My Inspiration: Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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My Inspiration: Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Author : Philip Thomas
Article Date : 15 May 2014

Henri Cartier-Bresson is considered to be the father of photojournalism, co-founding Magnum, one of the early adopters of 35mm cameras and the Leica. Bresson is the master of candid photography. It's evident that when one looks at his images he seems to embrace life and adventure. He was captured by the Nazi's, escaping on the third attempt, a witness to Stalin and China's workforce and one of the last photographers to photograph Gandhi before his assassination. He traveled the world with, it seems an endless quest to photograph life. His first love was painting from an early age and pursued it again later in life.

There are so many words written about HCB so I do not intend to write a long post and be repetitive with my poor prose. This is more of a personal note to you on why to this day, Bresson continues to inspire me in my work and it's one of the reasons I picked up a camera in the first place.

I find myself enamoured viewing his work more than any other photographer. I have most of Henri Cartier-Bresson's publications and I always find myself with my head in one of the books, mostly his earliest work in the 30's and 40's, even though Bresson himself sees his later photojournalism work the strongest. Just last week I was flicking through the pages of his 1930s Paris street work and I'm astounded at his vision, his patience, his masterly use of light and geometry. If you haven't yet seen this movie, The Impassioned Eye on DVD via Amazon, it will blow your mind. There's also many videos like this one on You Tube.

Be Inspired

Inspiration comes to photographers in many ways. For me, it's through art galleries, yearly publications like the World Press Foundation, cinema, film and books and a few blogs I keep track off.

Henri Cartier-Bresson remains one of the worlds best photographers who continually teaches me about using my camera, that grey stuff between my ears, the peak moment, geometry, light, working with people, my approach, emotion and sensitivity. As a wedding photojournalist, he's been instrumental in tackling the mindset and challenges of shooting weddings and how to remain true to oneself. It's easy to get swayed by trends and the wedding cliches. But a good picture is still a good picture. That thankfully hasn't changed. HCB loved to paint and studied many famous painters in the early part of the 20th century. Look how he uses composition throughout his images. Similar photographers who use this approach are Steve McCurry and Jeff Ascough. A few of my favorite painters are Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Kandinsky and pretty much the impressionist movement.


When asked what makes a great composition, geometry was his answer. You see, he first started as a painter, and rather than call himself a photojournalist in the early years, he described himself as a surrealist. Geometry and re framing just a few millimeters could be the difference between a great photograph and an average one. So, get the shot right in camera just as Bresson did. Rarely did he crop images and had a disdain for it. This year, my main focus is the use of geometry, lines and rhythm of imaging. By studying HCB or any works, be it a painter or photographer, subconsciously, you will learn and improve your shooting. I believe that a talent has to be nurtured and grown, not necessarily born with. Photography is a craft. It has to be taught. Learn from your mistakes. Learn from the masters.

Get it right the first time

Pressing the button is the easiest thing to do. It would seem wedding photography is so easy to so many who have never captured a wedding, but this is far from the truth. Because picking up a camera and just shooting, the act of doing so is so easy, more so today in the digital age, it's easy to get lost and just produce a mess. Be it sports, weddings, commercial, street photography. Bresson when asked if you're born with a sense of design, his answer was it has to be cultivated. We have to find the 'decisive moment'. In my opinion, 'shoot and pray' as used by a few of todays platform speakers is not the way to improve your compositions or hoping to get the shot. It's a craft, and has to be learned over time. There are no short cuts and better to shoot with purpose, slowing down, thinking, studying composition through the viewfinder. Rapidly shooting has it's exceptions of course. Sports photographers for example, capturing a peak moment. When it comes to weddings, sure, shoot a few frames rapidly if needed, but it's very distracting and intrusive to hear a machine gun sound from a camera; the clack clack clack. I'm fortunate to shoot Leica gear too, and throughout the four years I've shot with the M9 and the M(240). These rangefinder cameras have literally forced me to slow down. The cameras are manual exposure and manual focus, forcing me to focus on composition first and foremost. I'm not advocating to go buy a Leica! But you can see my point. Go pick up a film camera and a 36 exposure roll, and a similar point will can be made.

It's not the gear. Really.

Bresson used a Leica and a 50mm lens. I think he also used a 35mm at some point. Shooting both color for some publications, but mostly monochrome. When it comes to photo gear today, it is very easy to go online to B&H and order everything we think we may need. Perhaps the best way to counter these feelings of just having everything, is to consider your return of investment on that piece of equipment. I personally use just two cameras, my Leica M with a 35mm f1.4 and a Nikon D4 with a 105 prime. I love the 35mm perspective and use it all day long. Next year I'm thinking about using the 50mm more than the 35mm. My point is to learn that perspective so it becomes instinct, so I don't have to even consider if I'm too close or to far from my subjects. No long telephotos (less is better for me) or huge zooms (less distraction and unobtrusiveness). No flash brackets or, well, no flash on camera. I have heavy cameras hanging around my neck. I have been through the whole gear purchasing thing, so I'm no angel, but step back for a moment before putting down that plastic. Do you really need the latest flash gun, the latest Nikon D4s? You have so many other investments and expenses. Taxes to pay, bills to pay, people to pay, your own salary, office expenses, your retirement. Sure, wedding photography is not the same as street photography, sports not the same as commercial. Each industry ahas its own needs. Bresson just had a Leica and a 50mm most of the time. How refreshing. Yes, use your feet back and forth, make the images look interesting. The perspective changes and opens up your mind with the prime lenses. You have the benefit of more light hitting your sensor and quite possibly a sharper image over a zoom (in most cases). Learn your craft first. Be absorbed abut 'life' and photographing than your gear. Other than bragging, it gets boring quickly!

Be patient

Sometimes the moment happens. Other times not at all and you move on. Bresson teaches us that with some patience, you can get the shot you want. Sometimes, the moment was instantaneous, often not.

There are three types of shooting style. Anticipation is when one of the most important tools. You have to be ready and waiting for the moment to happen but be unobtrusive. Sometimes you might have to wait for all the elements to come together before pressing the shutter. Confrontational is another tool you can use where instead of waiting for the peak moment, as soon as the subject looks at the camera you shoot. The other is a random approach, perhaps holding the camera at hip level (something I do a lot of at receptions). This is using your instincts when the moment happens, all the while remaining unobtrusive and good timing.

HCB Quotes

'Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.' 'Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time.' 'The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.'

'Thinking should be done before and after, not during photographing.'

'I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.'

'Memory is very important, the memory of each photo taken, flowing at the same speed as the event. During the work, you have to be sure that you haven't left any holes, that you've captured everything, because afterwards it will be too late.'

'Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.'

'While we're working, we must be conscious of what we're doing.'

'We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.

Final words

As you read these quotes, you can see how this relates to wedding photography. Weddings can be super stressful, full of action, peak moments, anticipation and reacting to moments. My approach has always been to shoot with purpose, rather than rattling off frames hoping for one shot. Learn the craft and your equipment with your eyes closed. Go meet other photographers, workshops, exhibitions. If you've never shot a wedding, second shoot and see if you like it. Be humble. Learn from others. Maintain consistency in your work. Trust yourself and be open minded to your surroundings and subjects. I'm a work in progress, even after 21 years shooting professionally. I have a healthy ego, and like any photographer worth their salt, the creative process takes us on an endless journey.

Wedding photography is challenging. You have to really love it to do it well and to make a profit. Every wedding season, I choose one fundamental part of my process how I'm going to improve my craft. What's yours going to be? All pictures copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson /Magnum Photos.