Jun 182011

Great Compositions: Robert Capa

Making It Happen

Expelled from Hungary at age

seventeen, Endre Friedmann

bounced from Germany to

France learning photography

along the way.  When he arrived

the man we know as Robert

Capa was born.  Possibly the

greatest war photographer in

history Capa’s contributions

are as broad as his interest.

Painting of Robert Capa’s “Paratroopers near Wesel Germany.” This was a painting I made a few years ago of from a Capa photograph.


This analysis of Robert Capa was at the request of photographer Darell Miller hailing from the UK.

The biography of Robert Capa is as captivating as his portfolio. After a short encounter with a communist leader in Hungary got him imprisoned, his new life on the road would be anything but ordinary. Fortunately for Capa, his mother was a seamstress for the head of police’s wife in Budapest. When she learned about her eldest son being arrested for “communist associations” she was able to negotiate his release. This would be the first of many sticky situations that Capa danced through during his life. The terms of his release were that he had to leave Hungary and never return.

Robert Capa was famous for using his charm to talk his way into and out of every situation under the sun.

Understandably upset Capa went to Germany to complete his education until Hitler’s role forced him to move on. Finally settling in Paris, Capa met the love of his live Gerda Taro, who was working as a photo assistant. The combination of her creative marketing and Capa’s photographs soon solidified his role as a serious photographer. The two of them created the identity of Robert Capa. Its had a good ring to it and Taro spread his images all over town, talking up his genius to the photography editors. Even after they were confronted for fraud, it was too late. The not so famous Endre Friedmann had successfully established himself as a prominent photographer of the Spanish Civil War. This is one of my favorite stories of positive thinking. He wanted to be a photographer, so he declared himself one.

In a 1947 interview Capa explained why he changed his name:

“I had a name which was a little bit different from Bob Capa. The real name of mine was not too good. I was just as foolish as I am now, but younger. I couldn’t get any assignment. I needed a new name badly…And then I invented that Bob Capa was a famous American photographer who came over to Europe and did not want to bore French editors because they did not pay enough…So I just moved in with my little Leica, took some pictures and wrote Bob Capa on it which sold for double prices.”

Radio Interview WNBC, October 20th, 1947.
“Blood and Champagne” p. 29, Alex Kershaw

The stories of Capa’s life are incredible. If you have not read a book on Capa I would absolutely recommend it. My favorites are “Slightly Out of Focus”, “Blood and Champagne” and “A Russian Journal”. To give you a sense of Capa’s sense of humor here is a letter he wrote to Ingrid Bergman, asking her out to dinner.

Subject: Dinner. 6.6.45. Paris. France
TO: Miss Ingrid Bergman

  • Part I. This is a community effort. The community consists of Bob Capa and Irwin Shaw.
  • Part II. We were planning on sending you flowers with this note inviting you to dinner this evening- but after consultation we discovered it was possible to pay for the flowers or the dinner, or the dinner or the flowers, not both. We took a vote and dinner won by a close margin.
  • Part III. It was suggested that if you did not care for dinner, flowers might be sent. No decision has been reached on this so far.
  • Part IV. Besides the flowers we have lots of doubtful qualities.
  • Part V. If we write much more we will have no conversation left as out supply of charm is limited.
  • Part VI. We will call you at 6:15.
  • Part VII. We do not sleep.

You have to give the man credit for asking out one of the worlds most famous movie starlets with a letter. How did it turn out? He got the date and maintained a long relationship with Bergman. The common belief is that Capa never fully recovered from his previous girlfriend Gerda Taro’s death in the Spanish Civil War. While riding on the side of a truck she was side swiped by a tank. People said after this, Capa was never the same. His distance from intimate relationships most likely accounts for why he never married and continued to put himself in the most absurd war scenes imaginable until his death in Indochina.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Pablo Picasso.  © Robert Capa.

Capa’s Strengths

How can we use the images of a world class war photographer to take better pictures? What simple lessons lie between the frame lines of Capa’s pictures that we can study, replicate, and combine into our personal styles?

