Lessons from Henri Cartier-Bresson on Composition

One of the best ways to study composition, is to study the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and buy his books.

Some tips from the master:

1. Create a relationship of form

The first thing he states is that the ‘relationship of form’ is essential in photography:

“If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

2. A photo doesn’t exist without composition

Also, Henri Cartier-Bresson shares that composition is integral to the image. You don’t just add it afterwards:

“One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

3. Follow your gut

You can only shoot good compositions from intuition:

“Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

4. Don’t crop

If you want to improve your compositions, don’t crop:

“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

But then Henri Cartier-Bresson is a bit of a hypocrite; one of his most famous photos were cropped:

08_henri-cartier-bresson gare saint lazare jump 1932
(c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos / FRANCE. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

But I generally do find it is good not to crop photos, to learn how to work hard in the streets to get the best composition.

My rule for myself is I don’t mind a slight crop (less than 5-10%) if it will make a good photo. But very rarely do I crop.

For me, the reason I don’t like to crop is that cropping sometimes makes the photo too perfect. I prefer a little messiness on the edges of the frame (every once in a while). This way, the photograph feels more real and authentic.

For example, in this photo I shot in Tokyo, I could have cropped out that little rectangle in the top-left to make it look ‘cleaner’ — but I found it looked more ‘real’ and interesting without the crop:

eric kim street photography tokyo-0000545
I like the little rectangle in the top-left of the frame

If you want to improve your compositions, don’t crop any of your photos for a year. This will force you to hustle on the streets.

How to improve your composition

So I got a bit distracted, but when it comes to composition, do the following:

  1. Shoot from your gut or intuition when you’re making photos. Don’t think too much.
  2. When you go home, then analyze your compositions.
  3. Figure out how you failed in your compositions, internalize that information, and try to improve your compositions the next time you go out and shoot.

To learn more, check out all my free articles on composition >