Robert Capa- Comparing and Contrasting with Cartier-Bresson

In further preparation for Assignment Two, I have decided to do a bit of research into war photographer Robert Capa. I feel that his contrasting methods to Cartier-Bresson’s work will provide me with a well-rounded insight into street photography.

When we compare Capa’s work with Cartier-Bresson, we see that Capa’s work is much less complex. He used a few simple points in his photography.

Firstly, he created high contrast in the subject. He knew that the highest area of contrast needed to be the subject; containing the lightest light and the darkest dark of everything else in the image. Even though his compositions were not overly complicated, he knew how important it was to look for a well-lit subject. We see examples of these high contrast scenes below.





Secondly, he captured the unbelievable. One of the huge strengths of Capa’s work was the surreal scenes which he captured. Lots of the scenes he took during the war were too incredible and shocking to imagine. This is especially true in the following image; “Robert Capa took one of the most famous and controversial war photos in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, aged just twenty-two. The picture is now known as The Death of a Loyalist Soldier… Picture Post carried eleven pages of Capa’s Spanish Civil War photographs and proclaimed him ‘the greatest war photographer in the world.(3)” (see image below)



This iconic image is arguably Robert Capa’s most famous ever. It shows a soldier in action, getting hit by a bullet. People died and cities collapsed around him; and Capa was there with his camera, putting his life in danger to capture all this history. “So while in Japan in 1954 promoting a Magnum exhibition a call from Life Magazine sent him back into the trenches.  He headed to the Indochina front.  Unfortunately this is where his luck ran out.  Still clutching his camera Robert Capa lost his life when he stepped on a land mine on a battlefield in Indochina.(5)” This just highlights how close to the action Capa really was. He was right there amongst the violence and danger, getting as close as possible in order to capture that one great shot, and sadly this is where he met his death. This really proves his mantra which was; “If your photos are not good enough, you are not close enough.(6)” This has shown me the importance of not being afraid to get up close and personal with your subjects. It was important to Capa to use a 35mm focal length in order to create that relationship with the subject; a similar technique used by Cartier-Bresson in fact. Showing one similarity between the two photographer’s approaches.

Thirdly, Capa used diagonal lines to strengthen his compositions. I have learnt in previous modules the four main compositional lines; diagonal, curves, horizontal and vertical. Capa chose to use diagonal lines to his best advantage when composing his images; “The feeling of action is best expressed through the diagonal. Its is an explosive force that moves our eye across the longest line in a negative. It creates a sense of movement and activity that allows the image to express the motion of a scene.(7)” These strong lines make for very good compositional images that connect the subject’s well, and really create a strong punchy image that moves our eye swiftly across the frame. This highlights that photographers need to see scenes differently from everyone else; they need to see those compositional lines, and use them to create a stronger symmetrical image. We see some examples of these below;




USA. Sun Valley, Idaho. October, 1941. American actor Gary Cooper.

Fourthly, we see how Capa used values in grayscale to make his subject’s stand out from the rest of the scene. Either he uses a dark subject against a light background, or a light subject against a dark background. Either way, his subject’s stand out strongly in each image through the use of grayscale. “Too many photographers rely on the distinction between sharp and soft sections of an image and completely forget to look at the figure to ground relationship.(10)” This is a huge tip from Capa’s work which I intend to take on board in my second assignment. It is a basic and obvious point, and yet one which I have never really thought about when shooting photographs. We see this technique in many of Capa’s images. Showing that when Capa’s images are broken down, his technique is in fact relatively simple, in comparison with Cartier-Bresson’s more complex techniques. See images below for examples of this black and white contrast technique. When looking at these images, I noted that many of them also included strong diagonal lines; emphasising that Capa really did use these techniques constantly in his composition.

















I have learnt a great deal of techniques from Robert Capa, which I plan to implement into my second assignment. I have seen the contrasting approaches between Capa and Cartier-Bresson, and have noted that Capa chooses a much simpler approach. I have also noted that Capa uses diagonal lines, and grayscale values to create strong images that carry an energetic punch which jumps out at the viewer. Lastly, I have seen that Robert Capa was the greatest war photographer of all time, and is still to this day appreciated for the work he did.

(1-2) MAGNUM PHOTOS (2012), Robert Capa, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]

(3)  INGLEDEW, JOHN (2005), Photography, Laurence King Publishing.

(4) MAGNUM PHOTOS (2012), Robert Capa, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]

(5) ABOUT.COM (2013), Habert, Judith, Robert Capa on the Battlefield, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]

(6) DAVENPORT, ALMA (1991), The History of Photography: An Overview, UNM Press

(7) ADAM MARELLI WORKSHOPS (2011), Robert Capa, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]

(8-9) MAGNUM PHOTOS (2012), Robert Capa, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]

(10) ADAM MARELLI WORKSHOPS (2011), Robert Capa, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]

(11-18) MAGNUM PHOTOS (2012), Robert Capa, Available from: [Accessed: 20/05/13]


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