When we look at the corners of our view finder our brain naturally draws lines connecting the four points.




  • Simple Diagonals:Capa worked in both 35mm and square medium formats. Unlike Cartier-Bresson, who was educated formally in art, Capa’s work is less complex. The basic design of 90% of Capa’s images were conceived on a single diagonal. While some of the pictures fit into the 1.5 and Root 4 grids, they were not a part of Capa’s working language. But as we will see, sometimes a successful picture works simply because no one else was there to take the shot. If only one line is used in a composition, we will see how Capa organized off of the diagonal to move our eyes through the scene.

    We can connect the lines vertically and horizontally or…



  • Figure To Ground Relationship:What is this you ask? Figure to ground relationship is the term used to talk about how your subject relates in value of the scene or ground. Its like making a black dot on a white background or a white dot on a black background. This is a primary design tool used throughout human history. If you would like an example think of the design of a Greek vase. The terra-cotta figures on a vase are light in value against a black glazed background. If we want our pictures to have carrying power they need to be clear. Artists put a light figure on a dark ground or a dark figure on a light ground. Sound simple enough, right?

    Or we can connect the lines diagonally. The second we do this, the world of dynamic composition will open up for you.



  • Highest Contrast in the Subject:Working in film, without the aid of Photoshop, Capa knew from countless successes and mistakes, that the area of highest contrast needs to be in the subject. As objects receded in the distance they become less contrasty. We want our subject to have the lightest light and the darkest dark because that is what our eyes notice. Even though Capa’s compositions are not complex, he knew to look for a well lit subject.

    Our brains are prepared to handle much more abstract relationships between points in space. We have been connecting dots in the sky since we were children. What are these dots?



  • Finding the Unbelievable:When John Morris of Life Magazine first looked at the work of Robert Capa, he remembers not being too impressed. But thirty years later and about one thousand arguments later with Capa, he realized the strength of Capa’s work was the simple fact that Capa was there to take the picture that no one else took. We will see some incredible scenes that have more in common with the Surrealist painters than our expectations of reality. Many of the scenes Capa made during war time were too shocking to imagine. But when cities collapsed and people made life from the ruins Capa was there with a bottle of wine for their wounds and a camera for the us remember their hardships.

    You GOT it, its the Little Dipper. See how easy it is to connect points in space. All Master photographers worked their entire careers to refine the art of connecting points in space to create dynamic compositions. Some made more complex arrangements than other, but everyone uses it at some level. It is the simplest way to arrange figures in space. Give it a try next time you are out shooting.



  • Dark Landscapes: The rolling hills of Tuscany or the scenic view of a beach make for nice post card, but boring photography. In one of Capa’s funniest efforts, we will look at how the landscape of Western Europe were turned upside down during World War II. The hills which should have been used for growing grapes and watching sunsets turned dark as scores of Axis and Allied troops fought it out on the road to Berlin.

The Diagonal

When we compose a picture we have four types of lines to choose: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and curve. For the better part of his life, Capa was following battles across Europe and Asia. 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. When we look in our view finders the tendency, especially for beginners, is to find compositions that relate vertically or horizontally. This is not because of some mysterious subconscious brain pattern. The reason is very simple. Looking through a view finder we immediately see two parallel vertical and two parallel horizontal lines. When a scene enters the frame that repeats either the vertical or horizontal, the shape of our negative registers mentally. We see these coinciding relationships and press the shutter.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

China.  © Robert Capa.

We have been connecting dots with lines since we were children. We connect starts in the night sky and the flashing dots on a runway to form lines in our head. Instead of connecting the negative vertically and horizontally, we can connect an “X” diagonally. Once this happens, its like someone flipped a switch. We start to see relationships of people in space that a normal person does not need to see. Imagine we are looking at a street scene with two men. One man is standing near an intersection, another laying on the ground and a street light in the background. Now a regular person does not need to see the diagonal line that connects the street light, the head of the man standing, and the head of the man on the ground. But as a photographer its good to start making these types of observations.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Major diagonals of the Root 4.  © Robert Capa.

