What we can still learn from Henri Cartier Bresson

By Geoff Harris

A new book featuring images of China taken by legendary documentary photojournalist Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) has recently been released by Thames and Hudson. It should be required reading for all keen travel and documentary photographers.

Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958 is a beautifully presented and laid-out volume, but it’s much more than a historical record of his photography during one of the most tumultuous time in China’s history (the end of the civil war after the Japanese occupation and the subsequent Communist victory). As with any great photographer, we can still learn a lot from his style and technique, many decades later.

Always have a wide-enough lens for street shooting

Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958
Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958, p. 78

This image is called Gold Rush, Shanghai, and shows a crowd of anxious customers trying to get to their bank savings in 1948, at the height of the civil war. It’s a classic example of Cartier Bresson’s compositional genius: the jostling queue looks like it’s been choreographed for a movie, but it’s entirely spontaneous. He got the shot as he patiently waited until the queue formed a pleasingly dramatic shape, and used a wide enough lens to get everybody in. So while a classic 50mm or 85mm lens is great for everyday street scenes and portraiture, make sure you also have a 35mm or wider to capture crowd scenes. Note that the image is not hugely sharp too: this was less of a deal-breaker in the pre-digital age, and the overall impact mattered more.

Try different vantage points

Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958 , p. 274

One of Cartier Bresson’s classic tips was to bend your knees, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to get down low, as in this image of young Communists in 1958 shows. While the girl’s hands coming in from the left might be distracting to some, it really captures the buzz of the event, as do the skipping legs and raised arms. A conventional approach would have been to shoot this at eye level and it wouldn’t have been such an interesting shot. Note also his skilful use of shadows, which are a very important element of the composition. Using a lighter, smaller camera and lens (such as his beloved Leica rangefinder) makes it easier and less of an effort to get in the right position for fast-moving effects.

Place your subject carefully in the frame

Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958, p. 230

Considering how rich many Chinese students are these days it seems strange that this shows Beijing University scholars toiling away to make a swimming pool in 1958. The main subject is perfectly framed, with her pelvis right in the centre of the frame, and you get a real sense of the back-breaking work. The guy on the left of the frame adds context too, without being distracting. It’s quite a simple composition, but all four corners are perfectly controlled, and nothing superfluous is allowed into the picture.

Use windows and reflections

Foreign photographers such as Cartier Bresson must have been an exotic sight in 1948, as the reactions here show. Grinning subjects can be a problem for travel and documentary photographers, making your shots look a bit cheesy and posed, but he gets around it by making full use of the effect of windows and reflections. The little girl’s innocence is captured perfectly and you don’t need to read the caption to know that she is something to do with a brush maker’s shop. If a great photograph relies on the interplay of information, emotion and execution, this has all three by the bucketload.

Make use of strong sunlight and shadow

Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958, p. 52

Some travel photographers put their camera away in the middle of the day and go for lunch, and although strong, blasty sunlight can cause issues, you can also use the shadows it creates to your advantage. Cartier Bresson certainly did here. The slanting, diagonal shadows add mystery and a slight sense of threat to an otherwise mundane scene. When working with shadows, though, make sure you expose to preserve some shadow detail, rather than ending up with blocks of undifferentiated black. Shooting in raw gives you much more leeway to retrieve detail at the editing stage.

Treat your subjects with respect and care

Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958, p. 57

Although he was a wealthy, sophisticated European, Cartier Bresson treated even his humblest subjects with respect. This image of a “simple minded man” (his words, not mine) who helped out at weddings is a great example. Cartier Bresson frames and lights the chap with the same care he’d apply to a celebrity portrait, ensuring the background adds that all-important context (it was taken in a very old part of Beijing). The other figure in the background adds a sense of mystery, too.

For more wonderful images, see Henri Cartier Bresson: China 1948-9, 1958. It is published by Thames and Hudson, 288 pages, £50, 978-0500545188,

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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