amount of questions and information.
These elements that the image give us would not have been the same one second before or after the image is taken.
We are unsure if the puddle is deep, or just shallow enough not to completely soak our subject. We do know, that the man is brave enough to try.
Maybe he knows something we don’t, as we find ourselves limited by our position and perspective.
A second too early, and we would never have known if the man intended to jump or not. Just like painting, knowing when to stop is the most important idea.
Photography relies on what you capture in that second, not before or after. What makes a photographer get that scene. Some call it the photographer’s spidey sense.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a man jumping into a puddle - composition techniques
There we have it. Six compositional techniques that we can all learn from Henri-Cartier Bresson. These can be adapted to any scene, in any place on the planet.
Some are very easy and basic to follow while others are a little trickier. The most important thing is to shoot and practise.
Looking for some more great composition tips? Check our posts on using the rule of odds or central composition!

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