Does that mean photographers see “differently” that “regular” people? You bet they do. Photographers like Capa need to be able to view scenes with the imaginary diagonal lines connecting the corners of an image. This will allow the photograph to contain action. Its is the first step to understanding Dynamic Symmetry and as we will see a major tool that Capa used throughout his life.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Chinese Pilot.  © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Major diagonals.  © Robert Capa.

We can see in the body of images from China taken in the later 1930′s that Capa uses the diagonal to connect figures in space. By composing on the diagonal he brings two people into a visual dialogue with each other. It encourages our eye to move across the entire frame of the image. We will notice that the corners of the image are dark, while there is a band of light along the diagonal. This is simple tool that we can use to quietly move the viewers eye to the most important parts of a picture.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Mexico.  © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Major diagonals.  © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Golfe-Juan, France, August 1948. Pablo Picasso and Francoise Gilot. The man in the background is Picasso’s nephew, Javier Vilato.  © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

The image is designed on a single diagonal to emphasize the action of Francoise moving towards us.  © Robert Capa.

Figure To Ground Relationship

How do we use the figure to ground relationship to our advantage on the street? Here is a simple tip that will greatly improve your images. When you look at a scene, squint. When you squint, what do you see? A good picture will be clear even if your vision is blurry. This is why photographers always say, “Study the contacts.” If the picture is tiny as a thumbnail, its the same as squinting. You wont be able to see any of the details. But as the details fade away, the light and dark relationships will scream out. If you squint while looking at any of Capa’s portraits you will see it. There is a dark figure against a light ground or a light figure against a dark ground. If you want to test this theory further have a look at any of the posting sites. If you squint your eyes and look at a picture what do you see? If the the figure to ground relationship is bad, you won’t see anything. 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.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Here we have a light figure on a dark ground. Outside of Palermo, July 1943.  © Robert Capa.

The major advantage of black and white film is that it trains you to only see in value. Working in B/W, color is not as important because the end product only exists in a gray scale. Personally I learned photography backwards and started with color. Over the years, through many mistakes, I realized that my eyes were too preoccupied with color and sharpness and failed to register the gray scale value of a scene. Reverting to black and white for a time was very helpful because it allowed me to re-learn figure to ground relationships and search for light backgrounds for dark subjects and vice versa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Dark figures on a light ground. Refugees near Wesel Germany. March 24th 1945.  © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

I figured I would help you squint. Even with the picture blurry we still have a very good sense of the figure to ground relationship.   © Robert Capa.

As Capa moves around a scene we often see him shoot up looking at figures. Aside from this angle making them look heroic, it also allows him to play his figures against light skies (like the Chinese pilot pictured above). It is like using a gray sky like a huge backdrop. Photographing in the real world Capa always needed to improvise. The only way for him to get certain shots was to move his feet. If we know what we are looking for, it makes taking pictures easier. Walking into a scene with a figure dressed in white, we now know immediately, we need a dark background otherwise they will get lost in a light ground. Its a totally simple idea that gets messed up all the time.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Maiori, Sorrento Penninsula, Italy. Septmeber 19th 1943.  © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Again, even with the picture completely out of focus we can see the greatest contrast exists in the subject.  © Robert Capa.

Highest Contrast In The Subject

While I have your eyes squinted allow me to show you something else. This is a technique that is slightly adopted from Ansel Adams, passed through Myron Barnstone. For 35mm photography we can break the transition from white to black into about 9 zones. Technically we can break it down further, but for all practical purposes 9 zones will work just fine. If the lightest like is 1 and black is 9, there are seven shades of gray in the middle. Stay with me here, its not as complicated as it sounds.

9 Step Value Step Scales.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Cover the top of this image with your hand. Look at it for 10-15 seconds.  Get used to the tones of the children’s faces.  Now remove your hand.  See how the glowing light jumps out at you.  Its too strong of a value shift in a part of the picture that has no importance. Indiana, 1949.   © Robert Capa.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

When we squint the problem becomes apparent in an instant. Squinting for a second, while looking through the viewfinder, will greatly improve your ability to judge a scene.  © Robert Capa.

