“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier Bresson

It was the first quote that I read online that spark my interest on the work of Henri Cartier Bresson. I was 19 years old at that time and the quote certainly make sense. My work seems empty with the lack of sense in composition and the choice of subject seems inconsistent especially when compared to HCB works. My interest in his work and philosophy deepen when I bought a small book from Kinokuniya on HCB Biography which seems to be packed with good information, which I still read from time to time.

Henri Cartier Bresson have influence my definition of photography and his desire to explore the world is something that most of the young photographer should aspire to do so. Photography for me is about discovery and HCB himself have been there as a part of history itself, capturing and documenting the historical event as he goes.

Recently, I just knew that 22 August is suppose to be HCB birthday and this prompt me to compile a list of what I have learn from the Master Photographer himself. I believe there have been thousand of short entries about “What can we learn from…” throughout the internet but nevertheless, its great to share some of my insight to anyone who happen to read this.

1 – SHOT A LOT

Its one of the thing that I should really stress to all amateur photographer. Its a huge misconception that people thought that a great image was taken once and the Photographer himself doesn’t try to get around their subject after taking the first frame. HCB himself mention that you need to ‘hunt’ for the decisive moment and be quick to capture it. I watched a video about HCB himself shooting at the street of Paris and you can see that he tend to stay around an area and once he found something interesting to shoot, he will raise his camera, snap a few frame, and vanish before the subject notice that he was taking their picture.

I believe someone with a passion in photography is not afraid to waste their shutter count. Most photographer that I know are worried about their camera shutter count despite having a camera that could withstand hundred thousand of shutter count. By shooting more, you could learn from your mistake and then show some of your work to your friend in a form of contact sheet.

You wouldn’t learn anything if you don’t try. Shoot a lot and learn from your mistake.

2 – ALWAYS CARRY A CAMERA WITH YOU

If you don’t have a camera with you, how do you expect to capture a good picture?.

Henri Cartier Bresson has always with his Leica, regardless if he is just hanging out with his friend of just having a walk around his area. What can we learn from this is that he is hungry for some good picture to the point that he never leaves his camera at home. Opportunity is just around the corner and usually in an unexpected way.

I tried this from time to time but my Nikon D60 is a bit heavy for me to bring to the office so I tried using an Olympus MjuII. A smaller camera helps regardless whether its a digital or film camera, the main objective is to take a picture. Having a camera with you all the time is good even if its from your I-phone.

3 – GET A CAMERA THAT SUITS YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY VISION

Henri Cartier Bresson is often associated with a Leica camera to the point that he become an unofficial ambassador of the camera brand. The reason is really simple, its not because its the greatest camera at that time but its because its the perfect camera to use for his shooting style, which is often being described as quick, swift and stealthy.

He tried a Rolleiflex and some other camera before but he find himself attached to the Leica simply because of its simplistic design. He consider taking picture as an instant sketchbook and this reinforce his believe in capturing the decisive moment.

Of course, this can be apply to all photography genre. You need a good camera with a suitable macro lens if you wanted to take a macro picture of an insect and I believe some would argue with me on this but would you rather be shooting macro with a point and shoot camera?. Sometimes, gear does matter and finding a suitable one for your shooting style and interest would go a long way on your photography journey.

4 – BE CURIOUS

A good photograph will show the enthusiasm of the photographer itself.

All of the award winning image requires time, patient and effort. If you are not curious in photography, you won’t go anywhere with it. Curiosity would lead to effort, and effort would usually result in a lot of trial. From the trial itself would show a lot of failure and from there you would learn something and eventually lead to a success.

It sounds cliche’ but Henri Cartier Bresson does exactly that and I believe all the famous photographer is the same as well.

5- SHOOT IN BLACK AND WHITE

I know some people might say Black and white or color image wouldn’t make any difference in your photography but HCB himself is ardent defender in Black and White image.

Taken from a quote from Henri Cartier Bresson Interview for Le Monde, September 1974;

‘I think that colour is the private domain of painting. I have taken colour photographs of China and the Seine for Pari Match, Life, and Stern and of France […]. This was entirely for reasons of Professional Nature.[…]The only good colour photo I have taken appeared on the cover of Camera, to mark my exhibition at the Pavillon de Marsan in 1954, but it had no meaning, I had succumbed to asesthticism.[…] I find emotion in black an white: it tansposes, it is an abstraction, it is not the nor. Reality is like a chaotic deluge and within this reality, one must make choices that bring form and content together in a balanced way; just imagine having to think about colour on top of all this! And for natural colour, that doesn’t mean a thin. Emasculated vision: only shopkeepers and magazines are seduced by the colour photo.’

From what I could understand from this is that black and white image is packed with form and content. Your vision when looking at black and white picture are not distracted by color where the photographer exact intention and subject are renders in a shade of gray.

I am a fan of a good black and white image and the difference when shooting in black and white is that you will focus more on Light and Shadow. I am very aware of this but human couldn’t see in monochrome so to compensate for this, we have to imagine a scene render in black and white.

There is a lot to learn from the Master in Photography such as Henri Cartier Bresson but this is the 5 important lesson that I learned from him when I bought the small book on Henri Cartier Bresson at Kinokuniya. A true stealthy photojournalist that have ever existed.

His work can be google though and best viewed from Magnum Photography website 🙂


My most favorite photograph taken by Henri Cartier Bresson.

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