Henri Cartier-Bresson wanted to be a painter.

His teacher demanded he learn the rules of classical composition.

But in 1930, Cartier-Bresson saw a photograph that changed his life.

It was by Martin Munkacsi, of three African boys running into the surf.

They were frozen in time in a way he’d never seen before.

Suddenly he understood photography can capture a ‘decisive moment’.

The split-second that summarises everything else.

This was his decisive moment.

He stopped painting and took to the streets with a small 35mm Leica with a fixed 50mm lens.

Something he would always have ready to take out in a second.

And he became the greatest photographer of all time.

But surely anyone could do the same thing.

What made Cartier-Bresson any different from any other snapper with a camera in their pocket?

His classical training in composition.

The rule that most influenced Cartier Bresson was ‘the golden ratio’.

The golden ratio is the most visually pleasing way to split the surface area of a canvas.

At its simplest: divide it horizontally into one third and two thirds.

Then divide that one third vertically, into one third and two thirds.

That forms the basic structure of the composition.

This is the logic his pictures were based on.

Cartier-Bresson would look for a scene he could divide this way.

Streets, railway-lines, stairs, railings, he’d set up the geometry.

Then he’d wait.

For someone to come along, or something to happen.

The decisive moment he was looking for.

But unlike anyone else, he captured that decisive moment within a structure.

Other photographers would shoot the same thing.

But they’d just put the action in the centre of the frame.

So that, although they’d capture the moment, there was no visual tension, no timeless quality, no structure, no balance.

Their picture wasn’t art, it was just a snapshot.

In Cartier Bresson’s work ‘the decisive moment’ would often happen in a third of the picture, while the other two thirds remained empty.

The golden ratio.

The empty two thirds balances the action in the one third.

It gives context and creates a counterpoint.

Cartier-Bresson had been trained to create a logical structure into which the moment of brilliance occurred.

The moment of brilliance on it’s own was nothing without the logical structure.

Without the logical structure, it was just a flashy gimmick.

Something short-lived and trivial.

That’s something all creative people can learn from Cartier-Bresson.

First comes the thinking, the structure, the logic.

Within that logic sits the flash of brilliance.

The decisive moment.

Many of us just concentrate on the flash of brilliance.

On the latest technique, the latest gimmick.

We don’t bother learning how to set up the logical structure first.

Which is why most of the work is trivial and short-lived.


As Cartier-Bresson said “People think far too much about technique, and not enough about seeing”.