We want the our subject to be maybe zones 1-6, so its highlights are pure white and its shadows are a medium dark. Then we would like any other figures to be maybe a zone 2-7 and the background to be a zone 4-9. If there is an area of intense contrast outside of the main subject its too distracting. The easiest way to sort out the zone system while working is just squint. If you can still see your subject when you squint, you may have a picture. But if the subject disappears and you notice another, completely unimportant shape then there is no shot.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

I think every town wishes they could have put up this sign. Mont St. Michel, France, August 1944.  © Robert Capa.

Finding The Unbelievable

In Capa’s travels he walked through the ruins of Europe. In the rubble of Warsaw or the bombed out churches of England, he found scenes where the apocalypse had touched down. In the wake of these collapsed buildings, he found moments where people tried to return to life before the war. In the “Church of Father Huchinson,” Capa took the everyday scene of Catholic mass and turned it on its head. The roof of the church was destroyed by Nazi bombing raids. By shooting the scene from a distance we see the “normal looking” mass down below contrasted with the open roof of the church. At first glance it seems totally normal, in fact the lighting is quite nice for a church interior, until we realize, “Wait, where’s the roof?”

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

St. John’s Church, London, England.  © Robert Capa.

After working his way through North Africa, Capa lost his war credentials, they expired. Without credentials he was not allowed to work. He was ordered to leave the front and return to London. But staying one step ahead of the offices back in London, he managed to board a ship set to invade southern Italy.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Troina, Sicily, August 1943.  © Robert Capa.

Covering the siege of a small town called Triona, in Sicily, Capa once again found an unbelievable picture. The two soldiers sitting on the ledge relaxing. It looks ask if the entire world was collapsing beneath their feet. Capa had a knack for finding moments of calm in the chaos. It was probably a survival mechanism to cope with the war. One can only imagine what life is like after living along side the Allied troops as they advanced to Germany. During the war, the US Army determined that an average soldier could last 144 days in active combat before they were shell-shocked. But when they discovered that 8 out of 10 infantry men were dying in the European campaign, the Army decided it did not matter, since most men were not going to be alive long enough to be shell shocked. Capa, was in and out of the war from the beginning of 1943 to the middle of 1945. He would work for months at a time and then head back to London. Even with the intermittent rests, it must have eventually gotten to him.

Robert Capa Adam Marelli

Near Troina Sicily, August 4-5 1943.  © Robert Capa.

Dark Landscapes

For anyone who has lives or has traveled through Europe, you know there are some beautiful vistas. In the years between 1943 and 1945 those picturesque scenes were often scattered with tanks and infantry. The thing that stands out most about Capa’s landscape work, if we can call it that, is how a perfectly tranquil scene is shifted by the little dots of men walking along the road. Some of Capa’s photos look like they could adorn wine bottles and travel brochures seducing is into Sicilian vacations. But all is not was not well on the western front. The sprinkling of soldiers takes a beautiful landscape and reminds us, this was war. The images are a disturbing reminder of the collaborative effort required to stabilize Europe in the wake of the Nazis.

Robert Capa (left) & George Rodger (right) sporting a parachute silk ascot.


Capa shows incredible range in his work, a type we might all aspire towards. While he was never trained as an artist, he discovered a handful of working techniques which captivated the world. And he added one critical element to the world of photography, “If your photos are not good enough, you are not close enough.” These words ring true for all of us. The invite and challenge us to confront our subjects and fears as close as possible so that we like Ernst Hemingway will try,”…to write one true sentence.”

Wars are disturbing events that unfold for decades after the guns are laid down. We are lucky to have pioneers like Capa who put themselves along side the troops to give us a first person account. Unfortunately its does not seem that humanity as a whole is learning from the lessons of the past.

