How to shoot street like Henri Cartier-Bresson

I absolutely love photography – and while I’ve always liked taking photos, I never actually thought of myself as a ‘photographer’. Taking photos is easy, right? Anyone can take a photo with their phone – and if it looks good, they’re likely a good photographer. However, Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founding-father of street photography wouldn’t be so sure about that. In this post, we’ll examine one of the most classic photography masters of all time – and talk about what differed him from everyone else.

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Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson, born in France, was a painter, and later, most-famously-known-for film photographer. After receiving his first camera, making a switch from painting to photography, he focused on candid photography – a photography genre where the subject isn’t posing, and the scene isn’t staged. His most famous idea about photography, in general, is ‘the decisive moment’. Get the composition, subject, and exposure right, but miss the right moment to press the shutter button – and the photo you wanted is gone. He states that the right timing is the absolute most important aspect of a photograph.

Pictures usually capture a single moment present in longer actions, which has to summarize them to their greatest extent. The picture has to tell a story framed wider than just a nice-looking scene in time. Cartier-Bresson argues that there are multiple such moments in every action and that the photographer has to make a choice between which one is most important, and possibly, most telling.

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Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’

Likewise, Henri Cartier-Bresson always took multiple pictures of each scene, each at a different time, and composed them accordingly. Shooting his photographs on film, there were times when he’d use up an entire roll of film, just to get a photo right. That’s perhaps most evident in one of my favorite photos he shot, named after and shot in Hyéres, France.

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‘Hyéres’, France (1932)

In the picture above, the photographer stands on top of a curved staircase, capturing a moving cyclist, riding along the street. In a way, this picture can be viewed as a quite minimalist – empty street with relatively even lighting and simple, but clever composition. The staircases’ lead lines start from our viewpoint and lead our sight to what’s most important about the picture, the subject. The truly great thing about this picture is that by taking away any of its elements or simply adding something, it just doesn’t work anymore – and if the timing wasn’t just right the lead lines wouldn’t make any sense – which would effectively ruin the composition.

What’s so great about this is that Cartier-Bresson expected the cyclist to get in the desired spot before he had even framed the camera. If you wish to do the same thing, you either have to take a ton of photos of the same scene or have a good eye for how the scene will change in addition to the subject. In street photography, which is many times also candid, this is a very desirable skill to have, and either comes with talent or a lot of experience.

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‘Train carrying Gandhi ashes’, Delhi, India (1948)

Perhaps the most helping aspect of Henry Cartier-Bresson’s career was the fact that he painted for a long time before making his debut in photography. By making sketches and drawings, he envisioned his photos before he even took them. When first trying out film photography, he described it as ‘instant sketches’. Later, he became a photojournalist and published his photos in various magazines. At the end of his career, he switched back to painting, describing photography as ‘doing the same thing over and over again’.

Further reading:

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