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6 Best Composition Techniques From Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who often used 35mm photography. He was a street photographer who would also become a master of candid photography. He also influenced the photography world in many different ways.

By defining photography as ‘capturing the decisive moment’, Bresson applied this to the way he photographed the world. That decisive moment is when the photographer decides to act.

Bresson influenced the photography world in many different ways. Here, we look at six compositional techniques Henri Cartier-Bresson used. Its aim is to help and guide your photographer with inspiration from a master of the field.

a black and white image of henri cartier-bresson sitting on a bench in forcalquier france in 1972
Henri Cartier-Bresson. Forcalquier, France, 1972 © Martine Franck/Magnum Photos

Why Is Composition Difficult?

Composition techniques are difficult to master because you need to see things coherently. A photographer does not see a scene the same way as everybody else. It’s a skill you can improve but more complex than learning the technical aspects of photography.

Let’s say you find a perfect location, but you feel it misses something. If you have the technical knowledge, you will be able to expose the shot correctly. Yet, your photos might look dull without creating an appealing composition.

This is one of the reasons we look towards the masters of photography. Their work is inspirational, and we can learn a lot from the way they composed their images.

Henri Cartier-Bresson image of a man and woman under an umbrella on a beach
©Henri Cartier-Bresson – Dieppe, France, 1926

The Composition Techniques of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a humanist photographer. Humanist photography is like photojournalism, focused more on human elements than news. In humanist photography, more empathy is required and the ability to show situations from their subject’s perspective.

Also influenced by Surrealism, these six techniques show how Bresson approached both.

1. 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 differentiated. This means that a subject needs to be separated from the background. For this, they need to be contrasting. You can achieve this by using contrast, black and white, or tonal differences.

The contrast stops the subject from melting into the background. It makes its shape and form look stronger.

Using this technique is a great way to make the subject much more robust in the frame.

a black and white henri cartier-bresson image of a man within two rows of trees
©Henri Cartier-Bresson – Allees du Prado, Marseilles

2. Likeness / Repetitive Theme

Repetition is a great compositional technique to make an image more interesting.

For example, take Bresson’s image of the Bolshoi Ballet School. We see young ballerinas in the same position, standing behind each other. Their posture and dresses are almost the same. This makes the subject repetitive, and the ballet dancers look alike.

You can also notice that they all have bows in their hair, even if they are placed differently. It looks like the closest the ballerina was copy-pasted into different parts of the image.

The ballet barre and its curly decoration also appear many times in the frame. Notice how the ballet barre leads our eyes throughout the picture.

We start by looking at the closest ballerina and then keep moving towards the background. Then, we turn our eyes to the right to look at the last ballerina in the background.

If there were only one ballet dancer, we wouldn’t spend so much time looking at the photograph. The repetition strengthens the impact of the image.

a black and white henri-cartier bresson image of 5 dancers at the bolshoi ballet school
©Henri Cartier-Bresson – Bolshoi Ballet School, Moscow, USSR

3. Shadow Play

Shadows are essential in photography. Photography is all about painting with light. You can’t have light without darkness.

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.

Notice the sleeping man in the picture. He is sleeping on the top of the other building. Because of the shadows, it looks as if he was asleep in the tower, under the decorated roof.

Shadows give various meanings to your photos, making them more interesting.

a henri cartier-bresson photo of a man lying outside a building
©Henri Cartier-Bresson – Ahmadabad, India, 1966

4. Diagonals / Golden Triangle

Henri-Cartier Bresson often used diagonals, or rather, the golden triangle for composition. This technique is a mixture 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 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 only having the figures in the centre of the frame.

a black and white henri carter bresson image of a man holding a woman on the train with diagonal lines overlay
©Henri Carter-Bresson – Romania, 1975

5. Fibonacci Spiral

It is human nature to crave balance. When an image becomes balanced, it lacks tension and gives 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 called the Fibonacci sequence. The ratio of 1:1.618, which, when divided, gives you an exponentially growing line. It looks like the spiral in our next image.

The Fibonacci Spiral appears throughout nature too. Think about nautilus shells, the twist of pinecones, or the arrangement of a sunflower’s seeds.

You don’t need to be a math expert for using this composition technique in your photography. You only need to learn the spiral and all eight positions the spiral can have in your images. The most interesting parts of the scene should be in the intersection. 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 black and white henri cartier bresson of a cyclist shot from above with fibonacci spiral overlay
©Henri Cartier-Bresson- Hyères, France, 1932 (with Fibonacci overlay)

6. Decisive Moment

Lastly, we arrive at Bresson’s crowning achievement. The decisive moment had a significant influence on photography composition throughout history.

It is less about framing your subject and more about when to capture a scene. Here, the power lies with the photographer.

Bresson’s image of a man jumping into a puddle gives a lot of questions and information. The photograph’s elements would not have been the same one second before or after the image was taken.

We are unsure if the puddle is shallow enough not to soak our subject thoroughly. We do know that the man is brave enough to try.

He might know something we don’t, as we find ourselves limited by our position and perspective.

A second too early, and we would have never known if the man intended to jump or not.

Photography relies on what you capture in that second, not before or after. What makes a photographer is the ability to capture the right moment.

A Henri Cartier-Bresson photo of a man jumping into a puddle - composition techniques


These composition techniques from Henri Cartier-Bresson can be adapted to many different situations. The most important aspect of each is to practice and shoot whenever you have the opportunity.

Have a strong vision while you shoot. Observe your environment before exposing an image. First, search for composition techniques you can use to enhance your photo. Then you can look into the viewfinder and capture the scene.

Capture stunning photos every day with our Intuitive Composition course!

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