“For me, Capa wore the dazzling matador’s costume, but he never went in for the kill; a

great player, he fought for himself and others in a whirlwind. Destiny was determined

that he should be struck down at the height of his glory.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Blood and Champagne” Intro, Alex Kershaw



  14 Responses to “Great Compositions: Robert Capa”

  1. I enjoy these “Great Compositions” posts. I find them very insightful and educational. I’ve also begun to watch Byron’s video series, and while I find it extremely eye-opening, it’s something I’m going to have to watch at least twice before I really start to “get it”.

    • Hey Rob,

      I am really happy that you are enjoying the posts. They are an on going experiment and hopefully they are useful. Enjoy the heck out of Myron’s videos. He requires that anyone who takes is course, must do it twice because there is so much information. After disc one, it becomes clear why he does this.

      Not sure how many times I watched the DVDs, but I have lost count. Without fail, I always hear new things.

      Yesterday I was out with Myron at his studio and we were analyzing some more Bresson work from this great book “Tete a Tete” meaning head to head in french. It is a collection of portraits he made over the years. We laid a 1.5 grid of tracing paper over the photos and its stunning. Bresson was so accurate, its insane. But the more I study the images, the more accessible the tools become.

  2. Adam

    a quick word of thanks for the articles you are doing on composition! They are fabulous; and as a student of photography, I really appreciate all the effort you have gone to here. Please, please, keep doing it!


    • Hey Vicki,

      Its great to hear that you are enjoying the articles too. It took me a long time to sort out the language to describe some of these ideas and there are still some kinks in the text. But hopefully the main ideas are coming through. It is infinitely easier to explain the ideas in person, but it seems like they are working alright. What parts of the analysis do you find the most helpful? or problematic?


      • Hi Adam

        Yup – the main ideas are coming through – slowly! Have spent the whole day on your site reading and then jumping off and googling bits. Understanding the sinister and baroque diagonals now – and the overlay which sort of emulates this in Lightroom now makes more sense!

        Feeling a bit better about the whole golden section thing – but much work needed on my side to understand it more; the root 4 (and other diagonals) that you put on the pics – that’s still a bit of a mystery – but with more re-reading, hopefully that will become clearer.

        Understand the tonal system – although I’ll never stop learning!

        Put a post somewhere else suggesting you do a video – basically a fly on the wall when you and Myron analyse would be fabulous – and I for one would buy every one you did!

        Thanks once again for such a fab site. Have never spent so much time reading one before!


        • Hey Vicki,

          Its good to see you diving in. The Root Rectangles are a huge chunk of information, but done in pieces they become easy to digest. I will try to layout it well in the articles.

          Myron and I have been chatting about doing some videos. He has never recorded his color theory class or figure class, which would be super helpful to photographers. When I get back from my project in Tanna, Myron and I will pick up in the Fall. If there is enough popular demand for more videos, I am sure they will happen.


          • Brilliant – really hope you do it!!
            Hope Tanna goes well too!
            In the interim, I might get hold of some of the books Myron mentioned in the preview I saw; and keep learning.


  3. Please correct his name, it should be “Endre Friedmann”

    • Hey DOF,

      You mean in the intro paragraph right? Where the “è” was dropped?

      For some reason, wordpress did not recognize its own accented è. As a result the name looks right on the back end, but when published, it drops the “e” all together.

      Certainly no disrespect meant to our dear friend Mr. Capa.

      Thanks for pointing it out.


      • Hi Adam,

        Indeed, I meant the name in the intro. Anywhere else it is correct. Both of the “e” letters in Endre should be without any accent. (I do speak/write Hungarian). Endre basically is Andrew in English. It is a tricky name, because Endre has 2 forms: Endre or András, both the same name in English (Andrew), but a slightly different form. However, Capa was Endre, as you mention it correctly!

        Cheers ;)


  4. Great artcle, thank you !

  5. Very instructive and great structure of articles , now that’s user pleasant (:.

  6. Great post, congrats!

    What camera are Capa and Roden are using?

    best regards,

    • Marcio,

      Thank you! I believe Capa has on old Nikon M rangefinder and Rodger has a leather cased Rolliflex and a Leica around his neck. A bit of a camera convention huh?!


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