H.C. Bresson and the trashcan, three elements for a good photo - Photography Course - Lesson 32

This article is part of the online digital photography course.    

H.C. Bresson is the author of a statement that we can find in the 80% of the signs in the photography forums: “To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.

If we think about it, it’s a great truth, in the most beautiful pictures these three "elements" are all strongly present. A great truth, I said, till there is a balance among the three.

To obtain a great shot you need all of them, in a balanced way among them. Let's analyze them, deepening the topic... I’ll show how I interpret this famous statement.


You immediately recognize a photographer. He loves photography search and revise. The photographer may seem odd to the others eyes: he stops watching things that are apparently ugly or insignificant... suddenly he throws himself on the floor or climbs on a table taken by an immediate enthusiasm... he waits for hours for a subject that could not arrive, or maybe just doesn’t arrive in the way that he wants to, but he doesn’t get bored, the wait is like adrenaline, the idea of shooting is exciting almost as shooting itself.

The photographer doesn’t walk around the streets, around the countryside and all over the world for tourism, but just to photograph. In the end what is a photographer? He observes, searches what is not visible or plain to the others. He searches, wants that subject, that light, that angle. He revises, frames in the way to make the subject gain value.


Speaking about technique? Essential. Knowing how to photographically react after observing and searching, being able to revise in a practical way your creativity and your revision skill... you do all of this with the technique. Not just times, apertures, ISO, but also legs (ah... how important are legs!!), composition rules, proportions, symmetries. The right knowledge of the tools, the correct choice of the lens, not because it's lighter but because it's the more fit to obtain what we want to show. The mind is knowing how to control in a rational way our creative emotionality, knowing to control and manage it in a flawless way. The mind is also knowing to say NO to a picture that would involve us emotionally, for personal reasons, but that objectively wouldn't be interesting.

The mind makes the subjective more objective.


A technical flawless photo mightn't say anything. The art, and specifically the photography, are a strong mass media, they are the language, but to make the message interesting is essential for the content to be important, clear, emotionally dramatic. Also an architecture photography, although it doesn't presents "living" elements and then any significant or dramatic action, given a certain lighting and a certain composition can become emotionally involving.

H.C. Bresson says that we have to put on the same line of sight eye, mind and heart.

AND heart, not OR heart and not JUST heart. That means that, to obtain a good picture, the three aspects that we analyzed have to be all presents, possibly in balance. Often, when you photograph something or someone the heart is the main aspect. The father that photographs the son, the puppy, the flower just blossomed... he's taking a picture of what gives him emotions but he's not necessarily taking a beautiful picture.

The emotional involvement of that moment often brings you to nullify the rational and objective aspect, inhibiting the critical ability of the one who took the picture. But also socially and emotionally "stronger" subjects are seen from the one who shoot them as a good photo: How many times we run into subject seen over and over again, the old man on the bench, the bum on the floor, the black child, the old woman with the turban. Maybe in these pictures there are thousands of troubling elements, rough errors, an incorrect exposure, a casual composition. How many times it is thought that a picture with an engaging and involving subject is a good picture? Just because the heart (alas too often just ours) prevails on the other two aspects.


How the great Bresson was right! Then, when we shoot let's try to put ourselves in the place of a person that is not emotionally involved from our subject. Let's try to watch our picture with a critical eye. Are there errors? Is the exposure wrong? Are there troubling elements? Is it badly composed? Might also be a good subject but if necessary we have to find the heart to throw it there, in the trashcan. And then let's try it again, with a bit more awareness, let's use in a better way our eye and our mind, maybe we'll have better luck!

Article written by Diagaz

Translation by Nina Kozul


Corporate Photography said...

Bresson was the first photographer we studied for our photography GSCE back when I was at college. He was huge influence on the class and he gave more to photography by helping students understand the process of creating good photos

matt said...

I totally agree with these. not everyone can pick these up but having the eye can help so much and make any subject look great in an image. The mind helps you get shots that others might not think and about and the heart helps you know what will make a good shot. Great post