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Composition can make an interesting subject bland or make an ordinary subject appear beautiful. In this course, photographer and author Ben Long explores the concepts of composition, from basics such as the rule of thirds to more advanced topics such as the way the eye travels through a photo.
The course addresses how the camera differs from the eye and introduces composition fundamentals, such as balance and point of view. Ben also examines the importance of geometry, light, and color in composition, and looks at how composition can be improved with a variety of post-production techniques. Interspersed throughout the course are workshop sessions that capture the creative energy of a group of photography students; shooting assignments and exercises; and analyses of the work of photographers Paul Taggart and Connie Imboden.
Well now, this is real pretty, isn't it? We've got the mountain. We've got the sky. We've got the beautiful green meadow. At the same time there is just something not quite right about this image. It's just out of whack somehow. It feels just a little off. I mean like a simple suggestion here. If we just put me right here, ah! The image is better now. It's not better because it's me; it's better because now the image is balanced. Elements in your frame have compositional weight. I don't mean literal physical weight, although sometimes that does correspond, but they have graphical weight.
If you think of your images having kind of a fulcrum, then in this case the mountain on one side tilts the balance off. When you put another strong graphical element here, in this case me, the element, or the image, comes back into balance. They are equally weighted. Balance is a somewhat ephemeral slippery compositional idea, but it's the one that you will be--one of the things you'll be worrying about in every image that you shoot. There are lots of balancing mechanisms and components. Let's take a look at some examples of some others. Here is an example that's very similar to the one that we just saw.
I have a buffalo here. It's not roaming, but it is balanced by this mountain over here. Now, how is that possible? How is the mountain able to balance the buffalo or vice versa, when the buffalo is very small and the mountain is much larger? It has to do with tone. The buffalo is a deep black color; the mountain is a much lighter color. In the case of this image black turns out to have a lot of weight, so a little bit of it can balance the much larger area of gray. Now, why is it that I say in this image? Doesn't black always have more weight? Not necessarily. In this case it does because of the tones around it. The black is in sharp contrast to the gray tones that are surrounding the buffalo and really rest of the image is gray.
So, the black really stands out and therefore has more weight. In another image, white might be very heavy, depending on what was around it. Take a look at this. If through a little bit of retouching I remove the buffalo, we have this, and now the image has fallen out of balance. First of all, it's lost its subject, so it's just a somewhat nebulous low- contrast image of some mountains. But also if you look at it purely in terms of balance, it's just a little too heavy on the left side. It needs something over here, and that's what the buffalo is good for.
Another fairly straight-ahead example of balance: in this case the moon is balancing the building over here. So this is another case of, all right, these are very different shapes and for the most part they are the same tone, so how is it that the moon, this tiny, light-gray graphical element is balancing this entire similarly toned building? In this case it's a matter of context. It's the moon. It's a planetary body. It has weight simply because of what it is, because of the import and the drama that we project into it ourselves.
It is peaking out from behind its shadow. It's out in the daytime. It's a very dramatic subject, and so it has a lot of compositional weight, and can easily balance the building over here. It would not balance it as well if it was positioned down here, say. So it's been positioned very carefully to create a balanced image. Here is a case of an image that could possibly have been balanced in a couple of different ways. If this rock wasn't here, the image would still have pretty good balance, him on this side, this strong pole over here, or whatever that is, big piece of wood over here with a chain on it.
But I think what makes this balance work is actually a tonal thing. His face is very bright and the rock is very bright and they're placed symmetrically across this axis, this diagonal axis, and I think that's what's really helping to make the image more balanced. So in this case, it's more about tone than shape, and also about the position, the symmetrical position, diagonally of these two bright objects in the frame. Here's an example of balancing with empty space. In this case I'm not using a graphical element to balance. I am balancing using nothing.
I have this big shape here, which is the stand of trees, and they're being balanced by this empty space over here. This is a tricky thing to pull off because a lot of times empty space looks like an unbalanced part of the image. I'm not using a lot of empty space, just a little bit, to balance this element over here. This is something that you've got to just practice and get a feel for, and you'll learn to recognize the difference of when empty space is an unbalanced image and when empty space is serving to balance something else in the frame. We're talking about a lot of compositional ideas and a lot of things you can work with, and so it's very tempting when you get out to get really fancy with your compositions and try to set up things in very clever ways, and very often the best composition is just simple, put your subject in the middle of the frame.
Now in this case it's not in the dead center of the frame. It is in the middle horizontally; dead center of course would be up here. I decided I wanted the sky more prevalent in the scene than the ground, so I placed the horizon kind of low and just put the house in the dead center. It's balanced because if I imagine again a pole right here in the middle of the image, this is just balanced right on top of it. There's nothing too heavy over here. There's nothing too heavy over here. It almost goes out of the balance because these geese here are an element over here, but I think it stays just sitting there in the center of the image.
Here is another example of center balancing. Again, don't over-think this stuff; just try lots of different things. Sometimes just the subject in the center is going to be the best choice. This one's a little trickier. Sometimes balance is not as easy to identify. I think in this case this image feels balanced because of this tree and this post, which have very similar tone, and though they're at different depths--the post is much closer to me than the tree is-- in the frame, they are positioned fairly symmetrically, and they're just holding the balance of the image.
Something else that's working is the barbed wire here. The tree is much bigger than the post, but the barbed wire running through it is leading my eye over here, and then it kind of gets lost over here and disappears. So it's just something about the lines in this post are working to balance things against this tree. And neither of these are the subject of the image. My eye still works its way in here into the middle and kind of picks up this whole different textural thing that's going on here between the light grass up here and the darker things down here, but these two elements are holding down the balance of the image.
This image is balanced horizontally because the moon and the stand of trees here in the center of the frame. I put it in here to point out that sometimes you balance things across this axis of the image. I'm not worrying as much about balancing left and right in this image, although I do need that. This is about balancing the top half of the image with the bottom half of the image, so you can balance across lots of different axes. Balance is something you've just got to practice. You are going to get it into your body. You are going to learn to feel it. It's a lot like pitch in music; it's just something that you will know is right.
And if you can't find it in your image, you want to think through very specific steps, placing tones in particular places, placing shapes in particular places. And we've got a few more movies in this course where we are going to talk more about balance and different ways of achieving balance using different types of elements in your scene.
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