Breaking down masterful composition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos

Aug 16, 2017

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Breaking down masterful composition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos

Aug 16, 2017

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

We can learn a lot about photography by observing and analyzing the works of the masters. Henri Cartier-Bresson is one of my favorite photographers of all times, the master of the decisive moment.  Although he thought of photography as “immediate reaction,” he managed to combine prompt reaction with great composition.

In his two-part video series, photographer Tavis Leaf Glover was focused particularly on composition in Cartier-Bresson’s photos. He decomposes some of his images to show how masterfully used the principles of dynamic symmetry and geometry. If you want to learn from the master, these two videos are certainly something to watch.

YouTube video
YouTube video

Tavis created two videos: in the first one, he breaks down the composition of horizontal photos, and the second one shows the vertical ones. He uses the 1.5 rectangle and the principles of dynamic symmetry for the analysis. This is the basic grid of the 1.5 rectangle:

Using the grid, Tavis analyzes the composition patterns Cartier-Bresson used in his works. His photos are masterfully composed although they were captured in a fraction of a second. They lead the viewer’s eye and capture attention, and it’s more than just composition he used to achieve it.

In some of his works, he also uses the figure-ground relationship to draw attention and emphasize the subject. It’s usually achieved by photographing a bright subject on a dark background or the other way around. He places the main subjects at polar points of the image to make them balance each other. Many of his photos depict gestures and texture, which add life to the scene. If you pay attention, there are also many geometrical shapes.

Although Cartier-Bresson’s images are brief moments of life captured on film, I’m sure they required a fast reaction. And yet, he was obviously still able to plan the shots and compose them in order to get the best out of these moments. I found these videos not only interesting to watch, but also useful. They teach us to “see” composition patterns in the photos, but also to start seeing them through our viewfinder before taking the shot.

[via PDN Pulse]

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

27 responses to “Breaking down masterful composition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos”

  1. John Woodhead Avatar
    John Woodhead

    I’ve always wondered if these things are considered while shooting. Did he really see those lines in his head and align himself to them. Consciously composing the shot for that reason. If the subjects were sat differently would he have taken the same photo?

    Or did he have an eye that drew him to the composition we see, knowing the composition works but not necessarily seeing the science behind it? (And by that I don’t mean not understanding the rules of composition, I mean in that moment as the shutter is pressed)

    1. Krisztian Olah Avatar
      Krisztian Olah

      Cartier-Bresson was also a fine arts artist, he drew particularly well, in his old age he even preferred drawing to photography. He understood the rules of composition, he called it form and studied the great painters before him to improve it. That being said he probably shot more instinctively whilst keeping composition in mind.

    2. Robbie Fry Avatar
      Robbie Fry

      Composition was so embedded in his being or phyche that he didn’t need to analyse as he went along. Had they sat differently HCB would more than likely have made a different photograph. And as Krisztian Olah states below he returned to drawing in his autumn years. Having the eye of an observing artist, or draftsman, is certainly an asset to creating better images.

  2. Duncan Gallagher Avatar
    Duncan Gallagher

    NOTHING SPECIAL

    1. Jackson Johnson Avatar
      Jackson Johnson

      talking about yourself here. beauty is in the eye of the beholder they say, and you my friend don’t have it.

      1. Bruce Lindman Avatar
        Bruce Lindman

        Talking about you here, looking at your history of recent comments you sound like a pretentious troll.

  3. Duncan Knifton Avatar
    Duncan Knifton

    personally, I think they just shot what they saw in front of them,,,and its others who have placed these mystical lines on the images…I dont think they had time to think about it.

    1. Simon Edwards Avatar
      Simon Edwards

      if you do something enough, you don’t need to think about it do you? Do you think about every aspect of driving when driving a car or do you just drive it?

  4. Trevor Lovecross Avatar
    Trevor Lovecross

    I’ve always thought these alleged compositions are a big toss. Take this image, for example: half those lines don’t have anything falling on them, and there are several aspects of the image that fall on none of those lines. Not saying the image is poorly composed – just saying that these so called composition rules are a con. With that many lines, and the ability to ignore portions of the image that don’t fall on any of them, you can claim anything to be masterfully composed.

    1. catlett Avatar
      catlett

      Yea it is kind of like people taking very vague stuff Nostradamus (sp?) said and talking themselves into believing he really predicted a detailed future. They are masterful compositions BUT he could have never gotten most of the shots if he actually spent a huge amount of time the way analysts try to convince themselves he did. Somewhere in his mind maybe this was happening on some level but I’m not buying the full narrative.

      Another thing is that he shot thousands of shots. We see the most successful ones. My bet is that there are a high percentage of the ones we don’t see that fit some other imagined pattern.

      1. Jackson Johnson Avatar
        Jackson Johnson

        “buying the full narrative” you sound like you’re responding to a conspiracy theory. the golden ratio has been used for hundreds of years, if not thousands, and it has existed in nature before civilization. bresson mastered composition by internalizing these guides and ratios, as developed by the centuries of western painting traditions before him which DID take the time to carefully compose these things. he didn’t need to analyze before he took the shots because he spent his life analyzing art and composition in General.

        1. catlett Avatar
          catlett

          You sound like you didn’t read everything I typed.

          As with the analysts you are assuming something not in evidence. I didn’t say the golden ratio didn’t exist. I also didn’t say that the artist didn’t take time to compose them. What I am saying is that current analysts are assuming they know what he was thinking and that he composed for specific patterns all the time. They have no way of knowing that and it doesn’t have anything to do with conspiracy. Building a case on a subset of his images just to support their position doesn’t prove anything at all.

          [edit] Actually never mind. I just read your other comments and apparently you are just trying to be a condescending dick to anybody who doesn’t agree with you.

    2. Trevor Lovecross Avatar
      Trevor Lovecross

      A masterpiece!

      1. Jackson Johnson Avatar
        Jackson Johnson

        you’re just an idiot if you can’t understand the significance of golden proportions but still claim to love photography enough to make a comment on this article

        1. Bruce Lindman Avatar
          Bruce Lindman

          You sound like an idiot who thinks playing connect the dots with phots is art.

    3. Trevor Lovecross Avatar
      Trevor Lovecross

      Genius!

    4. Simon Edwards Avatar
      Simon Edwards

      It’s not a con and not a rule…. it’s a guide. Not everything in a photo has to fall on a line or convergence of lines, if you view it as a rule, you’re seriously compromising your creativity.

  5. TByte Avatar
    TByte

    Yawn.
    Let’s have fun with an old photo and a straightedge. Look! Some of the lines pass through interesting things in the image!
    (Awards self certificate for Mastering Photographic Composition)

    1. Jackson Johnson Avatar
      Jackson Johnson

      you sound like someone who is so uninspired by his own lack of ability to create a beautiful image that you must tear down the ideas and knowledge of others who Do understand. Yawn.

      1. Bruce Lindman Avatar
        Bruce Lindman

        You sound like a pretentious prick with no talent of your own.
        Yawn.

  6. Michele M. Ferrario Avatar
    Michele M. Ferrario

    1. Putting lines to a photo are stupid
    2. HBC crop photo when printing it

    1. Simon Edwards Avatar
      Simon Edwards

      If it helps you see how to compose a photo, why is it stupid? HBC rarely cropped photos and spoke about composing in camera rather than cropping, even though a few of his are cropped.

  7. Bruce Kinnaird Scott Avatar
    Bruce Kinnaird Scott

    It looks like someone is over thinking the whole concept of composition. The photo isn’t that inspiring either. How was he the master again?

    1. Simon Edwards Avatar
      Simon Edwards

      Maybe because he pretty much invented street photography and has a natural eye for composition?

  8. Jackson Johnson Avatar
    Jackson Johnson

    lol at everyone in these comments not understanding how to compose images. “if I don’t understand it, they must be overthinking it!” if you ever watch HCB interviews, you’ll understand he had this knowledge deeply ingrained — he loved the golden ratio! nature didn’t “invent” the golden ratio, there’s a reason why it shows up naturally long before humans defined it.

    1. Bruce Lindman Avatar
      Bruce Lindman

      LOL at you thinking you know jack about composing images.

      1. Sean Day Michael Avatar
        Sean Day Michael

        https://youtu.be/4ZSZLzGNPBQ?t=188

        I love that aspect of human life that we humans argue over something, instead ofgoing to the source of what we argue